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How To Ruin Your Retirement In One Easy Step

When helping clients downsize, I have a unique- and very personal- view into my clients’ lives. Nothing knits you together like sorting through a basement full of forgotten mementos and gear from long-ditched hobbies. I sit back to listen to glorious stories and I hold clients’ hands while they weep over loved ones lost.

We recently downsized an Indianapolis couple-- and for privacy’s sake I’ll call them Pete and Suzy. This move was their self-described “kickoff to retirement.” Shedding their big family home for a much smaller one with no yard, Pete and Suzy SAID they wanted a simpler life, one free from constant home maintenance. They both SAID they wanted to travel extensively.

Words are hollow; actions tell the truth.

As my team and I worked alongside Pete and Suzy in sorting & purging their belongings in preparation for their move, it became obvious there was a HUGE divide in their retirement visions. HUGE. Like a Grand Canyon-sized split with a silty river running through it.

The cracks began to show as they sorted what to get rid of and what to keep. Pete was eager to ditch old guitars, worn out gardening tools and dozens of DVDs still in the plastic wrap. Suzy, however, wanted to keep most things. She’d say things like “We can’t get rid of the highchair because what if we have another grandchild one day?” and “We need all of these blankets because what if all the kids and all grandkids sleep over? Even though it has never happened before, what if it does one day?”

After weeks spent in Pete and Suzy’s attic and basement, a truth settled in among the dust bunnies; Your stuff determines your lifestyle.

Pete’s actions and choices proved he wanted a simple life that allows him to travel. Lock the door and go, he’d say. Suzy’s actions and choices, however, told a different tale. She wanted to stay right here and center her life her around three young grandsons. Sadly, there isn’t much crossover between possessions needed to make each of these lifestyles work. He needed a no-maintenance home with room to store only suitcases. She needed toyboxes and kiddie beds.

As you can imagine, there were many difficult moments in downsizing Pete and Suzy. Difficult for them, difficult for us. Front row seats aren’t so great when they’re to someone else’s emotionally wrenching marital disagreements.

As I drove home from Pete and Suzy’s, uncomfortable day after uncomfortable day, I would think “How do I avoid this divide happening in my own life?" Both of their retirement visions are wonderful in their own ways. If I’m blessed enough to one day have grandchildren, I’d want to spend lots of time with them. And travel? Yes, I want lots of that, too!

All of this angst led to deep discussions with my husband. We thought we’d talked over what we want our retirement to look like, but did we get down to the nitty-gritty details on house size and maintenance level? What about the percentage of time spent with hopefully-one-day grandchildren? As we have three adult children living in three different cities, could we get lucky and blend “travel & grandchildren” in a meaningful and satisfying way? But what about our dream of months-long overseas travel? How do we merge this vision with the longing to be an important part of our grandchildren’s lives? It’s a lot to process. But we are processing.

You have likely heard “It’s just stuff!” from me or other downsizing/organizing pros. What a load of crap. Pete and Suzy taught me it’s more than JUST stuff. Your stuff is your lifestyle. If you are outdoor loving (like me) you probably have tubs of cherished camping gear. Foodies have all the kitchen gadgets. Hands-on grandmas have highchairs, tricycles and kiddie pools. Travel buffs have suitcases, noise-cancelling headphones and Shutterfly books of their past adventures.

The rub is when partners have different views on what they want their retirement to look like. The stuff you keep- and the stuff you let go of- determines your lifestyle. My advice after having a front-row seat to a couple literally hashing it all out in real time

Talk early. Talk often. Listen always.

If you don’t truly listen to your wife when she says “yes, I do want to travel, but I also want to be the kind of grandma that picks up from pre-school every Thursday,” then you are setting yourself up for a brutal moment of truth. (My educated guess is that this particular moment of truth will come as you sit on your garage floor, sweaty and dusty, arguing about the merits of keeping a child’s car seat.) Conversely, if you just tell your partner what they want to hear to avoid an argument, well then, you are cheating yourself out of the life you want.

Neither of these scenarios are the kickoff to a delightful retirement. Talk early. Talk often. Listen always.

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