How to Cope When the Pandemic Fast Forwards Your Retirement Plans

Dr. Gary Bradt spent the past year living through this challenge and exploring options for meeting it. He shares the principles and steps to bring yourself to a better place mentally, emotionally, and financially.
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By Gary Bradt, Psy.D.

I planned to retire four years from now. But the pandemic had other ideas. The business conferences where I spoke on change and leadership stopped suddenly last spring. So did the flights that got me there. A significant coaching client cut out all outside vendors. Like many, virus-imposed restrictions crumbled my business model practically overnight.

Gary Bradt, Psy.D.

Gary Bradt, Psy.D.

What to do?

I considered speaking virtually as many other speakers instantly began doing. That was not appealing. I have never gotten ahead by following the crowd. Besides, I knew there was more to it than turning on a camera. To do it right, I had to learn about proper sound, lighting, staging, new ways of presenting for a small screen versus a big stage, etc. The learning curve was steep, my motivation shallow.

I could pivot to virtual coaching. However, that would mean acquiring new clients. My passion for taking action there was lagging as well. I was ready for a new challenge, but what that new challenge might be, I had no idea.

Our financial plan at the time was based on me working for five more years. Would the plan hold if my income stopped permanently starting with the onset of the pandemic? What accommodations to our lifestyle might be required? What would it cost to generate new revenue if I could generate any income at all? The questions were many, the answers few.

Fortunately, our financial advisors are also very good at planning through change and understanding the road ahead. They wrote the book on the fourth quarter of life (Fourth Quarter Fumbles: How Successful People Avoid Critical Mistakes Later in Life). I was struck by the book’s guiding concept of making one’s fourth quarter of life the best ever. Also, the author guides how to navigate multiple minefields, including managing unforeseen crises like the pandemic.

I spent the past year living through this challenge and exploring options for meeting it. Now I am in a better place mentally, emotionally, and financially. Below are the principles and steps I followed that helped me to cope.

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

Early on, there was no reason for rash action. Before the pandemic hit, establishing and following a financial roadmap had provided us a cushion to soften the blow of unexpected events like the pandemic. I knew we had enough cash to last a while without having to dip into savings. Exactly how long, however, I was not sure. We consulted with our advisors, decided to cut unnecessary spending, and revisit things three months later. And we chose not to make hasty decisions regarding our investment portfolio. However...

Employ Self-Compassion When You Screw Up

Alas, we all make mistakes. It’s the human condition. Early into the shutdown, I made two impulsive stock trades trying to time the market. Of course, I lost money – not a vast sum, but enough to sting. I began to beat myself up mentally. But, as a psychologist, I know that is a losing proposition as well. So, I practiced the tenets of self-compassion as taught by Kristin Neff. Being gentle with myself and acknowledging my humanity allowed me to calm down, limit the damage, and not repeat my mistake.

Ask For Help

I’m your classic ‘never ask for directions’ type of guy. However, that doesn’t always work out as well as I might hope (see the aforementioned ill-timed trades, for instance). Therefore, we turned to our financial advisors for help - just as we had done a few years back as we contemplated moving to a new city.

At that time, we had been living in the same town for thirty years. I was ready for a change. I longed to meet new people, savor novel experiences, and explore new terrain. My wife? Not so much. She was happy where we were. An extrovert, Peggy had many long-term relationships and volunteer activities that brought her joy. Understandably, she was hesitant to give those things up. Plus, Peggy did not believe we could afford our proposed new home or living situation. I thought otherwise. Our financial planning team had assisted us with similar issues before. Therefore, we turned to them again for guidance.

Specifically, this time we asked our team two fundamental questions: 1) Can we afford to make a move? 2) What ideas did they have to help resolve our differences regarding the decision to move or not? Regarding the latter question, I knew this needed to be a joint decision we could both support. Early on, that finish line appeared to be far in the distance.

Regarding question one, the results were promising. The updated plan revealed that the home we planned to buy was within our budget, as were the projected expenses for living in a new town. The numbers suggested we could comfortably make a move, assuming we stayed within built-in guardrails. That is, we had to avoid the temptation of putting one set of numbers into the plan and then to live by another, more inflated bunch. Happily, my wife and I are pretty good at maintaining at least a modicum of financial discipline. The economic findings of the plan provided us both peace of mind.

The second question, admittedly, was more challenging to tackle. After all, how do planners help a couple discuss financial topics wrapped in heightened emotion? Especially when planners are financial experts and not trained counselors? In that regard, I have learned that the best financial planners don’t just crunch numbers. They are adept also at creating safe environments for spouses to talk out differences that inevitably crop up regarding significant financial matters and lifestyle choices. The best planners offer sound practical advice in those areas as well. I was fortunate that the planning team I had switched to five years before the crisis hit had Mars vs. Venus skillsets and balanced team gender dynamics.

