Week 1: A Look Into Your Future

Course Progress:

“The secret of your future is hidden in your daily routine.”

— Mike Murdock

A great place to start planning your retirement is to make an educated guess as to how long it will last.

The two biggest factors determining your lifespan are genes and choices. In other words, your family history and the things you’re doing, or not doing, to make your body last.

There are calculators online that will help you estimate your lifespan:

  • You can find the Social Security Life Expectancy Calculator here, but it doesn’t take either family history or lifestyle choices into account.
  • Livingto100.com has a more detailed calculator here. It asks 40 questions that may give you a more accurate picture.
  • Bluezones.com also offers a more thorough longevity test.
  • A final option is the longevity illustrator from the American Academy of Actuaries.

Obviously, there’s no calculator that can tell you exactly when you’ll draw your last breath, but when it comes to planning, it’s important to have a time period to plan for.

What will your retirement look like?

Also important: Coming face-to-face with how your lifestyle choices can affect your time left on this planet can provide a powerful incentive to change a bad habit or two. While not fun, this could be just what you need to lead a longer, happier life with fewer medical bills.

If you’re in your mid-50s or, like me, in your early 60s, you’ll probably find you have 20+ years to go.

This week is about thinking about what you really want the next few decades of your life to look like. Before you do, however, let’s consider something important: The world in which you live isn’t the only one there is.

In fact, your current reality is likely being shaped not by you, but by people who want to sell things to you.

The role of fear   

When talking about our human nature, it’s important to recognize the major role that fear plays in our lives. Not the perfectly natural, conscious fear we feel when confronting physical danger. I’m talking about unnatural, subconscious fear we feel — that in one or more ways, we don’t have value as human beings.

It’s called insecurity, and it’s a fear that causes nearly every self-destructive behavior we have. Alcoholism, drug addiction, promiscuity, overspending, under-saving: Nearly every negative behavior you can think of is related to a poor self-image.

This happens because subconsciously we tend to hold ourselves up against a thousand yardsticks and find we don’t measure up. We’re too fat. We’re too old. We’re not smart enough. We’re not rich enough, tall enough, athletic enough. We find ourselves lacking in innumerable ways, but ultimately it all boils down to the same thing: We simply don’t like ourselves enough the way we are.

So what do we do to escape these feelings? If the feelings are overwhelming, we might try to bury them with drugs, alcohol, overeating or other self-destructive behavior.

The irony is that by diverting your precious resources into looking successful, you’re virtually guaranteeing that you never will be.

If they’re not overwhelming, we might try to make ourselves feel better by seeking validation from other people. After all, our subconscious reasons, if everybody likes me, I must be OK. If I look like a millionaire or fill out a bathing suit like a model, people will like and accept me, and that’s evidence I have value as a human being.

If all this is news to you, let me assure you it isn’t to the folks working in the advertising business. If you don’t believe it, spend an hour or two watching commercials on TV.

In short order, you’ll learn that a certain toothpaste will make the opposite sex want to kiss you. You’ll learn that a certain scent will make people fall in love with you. That a pickup truck will make you macho. That a pill will make you thinner. That a face cream will make you younger, and that looking younger means being more attractive.

We’re subjected to this nonsense dozens of times every day for our entire lives. You may think it doesn’t affect you, but ask yourself this question: Do you really think companies would spend billions on this stuff if it didn’t work?

Virtually all advertising hits us where we hurt. Ads promise us that if we own a certain possession or use a particular product, we’re going to be more valuable as human beings. And the implication would naturally follow that if we don’t act as the commercials advise, we won’t be as valuable.

The solution

Whether you realize it or not, it’s likely that at least some of these messages pandering to your insecurity are shaping your behavior.

The solution? Recognize these messages for the blatant manipulation they are and find your self-esteem in other places.

Like it or not, we’ve all been trained from birth that a key way people are recognized as important is by the quality and quantity of “stuff” they surround themselves with. We’re taught that if you live in a nice house, wear nice clothes and drive a nice car, then you must be successful and therefore important.

The irony is that by diverting your precious resources into looking successful, you’re virtually guaranteeing that you never will be.

This is the ultimate loser’s game.

I want the freedom that comes from not being a slave to debt and physical possessions.

