Retirement is a big topic for many of us in midlife. The usual approach is to figure out how much money you can possibly save up so that you can continue the lifestyle you have created for you and your family. The other approach is to downsize and sacrifice so you can live on whatever you think you’ll be forced to get by living on and with. There is another way. Several years ago Thom and I came up with what is a middle (and we think better) way that is seldom mentioned. That way is to “right-size” your life as soon as possible. Then whether you choose to finally retire, or decide you will continue creating in some capacity for as long as you live—your life will be filled with qualities and activities that bring you happiness, purpose, and peace of mind.
So what is right-sizing and why will that help? To keep things simple I came up with two main steps to creating a right-sized life. The first step is to approach right-sizing from a psychological and holistic perspective to creating a quality life. Here are what I believe are critical questions to ask yourself:
* What kind of a life do you want to live? Okay, I’ll admit that this one sounds obvious. But I’m constantly amazed that more people I know don’t seem to have a clue. Life seems to happen “to” them and they spend all of their time and energy reacting to whatever comes along.
Of course Thom and I started out that way ourselves. We sort of had an idea what we wanted, but we were as susceptible as most people to cultural messages telling us that the way to be happy was to make lots of money and buy lots of stuff. Still, something within Thom knew he wanted to be self-employed at just about any cost. Fortunately, finding work was never a problem for either of us. However, finding work that would pay us enough to live on was something we struggled with for many years.
Gradually we developed the talents and consciousness that enabled us to create work that paid well. And because we had lived modestly for so long, we didn’t go too crazy buying a bunch of stuff on credit or a humongous house that sucked up every bit of that income. However, although we managed to live within our means, we still spent pretty much every dollar we made, and our lifestyle came at a cost of a mortgage, plenty of bills and corresponding stress.
Then five years ago we came to the conclusion that the debt we were carrying around was sucking all the enjoyment out of the lives. Sure we had a nice house, nice cars, nice stuff—but at what price? Was all that stuff really that important to us?
So for the next six months we sat down together, did a lot of soul searching, and started imagining a life filled with activities and experiences we felt would bring us happiness, purpose and peace of mind. We’ve since learned that taking the time and being clear about this is essential. What kind of life do you want to live? Without looking at how others do it, or watching a TV program and dreaming about it, sit down with a piece of paper and really figure out what’s important to you.
* If you did retire, or could do whatever you wanted all day, what would you do? A friend named Pete loves restoring old motorcycles. When he retired he bought a home where he built a large motorcycle shop attached to his home and he works day and night on those motorcycles. He also purchased a home near a popular and spectacular location for riding motorcycles, so when not working on them he spends time riding them. By deciding what was important and what he loved spending time on, he has right-sized his life.
You’ve probably heard the question: What would you do if you didn’t have to make money doing it? This is the same question with a slightly different perspective. It asks, what would you like to spend your days doing if you didn’t have to worry about money? The real answer to that question can tell you more than you realize.
We all need purpose and meaning to live a happy and fulfilled life. Unfortunately some people seem to think that merely leaving an unhappy workplace will make them happy. Wrong! Lazing around, playing golf or bouncing grandkids on your lap might work for a while, but unless those activities are so bound up in your sense of fulfillment, purpose and happiness, boredom will likely set in—and yes, kids do grow up and don’t like to be bounced!
* Make a list of all the things you love doing that don’t cost a dime. When you think about it, we aren’t asked this question very often. Most of the time, we are being sold on new exciting items that we supposedly need to buy before we can even think about being happy. But chances are good that there are numerous things that you enjoy doing that cost nothing. For example, a few free things that I love to do are: a) take a walk with Thom and Kloe just about any where we are; 2) go to free community concerts or lectures; or 3) sit and write an interesting blog post; 4) work in my garden; 5) catch up with friends; etc. Okay your turn. What do you like doing that doesn’t cost you a thing?
* Figure out what activities stimulate you so that you could do them for hours on end. For example, I LOVE to plan vacations. I can sit for hours on the Internet figuring out a weekend trip out of town, or a month long vacation. In fact, I get about as much pleasure from planning vacations as I do actually taking them. Another friend of mine loves to cook and will spend hours pouring over recipes planning healthy and inexpensive meals for her friends and family. What is it that grabs your attention and keeps it occupied for hours?
* What experiences are you most excited to tell others about? Photography has always been something Thom enjoys. Once you have invested the money in a camera (and no it doesn’t have to be the most impressive one out there) he spends hours taking photos, working with photos, reading about photos online and studying how other people do it—and then he loves to talk to other people about photography. What is it that YOU love to tell others about?
* Do you like where you live? Where else have you always dreamed of living? One thing I’ve noticed about people is that we all enjoy different locations. Some people prefer cold weather. Me? I could live the rest of my life without it. Some like the desert, some like ocean, some like the mountains. Figuring out the place you feel best is simple—having the courage to move there, no matter what, is the challenge. Oh, and don’t pick a location just because you want to be near someone else like family or a new lover. What happens if they move away or lose interest? Where is your place on the planet?
Another side to this question is how does your living location fit your dream lifestyle. For example, even though Thom and I used to live in a very nice “gated community,” it actually felt very divisive. When we bought our new home we wanted to live close to a local “village” area where we could walk and bike to stores, the library, restaurants, parks and all sorts of other services. What’s important to you? Do you need to be out in the country so you can have a huge garden? Is seclusion important to you? Again, never settle on a location because it sounds good, or worse yet—you can buy it cheap. Instead, seek out what will make your smile on a regular basis.
* How do you like to give back to others? As has been said, those who are most happy in life have figured out a way to be of service to other people. What service have you provided to others in the past that not only makes you feel good about yourself, but is fun, inspiring and uplifting in the process? Getting in touch with this quality adds immense value to your life and doesn’t usually cost a cent.
* What kind of people inspire, uplift and make you feel healthy, happy and valuable? There are dozens of reasons to select a location and live around people who feed your soul. Science now shows if you hang out with overweight people you are very likely to be heavy yourself. By the same token, if you hang around unhappy, unmotivated, unloved people you too will feel that much of the time too. Don’t assume only a significant other or family will love you into your future—make the kind of friends that bring out the very best in you, make you smile and lift you up.
As I write out these questions I’m aware of how basic they seem. I’m also aware that so many people I know really don’t take the time to answer them. But remember—THIS IS OUR LIVES!!! This is what will either become a happy memory—or a life of regret. Taking the time to focus in on what it is that will give our lives purpose and positive direction is critical. Unfortunately, we aren’t taught this and I can’t remember my parents even suggesting that it would be good to know. But regardless of what you did or didn’t do in the past, the present is here and now. With the right motivation every one of us can create a life that is happier, more purposeful and stress free. In other words, we can create a right-sized life.
So your homework for this week is to decide if you really want that kind of life—and if you do, take some time to think through these questions by yourself or with your significant other. Then next week I’ll share ideas about the financial aspects necessary to Right-size Your Way To Retirement—Step Two.
Right-size Your Way To Retirement–Step Two is now available
Final Thoughts On Right-Sizing Your Life Right Now! is also available