Four Pillars of Retirement: Money, Purpose, People, and Health

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While it is understandable that most talk about “retirement planning” concerns money, a truly successful retirement requires more than that. Coincidentally, the same week I was pondering the Components of Happiness, I also stumbled upon a 6-year leanFIRE update from LivingaFI. It was a very honest and thoughtful story of someone who carefully planned and quit their job at age 37. I usually focus on my reason for financial indepedence as “spending my time as I wish”, but now I realize that it may help to specifically address certain areas regularly.

For your consideration, here are The Four Pillars of Retirement*:

  • Money: You need enough money to pay for housing, transportation, food, healthcare, and everything sold at Walmart/Target/Amazon/Costco.
  • Purpose: You need to feel that you are useful, moving forward, pursuing a goal, and/or making the world a tiny bit better.
  • People: You need love. Love and social interaction from your life partner, children, family, friends, and/or animal companions.
  • Health: You need to feel physically healthy, or be at peace with your level of health.

Imagine each pillar as one of the legs of a square table. We have to maintain and shore up any cracks before it gets serious. If you are lacking in any one of these pillars, your retirement gets wobbly. If any two are crumbling, that’s enough to make the entire thing tip over.

Most people say that they hate work, but working takes care of more than just the money pillar. In addition to income, work can provide a sense of purpose and self-worth, as well as a wide social circle. Some people just like having something fixed to build their routine around; they flounder with “nothing to do”. People often imagine retirement as a perpetual weekend – playing golf, eating out, travel, shopping, etc. – but it can get weird when all your friends are still working. Here is a WSJ article on how leaving work can put a lot of strain on couples.

It can be difficult to get out of the “I must be busy and productive” mindset. When you retire, use the opportunity to sit in the quiet and ponder what is most important to you. Choose your hard thing.

Finally, even if you have done all you can to be prepared, life still happens. The author of LivingaFi had nearly $1 million in assets, reasonable expenses, a committed life partner with a similar level of assets, lots of outside interests, and good health. This is not judgment, but a scary reminder for all of us: jobs, bull markets, relationships and good health can all end faster than you think. Your actions matter, but luck matters too. For example, the Social Security Administration says that a 20-year-old worker has a 1-in-4 chance of being disabled before retirement age. (Where available, we should buy adequate life, health, and disability insurance.)

My biggest blind spot was that if you have children, any one of them may also develop a health condition or other special needs that may require additional financial support indefinitely. I really didn’t appreciate the hidden struggles that so many families go through that is no fault of their own. I also didn’t fully appreciate how lucky I was to not have to deal with any of these things while growing up as a kid.

If you accept that luck matters in your investments, then the optimal choice might be to retire earlier with a more modest amount so that if things go well, you get more retirement years, but if things go badly, then you fall back on some part-time back-up work. Being willing to be flexible can pay off. You have to balance your odds of running out of money with the odds of running out of time.

On the other hand, if you are a high-earner, it might be better to work “One More Year” while you work on planning for the other pillars. Finding a new purpose, finding new friends, finding a new routine, it can be quite difficult. Looking back, I am thankful that we did not attempt to retire early and instead adjusted our hours (and income) downward while still keeping our foothold in the workforce. I’m still working on these pillars myself, but our middle path has worked well for us.

(* A nod to the classic The Four Pillars of Investing, one of the first investing books I ever read and reviewed here way back in 2004.)

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  1. I retired just as COVID lock downs hit in March 2020. My pillars of money and health are very strong at this point. But my pillars of purpose and people are less strong. I am single. My job provided a lot of contact with people. I had plans to expand my social circle, volunteer, travel, and possibly relocate. But COVID put all of this on hold. So it’s been a little difficult. I really hope group social activities, volunteer opportunities, etc… resume very soon.

    • Thanks for sharing. That does sound difficult, and I hope those things resume very soon as well. At least there is light at the end of the tunnel! (Plus donuts from Krispy Kreme.)

      I’m also not quite sure about my purpose after work and when my kids become more independent.

  2. I’ve been ‘coastFIRE’ for a few years now, and mostly agree with this posts’ philosophy. Although, I tend to struggle, or at least push back a bit, on people’s idea of ‘purpose’. They often list this as a vague idea of ‘being useful’, which I tend to think is just a mental crutch. It probably depends on whether one believes life itself has a purpose.

    As far as I’m concerned, life’s purpose is just to enjoy it while you’re here, while avoiding causing harm. I certainly don’t derive any sense of purpose or value from doing things I don’t enjoy just because it helps some company make a profit. And I don’t believe there’s any value in trying to leave a ‘legacy’. We’ll all be dead and forgotten eventually.

    That said, I have continued working 1-2 days/week for the past few years on things I actually enjoy in small doses (app development), and I’ve been somewhat surprised by how much I like it. I guess it’s likely something I’d do as a hobby, even if I weren’t paid for it, but having it serve the ‘purpose’ of allowing me to avoid drawing on savings is likely a big part of that enjoyment.

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