Secrets to a Happy Retirement

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We talk a lot about the financial side of planning for retirement. It's hugely important and can mean the difference between a carefree retirement and no retirement at all. But what about the other factors that contribute to a happy retirement? Enjoying your retirement is about more than just tapping into your 401(k). Here are our top tips for enjoying life after work:

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1. Plan Ahead

Retirement isn't usually a clean break, and if it is you may find yourself at loose ends. If you go from working 40+ hours a week on a Friday to a blank schedule on a Monday you may have a hard time adjusting to retirement. Plus, there are some major life decisions that require advanced planning. When will you stop working? Will you quit cold turkey or move to part-time work? At what age will you claim your Social Security benefits? Will you move or stay put? And the big one: What will you do all day?

You don't have to figure out the answers to these questions all at once, but you should start thinking about them when you hit 50. At that age you'll be eligible to make catch-up contributions to retirement accounts. You may also be approached by your employer to take early retirement. You'll want to make sure your investing portfolio is transitioning to an asset allocation that leaves you less vulnerable to a market downturn. As you can see, there's a lot to think about. Start tracking your expenses and figuring out how your budget will change in retirement. For example, you may have lower transportation expenses when you stop commuting to work but spend more on meals out with friends once you have more free time.

2. Get Social

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Isolation and poor health are the retiree's worst enemy. Eating well, getting enough sleep and exercising can all help boost your health, but there's still a lot left to chance and genetics. Isolation, though, is easier to prevent than a decline in your health. Work on maintaining your relationships with friends and family. Even if warm weather beckons, consider staying close to your children, grandchildren and existing social circle.

Get out in your community and chat with strangers (within reason). You may also want to work as a volunteer, join a senior center or take university classes. Many retirees find that downsizing to a smaller home in a denser location is a great way to avoid isolation. College towns in particular have a lot to offer and are great for retirees who want intellectual and cultural stimulation.

3. Stay Busy

The image of retirement that many of us have is of days of idleness by a pool. That may sound great when you're on your commute or slogging through a tough couple of weeks at the office. The truth, though, is that complete inactivity gets old. It's easy to get stuck in front of the TV feeling bored and depressed. If you're used to a busy working life you'll have a happier transition to retirement if you stay busy in your post-work years. Make plans with friends (see above), learn new skills, travel or work out. You don't have to schedule every hour of the day but you should plan on several activities a week.

4. Cultivate a Routine

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We've talked about making social engagements a priority and staying busy. Why not build those activities into a routine? Whether it's a standing commitment for dinner with your kids, a weekly walk with a former colleague or a tai chi class in the park, a routine lends structure to your post-work days. Plus, studies of some of the longest-lived people in the world show that they tend to stick to a strict routine. Just saying.

5. Be a Lifelong Learner

Keep your mind active in retirement by learning something new. At first, you may feel a little sheepish about showing up to swimming lessons or French classes, but we're guessing you'll be glad of the mental and social stimulation. Learning new skills and mastering new subjects will give you a sense of accomplishment when work isn't around to provide you with measurable indicators of achievement like completing projects and earning raises.

Bottom Line

If you haven't saved enough for retirement even the best health and the most active social life won't completely offset the stress of your money worries. That's why it's important to build a strong foundation for retirement income and to understand the state of your finances as you approach your post-work years. Once you stop working you'll have plenty of time to fill. Don't go into retirement without having an idea of what you'll do, who you'll see and where you'll live.

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