5 Ways COVID Can Help You Be Better at Retirement

Is it 2021 yet? Yeah, I’m sick of hearing that too. But great googly moogly, this has been a heck of a year (hat tip to who knows what children’s cartoon “great googly moogly” is from).

In an effort to keep positive and make sure I come out of the other side of this stronger and smarter, I’ve been looking for the silver linings – trying to pull as much good from this crappy situation as possible.

For one, I am super excited about our first virtual Brand ManageCamp conference (Oct 27-29 – https://BrandManageCamp.com). After doing live conferences for the past 17 years, it is pretty exciting to be redesigning this thing from the bottom up. And the prospect of turning a one-point-in-time event into a year-long learning resource really has the wheels turning.

Beyond that, though, I’ve been keeping my eye out for other positives that can be pulled from our current quagmire. And, as I thought more about what we are all going through right now, it became clear to me that, in some very concrete ways, COVID-land is exposing us to some of the weaknesses we may never have known we had as it relates to our eventual retirement plans (as delayed as they may now seem).

Specifically, there are lessons we can learn in 5 core elements integral to happiness and success in retirement:

1 – Money Management
2 – Interest/Hobby Management
3 – Relationship Management
4 – Mental Health Management
5 – Physical Health Management

1 – Money Management

Piggy Banks

There is nothing like a complete and unexpected halt to commerce as we know it to expose weaknesses in our financial planning. People plan for a lot of contingencies, but I am guessing a worldwide pandemic that basically shuts everything down was not high on the list of potential events for most.

What a lot of people are learning right now is how hard it is to live on a fixed income. Especially when everything doesn’t go according to plan (which is how things usually go).

This past weekend, my wife and I decided to take on the pretty simple task of replacing some bathroom sink faucets. Well, it turned out to be far less simple than we expected – culminating with me forgetting to turn off the house water supply before removing the valve. By the time I realized my mistake, the valve had been blown off the pipe by the water pressure. I tried to control it as my wife ran to the basement to turn off the main – only to find that some idiot (me) had made it too tight the last time I turned it on. So, as water is gushing out by the gallon, I run downstairs to shut the water. By the time I got it turned off, water was cascading through the light and speaker fixtures in the basement ceiling. I ran to get buckets, slipping on the wet stairs on the way back down and folding my foot and leg behind my body as I fell.

As I sat there in a puddle on the stairs, convinced I had just broken my leg, listening to the water pouring through the ceiling onto the floor below, I couldn’t help but think that this cost saving idea of changing the faucets ourselves had just turned into a big money hole.

Luckily, with the help of my neighbor, we got things cleaned up super quick, and immediately set up blowers and dehumidifiers to dry things out (it helps we live in Colorado). And, though bruised, my leg was not broken. So, all in all, we got away unscathed.

The point is, though, that things rarely go as planned. Whatever you think you will need for retirement, you will probably need (or want) more.

Coming out of this, we will look to up our savings as much as we can. We will try to build a bigger rainy (or flood-y) day fund to handle the inevitable unexpected expenses.

This obviously goes beyond personal finances, applying in a big way to corporate financial planning. It has been eye-opening for me to see how many of the biggest companies in the world got into serious cash flow trouble almost immediately once things shut down.

In the post-COVID world, companies must reassess their financial planning and be better prepared for what happens if the unthinkable happens again and everything stops for a period of time.

2 – Interest / Hobby Management

Roller Blading

One of the things I have heard a lot of people complain about recently has been boredom. Without going to work, there are far more free hours in the day. And, with things closed and gatherings limited, there are less structured things to do with those hours.

I know, this does not apply to everybody. In fact, I know there are lots of people who feel the boundaries between their personal and work lives have disappeared with the ability to do Zoom calls all day (see my article on Zoom mistakes to avoid) – and they are working even more hours than before.

But a lot of folks have been given a glimpse of one of the problems they might experience when it comes time to retire – what do they do with themselves now??

This might seem like a non-problem to you. All that time? You might have plans to play tons of golf or travel the world. But how excited will you be to do those things if your golf or travel partners are no longer able or willing to participate with you? Or if you become unable or unwilling due to health or other issues? And don’t forget that those things cost money – so unless you are really good at #1 above, you may not have the ability to do as much of that stuff as you would have hoped.

My main hobby outside of work and family for the last couple of decades has been playing poker. This is not a great option for retirement for me, as I am not that good at it (bad for money management above) and it’s not a super healthy hobby (bad for physical health management below). My wife, on the other hand, has an awesome long term hobby – camping. Good for money management (although you can always find more gear to buy) and great for physical and mental health management. Plus, it is easy to ramp up or down in exertion based on age and physical fitness.

