There was a time, not too long ago, when the word retirement wasn't automatically followed by the words "Yeah, in your dreams!" For many, a brutal economy has made life in a hammock seem unattainable—the stock-market meltdown obliterated up to 50 percent of typical retirement accounts. But millions of Americans are still securely retired despite this mess, and thriving in their postcareer lives. Countless more are taking the plunge amid the turmoil. Here are some retirees who prove that a long-deserved lifelong holiday can be scripted many ways, at many income levels.
Year Retired: 2005
After decades of hard work as an executive at IBM, Lois Jackson has traded management for marigolds, growing flowers in her yard. When she left the workforce, "I didn't have balance," she confesses. "I had a great career, but it was time-consuming."
"I have a peaceful retreat"
Jackson longed for a retirement plan that would let her discover new interests—and find that elusive balance. Even before her actual retirement, she began saving more and eliminating debt. Simplifying her life, she sold her suburban Connecticut home and moved to Washington, D.C., to be near some non-IBM friends. "Even with the luxury of a pension, I knew I'd have to make changes," she says. She took some yoga classes, uncluttered her house, and improved her health—discovering long walks and the gym. Jackson now runs the local support group for spasmodic dysphonia, a voice disorder she has.
Favorite worry repellent "I monitor my spending: I don't travel much, my wardrobe is antiquated, and my library card has seen lots of action!"
What I wish someone had told me "It's so easy to get overcommitted. After several years I've learned to say 'No'—or better yet, 'Not at this time.' "
My secret to happiness "Be open to the new—try things. I'm learning Spanish. Playing the piano. I don't have to be good enough to give a concert. I just want to have fun."
Mary Sullivan and Jerry Shea
Ages: 69, 67
Year Retired: 2009
The recession jump-started Mary and Jerry's retirement—and so far they couldn't be happier. When the bottom fell out of the California real-estate market, they shut their realty business. But they had made some money two years earlier, selling a coffee shop they owned. Plus, Jerry has put money into retirement accounts for most of his adult life, and the couple expect to make a profit when they sell their house soon. Then comes the fun part: they'll hit the road in the motor home they bought after selling the coffee shop.
Right now they're planning to travel for five years, crisscrossing the country—reconnecting with old friends and visiting their four far-flung children—"provided our health stays good," says Mary.
"Then we'll see. Maybe we'll want to stop—but we've run into people in their mid-80s who have been doing this for 20 years!"
Of course, the recession has required some adjustments. "We live on our Social Security and investments, and they took a big hit," Jerry says. "But I thought, 'Hey, I've earned this.' "
Even sharp increases in gas prices haven't shaken the couple's confidence in their plan. "Sure, the coach gets between 6.5 and 8 miles per gallon. But people don't realize that when we travel, we often park it for two or three weeks at a time—it's not like we drive it to work every day."
Favorite worry repellent "We're not worriers. If stuff happens, we deal with it," says Jerry. Adds Mary: "We take no more than 4 percent out of our IRAs each year."
What we wish someone had told us "That until you actually retire, you really can't grasp what it means," says Jerry. "All of a sudden, time melts. Monday and Tuesday become meaningless. It's great, but it can be disorienting."
Our secret to happiness "Communication," says Jerry. "If they can't be straight with each other, two people in a motor home might kill each other."