How to Retire Happy

Last Updated May 18, 2010 4:25 PM EDT

Want excellent insights on retirement planning from a professional who's actually experienced retirement himself? You'll get just that from Stan Hinden's book, How to Retire Happy, now in its third edition. Stan was a Washington Post financial reporter for 20 years, and after he retired, he wrote the Post's "Retirement Journal" column for which he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

What I like about Stan's book is that it combines good financial planning information with his story about his own retirement. He's candid about the mistakes he made and how he'd do things differently with the benefit of hindsight. (Behavioral scientists will tell you that personal stories are often more influential on people's decision-making than facts and figures--sobering insight for me, a numbers guy.)

I recently had a long chat with Stan, which I started by asking him about the mistakes he made that he wanted to share with my readers. "I assumed that I knew more than I knew about retirement planning," Stan replied. "This was hard for me to admit, being a financial writer. But there are many details and decisions that need to be made, and my 'go it alone' approach didn't work well. So my number-one recommendation is to find a competent financial planner who will help you figure out all your sources of retirement income, and help with budgeting and investing." This can be a sobering insight for many of our readers, who might be professionals with plenty of experience in their own fields, but not necessarily with retirement planning.

While I agree that most people would benefit by working with a qualified retirement planner, that's not a good enough excuse to stop learning about retirement planning strategies yourself. If you're knowledgeable about the basics of investments and retirement planning, you'll have more intelligent conversations with your financial planner and will make better, more knowledgeable decisions. If you're thinking about working with a financial planner, see my prior post Don't Pay Too Much for Financial Advice.

During our conversation about mistakes, Stan also said, "As a result of my lack of awareness, I regret that I took a single life annuity from my pension plan, instead of a joint and survivor annuity that would continue my pension to my wife after I die. Knowing what I know today, I'd do that differently." I agree with Stan. It's a common misconception that living expenses for the survivor will drop significantly after the first spouse passes away.

Stan then added, "I didn't start saving in the Post's 401(k) plan until my 50s. I wish I had started saving earlier and had saved more--we'd be better off now if I had. Until my 50s, my wife and I spent our paychecks on raising our three children, but we could have squeezed out some savings during this time if we had focused on it."

Then I asked Stan to share his best decisions. "After I retired, I found that I didn't miss the work and the deadlines, but I missed the workplace--my colleagues and my 'home away from home.' I was fortunate to be able to continue writing for the Post, but not at the pace before I retired. This kept me active physically and mentally, and I was still able to have lunch with the guys. I highly recommend that readers don't go from 100 miles per hour to zero miles per hour, but instead look for opportunities to slow down to 50 miles per hour for awhile."

Sounds like Stan advocates that you Do the Downshift. Good advice! Thanks, Stan, for sharing your stories to help us learn how to make good decisions for our retirement

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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.