Retirement planning is a broad concept. So broad, in fact, that the term is almost useless in discussion without clarification as to context. To one person, retirement planning means directing as much money as possible to a 401(k). To another, it means maintaining the ideal asset allocation as retirement draws nearer. Still others are worried about withdrawing funds in a tax-efficient manner. But in all three examples, much like on the first page of results from a Google search of the subject, retirement planning is about money.

Saving versus planning

Some of us are so daunted by the sheer task of accumulating enough money that we don’t give enough thought to what that money is for. We save, but we fail to plan.

If your dream is to have a place to live, food to eat and adequate health care, your task is relatively simple. But if your vision of your golden years includes a more exciting existence, now is the time to plan.

Write it down

It’s time to make a list. A really big list. Don’t hold back. Start with the things that first come to mind, then dig deeper. Inside all of us is a trunkful of ideas that we’ve put away without even realizing it, labeling them as unrealistic or far-fetched. This is the time to locate that trunk and drag it out into the light. Have you thought you might like to live in another country? Put it on the list. Try out a new career? Live in an RV? It all goes on the list.

Most of us know that saving now is essential to a comfortable retirement. But retirement planning goes beyond the money.

Include everything – things you want to do or have (though I’d put more emphasis on the first), how you want to feel, what words you want to use to describe your life. Will your life be active? Peaceful? Simple? Putting all of these ideas in one place can build a framework for decision-making later in the process.

Take some time with the list. Let it stew and revisit it. Add things. Take things off. Take time to periodically force rank each item to see if your priorities have changed. The list may change dramatically over time, more so if you are in your early working years. But the fact that the list exists can help you make decisions today about saving and spending today by giving shape to your retirement goals.

Make “some day” today

The danger of overly diligent retirement saving is in focusing so much on tomorrow that you fail to live today. The items on your list are things to look forward to, yes, but they also serve as a record of things you’re putting off. None of us is guaranteed time, so consider moving some of them to a more immediate list.

You may also discover that some of your dreams are better suited to your younger self or that you can benefit from them earlier than planned. Some may be obvious – if your dream is to climb Mt. Everest, you have a substantially better chance of succeeding if you attempt it in your 30s than if you wait until your 70s. Furthermore, if your dream is to build a house on a lake to live in when you retire, you might be able to purchase the property earlier and enjoy it during your working years.

Funding the list

Obviously, we only have so many retirement dollars. Inevitably, some things will have to come off your list. If you’ve put enough work into your list, that decision will be easier. It is less painful to give up your dream of spending a year traveling around the world if you gave it up in favor of owning a vacation home for spending time with your children and grandchildren.

Moving some of your dreams into your working years can also help you stretch your retirement dollars. Saving up your vacation time to take a month-long trip around the world before you retire, for example, can be the compromise that reduces your retirement income needs but still lets you get a taste of your dream.

The Bottom Line

The hard truth is that most of us spend our working years focused on the financial aspects of retirement, and fail to imagine our total retirement experience. But failing to plan for your retirement dreams can mean failing to plan for your life, and that can lead to missing out. You may not be able to do everything on your list, but don’t let it be because you waited too long to plan.

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