While it is understandable that a most talk about “retirement planning” is about money, a truly successful retirement requires more than that. Coincidentally, the same week I was pondering the Components of Happiness, I also stumbled upon a 6-year leanFIRE update from LivingaFI. It was a very honest and thoughtful story of someone who carefully planned and quit their job at age 37. I usually focus on my reason for financial indepedence as “spending my time as I wish”, but now I realize that it may help to specifically address certain areas regularly.

For your consideration, here are The Four Pillars of Retirement*:

  • Money: You need enough money to pay for housing, transportation, food, healthcare, and everything sold at Walmart/Target/Amazon/Costco.
  • Purpose: You need to feel that you are useful, moving forward, pursuing a goal, and/or making the world a tiny bit better.
  • People: You need love. Love and social interaction from your life partner, children, family, friends, and/or animal companions.
  • Health: You need to feel physically healthy, or be at peace with your level of health.

Imagine each pillar as one of the legs of a square table. We have to maintain and shore up any cracks before it gets serious. If you are lacking in any one of these pillars, your retirement gets wobbly. If any two are crumbling, that’s enough to make entire thing tip over.

Most people say that they hate work, but working takes care of more than just the money pillar. In addition to income, work can provide a sense of purpose and self-worth, as well as a wide social circle. Some people just like having something fixed to build their routine around; they flounder with “nothing to do”. People often imagine retirement as a perpetual weekend – playing golf, eating out, travel, shopping, etc. – but it can get weird when all your friends are still working. Here is a WSJ article on how leaving work can put a lot of strain on couples.

Finally, even if you have done all you can to be prepared, life still happens. The author of LivingaFi had nearly $1 million in assets, reasonable expenses, a committed life partner with a similar level of assets, lots of outside interests, and good health. This is not judgment, but a scary reminder for all of us: jobs, bull markets, relationships and good health can all end faster than you think. Your actions matter, but luck matters too. For example, the Social Security Administration says that a 20-year-old worker has a 1-in-4 chance of being disabled before retirement age. (Where available, we should buy adequate life, health, and disability insurance.)

My biggest blind spot was that if you have children, any one of them may also develop a health condition or other special needs that may require additional financial support indefinitely. I really didn’t appreciate the hidden struggles that so many families go through that is no fault of their own. I also didn’t fully appreciate how lucky I was to not have to deal with any of these things while growing up as a kid.

If you accept that luck matters in your investments, then the optimal choice might be to retire earlier with a more modest amount so that if things go well, you get more retirement years, but if things go bad, then you fall back on some part-time back-up work. Being willing to be flexible can pay off.

On the other hand, if you are a high-earner, it might be better to work “One More Year” while you work on planning for the other pillars. Finding a new purpose, finding new friends, finding a new routine, it can be quite difficult. Looking back, I am thankful that we did not attempt to retire early and instead adjusted our hours (and income) downward while still keeping our foothold in the workforce. I’m still working on these pillars myself, but our middle path has worked well for us.

(* A nod to the classic The Four Pillars of Investing, one of the first investing books I ever read and reviewed here way back in 2004.)

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Four Pillars of Retirement: Money, Purpose, People, and Health from My Money Blog.


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