6 Steps for a Rewarding Retirement Transition

Retirement requires significant adjustments. Here’s how to embrace the changes.

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You don't need me to tell you that retirement is a big step. You must take your foot off the firm ground of a company payroll and place it on the shifting sands of self-sufficiency. One way to take the fear out of retirement is to make several smaller steps, rather than leave it all to one giant leap. Here’s how to ease the transition into retirement:

1. Have a dream. Some retirees have waited years to fulfill a very vivid dream they've envisioned for their post-career life. But most of us have a much more vague notion of retirement: It's a time to take it easy, play golf, take dancing lessons and do some traveling. Many retirees, especially those who left work in their 50s or early 60s, find that their relaxing days fill up with activities. They're soon busy volunteering at church or taking care of grandchildren, but not necessarily doing what they want to do. Retirement is your chance to live the kind of life you want, so dream big and consider trying something different. It's a time to do your own thing. Visualize your retirement life in advance, so you don't squander your time and to ensure the kind of retirement you want.

2. Make a plan. It's one thing to have a dream, but it's only a fantasy until you start making concrete plans. If you dream of taking early retirement to go into teaching, it would be helpful to start taking some education courses before you actually leave your job. Not only will it give you a head start on your new career, but you will confirm that you actually want to be a teacher. Do you want to retire in the south of France or a beach community in Costa Rica? It might help to start learning French or Spanish. Want to own your own business? You should be writing a business plan long before you retire.

3. One day at a time. For many people, retirement is simply too big a transition to make all at once. One solution is to work part time, either by making arrangements with your old employer or finding a new, less stressful job. Part-time work not only helps the financial picture, but gives you a chance to figure out what to do with all those unstructured hours. However, finding part-time work is not always so simple. Just like finding a new career path is easier if you already have a job, securing a post-retirement position is easier when you're still working.

4. Don't copy your neighbor. A sure way to wander off the path of a satisfying retirement is to do what other people expect you to do rather than doing what you want. If you hate winter and love hot summer days, then by all means retire to Florida or Arizona and enjoy life. But don't move halfway across the country just because that's what your parents did or what your neighbors are doing. Many of us have been living up to others' expectations our entire lives, whether it's pressure to follow a certain career or raise your kids a certain way. Now you've graduated from the 9-to-5, the commuter traffic and the dress code at work. Take advantage of your newfound freedom by living up to your own expectations, not someone else's.

5. It's a work in progress. There are no "performance appraisals" in retirement, and no such thing as failure. Don’t get discouraged if everything doesn't work out exactly as you planned. Maybe your part-time job ends up being just as stressful as your old job, or the boat you bought turns out to be not as much fun as you'd hoped. Don't worry. Retirement can last for 20 or 30 years. There's plenty of time to change direction en route. Keep trying different activities and experiences until you know in your heart you've hit your stride.

6. Oh, and don't forget money. None of this is possible without some financial resources. Social Security will keep you from starving to death, but it will not finance your dreams. So long before you retire, open an IRA account, fund a 401(k) plan and do some serious saving. Good intentions will get you nowhere. Good investments will fund a happy and fulfilling retirement.