How to Achieve Return on Life From Your Working Years

PHOTO: The time to think about how you want to spend your non-working years is long before you reach retirement.Trinette Reed/Getty Images
The time to think about how you want to spend your non-working years is long before you reach retirement.

In a culture that widely views wealth as an end in itself, too many people in this country are fixated on spending and material acquisition, even as they approach retirement.

Yet others view wealth accumulation as the key to achieving other goals, as a means to an end. After working hard most of their adult lives with the single-minded goal of financial freedom, some independently wealthy people — some of whom are retirement age and some younger — use their wealth as a key to living according to non-materialistic values.

Except for paying off their mortgages early and enjoying extensive leisure travel, some of these individuals don’t live that much differently than many middle-class Americans, calling to mind the modest consumption habits of independent business people described in the classic best-seller “The Millionaire Next Door.” As these people have few outward signs of wealth — they live in modest homes for their means and drive fairly ordinary, inexpensive cars — they could be your next-door neighbors.

Instead of focusing on spending, they’re more concerned with how they spend their time, using the freedom that their wealth affords them. This could mean spending time with relatives, doing volunteer work or merely pursuing what many less-wealthy people take for granted as mundane tasks. We have a client who truly enjoys raking leaves on a crisp autumn day. She could easily afford to hire someone to do it.

Of course, many wealthy people attempt to achieve happiness through high spending, even though this may leave them unfulfilled. Some would do well to think about what they truly want to do with their freedom — what their personal priorities are. With enough reflection, they may be able to identify values that can be drivers of behavior to bring the reward of happiness for the long term.

In some ways, acquiring this self-knowledge may be easier for people of modest means than for the wealthy. The more money you have, the more freely you can spend before changing course to follow a more fulfilling post-work path. By contrast, people of more modest means must plan their retirements more carefully, and thus may be forced to think harder about what they really want, and to budget accordingly during their working years.

Still, the average person faces major decisions, such as whether a condo in Florida is really going to make them happy. Just because they’ll come out way ahead after selling their house to the north and buying the condo, is this really where they want to be? Maybe, instead, they’d rather move closer to their kids’ homes to spend more time with their grandchildren.

Regardless of your means, the sooner you begin to develop your retirement mentality, the better. Sure, if you start thinking about this at the age of 45, your tentative plans will likely undergo multiple iterations. That’s only normal. The point is to have a mind-set conducive to having your tentative plans evolve with your outlook, interests and values. Making yourself think about this forces you to determine just what your values are.

Figuring out what’s going to give you ultimate satisfaction isn’t easy. Just because you love to play golf or go skiing on weekends doesn’t mean you’ll find this a fulfilling activity three or four days a week. You enjoy such activities on weekends or on vacation because of the rarity, just as you enjoy chocolate syrup on ice cream. By itself, you might get tired of it.

So the idea, according to writer Mitch Anthony, author of “The New Retirementality”(Wiley, 2008), is to figure out what other things bring you pleasure and spend time on them in lieu of working. For many people, this may be more time with grown children and grandchildren. For others, it’s time spent in charitable endeavors.

Many who find true satisfaction after they stop working do so by spending their time this way. Yet, there are more self-indulgent uses of time that many may benefit from — writing a novel, learning to play a musical instrument, or any other creative endeavor that you’ve longed for during your working years.

After many years spent seeking a return on your work investment (ROI), you stand a better chance of getting what Anthony calls ROL: return on life. The sooner you start thinking about how you’ll spend your free time after you stop working, the greater this return — your ultimate level of satisfaction — is likely to be.

Any opinions expressed here are those of the columnists and not of ABC News.

Jamie Cornehlsen and Ted Schwartz are advisors with Capstone Investment Financial Group in Colorado Springs, Colo. Cornehlsen is also president of Dunn Warren Investment Advisors in Greenwood Village, Colo. A Certified Financial Planner®, Schwartz advises individuals and endowments. He holds a B.A. from Duke University and an M.A. from Oregon State University. He can be reached at ted@capstoneinvest.com. Cornehlsen, a Chartered Financial Analyst®, advises business owners and employees on retirement plans. He holds a B.A. from the University of Colorado and an M.B.A. from the William E. Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester. He can be reached at jcornehlsen@capstoneinvest.com.

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