Learn from retirees' satisfactions -- and regrets

If you're looking for insights into effective retirement decisions, one of the best things you can do is ask current retirees what actions they took that they're most happy about -- and what they regret the most. They should have a lot of credibility, and their answers can give you compelling real-life examples of the consequences of good and bad decisions.

When it comes to steps people were glad they took, here are some common survey responses:

  • Living modestly, paying off their mortgage before retirement and staying with a job that offered a traditional defined-benefit pension plan were among those cited in a Consumer Reports survey.
  • Another survey found the following steps to retirement happiness as reported by retirees: taking the time to do the proper planning to make sure resources are sufficient, creating a retirement budget, making new friends, focusing on relationships with spouses or partners, developing new hobbies or interests, and creating a vision for life in retirement. These "lessons learned" were reinforced by a recent survey from insurance company MassMutual that reported similar responses.
  • Your emotions and physical health are as important as your finances, and it's normal to feel stressed before retirement. But according to a survey done earlier this year, many retirees say once they've retired, they feel less stressed because they've figured out how to manage their finances.

Now let's talk about some of the common regrets reported from various surveys:

  • That survey by Consumer Reports shows the top regret is starting to save for retirement too late and saving too little. This could be the result of not making retirement savings a priority, as reported by 81 percent of workers in another poll.
  • Another recent survey that documents the regrets people have about their lack of savings reports that more than one in five people say they'd rather "die early" than live without enough money for a comfortable retirement. That might boost your motivation to start saving!
  • One survey reports that half of all respondents wished they had retired earlier, reporting that on average, they wished they had retired four years earlier than they actually did.
  • But another survey reports that more than two-thirds of middle-income boomer retirees say they wish they had worked longer. These conflicting results show that you need to take this information with a large grain of salt.
  • One retirement expert lists these common regrets, many of which he heard from retirees while researching his book on retirement: not retiring sooner, not doing your financial homework, not making up with friends and family sooner, not planning for all that leisure time, not downsizing earlier, not kicking a bad habit sooner (such as drinking and gambling), not taking Social Security at the best time, not traveling earlier and not taking better care of your health. Whew -- a tall order, but spot on.
  • Yet another study includes these regrets: retiring too early, expecting too much from Social Security, not having a spending plan and carrying too much debt.

Here's an idea for the coming holiday season. The next time you're with your older relatives and friends who've already retired, ask them about their regrets as well as about the steps they're glad they took to prepare for retirement. Most people are happy to share their life experience if it helps those they care about. It might be a better use of your time than discussing politics or watching football on TV.

Keep in mind that you might receive conflicting answers, or the answers may not have much relevance to you. You'll want to reflect on whether these insights make sense to you, and how they might confirm or change your plans. You have unique circumstances and life goals, and you'll reap the rewards or suffer the consequences of your decisions.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.