Riding Into Retirement by John Nowak, CFP®Submitted by Moller Financial Services on July 31st, 2018
As people approach and enter retirement, they may feel unsettled about how they will spend their time and money. After working for 35 years or more (the magic number to maximize Social Security benefits), there is no formal schedule, company benefits like health insurance, or bi-weekly paycheck. Perhaps the biggest change is the going from SAVING TO the portfolio to SPENDING FROM the portfolio. While I’m years from retirement, I felt a similar type of unease during an experience on our family’s summer vacation this year. With that experience comes some advice for managing your plans for retirement.
The Nowak’s 2018 Summer Vacation
Going on vacation has been an American summer tradition for decades. Each year, our family has made great memories by packing into the car and taking a road trip to our destination. Thankfully, none of these trips have resembled the Griswolds in the 1983 comedic classic movie National Lampoon’s Vacation (at least not yet; our family is probably six years younger than the Griswolds). However, each trip has moments of anticipation, joy, frustration, and occasional life lessons.
This summer’s vacation was more special than normal. The trip started near Breckenridge, Colorado which is where my sister lives and was about to be married. We arrived early so that we could acclimate to the altitude, meet my sister’s future in-laws, rehearse, and enjoy the mountains. Despite my reluctance, I ended up taking a few rounds of the oxygen machine to overcome the altitude. The big day was perfect: our kids looked adorable as flower girl and ring bearer, it was a beautiful day for the outdoor ceremony, and my sister and new brother-in-law were pronounced married. Everyone talked, ate, drank, and danced for hours.
After the wedding festivities ended, we spent the following week at the YMCA resort in Estes Park. This part of the trip was recommended by a client, and it did not disappoint. We enjoyed the perfect balance of leisure time and activities at the YMCA of the Rockies. The views were stunning, and the Y offered activities for the entire family – hiking, rock climbing, swimming, crafts, mini-golf, archery, zip lining, kickball, and whiffle ball just to name a few. Perhaps the most memorable activity was the highly anticipated horseback ride which became my retirement planning lesson.
Retirement Lesson by Horseback
Even though I have only ridden a horse two other times in my life, I was feeling pretty confident. I gracefully stepped up into the saddle and knew the basic skills of kicking to trot, and using the rope to steer and stop. About midway into our 2.5-hour tour with over 25 other riders, I started to feel less sure of myself.
I’m not sure if it was the 95-degree heat, but the horses just started doing their own thing. My horse would go off path every so often to eat some grass. My wife’s horse would not trot at all. Our kids’ horses got too close to each other, leading to kicking and biting (not the kids, the horses). Then to top it off, my horse decided it would be fun to ignore my directions and smash my left leg against every tree available. I was ready for this adventure to be over.
As we prepared for the home stretch, our wrangler said “We’re approaching our descent. If you don’t like heights, just enjoy our beautiful rock collection”. By descent, she meant what seemed like a 30 degree downslope on a rocky, narrow, unsteady path with a cliff to our left. The height felt like 500 feet, but it was probably more like 70. I must have missed “the beautiful rock collection.” All I saw was a thousand rocks and boulders (and maybe a few crushed bones from previous riders) at the bottom of the trail’s cliff. As if my leg wasn’t throbbing enough, I imagined how bad it would feel to tumble down that cliff. The helmet I was outfitted with did not seem to provide the protection I would need. Moreover, my kids’ horses were getting a little too close to each other for comfort.
The home stretch was the most technical and scariest part of the ride. The extent of my descending training was to lean back. So I leaned back, looked forward, breathed as deeply as possible to keep my cool, and prayed that my horse had the skill and compassion for me and him/herself enough to not fall down the cliff. The horse responded by nimbly stepping on top of and around rocks, making tight turns, keeping pace with the other horses without causing a domino effect, and making it down the trail. I was tempted to jump off that horse immediately when we finished and walk back to camp, but I stayed on to at least pretend like I enjoyed the ride.
Would I have felt any better if the wrangler had said the following instead?
“This last part of the trail may be the scariest for those who haven’t ridden in the Rocky Mountains. However, these horses have been up and down this trail over a hundred times this summer and once already today. They are familiar with every step, can make the necessary adjustments, and have safely walked down this trail in all sorts of conditions. Your horse wants to safely descend this trail as much as you and they have the experience to do so. Breathe deeply and talk to your horse if you feel a little nervous. Enjoy the view, and I’ll see you at the end of the trail.”
This kind of confidence, experience, and compassion may have put my mind and body a little more at ease. The same could be said for someone entering a major financial transition like retirement. Earning and saving (riding on flat land) is much different from spending and withdrawing from your investments (riding down a narrow rocky trail). Your advisor is your wrangler (and the horse?) who is there to help you wind down the trail you may not have traveled. We’ve been down similar roads before and have a vested interest in your safe journey. Breathe deeply, let’s talk if you feel worried, and enjoy the journey.