By Joe Casey
Early retirement is a big achievement that’s years in the making. It takes vision, planning, discipline, and sacrifice to reach the point where work becomes a choice and not a financial necessity. But there are some early retirement traps you may not be planning for yet – and they could create challenges that may surprise you.
As a retirement coach, I see a number of early retirement traps that many of my client’s experience. Putting them off can impact your experience in retirement and mute the rewards of retiring early. The good news is that they are solvable. Better yet, balancing your retirement planning to include the non-financial side can prevent them.
It’s easy to overlook the period of time that it takes to adjust to retirement. You may be thinking: “I love weekends. Isn’t retirement just a long series of weekends? I can deal with that”. Well, retirement is a major life transition. It’s wise to prepare for it. Give yourself time to adjust to it and recharge. A big difference is the pace of life, particularly if you’re transitioning from a demanding fast-paced profession. Take time to downshift gradually so you’re not going from 90 MPH to 50 MPH all at once. Give yourself time to smoothly change lanes. You’ll need to create a new rhythm of life that works for you. Do some experimentation to find what works best for you.
Do you love your work? Do you identify with what you do? In retirement, you may need to redefine your sense of purpose. You’re much more than your title, but it takes a while to adjust to that. Being a former X or a former Y can be hard for some people. Becoming involved in new areas can bring renewal and a new direction. There’s a lot of truth to the saying that it’s not about what you’re retiring from. It’s what you’re retiring to that matters. And it’s important for your long-term health. Recent research by the University of Michigan found that purpose is associated with longevity.
It’s easy to be laser-focused on the financial side of retirement because it is so critical. But some people fail to realize that there’s an emotional side to retiring. Until you’re in it. There can be a lot of uncertainty to work through. There are gains (like freedom) but there are also losses (like status, lack of structure) to process and adapt to.
You could find your time getting filled quickly and soon be ‘busier than ever’. That feels great – until you realize you’ve committed to far too many things too soon. Don’t compromise some of your hard-earned freedom on things that aren’t the ones you want to invest your time on. As Stephen Covey sagely advised, “It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the thick of thin things.” 
High achievers confide that they’re most afraid of this in retirement. There’s a downside to having all that freedom. People enjoy living in a well-deserved vacation mode for a spell, but then start to drift and inertia sets in. After a while, they’re surprised to find that they are … bored. They miss the challenge of work and haven’t yet replaced it with something new and different.
Depending on what type of job you’re retiring from, retirement could affect your cognitive functioning over time. Make a list of things you may be interested in that will provide some level of challenge, like learning a new language or skill mastering an activity you enjoy. You might consider keeping work in the mix, especially if it is work you find meaningful. And remember that variety is indeed the spice of life, and perhaps especially so in early retirement. Begin with a list of things you’d like to explore that provides the right mix of complexity, engagement, and challenge for you.
If you’ve been ‘all in’ on your career, you may be surprised by how much your social circle has become tied to your work. In early retirement, those ties are likely to change, and you may need to cultivate new social networks.
It’s exciting to be on the brink of not having to go to work every day. You’re eagerly anticipating what you can do with your impending freedom. But there are multiple phases to retirement as retiree, blogger and podcaster Ted Carr explains. It’s smart to keep them in mind when planning for retirement. Even if you’re retiring early, aging is a key part of retirement life. A professor, who’s in his early 40s, shared on our podcast research and recommendations on what you can do now that will help you age well. He noted that there are modifiable factors that can be influenced by what you do now in your 30s, 40s, and 50s).
It’s exhilarating to have the ability to walk away and retire early. Make sure that your exit is a graceful one. Preserve your working relationships. You might not think you’ll ever need them as you drop the mike and triumphantly ride off into the sunset, but you just might. Consider that an increasing percentage of retirees are coming back to work, many for non-financial reasons. Keep your professional contacts strong. You may want to tap back into them a few years down line, even to build a part-time consulting business, for example.
Are you both in sync with your dreams and plans for this next phase of life? Are you both on the same page about the trade-offs – both financially and non-financially? And if you’re not both retiring early, what adjustments will need to be made? Have the conversations. You’ll be glad that you did.
Don’t let a great early retirement get derailed. Balance your retirement planning with attention to the non-financial aspects that can make this time of your life the best of your life.
Joe Casey is a former senior HR executive who is in his second act career as an executive coach and retirement coach. Joe is a co-host of The Retirement Conversation podcast. Take our Free Quiz to gauge how prepared you are now for the non-financial side of early retirement.
Related Retirement Podcast:
 Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Free Press.
[2[ Maestas, N., Mullen, K. J., Powell, D., Von Wachter, T., & Wenger, J. B. (2017). Working Conditions in the United States Results of the 2015 American Working Conditions Survey. Maestas, Nicole, Kathleen J. Mullen, David Powell, Till von Wachter, and Jeffrey B. Wenger, Working Conditions in the United States: Results of the 2015 American Working Conditions Survey. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.
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