The View From Unretirement: I left my job at age 65 and I don’t want to retire — what’s next?

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Just over a month ago, at age 65, I left the full-time job I loved and took the freeing — and somewhat scary — step into what I like to call my “unretirement.” Now, I’m freelancing from my New Jersey home, traveling prudently, mentoring, reading, relaxing, catching up with people and seeing where life takes me. 

With this new MarketWatch column, I’ll be writing about what unretirement is like, and what’s surprising, exciting and confounding me. I’ll also share advice to help you navigate unretirement, whether it’s in your near future or you’re in the thick of it. Plus, I’ll be commenting on the latest retirement research and trends and passing along recommendations of new books, films, TV shows and podcasts dealing with retirement and aging. Welcome!

Even though I’ve only been at unretirement for a short time, I’ve been thinking about and planning my unretirement for years. 

I’d just celebrated my 10th work anniversary at Next Avenue (the PBS site for people 50-plus) most recently as managing editor and editor of the Money and Work channels, recently enrolled in Medicare to ensure post-employment health insurance and felt the time was right to explore my own next avenue with my wife, Liz, who unretired from her job as a People magazine editor a few years back.

Liz and I hope unretiring will give us more opportunities to see our 30-something sons, Aaron and Will, and their wives Leigh Anne and Jen.

So to start, I wanted to note what I think are five keys to a successful unretirement.

The first key to a successful unretirement: Know what you will retire ‘to’ 

A 2021 Age Wave/Edward Jones survey found that 54% of retirees said they wished they’d done better planning for the nonfinancial aspects of retirement.

So many of us spend lots of time thinking about what we want to retire from—grueling jobs, annoying bosses, interminable meetings (lately virtually) and a gnawing feeling of unfulfillment. But we rarely give much thought to what we’ll want to do with our free time in retirement.

When Joseph Coughlin, the head of MIT’s AgeLab, talked about this disconnect on the Human-Centric Investing podcast, he said that when it comes to retirement, it’s less about planning and more about preparing. For example, Coughlin noted, don’t just say to yourself that you want to volunteer, but figure out where you want to volunteer.

Ohio financial planner Tony Hixon has written an excellent book, “Retirement Stepping Stones,” about the importance of “retire to.” It was spawned from the sad story of his late mother.

Hixon’s mom cherished her work as a hospice nurse, but soon after retiring without a plan to find a new purpose in her life, she spiraled into depression and ultimately took her life. Hixon has since changed his financial planning practice by hiring a life coach to advise clients about those nonfinancial aspects of retirement.

The second key to a successful unretirement is to know your finances before you leave your full-time job 

Evaluate your current savings and your retirement-income prospects.

Weigh the benefits of delaying claiming Social Security beyond its Early Retirement Age (62) and Full Retirement Age (67 or so); your benefits increase 8% a year for each year you postpone claiming after Full Retirement Age, until 70. If you’ll be lucky enough to qualify for one or more work pensions, see if you’ll receive more money annually by delaying when they start and, if so, whether you can afford to postpone receiving the income.

Draw up a rough budget for your early years of unretirement and compare it with the income you’ll be receiving and withdrawals you might make from your retirement savings.

If you have a spouse or partner, talk through the financial side of unretirement (as well as the emotional and psychological side).

And if you have a financial adviser, meet with this money pro to discuss your ability to unretire; if you don’t have an adviser, find one.

The third key to a successful unretirement is not being afraid to say ‘no’ 

This has been something of a challenge for me, since I spent my 43-year career saying “yes” to work assignments.

Unretirement might be the first time since your early 20s for you to weigh potential job opportunities and reject some. It’s tempting to grab any gig, contract or freelance work you can. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. A certain job might be too much of a time commitment or you may have personal reasons not to say “yes.”

I’ve already turned down three potential part-time jobs, deciding either they weren’t how I’d like to spend my time, I was uncertain about prospects for the new venture or I had issues with the employer. None of these “nos” were easy for me, but I’m happy with my decisions.

The fourth key to a successful unretirement is to make a schedule 

It can be uncomfortable to leave a full-time job whose days are packed and enter a new reality where days are wholly open. Creating a two-week, day-by-day schedule can help.

This way, you can begin filling up the calendar as much as you want, but not more than you want. It’s where you’ll put not only your part-time work times, but also medical appointments; calls or meals with friends, family members or former colleagues; scheduled exercise and volunteering.

You’ll get pleasure seeing days, or parts of days, with absolutely nothing planned. Try not to overschedule yourself or, if you’re the kind of person who must stay busy (guilty!), try not to underschedule yourself.

If you have a spouse or partner who isn’t working full time, remember to consult that person’s schedule to prevent conflicts and to give yourselves “we” time.

I’ve been using what my son Will jokingly calls an “analog” calendar — a piece of folded paper I carry in my back pocket to check, or add to, anytime. Yes, I have a digital calendar on my smartphone, but there’s something about the paper version that just works for me.

My last key to a successful unretirement is to be like Marie Kondo 

Credit for this goes to my wife who reminded me that Kondo’s approach to decluttering — keep the things that bring you joy — works well for unretirement. Here, it’s about finding things to do that bring you joy and, as much as possible, avoiding ones that don’t.

One last thing: Unretirement will throw you curveballs.

I’d planned to learn pickleball during my time visiting my sons in Los Angeles, but a rotator cuff problem has put that on ice. I’ve also been having a little trouble sleeping lately, a problem Michael Kay—creator of the Chapter X group for men transitioning to retirement—says he’s also dealing with now that he has unretired.

It’s a journey.

The U List

My first recommendation for what I’m calling “The U List” is the new Century Lives podcast from The Stanford Center on Longevity. In this six-episode series, The Longevity Project’s Ken Stern interviews experts on ways to ensure “that our lives are not just longer, but healthy and rewarding as well.”

These fascinating conversations, plus ones Stern has with people who are centenarians and their families, tackle ways employers, policy makers, higher education officials, healthcare pros and the rest of us need to adapt to better serve aging populations. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

If you have thoughts, concerns or questions about unretirement or want to tell me about your experience, I’d love to hear from you. I suspect what I hear will lead to future topics for this column. Please email me.

Richard Eisenberg is a freelance personal finance writer and editor and co-host of the “Friends Talk Money” podcast. Most recently, he was managing editor of the Next Avenue site and editor of its Money & Policy and Work and Purpose channels. He is author of “How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis” and “The Money Book of Personal Finance” and lives in New Jersey