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Retirement advice can be hard to hear

(MoneyWatch) I recently received the following reader e-mail:

"Why are you a 'Negative Nelly'? Your columns seem to advocate that everyone never be able to retire and that everyone be on the "carry-out" plan...i.e. instead of being able to retire, [people] should die on the job....that's NOT right. I've heard of quite a few people who wound up on the "carry-out" plan, when they could have retired and enjoyed what remained of their lives. Please temper your columns so that people, who want to retire, are able to do so without any guilt and are able to enjoy life."

I went back to the column in question, called "Why Keep Working?" in which I noted that many older employees work for more than money. In fact, surveys find that 92 percent of those who worked beyond the traditional retirement age of 65 do so because they want "to stay active and involved," and 86 percent say they "enjoyed working." As a result, people should take care in the decision to retire, because once you do retire, it's hard to land another job. While I did not say that people should not retire, I do agree with the e-mailer that people shouldn't feel guilty for retiring. In fact, in my previous career as a financial advisor, I worked hard to help hundreds of clients retire or to have the opportunity to work less.

But making retirement a viable option can mean deferring gratification at some points in your life, or having to make tough decisions in others. The emotions around these choices can be daunting and may even lead people to the wrong conclusions, which is why so many hire financial advisors.

An advisor's role is to help clients understand how they can achieve their financial goals in a manner that is consistent with their risk tolerance levels. By necessity, a dose of real life must enter the equation. Despite all of the best advice provided, sometimes the client will make a different choice. At that point, the advisor must temper what might be most financially prudent with what makes sense, given that the client is going to forge ahead with his or her plan, flaws and all. As one of my clients once put it, "your job is half science and half art." The science part is easy--the numbers are the numbers, but the art of creating a plan that incorporates those numbers with the client's desires is the challenge.

Sometimes the advisor has to be Negative Nelly. There are instances when a client must be told that he shouldn't buy a bigger house, because it would put his retirement planning in jeopardy; or that sending his child to private college would mean an extra few years of work for the parents or a pile of debt for the student; or the decision to retire early may mean assuming the risk of running out of money. The job of a financial advisor, and now as a financial journalist, requires delivering messages that are sometimes difficult to hear.

I am rooting for every single one of you to reach the goals you establish. If you want to bail out and stop working and you can afford to do so, go for it! If you want to keep on working even though you could well afford to retire, do it! Just be clear that in most cases, these are choices that are usually available only when they are preceded by planning. And by its very nature, the planning process often requires someone to play the Negative Nelly role. In the case of this column, I am happy to play that part when the situation calls for it, but I will be the first to turn into Positive Polly when you reach your desired destination.

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