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7 Tips for Test-Driving Your Retirement

‘Pretirement’ trial run can help you make the right call on where, when and how you want to live

spinner image elayne fluker stands on the beach in mexico
Elayne Fluker, an executive coach, relocated from Atlanta to Playa del Carmen, Mexico in 2022.
Juan Pablo Ampudia

You’ve reached “pretirement,” the period when you’re closer to the end of your career than the beginning and starting to see retirement on the horizon. Maybe your vision of post-work life is crystal-clear — but more likely, it’s still a bit fuzzy around the edges, or even a total blur.

Sharpening the image will require thoughtful preparation. Doing a test run of your envisioned future can help ensure a smoother transition when the time comes.

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Think of it as a dress rehearsal for retirement, a chance to try out different elements of your planned future and make sure you’re right about when, where and how you want to live your golden years. Here are some pointers for doing a well-planned pretirement test drive.

Identify your aspirations

Begin by drafting your own desired version of retirement. How do you envision your daily routine? Where do you plan to live, and why? How important is it to be near family? Having a tangible blueprint of your desires will serve as a compass during your test run.

Consider, too, what activities you wish to engage in, skills you hope to learn and places you aspire to visit. Most 50-plus workers surveyed for a 2023 study by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies anticipate their post-work years being a time of freedom and enjoyment, with travel being the most popular retirement dream (cited by 65 percent of respondents).

Don’t be swayed by the crowd, though, if you suspect your ideal retirement would be spent at home tending your garden or mastering the piano. The key is to create a vision based on your unique interests and values.

Design your test runs

Craft scenarios to mimic your envisioned retirement lifestyle. This could include using time off from work to immerse yourself in hobbies or community activities or using vacations to explore prospective retirement destinations.

If remote work is an option, you might even consider relocating temporarily. This will give you an opportunity to explore a locale to make sure it’s a good fit. The key is to simulate the retirement you picture as closely as possible to glean authentic insights.

That’s what Elayne Fluker did as she envisioned retiring abroad. In July 2021, Fluker, an executive coach then based in Atlanta, spent two weeks in the Mexican retirement hot spot of Playa del Carmen. In October 2022, she returned for a month. Two months later, at age 49, she made the move permanent.

“For me, that was really long enough to get a sense of things,” she says. “I love it here. I’m near the beach. I get to do so much outdoors. I have a coworking space with others. Playa del Carmen aligns with everything I wanted and more.”

If you’re contemplating an international retirement, research locations thoroughly and visit like a local, Fluker advises.

“Don’t stay at hotels or resorts. That’s not what life will be like,” she says. Instead, immerse yourself in a region by renting a place in a residential area and getting to know the neighbors to get a better feel for everyday life there.

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Elayne Fluker works out with her trainer, Marcos Marchesi, on the beach in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
Juan Pablo Ampudia

Engage in diverse activities

Explore a variety of pastimes that pique your interest. In Playa del Carmen, Fluker joined a local expat collective and has tried everything from Pilates classes to a double Dutch jump roping group. Double Dutch": History​National Double Dutch League ​ › history​

Delving into different pursuits not only enriches your pretirement experience but also can reveal passions you may wish to pursue post-career.

As you conduct your test runs, keep in mind that you only need be as busy in retirement as you want to be. Think through how much time you want to devote to hobbies, volunteering, engaging with family or just resting. Experiment with this routine while you’re still working — for example, you might take Fridays off for a month to see how you feel about a new pace and routine. Tweak the timing until you find a satisfying balance.

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Test drive your retirement budget

Before you commit to a location or a lifestyle, you want to make sure you can afford it. Develop a retirement budget and give it a test run — try sticking to it for two or three months while you’re still working.

Make a budget for housing, food, entertainment and other costs, taking into account where you want to live and what interests you want to pursue. Weigh those numbers against your expected income. Do you plan to work part-time in retirement? How much will you get from Social Security? How much can you regularly draw from retirement accounts without draining them too fast? 

Financial planner Saundra Davis estimated her retirement budget about four years ago and has been living on it ever since.

“I live within a budget of $3,000 a month,” says Davis, 63, who owns Sage Financial Solutions in Northern California.

“I don’t do needs versus wants. Instead, I separate my living expenses from my lifestyle expenses,” she says. Between savings, veterans benefits (she served in the Navy) and what she and her partner can expect from Social Security, she adds, “If I never worked another day in my life, I would be just fine,” but work provides for their lifestyle expenses, like a love of travel.

Don’t forget health care costs. Fidelity estimates the average healthy 65-year-old couple will need $315,000 for their lifetime medical expenses. Including that in your estimates can surface potential income shortfalls before you retire.

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Assess your relationships

Retirement can have a major impact on relationships with your spouse, family and friends. You may spend more time together, or more apart. Examine these connections during your trial run.

Have candid conversations about expectations and boundaries. Schedule regular date nights with your spouse or partner and consider how much or little you’ll interact with friends.

A long-running Harvard study found that people’s happiness in retirement is largely driven by the quality of their relationships. For some, more time with a spouse after retirement can put a strain on the marriage. A pretirement stress test can help you identify and address potential stress points and strengthen your bond.

A retirement trial period can also give you time to tend to family matters that need attention. Before Fluker moved to Mexico, she had spent six years caring for her aging parents. She was able to help them navigate their transition to an assisted living facility of their choice before she relocated.

Take stock of your emotional readiness

Pay attention to your emotional state during any test run. Keep a journal about how activities make you feel. Observe your stress level and take note of any patterns.

Bouts of angst or boredom could be signs that you need to adjust your anticipated retirement routine to better suit your temperament, while enthusiasm and happiness indicate you’re on the right track. Don’t underestimate the psychological impact of retirement. Your trial run can highlight any emotional pitfalls to address.

Reflect, refine, re-evaluate

After a retirement test run, reflect on your experiences. Did the reality match your expectations? What worked well and what needs refinement? Be honest with yourself about what seemed less than ideal. Armed with these insights, you’ll be better equipped to make adjustments and define a retirement that is fulfilling and achievable.

The key is allowing ample time. Waiting too long limits your ability to establish the conditions and habits necessary for success. Starting test runs in your 40s or 50s gives you years to tweak plans — hopefully to near perfection.

By trying out the lifestyle she wanted well ahead of retirement, Fluker was able to have a memorable 50th birthday, marking the milestone in Mexico in 2023 by doing something she could never have afforded in the States: She rented a fancy yacht for 70 people and celebrated in style.

“I’m glad I’m doing this now, while I’m healthy enough to enjoy it,” she says. “It’s such a fuller life, and I’m so grateful.”

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