How I decided what is ‘enough’ for retirement

How I decided what is ‘enough’ for retirement

In her new book, “Enough: A Retirement Life That Works For Me,” retiree Laura H. Gilbert shares her journey to what she calls “enough” — where her personal and financial resources supply all that’s truly important to her. Here’s an excerpt on how she determined what was “enough” and how you can, too.

The commercials and seminars suggest that the happy and secure image of retirement is available to anyone — at least anyone with enough money to live their good life for an unknown number of years, through unpredictable markets, surprise expenses and potentially exorbitant health care costs. And as a middle-income retiree, that’s a benchmark I’ll never reach.

My version of ‘enough’ in retirement

I looked inward. What are the components of a retirement life that works for me? Sure, I want to feel financially secure. But I also want to feel good about my daily life. I just wanted to know there was a good chance I’d be OK.

So, I set out in search of facts. I wanted data that would confirm whether my personal and financial resources (a) were truly unusual and b) would be enough for my version of a good retirement with dignity, comfort and choice.

For me, when it all boils down, that means:

  • A comfortable home

  • Good health care

  • To not be alone

  • To not be a burden

  • To live a daily life that reflects my interests and values

To begin, I clarified what I meant by “enough.” For me, “enough” is about minimizing the likelihood of running out of something important too soon. Enough for my retirement is having friends, family, hobbies, health and some funds to provide comfort, dignity and happiness for the rest of my days.

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I thought about the retirement I’d imagined when I was 40 or 50. Extensive (and expensive) dreams of world travel and adventure had far less pull now at 65, especially with the pandemic and with grandchildren and a bike trail nearby. My life has changed, and so have my ideas of “enough.”

Maybe yours have, too.

As I continued to reframe my “enough” from a purely monetary standard to one that fundamentally reflects who I am as well as my interests and values, I felt more energized and hopeful.

Reframing my “enough” restored my confidence that I could attain a level of retirement security.

Creating my retirement wheel
  • I already knew what made life work for me.

  • I knew what my “enough” looked like on any given day.

  • I could measure what I had and what was missing.

  • I realized I already had much of what made my life work.

  • I knew what it would take to acquire the missing pieces (and what was reasonably possible).

After thinking about what would make my life work, I came up with eight distinct themes: Home; Health Care; Basics Work (more on this in a minute); Friends and Family; Growth; Activities Time and A Plan for One-Off Expenses.

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I imagined the eight themes together as parts of a whole. That led me to a single image with component parts, just like me. And voilà! The Retirement Life Wheel was created, and my themes became individual wedges of the wheel.

The next step was to define each wedge:

Home: It’s everything that makes my condo a home. For example, a safe, inviting, affordable living space with a simple kitchen to facilitate healthy eating, near family, friends, biking, stores and major roads. 

Health Care: It’s the ability to choose my health care team and engage in activities that support good health.

Basics Work: When the basics work, my days (and my budget) aren’t derailed.

Friends and Family: It’s about regular get-togethers and being there for each other through the rough times.

GrowthIt’s about having opportunities for learning and thoughtful dialogue.

Activities: Exercise, travel and fun events that are compelling, enriching and a good fit with my personality, health and interests.

Time: This means flexibility in my schedule and commitments to address unpredictable health issues, family needs and opportunities.

A Plan for One-Off Expenses: This is about being able to handle unexpected major expenses, saving for bucket list items or special-event gifts and leaving a few dollars to cover end-of-life expenses.

None of these are about how I spend my money but about how I live my life. All together, they describe the life that works for me.

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Take a moment to think about what wedges make up a life that works for you.

Now, here is my wheel with abbreviated wedge definitions:

So, here’s my advice if you want to do something similar:

Step 1: Think about the major elements that make your life work and gather the elements into themes. One theme = one wedge.

Step 2: Broadly define each wedge.

Step 3: Describe what each wedge looks like in daily life when you have it in abundance.

This is your “enough.”

You might have more or fewer wedges than I do. Some of your wedges might be similar to mine; others might be completely different. 

That’s the whole idea.

Now that my “enough” for retirement was clear, it was time to bring back the money discussion and identify the resources needed to fulfill each wedge for the rest of my days.

I quickly noticed how many of my wedges came to life, at least in part, through low and no-cost means. When the pandemic hit and the stock market dropped, I embraced these options where possible, and reduced monthly savings withdrawals without sacrificing quality of life.

With so much of my “enough” within reach, I knew I could make this work for a long, long time.

Laura H. Gilbert is the author of “Enough: A Retirement Life That Works For Me” and “The Stories We Leave Behind: A Legacy-Based Approach to Dealing With Stuff.” She is a retired policy analyst, professor and musician and lives in Minnesota. 

This article is reprinted by permission from, © 2020 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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