Unfortunately, I hate sleeping on the ground. And I like electricity. And pillows. And bathrooms. So, I’ve got some work to do on my long-term hobby – but it is something I am actively working on!

The key to happiness later on (and now) is to find a thing or, more advisably, a few things that you can do that fulfill you. Ideally, they should be things that:

  • You can do with others or on your own.
  • Don’t require a lot of money (think initial investment + ongoing costs).
  • Don’t just pass the time, but add value to your life and make you feel good and productive.
  • If you have a partner, find things that you both can love to do. Or, at the very least, find things that you can both compromise on and like to do. Maybe you love something and your partner just likes it, and vice versa for their thing.
  • Also, if you have a partner, make sure you find things that you each do on your own. One thing people who are used to working a lot have figured out right now is that it is hard work to spend 100% of your time with someone – even if they are the love of your life (see point #3, below). You have probably found you need your alone time. Find a way to make that time positive for you.

3 – Relationship Management

Handholding

It’s ok. You don’t have to feel guilty. Virtually raise your hand if you have felt, at some point, sick of hanging around your friends or family. Having the same conversations, discussions, or even arguments over and over. Doing the same things. Seeing how often they wear the same clothes – and noticing.

This is only natural. One of the biggest life lessons I learned at college is that the easiest way to ruin a friendship is to become roommates. The quirky and funny things you love about people can quickly become nails across a chalkboard when you are forced to be around them 24/7.

Sure, family is different. But most of us are spending a LOT more time with each other these days. We are invading each other’s space. Infringing on freedoms and routines and down-time.

When it comes to friends, you may be finding that people you thought were close friends have not been there for you as much as you would have expected now that there is more available time to spend with each other. When you were busy, it was fine to get together once a week or once a month, but now those times seem much farther apart.

You may have more time for phone calls and find that you’ve often got nobody to talk to.

Compounding that is that you may be missing the camaraderie and social aspects of your workplace. These are people that you were spending 40+ hours a week with. And, now, you may be lucky if you see them at all. There is a reason fire fighters and police officers often have a hard time in retirement. After decades of having your work buddies, with whom you shared so many intense experiences, all of a sudden you are on your own. And you realize that without the constructs of work, most of those relationships quickly disappear.

These are sobering findings. But they are a beneficial glimpse into what is potentially waiting for us in retirement.

Maybe you haven’t experienced any of this. But, if you have, it is a good time to take a step back and evaluate what success looks like for you relationship-wise and how you can make sure you are in a position to achieve it in retirement.

With regards to your family, you may find that you need to find more common interests – ways that you can have organized time together that is fulfilling for everybody. But you also have to find those things that you can do apart without generating resentment or feelings of abandonment. You have to all figure out what you need to be happy from each other, and then you have to communicate it, so there are no surprises, no hidden anger, no simmering resentments.

When it comes to friends, you may find that you need to rethink your numbers. You might decide you need to diversify more, and have a broader group of friends. On the other hand, you might find you need to consolidate so that you have less friends in total, but more meaningful relationships with the ones you have. Sometimes, having a large number of superficial friendships can feel like being in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”

You have to come to grips with what you need from your friends, and make sure it is compatible with what they need from you.

You may also find that you have to put a lot more work into your relationships in a world where things are a bit less structured. If you are reliant on your job or your spouse for your social life, what happens if you no longer have those catalysts? You need to start building some of those skills and that self-reliance now. Your long-term happiness depends on it.

4 – Mental Health Management

Stress

There is nothing like a worldwide pandemic, coupled with massive changes to your work status and lifestyle, combined with political and social unrest to expose mental health vulnerabilities. As the CDC so eloquently says on its website, “Pandemics can be stressful.”

It goes on to say “Fear and anxiety about a new disease and what could happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Public health actions, such as social distancing, can make people feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety…Coping with stress in a healthy way will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.”

Fear, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, having strong emotions, feeling isolated and lonely. These same issues are likely to be experienced during any massive change in your life – and few will be as massive as your retirement.

