Train for a gold medal retirement

2012 London Olympic Games gold, silver and bronze medals AP Graphics

(MoneyWatch) Have you been inspired by the accomplishments of the Olympic athletes from nations around the world? I certainly have. Their sustained focus, commitment to doing whatever it takes to reach their goals, and attention to details is truly motivating. And although we might not be Olympic-caliber athletes, I think there are ways we can direct this energy to preparing for our retirement years.

The TV coverage offers insights into the intense commitment made by the Olympians. Some start training as early as age 5, while others start in their late teens or early 20s. But they all gladly forgo hours they could have spent in front of the TV or at the mall because they've made a conscious commitment to training for a worthwhile goal they can visualize in their minds.

Planning for retirement is very similar. Some people begin saving for retirement or start a long career with an employer that offers good retirement benefits as early as their 20s. Others don't start planning and saving seriously until their 30s or 40s, but they still make it to the retirement podium stand. One thing's for sure, though: If you don't put in much effort at any age, you'll never reach your goals, whether that's going to the Olympics or achieving a gold medal retirement.

Olympic training takes many aspects. In addition to developing the techniques and skills for their particular events, Olympians spend hours and hours working on endurance and weight training, are careful to get the proper nutrition, and pay daily attention to their mental and emotional state. They develop strong social networks with their coaches and teammates in order to get the support they need to succeed.

It's the same with retirement planning. You'll need to make important decisions about financing your retirement, such as when to start your Social Security benefits; how to turn your 401(k), IRA, and retirement savings into a retirement paycheck; how best to deploy your home equity; and how to protect against the threat of ruinous long-term care expenses. You'll want to improve or maintain your physical health with the proper nutrition and exercise. And you'll want to nurture a robust social network that will give you pleasure in life and provide the support when you need it.

When the Olympians are standing on the medal podium, there's no doubt they think the time and effort they spent on their training has been worth it. And although you won't get a gold medal to denote your retirement accomplishments, you'll know you've won when you reach your goals: You're financially independent from work, you're doing what you want to do, your physical and mental health are excellent, and you're building your legacy. You'll look back and know that all the planning has been worth the effort.

The good thing is that planning for retirement doesn't require an Olympian effort; we need to spend just a fraction of the time spent by the Olympians to reach our goals. It will, however, take many more hours than most people are currently spending. For example, a recent post from the Boston College Center for Retirement Research states that people may put more thought into buying a car or a mattress than they do planning for retirement. The illustration that starts this post aptly shows us what we need to do to create a gold medal retirement.

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The above photo is of my dad, who, as you can see, literally had a gold medal retirement. After a 30-plus year career as a professor at USC, he and my mother participated in senior track and field events, traveled around the world, and kept in constant contact with family and friends. He passed away peacefully at age 88 with family gathered around his bed. My mom and dad created their gold medal retirement from a middle class life, by making a sustained effort to save their money and manage their expenses during their working years, by nurturing their family connections, and by taking care of their physical and emotional health. (You can learn more from their experience from my posts, "How to recession-proof your retirement" and "Retirement planning for the 99 percent.")

In order to achieve the retirement you want, you'll need to keep your eye on the ultimate goal: Living a "rest of life" in which you're financially secure, healthy, and prospering in every sense of the word. We can all be like Olympians -- if we train like them.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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