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Stop Trying To Keep Up With The Joneses In Retirement With This One Hack

I, for one, can't yet grasp what retirement will look like for us.

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My husband caught me off guard when he began brainstorming about plans for our retirement. He’s ready. He’d retire tomorrow if he could, but I can’t yet grasp what retirement will mean for us. He opened the floodgates, though, and now I think about this next unknown phase of our lives all the time.

When I think about retirement, I sometimes catch myself comparing our financial situation with that of our friends. As a result, I often feel like we come up short. Then I’ll start to think about the poor decisions we’ve made along the way that have put us at risk for financial hardship.

Not only could we have done better at preparing for retirement, we should have. We don’t have a golden parachute to grab hold of, like many of our friends seemingly do. We’re not wealthy — we don’t own a lucrative business and generational wealth does not exist on either side of our family. Our parents are living comfortably in their own retirement, though modestly; thus, we likely won’t inherit from their estates.

When I ponder how far our resources will (or won’t) go in retirement, I start to think about our friends and what their lives might look like in their golden years. Many of them will be able to continue to enjoy the finer things in life in the same manner they do now. In contrast, it’s probable our standard of living will decrease once we stop working full time.

I feel vulnerable disclosing that I think about retirement in this way. I’m also curious as to why it is I think this way. I don’t think about our friends’ lifestyles in this comparative manner now, nor have I ever. So I don’t know why retirement is the thing that fuels my anxiety about keeping up with the Joneses, when we’ve never tried to.

I envision our friends crisscrossing the globe, checking off bucket-list travel destinations and not having to worry that a medical condition might wipe out their retirement savings. I picture our friends having funds for fun toys like boats and RVs. I see them living footloose and fancy-free and/or being able to assist their kids financially, if needed — not having to worry their resources won’t last.

I know money doesn’t make people happy. More money, more problems — sometimes. I also know I’ve always managed to be happy for moments of every day. I’m convinced this level of happiness is all that’s available to any of us, and I’ve managed this level of happiness regardless of how much money I’ve had in the bank or how much debt I’ve carried.

I know living a simple life can promote mental health, and that minimalism — the practice of owning few possessions — can be a direct path to serenity. What I don’t know is why I worry about retirement in terms of what my husband and I will have to see us through versus what our friends will have.

I can only posit that it’s due in part to not yet being able to fully know what retirement will look and feel like. I’ve always been hesitant of the unknown. I tend to give it the side-eye, the same way I do anything I’m not sure I can trust. But I know it doesn’t feel good when I slip into comparison mode.

The tendency to engage in comparison isn’t inherently a bad thing. As humans, I believe we’re wired for comparison, as it provides us with potentially useful information. It’s how we react to those comparisons that can be problematic. Comparing my situation with that of others isn’t really the problem. The problem is arriving at the conclusion that I’m not going to enjoy retirement.

Because self-fulfilling prophecy is real, I need to knock this off. Pronto. The solution, as I see it, is to choose to focus on what my husband and I do have going for us. Then, to make the best of our personal situation — no matter those who have it better.

Comparison becomes dangerous when we give it an upward or downward slant. Upward comparison leaves us feeling less than and downward leaves us feeling superior. Healthier comparison provides information we can use to our advantage.

For instance, noticing our finances aren’t where I’d like them to be motivates me to spend less and save more. Hoping to travel in retirement encourages me to accumulate fewer things in hopes of notching my belt with more experiences instead. As I’m able to identify additional ways to make my own version of retirement enjoyable and fulfilling, I can engineer other choices and decisions to work in my favor.

The next time you find yourself wrapped up in the kind of comparison that squeezes too tight, pause your thought process and ask yourself what the comparison can teach you about you. Then take small steps to edit your life accordingly, fine-tuning it into the kind of life that’s available to you and you’ll enjoy.

After all, striving for contentment in the present moment is always an admirable goal — often more attainable than a mythical version of contentedness that begins with, “I’ll be happy if …”