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Valerie and Eric Bressman have been retirement veterans since their 30s. At ages 47 and 51, they’ve already enjoyed four extended breaks from their jobs in Portland, Ore. Valerie, a manager of human resources communications, and Eric, an architect, saved enough to travel the world for a year in 2005. They’ve also spent extended periods of time in the South Pacific, the Greek Isles and Europe during the past 16 years.

The Bressman’s “mini-retirement” trips were born out of their values and priorities. Traveling, they say, puts their lives into perspective and helps them focus more on what’s important in life. “Neither one of us feels defined by our jobs or careers,” explains Valerie. “We’re defined by who we are and by our experiences.”

For the Bressmans and an increasing number of Americans, retirement no longer means working yourself into the ground until you stop completely and embrace a life of leisure. Instead, with some thought and planning, retirement can be whatever you want it to be.

“Most people’s vision of retirement is culturally imposed, and they have a sense that they should stop working and travel or play golf,” says Brent Kessel, author of It’s Not About the Money: Unlock Your Money Type to Achieve Spiritual and Financial Abundance and president of the wealth management firm Abacus Wealth Partners. “But for most people who have been making a contribution [during their working lives], what’s most fulfilling is continuing to make a contribution of some kind.”

“People want to be engaged,” agrees Richard Leider, coauthor of Something to Live for: Finding Your Way in the Second Half of Life and founder of The Inventure Group, a Minneapolis-based consulting and coaching firm. “They don’t want to check out of the universe; they want to stay in it.” (See “Finding Purpose in the Second Half of Your Life” for more insights on Leider’s work.)

Retirees like these want more out of the second (or middle) half of life, says Leider, so they are crafting their lives around that goal. Some are going back to school or volunteering in their communities; others are digging further into their life’s work as they write new chapters in their lives. And although there’s no set formula for a satisfying retirement, there are steps you can take at every stage of life to help make your retirement dreams a reality.

Explore Your Options

Old notions of retirement are ripe for, well, retiring. Many people no longer find the idea of endless days on a Florida golf course particularly appealing (or financially feasible, for that matter).

In fact, studies show that many people today find the idea of a do-nothing retirement boring, says David Corbett, coauthor of Portfolio Life: The New Path to Work, Purpose and Passion After 50 and founder of New Directions, a career transition service in Boston.

Instead, people are beginning to regard their second-half-of-life options with an open mind — as a time to enjoy some well-deserved leisure, certainly, but also as a time to live out long-held dreams and to work toward new goals.

In short, people are looking for both pleasure and meaning. They want to continue to pursue the skills and passions they enjoy, while weeding out the stresses and obligations they don’t.

Many are also facing the realities of smaller-than-anticipated retirement funds or limited savings and are looking for financially viable options (such as career downshifting, part-time work, self-employment or serial mini-breaks) to the hard-stop retirements that many of our parents and grandparents took for granted.

As a result, a growing number of individuals are becoming more selective, more proactive and more creative about how they go about tailoring their retirements to their personal tastes — and financial realities.

Develop Your Dream

So how does one go about reinventing one’s own retirement? Most experts recommend kick-starting the process with some good old-fashioned self-reflection (don’t worry, we’ll get into the money stuff in a moment). Leider, who also coauthored Claiming Your Place at the Fire: Living the Second Half of Your Life on Purpose, proposes an “annual purpose checkup” in which you ask yourself how much you agree with the following statements:

  1. I work at what I love to do.
  2. My daily choices are driven by a strong sense of purpose.
  3. There’s a clear alignment between my priorities and how I spend my time.
  4. I invest in making a difference to others in the world.
  5. I know what I want to be remembered for.

For those statements that already ring true to you, ask yourself how you might sustain that sense of satisfaction (and the elements that create it) even as you transition away from your current career.

For those statements that are not yet a true “yes” for you, evaluate what sorts of changes you can make to turn them into yesses, particularly as you go about reinventing or phasing out certain elements of your work life.

Creating a unique, meaningful retirement, says Leider, is first and foremost about leveraging “this formula of gifts, passions and values.”

Next step: Use the information that surfaces in your annual purpose checkup to get clear about how you’d most like to spend your retirement time.

In the book What Color Is Your Parachute? For Retirement: Planning Now for the Life You Want, Richard N. Bolles and John E. Nelson suggest that you ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What do you really want to learn about, or how have you dreamed of developing yourself?
  2. If you were determined to work at something that you absolutely love, what might that be?
  3. What have you wanted to do, just for the sheer pleasure of it?