Envy and jealousy are fear-based emotions that arise from insecurity. They cause us to spend money we could otherwise be using to fund our retirement dreams. “By gosh, if John next door is driving a new BMW, I should have one too!” “Susan makes the same money I do. If she can lie on the beach in the Bahamas, so can I!”

Recognize that, like the need to belong, envy, jealousy and greed are really about fear.  We’re afraid that if we don’t “keep up the Joneses” we’re going to be judged harshly by others and by ourselves. That’s why we’re so often willing to let those around us, including advertisers, shape our world.

Have you ever found yourself thinking, “What’s this all about? I always thought that having a bunch of ‘stuff’ was what I needed to be happy. But now my home and garage are overflowing with it, and I’m not getting happier. In fact, I think I’m getting less happy!”

We’re like hamsters running on a wheel: a wheel that’s powered by the billions of dollars of advertising that we’ve been subjected to all our lives. It’s time, right now, to get off the treadmill. It’s time to decide to stop swapping our lives for meaningless things and start enriching our lives with the things we really crave instead. Things that are often free for the taking.

Here’s the world I live in

When I was a stockbroker years ago, some of the wealthiest clients I visited lived in modest homes, often much more modest than the homes of the heavily indebted salespeople who catered to them.

I was one of those salespeople, wearing a fancy suit and driving a fancy car. Now I’m just like those clients, living in a modest house and driving a car that suits me.

A nice house is cool, and I have one, but I live in a home that’s worth about a third of what I could afford based on traditional formulas. Why don’t I have a bigger house? Because I have no desire to buy, clean, furnish, heat and cool, insure, and pay property taxes on more rooms than I actually need.

What I desire isn’t a big house. I want the freedom that comes from not being a slave to debt and physical possessions.

I’m in my 60s, and, despite the fact that I’m a millionaire, I have never owned a new car. Why would I?

If you’re living beyond your means now, how the hell do you expect to maintain the same lifestyle in retirement? You can’t.

In my world it makes no sense to ever buy something, especially something expensive, that’s guaranteed to plunge 10 to 20 percent in value the second I drive it off the lot. Especially when there are so many better alternatives, like the Mercedes I now drive that cost $110,000 new, but which I bought six years old for $40,000 cash. It more than satisfies my need for comfort, safety and style.

Although I have to admit that, in my world, even this car is a major indulgence. My last car, also a used Mercedes, cost $10,000.

Many of my friends, and yours, live in a world much different than mine. They buy houses they can barely afford. They put vacations on a credit card. They never own a car at all. Instead, they lease new cars that probably aren’t nearly as big, nice or comfortable as my used one, yet cost much more. At the end of their lease, they’ve laid out as much cash as I did for my car, but own nothing.

Why on earth would they do these things? Probably because TV commercials convinced them that these things will help them feel better about themselves.

Good luck with that.

What world do you want to live in?

Step one in planning a happy retirement is to ignore the world we’re surrounded by and start living in your own. Develop a new reality and a new attitude to go with it.

If you’re living beyond your means now, how the hell do you expect to maintain the same lifestyle in retirement? You can’t. But here’s the good news. By altering the lifestyle you think you need, you can fund a comfortable retirement and start enjoying it earlier.

How will you do this? By rediscovering the things in life that make you happy, then focusing your energy on achieving those things.

Check out: 30 Awesome Things to Do in Retirement

In short, forget other people’s ideas of what retirement looks like and create your own.

This is a completely new phase of your life

Researchers from Harvard, MIT and Boston College recently published preliminary results from a study about people entering retirement. It’s illuminating.

Harvard Business School published an article summarizing it, called “Welcome to Retirement. Who Am I Now?” From that article:

Although most welcomed the freedom and flexibility, many retirees described unexpected feelings of being at loose ends, and it typically took from six months to two years (or more) for them to sort through their thoughts and feelings. People varied considerably in whether they saw the open space of time before them as a blank canvas they were excited to paint— or a dark, scary void.”

It’s nearly impossible to avoid making our jobs a big part of our identity. After all, when you meet someone new, among the first questions you ask is, “What do you do?”

Over the decades, we become our jobs. When that job goes away, who are we then?