For example, in our case, our planning team included a budget for my wife to make regular trips back to our original town after the move. They helped us explore options issues like renting a permanent apartment there versus staying at hotels each time, for example. I doubt we would have thought through these details on our own without their help.

Our planning team made another helpful, practical suggestion. The group suggested that we “ooch” before we committed to making a move. The term “ooching” comes from the Heath Brothers book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and in Work. Our financial firm had run workshops on making better decisions, and they use many of the proven concepts discussed in the Heath Brothers research. Ooching means dipping your toe in the water before taking a complete dive.

In this case, ooching means spending time in a new city before committing to a permanent move. Spend a month or two and act as if you live there. How is the drive to the grocery store, for example? Can you find a compatible place of worship? What’s the culture and general vibe of the area? Can you envision forging new friendships there? This advice to “ooch” before we moved provided a valuable perspective each time we traveled to explore the new area.

Emboldened by our updated plan and after countless hours of heartfelt discussion, Peggy and I eventually took the plunge and jointly decided to move. Happily, things went swimmingly the first few years. Then COVID-19 hit.

Continue to ask for help

Financial planning is a dynamic process—planned events like making a moving shape the process, as do unexpected occurrences, like the pandemic. Since the latter essentially wiped out our business, we turned to our planners once again for assistance.

Early this year, they ran updated numbers for us based on no more business income being generated by me. Fundamentally, we asked: What if I stopped working currently versus four years hence? The findings were revealing and exhilarating. Our years of hard work and careful planning had paid off. I no longer needed to work for us to sustain a comfortable retirement. We were financially independent at last.

Practice Courageous Optimism

As a speaker and writer on the subject, I know that change always creates opportunity. However, to quote Thomas Edison, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” A jarring and pervasive change like the pandemic can make working to find the opportunity a more daunting task still.

Practicing the three steps of Courageous Optimism can help. Those steps are 1) Face reality as it is, not as you wish it to be. 2) Believe there is a chance that the future can be better. 3) Have the courage to act to make that future come to pass. Optimism thus defined is hardly pollyannish. Instead, it is an empowering strategy for surmounting obstacles.

Indeed, at times, the financial planning process itself can be an exercise in courageous optimism. For instance, it forces one to face reality as it is, not as one might wish it to be.

For example, the first time we worked with financial advisors to formulate a detailed plan, I went into the process somewhat skeptical, perhaps even smug. After all, in consultation with my wife, I managed our money until then, and we were doing well. What could the planning process tell me that I did not already know? As it turned out, the answer was a lot.

We were doing well, but future scenarios proved less rosy. The charts and graphs showed our core funds diminishing by the time we reached our mid-eighties—the changes we instituted then to our investment strategy set the stage for where we are today.

Nurture Core Relationships

My wife and I love each other dearly. Yet, several months into the shutdown, we realized something was off between us. We talked it out and discovered that even though we had been in close physical proximity throughout the pandemic, we were not in close emotional proximity. Activities we usually enjoyed together that fostered closeness, like dining out, attending movies, and traveling, had ceased. Therefore, we needed to create new activities to bring us closer together. For us, that now includes joint volunteering, taking day trips, and planning future vacations once the pandemic passes. As always, relationships are a work in progress.

Summary

Following the principles and financial guidance described above helped my wife and me navigate the maze that has defined the last twelve months. I eventually delivered virtual presentations and enjoyed them more than I thought. I’ve done some virtual coaching and started a blog. I publish a monthly newsletter, and I am active on LinkedIn. Knowing I do not have to generate income does not mean I intend to sit idly by. Instead, financial freedom means I no longer need to grind to find work. But if work happens to find me, well, that’s just fine.

Where will the future lead? I’m not sure. And that’s okay. Happiness and staying open to possibilities require a tolerance for ambiguity. Change can be challenging. However, if you put on your overalls and get to work as Edison suggested, you may well discover new opportunities and fresh horizons not hitherto imagined.

About the Author: Gary Bradt, Psy.D.

Dr. Gary Bradt is a speaker and writer on change, leadership, happiness and well-being. His clients have included Coca-Cola, American Express, eBay, FedEx, Fidelity Investments, Price Waterhouse Coopers, and hundreds more. Dr. Bradt has experience with a changing world – he was the national spokesperson for the global bestseller, Who Moved My Cheese. He is the author of The Ring in the Rubble: Dig Through Change and Find Your Next Golden Opportunity. More information is available at garybradt.com