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Successful Retirement Requires More Than Financial Planning

Are emotional health and personal fulfillment part of your retirement portfolio?

Retiring successfully requires careful planning to ensure financial and physical health, but what about other important aspects of retirement, such as emotional health and personal fulfillment? According to a recent AARP report, future retirees need to consider these less tangible but important assets as part of their retirement portfolio.

Many people have mixed emotions about retirement. For some, it represents freedom, a time to do what you want, when you want, and how you want to do it. More than seven in ten retirees (72%) feel relaxed, 64% feel happy, and 59% feel free. Retirement presents a stress-free period of opportunity and choice.

But not everyone feels as care-free about retirement. Though less common, some retirees report feeling bored (14%), isolated (13%), and lacking purpose (13%). In fact, only 35% of nonretirees feel optimistic about retirement. 

Recognizing the importance of planning for retirement does not translate into doing it.

A vast majority (86%) of nonretired adults ages 40–64 recognize that preparing for retirement is important. However,  this belief seems doesn't seem to motivate people to prepare, as evidenced by the numbers who feel they are not as prepared as they should be.

The gap between acknowledging the importance of preparation and actually feeling prepared is at least 30 percentage points for each decade of life. And it is particularly pronounced for nonretirees in their 40s (87% vs. 38%), 50s (92% vs. 45%), and 60s (93% vs. 42%), with roughly twice as many people saying retirement planning is important than saying they are prepared.

When planning does happen, the focus tends to be on finances and physical health over emotional health and personal fulfillment.                                                                              

Most people have considered their finances when planning for retirement, including 67% of nonretirees and 79% of retirees who planned for it before they retired. Health in retirement has also been on the radar screen for two-thirds of adults, including 65% of nonretirees and 67% of retirees before they retired.

However, over half (57%) of retired adults never thought about planning for their emotional health in retirement, and four in ten nonretirees (41%) don’t know when they will start focusing on it. Similarly, nearly one-half (46%) of retirees haven't considered planning for personal fulfillment in retirement (i.e., things that make you happy), and four in ten nonretirees don’t know when they will start doing so.

Behaviors linked to reported retirement preparedness are consistent across ages.

For those who say they have arrived, or are on track to arrive, at successful retirement, four behaviors made a diffrerence:

  • Saving enough for retirement.

  •  Living in a manner now that lets them save enough for a secure retirement.
     
  • Engaging in behaviors such as healthy eating and physical activity/exercise.

  • Having a road map to ensure they are doing the right thing to prepare financially for retirement. 

In addition, people in their 30s and 40s who find a good balance of work, family, and self-care are more likely to feel prepared for retirement than those who don’t.

People in their 40s who use employer-sponsored retirement savings plans and who are working to get out of debt are more likely to feel prepared for retirement than those who don’t.

And adults in their 40s and 50s who manage the cost of health care, balance growth and risk in investments, and understand when and how to access Social Security and other retirement accounts are more likely to feel prepared for retirement than those who don’t.

There are opportunities to help people of all ages achieve a successful retirement.

Individuals would benefit from developing good habits early. They would also benefit from considering their emotions, to help them understand how their emotions may be preventing them from planning for retirement as well as to help them plan for their emotional needs in retirement, in addition to their physical and financial needs. 

Employers can help their workers plan for retirement by creating convenient retirement saving options, such as defined contribution and defined benefit plans  with automatic enrollment (and a match incentive). They can also inform their employees about the importance of saving in general (such as for emergencies) and managing debt, and they can offer emergency-savings programs that include direct deposit. In addition, employers can provide a flexible transition into retirement through part-time work. 

Educational organizations can also raise awareness about the importance of retirement planning and the impact of developing good habits early. For example, they could encourage saving for retirement, living within one’s means, engaging in healthy eating and physical activity/exercise, and having a road map to ensure consumers are doing the right thing to prepare financially for retirement.

Financial institutions can reach out in culturally appropriate ways to engage consumers who do not see themselves reflected in materials on retirement planning and for whom general market messages do not resonate. Considering diversity and inclusion can help financial institutions grow their market share, while helping to prepare all consumers for retirement.

Methodology

This report is based on Hacking Retirement, a research study conducted from August 2020 to May 2021 that combined AI-assisted ethnographic analysis, qualitative interviews (n=20), an online quantitative survey (n=3,025, ages 20–74 -(~500 per decade), a qualitative online platform (n=68, ages 22–67), and secondary data appends.

All interviews were conducted in English. Samples were weighted to appropriately reflect U.S. Census figures. The study was funded by Collaborata and led by RTi Research with The Business of Aging, and Aha!.

Suggested citation:

Millan, Carmenza, and Colette Thayer. Planning for a Successful Retirement, For People of All Ages. Washington, DC: AARP Research, November 2022. https://doi.org/10.26419/res.00547.001

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AARP Survey on Health and Aging

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