It’s inevitable. You tell your friends you’re retiring and the first question out of their mouths is, “What are your plans?” Question number two: “Where are you going?” It seems the connection between travel and retirement has become an obsession in our society. And while it may conjure up images of tropical destinations and “once in a lifetime” adventures, the dream doesn’t always reflect the reality.
My friend Joyce is a perfect example. After working in corporate healthcare for decades, ten years ago she was finally ready to call an end to her career. Of course, the questions and suggestions began immediately: “Where are you off to? Have you thought about a cruise?” “You should go on a safari! It’s the trip of a lifetime!” “We loved Capri! You just have to go!” “You’ve never been to Paris?” Joyce had already traveled a fair amount in her life, for work and pleasure, so the idea of planning a big retirement trip wasn’t even on her radar. Suddenly the pressure was on. She started to feel like she had to travel—it was, after all, what retirees are expected to do.
When we met for coffee a week after her retirement party, she was restless. “I don’t even know where I want to go, but I feel like I should figure it out soon. I’m already bored with my routine!”
It’s a dilemma I see all the time. As retirement looms, people are so focused on closing the door on their careers that they don’t take the time to think about what’s next. They know they’re not ready to settle into a rocking chair, but they have no idea how they want to spend their days.
To help guide Joyce, I posed a question that was much different than, “What’s your travel destination?” Instead, I asked, “What do you want to do in your second half of life?” Joyce looked like a deer in the headlights. I took a sip of my coffee and continued. “Is there anything you’ve dreamed of doing, but have simply never had the time—not including traveling?” We sat quietly for a few minutes, and I could see the wheels turning in her mind. When she did speak, she seemed almost embarrassed, as though she was confessing a dark secret. “Paint,” she said. “I’d love to paint.”
Joyce’s vision was no standard image of an elderly gentlewoman quietly painting landscapes on a sunny hillside. Her dream was to paint large, bold canvasses that would take people’s breath away. I could already picture her in paint-covered overalls tossing paint onto the canvas like a modern-day Helen Frankenthaler. She didn’t know her next step, but she now had a vision in her mind, and it had nothing to do with jumping on a retiree-filled cruise ship.
Don’t go me wrong. I’ve recently discovered my love for travel, and I get that, at least for some people, travel is a retirement dream come true. Even then, I’ve seen peer pressure turn what should be a time of financial freedom into a whole new level of stress and anxiety. Travel anxiety can be especially challenging for anyone who lives in an affluent area, and even more so for affluent couples who set out on their travels together. Suddenly, what could have been a modest, budget-conscious Alaskan cruise morphs into a five-star, luxury journey on the Crystal line—for five times the original cost. The pressure to overspend can come from relatives as well. Knowing that memories are important, it’s all the rage right now for grandma and grandpa to treat the entire family to an all-expenses-paid family vacation, yet few retirees can afford this level of extravagance. I’m all for spending money on experiences instead of “things,” but it’s important to be realistic. If a trip is beyond your budget, that’s the moment you need to stop and ask yourself: whose dream am I living? Mine—or my neighbor’s? Peer pressure can be tremendous, but swallow your ego and make choices that align with your dreams and your budget.
Joyce’s story has a wonderful outcome. After our talk that morning, she decided to make her dream come true. She signed up for classes at Otis College of Art and Design, studied with master teachers, and earned a certificate in Fine Arts. She’s been painting ever since, and though I have yet to see her in overalls (I guess that’s my version of her dream, not hers!), she’s happier than I’ve ever seen her. She does travel a bit, but mostly to New York City on artist trips. By focusing on what she truly wanted, she took the road less traveled (pun intended!) and painted a beautiful “retirement” that even she never saw coming.
If you’re on the cusp of retirement—or even already there—take some time today to brainstorm how you want to spend the next decade of your life. Build a vision board. Journal. And don’t let anyone else’s expectations stand in your way. Once you have some ideas, I recommend sitting down with your financial advisor to figure out a realistic budget, and then take it from there. By charting a path based on your dreams and your finances, you can paint your own picture of a wonderfully fulfilling retirement that’s free of financial anxiety. That’s what I call the “golden years”!