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The Holistic Approach to Retirement Planning

A financial planner and a financial behavior specialist say it's about more than running the numbers

By Charles Paikert | September 11, 2012

Have you been doing (or thinking about) some financial planning for retirement? Maybe instead you should do holistic planning for the transition to the rest of your life.
 
That’s the approach recommended by Paul Norr, a holistic financial planner in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and psychotherapist Szifra Birke, a financial behavior specialist at Lexington Wealth Management in suburban Boston.
 
The Road to Holistic Financial Advice

Norr’s holistic mind-set comes partly from the curvy path he took to becoming a financial planner.
 
He worked as a senior scientist and analytical chemist for Pillsbury in Minneapolis for 20 years before deciding to pursue a second career in 2000 as a wellness coach, specializing in shiatsu, acupressure massage and tai-chi.
 
(MORE: A Simple Money Rate Rule Takes Stress Out of Retiring)
 
“I made the switch because I was much more interested in wellness and activities that contribute to a deeply fulfilling life than I was in analyzing food,” he explains.
 
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond sparked Norr’s interest in spiritual thinking; more contemporary influences include teachers such as Ram Dass (author of Be Here Now), Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now), Zen master Shunryu Roshi and the Thai Buddhist monk Ajahn Cha. A longtime meditator and Buddhist practitioner, Norr taught meditation classes in Minneapolis/St. Paul until 2006, when his wife’s new job brought them to Thousand Oaks.
 
After realizing that the supply of wellness coaches and massage therapists in California exceeded the demand, Norr turned to financial planning in 2007 as a third career. He believed this field would let him combine his penchant for rational, linear analysis with his interest in teaching and his holistic mind/body/heart worldview.
  
Today Norr, who is a certified financial planner and a chartered retirement planning counselor, specializes in helping people transition to the next stage of their lives by integrating financial pragmatism with deeply felt personal values.
 
Most planners sit down with clients, review their financial situation, discuss their goals and needs for retirement, determine the investment risks they’re comfortable with and then suggest a strategy.
 
The Importance of a 'Life Imperative'

Norr’s approach, which he calls “Authentic Money Matters,” incorporates these principles, but unlike most planners he also urges clients to clarify what he calls their “Life Imperative” before he works with them to devise a retirement plan.
  
A Life Imperative comprises the “values, activities, goals and lifestyle that give us the richest sense of being alive,” says Norr. “It’s aligning your money with your heart. It’s about asking yourself, ‘What are the essential passions in my life that would make me most satisfied and happy if I brought them forth?’”
 
(MORE: Put Your Retirement Plan Back on Track)
 
Offering financial planning through a Life Imperative “is the difference between telling someone they need to save 15 percent of income to manage cash flow and saying that saving 15 percent of income will put them on track to pursue their most satisfying and meaningful life,” says Norr. “The goal is to maximize the attainment of the Life Imperative, not to ‘beat the market’ or some other arbitrary metric.”
 
Norr maintains that a Life Imperative keeps his clients focused and motivated. “Simply taking the time to say out loud what really matters to you is very powerful,” Norr says.
 
Identifying your Life Imperative is especially important for retirement planning in your 50s or 60s, he claims. That's when you should figure out not just how much money you’ll need to live on, but what you’ll be doing for the next 30 or so years of your life.
  
Psychotherapist Birke couldn’t agree more.
 
She isn’t a financial planner, but as a financial behavior specialist Birke draws on her degrees in psychology and counseling as well as years advising financial professionals and their clients. She also has a consulting practice for clients facing major life transitions, including retirement.
 
Retirement Problem That Many Face

One of the biggest problems Birke sees among the newly retired is that they “didn’t anticipate the negative side effects of the ending of their work,” she says, so they’re not used to the isolation and begin to question their sense of purpose and meaning. (Robert Pascale came to a similar conclusion in his new book, The Retirement Maze, featured in a recent Next Avenue blog post.)
 
Consequently, Birke advises clients to “be intentional” about retirement well before beginning the transition from full-time employment. “You don’t need to jump from ‘Go’ to ‘Stop,’” she says. “Try making the transition a gradual one over a period of time, and really think about what you want to be spending your time doing in retirement.”
  
Consider a Phased Retirement

One option Birke recommends is phased retirement. That means spending your last years before retirement putting in fewer and fewer hours at work. One of Birke’s clients, for example, was a dentist who sold his practice to his junior associate and now works three days a week without his former day-to-day management responsibilities.
 
(MORE: Phased Retirement: What You Need to Know)
 
Another option is switching from a high-charged career to a full-time job with less pressure and fewer hours, perhaps one that better reflects your passions and values. A lawyer Birke worked with, for example, sold his practice to become a teacher.
 
Birke cites her own decision 15 years ago to cut back from doing psychotherapy full-time so she could phase in more hours for consulting, coaching and other passions, such as yoga, volunteering and seeing friends.
  
If you’re closing in on retirement, Birke recommends reading the book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges. “He makes the point that transitions mean dealing with confusion and discomfort as we process the changes we’re going through,” says Birke. “But if we hang in there, we can emerge with a new identity.”
 
Like Norr, Birke says you need to honestly examine what excites you before embarking on the transition to retirement.
 
“More often than not, people discover that what they enjoy the most doesn’t cost anything,” she says. “They want to be with friends or read or enjoy nature or volunteer. Realizing this makes transitioning to retirement much easier.”

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