Some retirees say: "Retire as soon as you can"

Retire early if you can afford it -- you're the healthiest and most active you're going to be and can still enjoy life. That's the message from a survey of recent retirees conducted by New York Life Insurance Co., which found 46 percent of retired men and women reported if they could do it over, they would have retired an average of four years earlier.

But this comes with an important condition: They would have retired earlier only if they could have achieved the same level of financial security that they realized when they actually retired.

That's an important caveat. Postponing retirement often results in significant increases to your retirement income from Social Security, pensions and drawdown from savings such as IRAs and 401(k) plans. Chances are good that these retirees wouldn't have had the same level of financial security they currently enjoy if they had retired four years earlier.

Still, if you're trying to decide when you should retire, it's important to pay attention to these findings. Many retirees report that they're glad they retired and enjoy their freedom from the work grind. This runs counter to the fact that many workers report the desire to delay their retirement, even if they don't need the money. What exactly is going on here?

This apparent contradiction illustrates that each of us has different aspirations and feelings about our work. A reader expressed this thought succinctly in a comment to a recent post: "I hated my job and retired as soon as I could, and that meant starting Social Security at age 62. If you hate your work, then retire if you can afford it. If you love your work, delay taking Social Security and keep working."

However, the choices aren't always as black and white as the reader describes above. Many people don't actually hate their job, but they don't love it either. They're just tolerating a job that pays the bills. As the years go by, the daily grind -- the boredom, office politics, difficult co-workers or bosses, work rules and the commute -- takes its toll and exerts a greater influence on the desire to retire.

Another common situation is that many people would retire tomorrow if they had the financial resources, but they don't. That's another important caveat of the New York Life study, which surveyed recent retirees who had at least $100,000 in investable assets. Presumably they had the financial resources to retire, so their situation might be different from the general population.

If you don't have the financial resources to retire but don't want to keep slogging away at your current job, then something's gotta give. Here's one possibility: Figure out how to make your current work more enjoyable. You can try:

  • Working fewer hours
  • Making your commute easier, either by moving to be closer to work, taking public transportation or working remotely when possible
  • Asking to change your job requirements to do more of the things you like and fewer of the things you don't like
  • Moving laterally to a new job that provides an opportunity to try new things or work with new people
  • Asking if you can add on a few unpaid days to your vacation to give yourself a "mini-sabbatical" that will help you recharge and refresh
  • Developing a greater appreciation for your current job by counting up all the good aspects of your work to help you get through the most frustrating aspects of your job (which are often temporary).

These ideas may be easier said than done, of course, but nevertheless they may be your most realistic solution to improve your life.

Another common phenomenon that helps explain the results from the New York Life survey is that retirees often find a way to live on a lot less income, compared to when they were working. In the period leading up to retirement, pre-retirees realize that their income will decrease in retirement, and that causes a lot of anxiety, possibly leading them to postpone retirement. Several years into retirement, however, they realize that somehow they're doing fine on less money, and they realize they could have retired earlier had they known they could survive on less.

The bottom line? If you're really dissatisfied with your work life, use that as motivation to do something about it, whether that's figuring out how to retire, reducing your living expenses or reworking your work. You'll be glad you did, and the New York Life survey is just one piece of evidence that supports this conclusion.

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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.