“The One Thing”: Understanding the “Why” of Your Retirement

One of the most memorable scenes in the movie City Slickers is when Curly, the crusty ranch foreman (played by Jack Palance) explains to Mitch, one of the city dudes (played by Billy Crystal) what really matters most in life. Turning toward the inquisitive greenhorn, Curly holds up an index finger. “This,” he says. “Your finger?” Mitch asks. Curly goes on to explain that the secret of life is knowing what your “one thing” is: the thing that matters most—that lies at the center of everything else you do and are. “So,” Mitch asks, “what is the one thing?” “That’s what you gotta figure out,” Curly replies.

Simon Sinek makes a similar point in his bestselling book, Start with Why. He asserts that great leaders are able to inspire followers by boiling everything down to the essential purpose of the organization or movement. By starting with “why,” Sinek says, people are impelled to take action. Once you know your “why,” Sinek says, you’ll do whatever you need to do to figure out “how.”

When it comes to planning for retirement, though, many have it backwards: they spend most of their time focused on the “how”—making sure they’ve got the assets to fund their lifestyles after the leave the daily grind—and don’t give enough consideration to the “why”: the meaning, purpose, or fulfillment they expect to gain from being retired.

Your “Why” Matters

This is unfortunate, because as human beings, we all require a sense of meaning in every phase of life—perhaps especially in retirement. Too often, we think of this time in life as “retirement from” instead of “retirement to.” In other words, meaning and purpose should be just as much a part of thinking about retirement as the balances in your retirement accounts—and maybe more so.

When you think about it, purpose—or, if you prefer a different term, you could substitute “goals,” “priorities,” or “mission”—should be where planning of almost any kind originates. This is especially true with financial planning. Some of the most important work we do for our clients at The Planning Center, in fact, is helping them gain clarity about the priorities they have for their lives and for those they care about. In other words, we want to help them understand their “why.”

After all, a successful retirement lifestyle is about much more than money. While it’s true that money can give you choices, by itself it may not be the most important factor in how satisfied you’ll be with your retirement. Every individual has different motivations, priorities, and dreams, which means that everyone’s “why” is different.

Mission Statement

This is why we encourage clients approaching retirement to spend some time thinking carefully about what matters most. While we might stop short of calling it a “retirement mission statement,” that’s not a bad concept to employ. If corporations and nonprofit organizations need a mission statement to keep their “why” at the top of everyone’s consciousness, why shouldn’t those aiming for a meaningful retirement do something similar?

You might start by trying to frame your priorities in a phrase short enough to fit on a bumper sticker. “Life Is a Trip” might be a good slogan for those whose purpose is to see as much of the world as possible in retirement. “Serve Somebody” could work well for those whose priorities involve volunteerism and community service. Try to come up with your own “bumper sticker” statement of purpose.

The point, of course, is to know your fundamental truths—your “why”—and then to make them the foundation of your financial planning, your personal calendar, and everything else. When you center yourself on what makes you truly who you want to be, you’ll be living your “why”—and loving it.

At The Planning Center, we help investors build financial strategies that reinforce their most important goals and dreams. To learn more, visit our website to read our article, “Want to Sleep Better at Night? Maybe You Need a Financial Plan.”