Many You Still Can Fix

Enjoying retirement is near the top of most people’s wish lists. But when I was researching my book on retirement, I heard again and again from retirees what they wished they had done differently before retiring—and many of these retirees had the same regrets.

By heeding the advice of the already-retired, you can avoid the common regrets and enjoy your retirement that much more…

Not retiring sooner (because maybe you can afford to do so). Most of the retirees I spoke with were enjoying their retirement immensely, and when I asked about any regrets, they often said, “My only regret is that I should have retired sooner!” Many went on to explain that once they settled into retirement, they found that their spending and general cost of living dropped to a level where they realistically could have afforded to retire earlier. While ­undersaving for retirement is a scary and real possibility for many people, ­oversaving for retirement happens quite a bit, in part because, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we naturally spend less and less as we age throughout our retirement years on nearly all types of consumer goods and services…with the notable exception of health care.

Not doing your homework. Many retirees admitted that they took the time to learn how some of the most basic features of retirement worked only when they were on the cusp of retirement or even after they were fully retired. Many retirees confessed that they waited too long to learn the ins and outs of Social Security and Medicare…what benefits they were entitled to receive under their pensions and retirement accounts…and the fine points of things such as long-term-care insurance and reverse mortgages. Not doing this type of homework earlier cost one person I interviewed $6,000 a year in lost pension benefits that she could have started collecting years earlier, while she still was working. She told me, “I looked into it only when I was actually ready to stop working—a big mistake.”

Not burying the hatchet sooner. It’s never too early to patch things up with family members or others with whom you have a strained relationship, but carrying that emotional baggage with you into retirement really can tarnish your later years. Not only will you have more time in retirement to sit around and brood about such unpleasant ­affairs (if that’s how you choose to spend your time), but having close, supportive ­relationships with family and friends—a care network that you can depend on—can be a tremendous asset, particularly in retirement.

Not planning for all that leisure time. If you are used to working full time and have few leisure-time interests, filling all that newfound time during retirement can be a real challenge. Retirees say that you should cultivate hobbies and other activities before you retire so that you’re not overwhelmed by all of that additional free time. Also, if one spouse is used to being alone around the house and has been primarily responsible for managing the household, injecting a second person into that situation can create stress in a relationship, to the point where one woman told me, “I wanted to get a job when my husband retired because having him around all the time drove me crazy.” Respecting each other’s boundaries and need for alone time, and agreeing upon and sharing responsibilities for household management, before you retire make the transition easier.

Not downsizing earlier. Downsizing your household and lifestyle-by doing such things as moving to a smaller home, getting rid of unwanted items and maybe selling off a second car—is a pretty common practice among retired folks. And once they’ve done it, many retirees say they wished they had done it years earlier, long before they retired. “It’s so liberating being free of all that extraneous stuff,” one retired man told me. “I just wish I’d done it when I was 50 instead of 70…well, actually, I wish I never would have bought most of that stuff in the first place.” Of course, downsizing earlier also can allow you to build your retirement nest egg that much faster and allow you to retire with less debt—or better yet, with no debt.

Not kicking a bad habit earlier. Having more time on your hands can prompt you to further indulge in any bad habits. Maybe the cocktail hour you have always enjoyed starts earlier in the day and lasts longer…or an occasional trip to the racetrack becomes a daily gambling obsession. Being relatively isolated at home and having more free time to indulge are among the chief reasons why substance abuse among elderly people is a growing problem, according to a 2011 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Not drawing Social Security at the best time. Many financial experts suggest holding off as long as possible, ­ideally until age 70, when you’re entitled to the largest monthly benefit, nearly 75% more than if you start drawing at age 62 (the current minimum age).

While that may be a good strategy for many, when my wife recently turned 62, we did the math and found that since she wants to continue to work part time and we are in a position to invest rather than spend her Social ­Security checks, she should start drawing benefits immediately. In all likelihood, she will come out ahead in the long run, compared with waiting until she’s 66 (currently the full retirement age for many people).

Here’s a calculator to help you figure out the optimum age at which you should start drawing Social Security—

Not traveling earlier in retirement. Many older retirees expressed regrets about not traveling or pursuing other activities that require more physical stamina at the front end of their retirement years. There is a tendency to postpone those activities when you’re newly retired, both because you believe that your health will remain largely the same and you fear burning through too much of your retirement savings too soon. “Do what you can when you still can,” one globe-trotting retiree told me, “because you never know how much longer you’ll be able to do it.”

Not taking better care of your health. Mickey Mantle once said, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.” Entering retirement in ill health can have dire consequences in terms of both quality of life and finances. Maintaining optimum health throughout life and specifically “going into training” leading up to retirement, as one retiree put it, truly can make your retirement the best years of your life. But don’t despair if your health is less than perfect when you hit retirement. A number of retirees said they were able to markedly improve their health once retired, when they had more time to devote to fitness.