It’s halftime in your life. What’s the score?

A retirement planner for those who haven’t planned

It's halftime in your life. Have you prepared for retirement? What if you're behind – and not just by a few points – but way behind?

Nearly two-thirds of all Americans near retirement age say they don't feel financially prepared (Edwards Jones 2022). Survey results vary wildly, but at least 25% have nothing saved for retirement (PwC Retirement Report 2021) and perhaps as many as 48% of those over 55 have nothing saved (U.S. Government Accountability Office 2019).

It's not surprising that the numbers vary. Who wants to admit failure? There are tens of millions entering "the second half of life," who, perhaps like you, are not prepared for retirement.

I am one of them.

How, in this rich country, is this possible? In the opening lines of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy famously said, "All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." In America, happy retirees tend to have a few things in common – pensions, fat 401(k)s, and real estate. Every unhappy retiree is unhappy in their own way. 

There are plenty of ways to get behind in the first half. And many of us simply make some (or many) bad decisions. And yes, choices matter. Taking responsibility matters.

But there is discrimination – for whatever reason – in career opportunities, access to credit or housing. Industries change or disappear. Divorce destroys financial security. Many lack access to retirement account matching plans or affordable health insurance. Aging parents need help. Life happens, and we aren't always able to recover from setbacks.

But there are also structural problems in financial planning. Over decades, the American way of retirement devolved from a system where everyone had skin in the game – employers, government, workers – to a situation where most are left to fend for themselves, with little or no training or guidance. Wages stagnated, health care costs exploded, mortgage debt mushroomed, and income inequality hit levels not seen since the 1890s. People are bad at predicting the future and hardly anyone is much good at playing the markets. If we were, we'd all be millionaires.

At this point it doesn't matter how you got here, or why. You're down points at halftime. But the referees added an additional quarter to the second half. You are going to have many more productive years than you expected.

The game plan? It's in the fundamentals. Focus on what you can control. One thing is clear: you'll have to keep working.

Before the game resumes, take stock. If you have issues managing money – and millions of us do – address them. Get financial counseling, therapy or advice from a trusted friend or spiritual leader. This won't be a one-time fix. But start now.

Don't underestimate the amount of effort it will take to play catchup for a decade or two (or longer). Think of it as starting a new business – the business of you – and plan to put heart and soul into it to make it a success.

You need a support team, maybe even some cheerleaders. Make sure you're on the same page as your life partner. Have an expectations exchange with them and anyone else with a stake in your future and your happiness.

Take a values inventory. What's important to you? Set goals. Discover or create a sense of purpose.

If your employer is pressuring you to retire, negotiate a transition to a new position, or enlist them in helping you find a new job.

Know that you will face ageism, along with the other "isms" you have dealt with your entire life. Learn your rights.

Delaying Social Security means bigger payments later. But if your financial situation is shaky, starting Social Security earlier might create stability. Get advice and do the math.

You must keep current with technology. The job market demands it, and purposeful, lifelong learning leads to a happier life.

Pay attention to trends in pop culture and design. It's work to remain relevant, but it's worth it. Conversely, exercise discipline on social media.

Expect stress. Keep physically active. Work on your coping skills. Mindfulness exercises help.

Watch your drinking. Consumption went up with COVID, but you need your wits about you.

Put down that excess baggage. If you have unfinished business of any kind, what can you do about it?

Practice acceptance and gratitude. Especially gratitude. For a surprisingly powerful take on this, search "Stephen Colbert gratitude."

Avoid comparing yourself to others. Springfield is a government town, meaning lots of retirees with traditional pensions – four times the national average (Bureau of Labor Statistics/St. Louis Fed). Their situation is rare. You'll be marching to a different drummer, but plenty of others will be doing the same thing. Bond with those others if you can.

Take pride in the fact that you are making your own path. It won't be easy, but you'll be in the game, fighting, and the second half of life can be deeply meaningful and satisfying. I'd love to hear from you. Let me know what's working and what's not. I'll be cheering for you.

Dennis Thread – [email protected] is a freelance writer, director and producer in the entertainment business and institutional and corporate communications. Though he's at the traditional retirement age, his plans for the "Second Half of Life" include working until the very end. This Springfield native examines culture, demography and public policy in all its forms.