Need Help Envisioning Retirement? Create Your Eulogy
“Begin with the End in Mind. (Habit 2. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Stephen Covey)”
Writing your own eulogy is one of the best exercises you can do as you plan for your retirement. Quite literally, you are beginning with the end in mind. How about that for unconventional advice from a financial professional? When you write, read, or hear someone else’s eulogy, you get to know how that person impacted the lives of others. When you write your own, you get to know how you think about yourself. And these insights are exactly what’s needed to get a better idea of what the rest of your life should look like – consider it the first draft of your retirement plan.
The process can be powerful and impactful, if you put in the work and take the time to think about how you want to be remembered by family and friends. I wrote my eulogy as part of a business coaching program about 20 years ago. Over the years, I have attended many programs and completed many exercises led by several facilitators. I honestly can’t remember any of them very well – except this eulogy exercise. It helped me realize what was important to me and highlighted some areas where I need to change. It did not hurt that the facilitator had a real coffin near the stage and invited participants to lie in it, while someone else read their eulogy. That was a little too real for me, so I can attest that it’s not a requirement.
Whether you are nearing the end of your career, recently retired, or have been retired for years, write your eulogy. After you complete it, there are some things to look for that could help you improve your retirement plan.
“There are essentially two ways to modify the brain to be better,” according to Dr. Andrew Huberman, and associate professor of neurobiology and head of the Huberman Lab at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. “One way is to engage in a high-attention, high intensity event for which you’ll never forget the feelings and associations – your brain is forever changed.” Well, for me, contemplating my own life before I had lived it and writing my life’s details in the form of my eulogy was definitely high-attention and high-intensity. Even without the coffin.
Writing my own eulogy was a very powerful exercise for me. I was in my 30s at the time, and was, fortunately, not going to many funerals. The effort of contemplating the end of my life quickly grabbed my attention. I was also just starting my financial planning business, so I had many years ahead of me. But the eulogy process made me realize about 15 years before I sold the business that I wanted to build a “saleable” business. A what? I had never really thought about the future of the business because I was so focused and worried about running it in the present moment. And, as a recently married couple, my wife, Stacey and I were just starting to think about having kids, so, the kind of dad I wanted to be was more of a future theory than a reality.
Your eulogy is for your eyes only, so you get to tell the story about the “take this job and…file it” legendary exit from your job, about how long you lived, how many books you authored, that simple ditty about Jack and Diane that became a hit record that you wrote one afternoon after a much-needed nap, how many holes-in-one you got in golf, how you were happily married, every single day for five decades, how your kids loved you and you and loved them more than anyone else. You can write how you were known for living within your means and having lots of memories with your family or how you were known for taking your family on fun vacations. Or how you mentored young people in your area who needed guidance and a helping hand at critical points in their lives. Some of you may write that you speculated on digital assets and make a generational fortune. Who knows? There are no rules, so have fun with it. But, if you don’t tear up during the process, you’re not fully benefiting from the exercise.
There are many eulogy-writing resources available to you, but before I sat down to write mine for the second time, these got me in the right frame of mind:
- I read “The Dash Poem” (By Linda Ellis) – one of my former coaches in college used to yell, “What are you going to do with your dash?” when we were running laps;
- Listen (and it’s OK if you dance) to Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror;”
- Read the writing guidance of one of my favorite authors, Ernest Hemingway: “Write Drunk. Edit Sober.” (Just kidding, although that is great advice!) This one: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Congratulations! You, unlike most Americans who spend more time planning their vacation than they do their retirement, have completed the critical first step – a vision of what the rest of your life is going to look like. You have a retirement vision. It’s not final, but if something made it into your eulogy, you better pay attention to it.
There is a huge amount of research available on retirement planning and massive, longitudinal scientific studies on the overall satisfaction with retirement. Over the years as a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNERTM professional, I’ve read much of it to help me be a better guide to my clients. It seems that overall retirement satisfaction can fall into one of three large categories: health, wealth, and purpose.
In my experience with clients over the last 25 years, I noticed that too many people are over-focused on one area and, as a financial planner, it makes sense that the focus is in the wealth category. Research shows that all three are important and if you don’t pay attention to one area, your overall retirement satisfaction will suffer. Along the lines of that wise saying “You’re only as happy as your least happy child” ― Sarah Payne Stuart, Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God, and Real Estate in a Small Town.
Review your eulogy and make note of things that you’ve written and try to put them into one or more of the following categories: health, wealth, or purpose. Ask yourself if you have more in one category, like wealth, and not enough in another, like purpose. This may be a warning signal. If this sounds too familiar and you want to make a course correction, I’ve found Hyrum Smith’s Purposeful Retirement: How to Bring Happiness and Meaning to Your Retirement to be an excellent resource, full of insights and actionable advice. It’s your retirement, so you be you, but the evidence is pretty clear on purpose. Pickle ball, painting and pars are great, but you need to lean into your purpose to increase and sustain retirement satisfaction.
When I start working with a client on their financial plan, I ask them to consider some statements and to make jot down some of their thoughts when they consider them. Here are a few of those statements that are in the health, wealth, and purpose categories:
My family is happy and healthy, and we are leading productive and fulfilling lives.
I will be able to experience a well-deserved retirement free of financial compromises with no real concern about running out of money.
I have investment portfolios that are in line with my objectives, and I am comfortable with their diversification, performance, and volatility.
I have the capacity to give generously of my time, talent, and/or financial resources to a cause, an institution or charitable organization.
While the eulogy exercise is for your eyes only, if you plan on spending the rest of your life with your spouse or significant other, I highly recommend you have a conversation about these things that showed up for you in the health, wealth, and purpose categories to make sure you are on the same page about your shared future.
Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. (CFP Board) owns the certification marks CFP® and CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ in the U.S., which it authorizes use of by individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.