According to Healthline:

  • “Americans are reporting significant and sustained increases in symptoms of depression and anxiety related to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to recent data from Healthline and YouGov’s COVID-19 tracker.”
  • “Women, minorities, people with preexisting health conditions, and adults under 34 all reported higher rates of fear and anxiety.”
  • “The number of people reporting these symptoms are well above historical norms.”
  • “Experts caution that spotting symptoms of mental health issues could be especially challenging given the current environment…”

How are you coping with all of this? The big joke adults like to talk about is that they are drinking more now. With moderation, there is not much wrong with that. But these are the times where we are most vulnerable and susceptible to falling into unhealthy patterns of coping.

A lot of this is coming from the uncertainty of the times. Not knowing what is going to happen is stressful. It is not dissimilar to what happens when you retire. While you are working, the majority of your week is structured, planned. While you may have a fair amount of autonomy in your job, at the end of the day you have responsibilities and deadlines and expectations you have to meet. The day after you put that chapter in your life to bed, most (if not all) of those responsibilities, deadlines, and expectations disappear. The uncertainty of what to do when nothing is expected of you can be daunting and stressful – especially since that time of your life is advertised as being carefree and easy.

The current world dynamic can help you prepare for the difficulties that can pop up down the line. Times like these tend to expose the cracks in our armor. And they are likely a preview of what we could see during retirement. How skilled are you at spotting those cracks in yourself? In the people around you?

Now is the time to identify our issues (and become better at identifying them in others) and develop plans to address and manage them. If you don’t have people to talk to, find people to talk to. Whether it is a friend, a family member, a spouse, a group, a hotline, or a counselor, find someone to talk to. The more you keep things bottled up, the worse it will become.

5 – Physical Health Management

Fitness

None of the other 4 points above will mean anything if you don’t live long enough, or if your health is bad enough that it prevents you from enjoying your retirement.

As we discussed above, in COVID-land you may be drinking more alcohol. You also may be consuming more tobacco or other substances. You may find yourself getting less sleep, sitting on the couch more, putting on weight.

It’s not the way we envisioned it, right? We were going to take this opportunity to eat better, exercise more, come out on the other side healthier, leaner, feeling better about ourselves.

The problem is, mental health and physical health go hand in hand.  The more depressed we feel, the more hopeless things seem, the less productive we are, the less we feel like being healthy. Let’s face it, most of us don’t drown our sorrows in a bowl of salad.

It’s a vicious cycle too. The less we exercise, the less we sleep, the more we drink, the more weight we put on, the worse we feel about ourselves and our prospects in the world around us. Which, in turn drives deeper feelings of depression and anxiety and further inhibits our desire to exercise.

Sure, we could rack this up to a COVID thing. But the reality is that the same thing can happen in retirement. Especially if we have not already created solid and healthy habits as it relates to physical fitness.

If you don’t already have those habits in place, now is the time to start building them. Here are some tips for getting going:

  • Start slow and build. Maybe you used to be able to run for miles. But, if you haven’t done it for a while, you are bound to be disappointed when you try. Start off slow. Start walking. Then add distance. Then start picking up the pace. Set yourself up for success. If you are looking towards building good habits for retirement, this is literally a marathon and not a sprint.
  • Be well rounded. Build variety into your workouts to keep them interesting and fun. Balance between weight training and cardio. Factor in sports – like tennis or racquetball – to shake things up and bring in a social aspect that will help with mental health at the same time. Take up swimming. The bonus is that a lot of these sports are not expensive (or may be free if you have local community centers as part of your HOA fees) and are things you continue with well into your later years.
  • Change your eating habits slowly as well. There is a reason most of us don’t last long on diets that involve massive shifts in eating habits. Start by adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet. Gradually cut down on portions and snacking. Have a plan, but don’t rush it or stress yourself out over reaching a certain weight by a certain time. As you get older, you may find it harder to keep weight on. It may seem like a dream to you right now, but it is a real problem as people get older and lose their appetites. Build those healthy eating habits now so that you are positioned to give yourself the proper nutrition you need later.
  • Don’t set unrealistic goals. Decide why you want to do this – is it to feel good? Look good? Be medically healthy? Plan towards your primary goal and give yourself time.
  • Give yourself off days. From an exercise perspective, give your muscles time to recover. From a diet perspective, allow yourself cheat meals (or even cheat days – depending on your goals). If there is nothing to look forward to, the whole thing becomes a burden and a chore and you are less likely to continue in the long-term.

So there you have it – 5 ways COVID can help you be better at retirement. This can be our ghost-of-Christmas-future moment – showing us some of what we might experience later on.

Use this time wisely and listen to the lessons, and you can set yourself up for a happy, healthy, rewarding, and fulfilling retirement – whenever it may come. Good luck!

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