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The Biggest Surprises In Retirement

The Biggest Surprises in Retirement

“I could make a major time commitment to doing something purely for my pleasure” | Patricia Plumeri, who took guitar lessons and now plays in a four-person ensemble
“I could make a major time commitment to doing something purely for my pleasure” | Patricia Plumeri, who took guitar lessons and now plays in a four-person ensemble

Like surprises? Retirement—for better and worse—will change your life more than you anticipate.

That’s the consensus of those who should know best: retirees themselves. Recently, as part of a discussion in these pages about changes in later life, we asked readers for help: Tell us what has surprised you in retirement. What did the experts neglect to mention? What would you tell would-be retirees to watch for?

The answer, in short: almost everything.

The surprises ran the gamut, from the wonderful to the devastating. Many readers told us they were surprised that their savings are holding up just fine, although several said that household expenses—and Medicare premiums, in particular—have been steeper than they anticipated.

Relationships? Conventional wisdom holds that making friends in later life is difficult, but numerous retirees told us the conventional wisdom is simply wrong. They also told us, however, that they miss being part of a team at work, much more than they imagined.

Fitness and health? Far from turning into couch potatoes, many readers told us they are in the best shape of their lives. “I feel better than I have in years,” says William Wilson, a doctor who lives in Atlanta and Portland, Ore., cycles daily and has lost 40 pounds since retiring in mid-2015. “I sleep well at night now, too. What a treat.”

Most wrenching of all: stories of retirements cut unexpectedly short. “The biggest surprise has been mortality,” notes Richard Sandaas, a retired engineer and project manager, in Kirkland, Wash. “My wife took early retirement in 2003—and less than 10 years later passed away. We thought we had many years of postretirement ahead of us.”

What follows is a closer look at a number of these surprises. (You can read a sampling of the emails we received in full here.) On balance, at least from those who wrote to us, there has been more joy than pain, more satisfaction than frustration. Indeed, most readers told us they are surprised at just how much they are enjoying retirement—even if retirement isn’t always what they expected.

The Joys of Taking a Risk

Walking away from work, as with any major transition, can be overwhelming. After all, almost everything is changing: finances, daily routines, social networks. As such, some retirees are inclined to stick with the familiar, the activities and interests they know best.

But the biggest, and best, surprise in retirement, according to many readers, is what happens when you take risks. More to the point: Trying or learning something new, and risking your time and energy (and perhaps your pride) in the process, just might change your life.

Patricia Plumeri, age 69 and a retired accountant, has found a “second career” and “lifetime occupation” as, improbably, a guitar player in a four-person ensemble near her home in South Pasadena, Calif. The seed, she explains, was planted during her teenage years in southern England, where she grew up, watching fledgling bands—the Beatles, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones—perform in local music halls. A guitar, she recalls, “seemed to be an instrument that could really express feelings of joy and sadness.”

Six months after retiring in 2010—when “I could make a major time commitment [to] doing something purely for my pleasure”—she signed up for her first guitar lesson. Progress, she notes, was painful; hours of practice each week left her fingers numb. “I would go to my gym and swim in the pool, gently massaging my left hand to get feeling back into it.”

Today, her group (which includes her husband, also retired, on bass) plays two hours weekly. Performing in public, at least for the moment, isn’t part of the plan. But other rewards suffice.

“I wanted something in my life that wasn’t income-driven,” she notes. “The feeling of accomplishment—and the realization that I can actually play a guitar—is pretty heady stuff.”

Of course, change is difficult, and happy endings aren’t guaranteed. But reader after reader made the same point: Retirement is tailor-made for a leap in the dark.

“I thought of hobbies and other interests that I was ‘expected’ to do, but in the end did something totally different,” notes Bart Cormier, a retired engineer in Fernandina Beach, Fla. That “something” is volunteering full time with children’s programs, college students (as a mentor), senior home repair and his church.

Even “doing good” involves risks, Mr. Cormier notes. Tasks will come your way that, to your thinking, are a waste of your talents—or an affront to your dignity. Mr. Cormier, on more than one occasion, found himself “addressing waste-plumbing systems in homes that were a phone call away from being condemned.” There’s also a “risk of getting too committed and not being able to say ‘no,’ ” he adds. “The more you do, the more is wanted.”

Such hazards, though, tend to pale beside the payoffs, he notes. “There’s a deep satisfaction from knowing that you have changed someone else’s life for the better.”

Ah, Free Time at Last

“My surprise in retirement was discovering the unexpected luxury of time.”

That observation, from Vicki Robb, a retired real-estate agent in La Jolla, Calif., was echoed in dozens of the responses we received. Even though retirement today, as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago, is seen as more “active”—more “purpose-filled”—many readers told us that “active” isn’t mandatory. That it’s fine simply to…chill.

“Discovering the unexpected luxury of time” | Vicki Robb, who now has time for slow cooking and art classes
“Discovering the unexpected luxury of time” | Vicki Robb, who now has time for slow cooking and art classes

Ms. Robb, for one, says there is now “time to take an extra moment to exchange pleasantries, and time to let someone in a hurry go ahead of you. (The hurried person used to be me.) Time to play with a child at their pace, and to meander when shopping, instead of power-walking to find the item and get ’er done. Time for slow cooking and to drive a friend to the airport. Time to ‘waste’ a morning at your first art class, even though you’ll never sell anything.”

A companion theme was the idea of “control”: retirees discovering that they are in charge of their daily routines—not their boss, their clients nor their children.

“The biggest surprise was realizing how much of our time when working was determined/dictated by someone or something else,” one couple told us. “In retirement, though, almost everything we do…

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