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Overcoming Spending Anxiety: When Financial Planning for Retirement Isn't Enough

Published 7/14/10 (Modified 3/9/11)
By MoneyBlueBook

This is a guest post from Marc Pearlman.

Back in the early to mid-1990s I made my living by sitting in front of computer monitor with green and red glowing pixels that flashed stock and commodity prices. I was an off-the-floor stock and commodity trader, and in my world, green and red meant everything. Green meant I was making money, and red meant I would be drawing out of my savings to pay for monthly expenses.

Fortunately for me, I was given some sage advice from a wealthy mentor of mine who was about 25 years my senior and knew of an obstacle that I was likely to encounter. I still remember his wise words: "Kid, make sure you put money into an account you can draw from when times are lean--and expect some lean times. It's part of the game."

Even though I heeded his advice, there was one thing I didn't account for: the feeling I'd have when trekking to the bank to withdraw those savings. While I had been diligently depositing money in my high yield savings account specifically to be drawn on when needed, the mental anguish of seeing my balance decrease--sometimes month after month--was one of the biggest challenges I had to overcome as a trader.

From Retirement Saving to Retirement Spending: Getting Past the Anxiety

Fast-forward 16 years: now I manage other people's money for a living. I'm on the phone with a client in his mid-60s who recently retired. He asks me if taking $10,000 out of one of his accounts to purchase a timeshare is going to throw his retirement savings into a flat spin.

I remark that he could buy ten such timeshares without making much of a dent in his financial resources. But thinking back to those down months from my trader days, I quickly add, "I think I understand where your mind is and what you may be feeling. The retirement transition is a little bit like buying an umbrella and then worrying it will get wet when it rains."

Learning how to develop the retirement spending mindset is a major challenge for many retirees. There's already a lot of change when you retire: a shift in routine, of people you spend time with on a daily basis, maybe even a new home in a new city.

Add to the mix a wrenching shift in habit from saving for 35 or 40 years (or more) to actually spending down the funds carefully grown in that retirement account--no wonder it's a jolt. Seeing that balance drop month after month, even if you've planned for it, is profoundly unsettling.

Another issue is that many people who enter retirement now have access to the most money in a lump sum that they've ever had in their lives. This alone can bring a suite of emotions, from fear and paralysis to greed.

You may have gone over financial variables in retirement planning over and over through the years--average lifespan, rates of return, annual income needs, and so on--but nobody prepared you for these particular mental adjustments.

How to Combat Retirement Spending Anxiety

The upshot is that these feelings are normal, and there are strategies you can use to ease yourself into retired life:

  • Set up a "retirement bucket." This strategy simulates the consistency of earning a steady income. With your "retirement bucket," you spill some money into a separate deposit account that you access for regular expenses. You might accomplish this with a scheduled transfer on the first of each month from a high-interest online savings account to a linked checking account, for instance. The retirement bucket method provides stability, creates a natural budgeting mechanism, and shields you from the dread of treating your retirement funds as an ATM.
  • Test-drive retirement. You may have long imagined what life you'll lead in retirement, but the truth is, you won't know until you get there. You might find yourself drawn to different activities than you expected and budgeted for. This is the "human factor" of retirement planning that no computer model can simulate. For example, I have clients who eat out more frequently now that they are retired because they have more free time to socialize. By all means, estimate your fixed expenses before retirement, but get into the swing of retired life for a few months before locking into a budget.
  • Set a deadline. That said, don't let fear of handling a large sum of money (especially in uncertain economic times) lead you put off budgeting forever. If making big decisions about retirement spending frightens you, let yourself have a few months to just get used to your new life. But set a precise date in the future to revisit decisions, or several milestones spaced out if you prefer--something to make sure that you take some thoughtful action in a timely manner.
  • Blow your money--but just a little. Some new retirees have the opposite reaction to financial anxiety--they convince themselves that they deserve new cars, designer shopping sprees, and luxury vacations. Deserved they may be, but these large purchases come at a great cost if done on an impulse. If you're worried you may be the type to come back from the Porsche dealership with a big case of buyer's remorse, try this: take a very small percentage of your retirement money and go blow it on something frivolous. It could be that you just needed to get that impulse purchasing out of your system, and this way you can satisfy that impulse without doing yourself some major financial damage.

Above all, I encourage new retirees to view money as a tool. When we make financial decisions out of emotion, we often satiate an emotional need at the expense of good financial judgment. Unless you can identify the emotion driving that financial judgment and adjust accordingly, all that careful number crunching, planning, and forecasting from your working years can become meaningless.

Marc Pearlman is the author of the Positive Money Mindset and host of the popular radio show Your Money Matters! For more about Marc, visit marcpearlman.com or www.Yourmoneymattersradio.com.

Securities offered through Securities America, Inc., Member FINRA/SIPC. Advisory services offered through Securities America Advisors, Inc. Marc Pearlman, Representative. Your Money Matters!

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