Lego for Retirees

Sometimes retirement planning feels a lot like couples therapy.

Ellen: “Harvey is retired now. We’re OK financially. I don’t want our new life to be just a later version of our old one.  We worked too long and too hard to settle now.  I want you to push Harvey into understanding this.”

Harvey: “Ellen has grown bored the last few years waiting for me to retire. She wants adventure.  I’ve had my share of adventure in Corporate America and would like some peace and quiet for a while. Enough already with the pressure and to-do lists.”

Welcome to the world of life planning, I told them.

Everyone needs a plan, I continued, but here’s the problem: How many people do you know whose life went exactly according to plan?   None, they admitted in unison.

The situation is a bit of an oxymoron.  You make a plan, but the plan can’t be set in stone.  You have to make a lot of educated guesses about the kind of life you want to lead in retirement, but there are always going to be unknown variables and curveballs you never saw coming, and you have to improvise and adapt when the plan stops serving you.

I suggested thinking of a life plan as a series of interconnecting hypotheses, like Lego blocks that can be put in place, changed, moved or eliminated, but which ultimately build something beautiful.  A successful plan isn’t about executing the original one you crafted; it’s about editing it as you go along, AND having a pretty darned good time along the way.

The counselor in me noted that the couple was in a contest of power and determination.  Ellen wanted to build a plan that trapped Harvey into doing what she wants him to do. Harvey wanted to deny Ellen the tools she needs to manage him and their future.

To break the deadlock, I recommended they considered these questions:

  1. What can we do to build a mutual plan that delivers enough of what each of us wants?
  2. What are our best educated guesses about how our future will play out?
  3. How willing are we individually and together to improvise, adapt and update the plan—and ourselves—when circumstances or preferences change?

That sounds like work, the couple said. But it’s no more work than staying stuck in a power struggle, and is a lot more productive.

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