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Good-Enough Retirement Planning Is Good Enough

A psychologist's five-step plan for procrastinators

By Barbara Nusbaum

If you have a solid financial plan for retirement, you are in the minority.

While the financial burden of retirement is heavy on us as individuals, most Americans are not saving, or not saving enough. That’s because it can be a complicated and daunting task.

Good-Enough Retirement Planning

My suggestion: Don’t procrastinate planning for retirement because you’re afraid you won’t get the job done perfectly. Instead, start planning in a way that will get you to “good enough.”

In my therapy practice as a psychologist specializing in money issues, I work with a couple in their 40s and early 50s named Michael and Leslie. Recently, they said: “We just haven’t cracked that nut” of planning for retirement — and that nut is both financial and emotional.

Both know all too well that they are getting closer to retirement and that they don’t have a plan in place. Leslie has voiced concerns about what her retirement will look like. Michael says, “We are going to be fine,” but when Leslie asks him to explain how he knows that, he can’t.

Michael and Leslie are not clueless, extravagant or irresponsible. They are educated and hard-working, have a busy family and personal life, are paying and saving for college and care for their aging parents. They also put some money in their employee retirement account. But they don’t plan.

And, like the rest of us, they hear the constant, dire warnings about the need to plan for retirement. They also know there are hundreds (seemingly millions…) of resources out there to help them plan. They could get buried by the retirement planning books, websites, blogs and newsletters — but they don’t read them.

What I tell them, and I’m telling you, is: There is hope.

You can put together a plan. Will it be ideal, ensuring an anxiety-free, easy retirement? No, because such a plan simply does not exist (and if it does, it’s for the very few).

Instead, to crack the nut of planning paralysis, let me tell you how to do what I call good-enough or resilient planning.

Good-enough planning is the only route that is realistic and makes sense. We cannot guarantee that everything will work out in our retirement. But, we can map out the retirement that would work best for us. And we can try to up the odds of making that plan happen.

By the way, it doesn’t all hinge on money.

Your Emotions Are the Key

So how do you move from not planning to good-enough planning?

The key is our emotions: we need to embrace those that block us — namely fear and anxiety — and use them resiliently and effectively.

To be sure, most financial experts advise keeping emotions out of money. I say just the opposite because not only is that impossible, it leads to serious damage.

Emotions are involved in 80 percent of every money decision we make. And when aging collides with money, we feel intense anxiety, fear, helplessness, loss and more.

So how can you possibly keep emotions out of retirement planning? You can’t.


When we try to keep our emotions out, we risk making bad decisions. When we deny our anxiety and fear, we block these natural, useful warning signals and lose valuable information. Anxiety and fear can force us to be protective because these feelings tell us: aging and retirement is important, pay attention, we need to act! But when we deny and ignore these feelings, we don’t act, and are left unprepared and with fewer choices.

Good-enough resilient planning lets you optimally use the emotions of fear and anger in your retirement planning. Resilience doesn’t mean happily planning for an ideal retirement; it means effectively and ably planning for a clearly challenging situation. Resilient planning takes into account the realistic challenges in our personal situations.

And resilient planning does not just include saving lots of money. There are ways to plan effectively that don’t include money.

5 Instructions for Resilient Retirement Planning

So here’s a roadmap with five driving instructions for resilient planning, using your emotions and considering the particularities of your unique life:

1. Embrace the emotions related to aging and retirement. Since we are living longer, we need to face the feelings that go with aging and realistically plan for this stage of life. We can’t deny or avoid it.

2. Realize that older age and retirement happens to the whole family, not just you. Your children and relatives will play a huge role in your retirement and caring for you. Plan with them.

3. Clarify your thoughts, feelings and wishes for retirement. Start off by answering these questions:

  • What are your specific fears and worries about aging?
  • What do you dread the most?
  • What do you hope for in older age?
  • What are the steps you can take to make your hope-for’s happen? Make the steps small, and do-able. For example, with housing, think about where you might want to live as you age. (Genworth’s Cost of Care Map provides long-term care costs by state to give you a better idea; note: I'm a member of Genworth's National Advisory Council on Long-Term Care.) Start checking out communities that seem interesting, through friends, the Internet and other sources.

4. Once you’ve clarified your own thoughts, move to conversations with others. Talk to your partner, children and relatives — whoever will be involved with your retirement, so you can discuss building a plan together.

Then have what I call “learning conversations,” where each person listens to the other’s ideas and feelings about the specifics of the plan. The conversation can’t be about if my idea or your idea is best, but more about what is best for the whole family.

Start by speaking with a family member who is easy to talk with and come up with ideas together. Then, with ideas and support, expand the conversation to include other family members.

5. Once your resilient planning gets kickstarted, you will be ready to use the resources out there. Consult websites like (I'm affiliated with it) and books, and meet with a financial planner. These can all be very useful, as long as you are emotionally ready to take them in.

Barbara Nusbaum is a psychologist who brings over 20 years of experience to 'money psychology.' She consults with financial organizations, wealth advisory firms, financial planners and other professionals to help them understand the impact money-related issues have on their organizations and their clients. She is a member of Genworth's National Advisory Council on Long-Term Care. Read More
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