Now’s the time to decide.

Take steps now to become someone who views retirement as a blank canvas, not a dark void.

The exercise: What do you want your life to look like?

Your assignment for this week is this: Think about what you want your retirement years to look like. You’ll do it by making a happiness list, simply a list of the experiences and things that make you happiest. You’ll learn how to do it in just a minute. First, though, I want to tell you how and why this list can be such a powerful tool.

This exercise’s power is in getting you refocused on what’s important in your life so you can design your retirement years around those things.

You may find what brings you the greatest joy involves very little, even no money at all. On the other hand, it may require a lot.

On my happiness list, for example, are travel, bicycling, boating, helping folks understand money, helping animals and meeting new and interesting people. I also love hanging out with my wife, laughing and making other people laugh.

My wife’s list includes many of the same things as mine, but they’re definitely not identical. She loves dancing and going to concerts; neither appear on my list. She’s not a bicycle nut. That’s totally OK. No couple are going to have matching lists.

When you’re done with your happiness list, your new job will be to redirect your energy and resources to those activities.

Here’s an example of how making a list like this can change your life.

Forget other people’s ideas of what retirement looks like and create your own.

I first made a happiness list about 20 years ago, while writing my first book, “Life or Debt.”

Read: The 10 Commandments of Wealth and Happiness

When I created my list, boating was near the top. It wasn’t something I had actually done much of. In fact, until I took the time to think it through and write it down, I didn’t realize how much I really wanted to pursue it. But when I realized it was something I wanted, I left my home in Cincinnati, moved to Florida and bought a modest home on the water with a dock.

Boating isn’t cheap, and I wasn’t rich when I moved here. But I made it work. I made a few friends who knew everything about fixing up boats — not hard to do in Fort Lauderdale. A few months later, I bought an old cabin cruiser for $5,000 and, with help and advice, began fixing it up. I’m still boating, and fixing up my latest boat, today.

Had I not made that happiness list 20 years ago, I might still be living in Cincinnati and daydreaming about boats. The simple act of writing it down literally changed my life.

A happiness list isn’t a static document. It’s an ongoing exercise that aligns what’s around you with what’s inside you. As you evolve, it evolves.

Following your dreams isn’t always easy. When I made the decision to move to Florida, friends said things like, “Why would you move to Florida? It’s too hot! The people are too old! You don’t know anyone! There’s too much crime! They’re all Spanish speakers! How will you make a living?”

And, of course, our advertising-powered society offered up messages like, “You need a really big, expensive boat! You’ve got to impress people!”

In someone’s world, those things may all be true. But, thank God, not mine.

As I’m putting this course together, I’m also creating a new happiness list. It may look the same as the last one, but, as I approach this final phase of my life, it’s time once again to see where I am and where I want to go.

Why do I need a new happiness list? Because a happiness list isn’t a static document. It’s an ongoing exercise that aligns what’s around you with what’s inside you. As you evolve, it evolves.

Your task for this week

OK, now it’s your turn: Think about what makes you happy. What gives you fulfillment? If you could do anything, what would it be? What do you really want your life to look like? Give it some thought, then use the template below to write it all down.

Download: Week 1 Worksheet: My Happiness List

Remember, this isn’t about what your friends, family, kids or even your spouse thinks should make you happy. And it definitely isn’t what society or Madison Avenue thinks should make you happy. This is all about you, baby.

If you’re part of a couple, create your lists separately, then compare them. It’s totally fine if they don’t match. You’ll work it out.

  1. Begin by closing your eyes and thinking about the happiest moments of your life. What were you doing? What visions have you had over the years of things you’d like to try?
  2. When you think of the things that make you happy, or that might make you happy, write them down on the template. Take your time; this is your only assignment, the only thing you have to do this week. Include everything that comes to mind, no matter how trivial.

Done? You have accomplished a few remarkable things:

First, you have converted your retirement years from a dark, scary void into a canvas you’re excited to paint.

Second, you now have a rough idea of what it’s going to take financially to create the retirement you want.

Finally, and most important, you know how to reconnect to the things in life that bring you joy.

Not bad for a few words written on a single piece of paper! Why not jump in our Facebook group and share what makes you happy?

  Week 1: Feedback