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I’m Not Ready for Retirement (but I’m Not Waiting)

Can we normalize ‘phased retirement’?

An illustrative image of Christine Benz, director of personal finance and retirement planning of Morningstar.

“As you get older and you start to have some ability to work less and to be more flexible in your work, keep in mind that doing some work is good for most people … How we work is not good for us.”

Stanford researcher Laura Carstensen made those comments in my forthcoming book, and several other interviewees made a similar point: Phasing into retirement gradually rather than making it a hard stop makes a ton of sense, especially if you can find an agreeable work/life balance.

Of course, there are the oft-discussed financial benefits of working longer: delayed portfolio withdrawals, additional retirement savings contributions and tax-deferred compounding, and the potential for a higher Social Security benefit through delayed filing. But the nonfinancial aspects of working can be just as valuable: Work often confers a sense of purpose, brings us into regular contact with other people, and may even come with a bit of physical activity. All of those things have a correlation with happy and successful aging, and they came up again and again in the course of the interviews for my book.

But as much as I am conscious about the benefits of working longer and have a job that I enjoy thoroughly, I’m also conscious of my “time-on-earth” allocations. Over the past few years, several close friends—some of the most fit and health-conscious people I know—have been diagnosed with serious illnesses. I’ll admit that it has made me think hard about my own situation. If I received a devastating diagnosis, or my husband did, what regrets would I have? Would I have preferred to spend my days in some other way than I’m doing today? Should I have retired earlier? I certainly know more people who have been glad they retired than I do ones who wish they had continued working.

For now, I’ve decided to pursue a happy medium. I plan to continue to work, but I’ve also taken steps to make sure I’m not underutilizing precious time. I had heard the term “phased retirement” before, but I’ve realized that I was interpreting it too literally. I had thought it meant that someone might go from full-time work to 30 hours a week, then 20, for example. But phased retirement can be more encompassing: It’s not just the amount of work that you do, but the type, as well as how you live the rest of your life. As I’ve been pursuing my own “phasing into retirement” plan, here are the key steps I’ve taken.

I’ve made a “stop-doing” list.

“I don’t ever plan on retiring, ever. I just want to do less of the things I don’t like and more of the things that I do like, and so I keep a stop-doing list.” Carl Richards stopped me in my tracks when he mentioned the “stop-doing” concept, first advanced by author Dan Sullivan. The basic idea is that happiness and life satisfaction rely in part upon paring away activities you don’t love in order to focus your time and energies on those you do. With some introspection, I’ve realized that I don’t love most meetings as well as traveling for work, so I’ve tried to pare back on those activities. That has given me more time for research, writing, and working on The Long View podcast, all of which are very much in my “keep-doing” pile. The tricky part about this paring process is that we often get quite good at some of the jobs we’d like to shed, or there’s no obvious person to step into our shoes. I’ll acknowledge that this is a work in progress for me, but I’ve tried to be proactive in shaping my activities. Having a long tenure and a good relationship with my employer has surely helped in this regard; I realize that not everyone has that same luxury.

I’ve sought an even better work/home balance.

Another benefit of having a long relationship with my company is that I have had a lot of flexibility with my in-office schedule. I moved to a mostly remote schedule while I was helping to oversee my parents’ care in their final years. That helped me maintain my sanity during a trying personal time, and by continuing to work, I was also able to experience what a great solace work can be during such periods. My parents have since passed away, but not having to be in the office every day enables me to be at home with my sister, who has an intellectual disability and lives with my husband and me for a part of every year. (We don’t want a repeat of this experience.) I still go into the office now and again, and I’ll concede that my in-office days are some of my happiest workdays. If it were earlier in my career, I’m pretty sure I would be all over working in the office, for both career and social reasons. But cutting out my commute has helped me tip the balance more toward the rest of my life. I can start dinner earlier and take midafternoon walks to Starbucks with my sister, even as I work the same number of hours. One happy takeaway from my recent sabbatical was that from a work/life balance perspective, being on sabbatical didn’t feel all that different from being at work. I wouldn’t have been able to say that on previous sabbaticals.

I’m not waiting.

Finally, motivated by recent reminders of the fleeting nature of life and good health, I’m not putting off until retirement the happy, and sometimes expensive, activities that I can do today, even while I’m still working. The photo roll on my camera is full of shots of trips overseas, road trips with girlfriends and sisters, and concerts with my husband, and it’s going to get even more full in the years ahead. In other words, you won’t catch me coming into retirement with a bucket list. The time is now.

The author or authors do not own shares in any securities mentioned in this article. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.

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About the Author

Christine Benz

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Christine Benz is director of personal finance and retirement planning for Morningstar, Inc. In that role, she focuses on retirement and portfolio planning for individual investors. She also co-hosts a podcast for Morningstar, The Long View, which features in-depth interviews with thought leaders in investing and personal finance.

Benz joined Morningstar in 1993. Before assuming her current role she served as a mutual fund analyst and headed up Morningstar’s team of fund researchers in the U.S. She also served as editor of Morningstar Mutual Funds and Morningstar FundInvestor.

She is a frequent public speaker and is widely quoted in the media, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, CNBC, and PBS. In 2020, Barron’s named her to its inaugural list of the 100 most influential women in finance; she appeared on the 2021 list as well. In 2021, Barron’s named her as one of the 10 most influential women in wealth management.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and Russian language from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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