Corbett suggests cultivating a life portfolio of five or six part-time activities you enjoy enough to want to invest yourself in — regardless of whether you’re paid to do them. These could be things like travel, hobbies, time with loved ones, involvement with good causes or deepening your spirituality.

“When you’re young,” says Corbett, “you may not be thinking about retirement, but you should be thinking about your life portfolio all through your life. Have a plan that’s built around your values. Even if it sits on the back burner for years, have something that’s always being nurtured.”

Manage Your Money

Dreams notwithstanding, you also need enough money to achieve whatever your retirement goals turn out to be, and that takes planning. It’s easiest, of course, if you begin saving early and wisely, but even that may not be enough.

In a world where it’s possible to live past 100, says Kessel, “you have to be able to afford a 40-year retirement, and very few people can do that without any type of income. So continuing to do some kind of work that you love — and that you can see doing into your 60s, 70s and 80s — is the surest retirement strategy.”

The Bressmans, who are taking retirement in several pieces, plan and save diligently for each adventure and are prepared to work past traditional retirement age. Far in advance of a given trip, they sit down and figure out how much money it will require and begin to save a certain amount each month. They direct tax returns, bonuses and reimbursable expenses at work into their
travel savings account.

Their approach has some trade-offs — they know they may have to delay retirement for a few years. Still, they say that what they’ve gained in perspective and experience outweighs everything. Says Valerie Bressman, “We have no sense of regret whatsoever.”

Richard Broussard, a 70-year-old in Hartford, Vt., is doing — and financing — his retirement differently. For him, a meaningful retirement is all about staying active and giving back. To that end, he rides his bicycle daily and gives back through involvement at his church, volunteering for the Vermont Department of Corrections and helping with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He also travels, visiting far-flung locales like Sweden, Iran and Syria.

Broussard makes this scenario work financially by continuing to work part-time as a bus and limo driver, which supplements his retirement income from Social Security and payouts from retirement plans with past employers.

For Broussard, the key to saving money for trips is consciously living within his means, which is easier because he paid off his mortgage before retiring and avoided debt back when he was working full-time. His part-time work now supplements his finances and leaves other investment reserves untouched.

Other alternative retirement strategies include shifting away from full-time employment to high-end consulting, starting an entrepreneurial business connected with a passion or hobby, sharing a home and other living expenses with a friend to help retirement funds go further, or choosing another creative career reinvention that you love so much you never want to retire at all.

Make It Happen

Everyone’s goals and financial situations are different, so consult a financial planner and educate yourself about the practical saving and debt-management strategies that will best underwrite your retirement plan. Also consider acquiring good healthcare and long-term disability coverage that will support you in the event of an unforeseen crisis (see Resources below).

The main things you need to begin planning are a clear sense of your gifts, values and priorities; a dollop of imagination; and the initiative to begin sketching and saving for your plan, starting now. Share your retirement vision with your life partner and look for opportunities to support each other’s dreams. Planning ahead will give you the freedom to create a retirement that’s right for you.

My Kind of Retirement

Not interested in the rocking-chair version of retirement? Here are some convention-bucking alternatives:

  • The Several-Sabbaticals Retirement. Instead of working ceaselessly and then stopping permanently, consider working and saving for several years, then taking a year off to travel or write a book. Return to work for a few more years. Then pursue another
    passion for a while. And so on. Consult a financial adviser, as well as a career coach, about the best way to prepare for this work-play rhythm, and then schedule your first sabbatical! (See “On Sabbatical”.)
  • The Giving-Back Retirement. After a lifetime of developing your career skills, you are uniquely qualified to give back to the community and the world. Consider mentoring, volunteering and community work, perhaps with some paid consulting or part-time work on the side.
  • The Digging-in-Deeper Retirement. You’ve always loved your work as a therapist, so instead of retiring completely, you move your practice to part-time and go back to school for a higher degree, or you enroll in a specialized program to enrich your knowledge, perspective and skills.
  • The Career-Change Retirement. Been an accountant all your life but always wanted to teach math — or open a natural-foods cafe, or run a shoe store, or author a book? Make retirement your chance to fulfill that dream or to discover a new one.

This article has been updated. It was originally appeared at “Reinventing Retirement” in the July/August 2008 issue of Experience Life.

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