Voices of experience about successful retirements

To mangle a Yogi Berra quote, you can observe a lot by just watching successful retirees. TIAA's "2016 Voices of Experience" survey offers valuable insights into the steps that happy, satisfied and smart retirees took to successfully prepare for their post-work life. Their experiences provide a checklist for anyone who's interested in doing the same.

TIAA surveyed more than 1,500 retirees who reported almost universal satisfaction with retirement: 93 percent reported being either "very satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" overall. Breaking the results down further, 86 percent reported satisfaction with their finances, while 90 percent reported satisfaction with their emotional health.

The survey group isn't representative of the population at large, and the reason is instructive. More than half (55 percent) of respondents worked at a university, and 19 percent worked in public education or for a health care institution. Three-quarters of survey respondents earned a college degree, and well over half (60 percent) earned a masters degree or higher. In other words, these are smart people who spent a career in education or health care.

So, what steps did they take? Planning early helps a lot. Of the survey respondents who started planning before age 30, 75 percent reported being very satisfied in retirement.

A positive attitude is also, well, very positive: 76 percent of people who were looking forward to retirement were very satisfied once they got there, whereas only 29 percent of the people who weren't looking forward to it were very satisfied once they retired.

Keeping busy is also a big plus: 76 percent who are engaged in 10 or more activities are satisfied with retirement, whereas only 52 percent who engage in one to four activities say the same.

Involving your spouse or partner is also a great idea. Eighty-five percent of those who had an easy transition to retirement shared their vision of it with their spouse or partner, whereas only 53 percent of those who had a difficult transition had shared theirs.

The survey respondents were also asked if they paid the right amount of attention to 15 important retirement planning tasks. It turns out that most of them did. Positive responses were provided by two-thirds to three-fourths of survey respondents to each of the following planning tasks:

  • Anticipating how I would occupy my time every day
  • Considering the possibility of working after retiring
  • Anticipating the effect of retirement on my spouse/partner and other family relationships
  • Understanding my Social Security options
  • Understanding my other sources for regular income
  • Managing my savings or investments
  • Maximizing retirement and benefit options through my employer
  • Anticipating my emotional or psychological adjustments
  • Understanding my health insurance coverage
  • Anticipating the potential for providing for long-term care/assisted living
  • Coordinating retirement timing/transitions with a spouse/partner
  • Determining whether to move and where to reside
  • Preparing for the possibility of declining mobility during retirement
  • Preparing for the possibility of a declining cognitive state during retirement
  • Planning for my financial legacy

What resources did the survey retirees consult in their planning? Most consulted multiple sources, as follows:

  • Spouse/partner or other family members (69 percent)
  • Your own research through books, magazines, articles, retirement-oriented websites (67 percent)
  • Colleagues and friends (57 percent)
  • One-on-one financial planning with a professional financial adviser (50 percent)
  • Pre-retirement planning or counseling sessions (44 percent)
  • Group pre-retirement financial planning sessions offered by a financial firm (29 percent)

Of those who relied on a financial adviser, 53 percent were satisfied with their retirement planning, compared to only 32 percent who hadn't relied on an adviser.

What advice would these retirees give to others? Here's a sample:

  • "Expect a period of missing the activities and interaction with people at work."
  • "Remember that you cannot control everything. Allow for unexpected events with contingency plans."
  • "We must keep inventing our lives as we age. The life I imagined when I first retired is no longer possible after 20 years, so I have changed my priorities."

None of these ideas and steps is rocket science, although some of the respondents were probably rocket scientists. However, planning for a successful retirement will take a lot of time and hard work. But it should be well worth the effort considering that you might be planning for as much as a quarter to a third of your total lifetime.

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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.