Retirement Planning Is About So Much More Than Math

Aug 29, 2023
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As a financial advisor, Tony Hixon knows all about helping people build wealth and make sure they have enough money for retirement. It’s what he does every day.

However, about eight years after launching his wealth management firm, a tragedy turned his world upside down and forever changed how he works with clients. His recently retired mother took her own life.

A life of contribution

Pam Hixon devoted her career to helping others, first as a hospital nurse, then as a hospice nurse, and finally as a hospice director. She found her work meaningful and considered it a calling.

However, toward the end of her career, the healthcare industry was in the midst of great change. The push toward electronic medical records meant Pam spent more time behind a computer than with patients. She was frustrated and burned out. She became preoccupied with an idealized view of retirement, imagining days filled with relaxation, hobbies, and more time with family. 

Seeking counsel from her financial advisor, she was told that the numbers looked good; she was in a financial position to retire. Tony was not her advisor, preferring to separate family and business matters. However, he agreed to give his mom a second opinion, and after looking over his parents’ situation, he confirmed that she could, indeed, retire. So that’s what she did while Tony’s dad continued to work.

Now what?

Almost immediately, things did not go well. Pam felt adrift. Suddenly disconnected from her work and co-workers, she lost her sense of identity and value. 

According to Tony, “She was faced with the question, ‘Who am I apart from my career?’ She had enough money to sleep at night, but not enough purpose to get up in the morning, and she fell into a deep depression.”  

Six months after she retired, on the morning of March 22, 2011, Tony’s mom chose to take her life. Having been so involved in her decision to stop working only compounded Tony’s grief.

“I was one of the financial advisors that gave her the green light to retire, the very thing that drove her to her death. And I felt an immense amount of guilt and shame. I could have let that guilt and shame define me, to ruin me.”

Instead, he used it as motivation to help others prepare more holistically for retirement.

“I now know that money is only part of the equation to a successful transition to retirement,” Hixon said. “Meaning and purpose and legacy, they all carry equal weight in the transition to what’s next. I discovered the hard way that it’s not nearly as important to define what you’re retiring from, it’s critical that the pre-retiree do the hard work of defining who they are apart from their career…and discover what they’re retiring to.” 

Refocusing his work

In 2021, 10 years after his mom’s death, Tony published a book, Retirement Stepping Stones. In it, he shares his experience of losing his mom and what he has learned about how to help people better prepare for retirement from a non-financial standpoint. 

Although Tony understood better than most how difficult the emotional transition to retirement can be for some people, his research for the book opened his eyes to how prevalent those difficulties are.

“The statistics reveal that over 40% of retirees will experience some form of anxiety or depression within the first six months of retirement. I think we can avoid that. Statistics also reveal that the divorce rate spikes within the first two years of retirement because you go from a bit of healthy separation during your career phase to now being together all the time. And if you’re not prepared from a relational level with your spouse, divorce can be [viewed as] an option, and we don’t want it to be.”

Hixon also found that the suicide rate is especially high among the elderly. While health issues commonly contribute to feelings of despair, so do loneliness and a sense of meaninglessness.

In addition to the book, Hixon — together with his business partner, Adam Zuercher — created a retirement preparation process they call “Refocus Coaching." (Download the free workbook.) A two-session, four-hour workshop encourages people to look at retirement through a non-financial lens. The experience helps pre-retirees craft “a future that’s bigger than their past” — one that taps their “unique ability” in retirement to express who they are in service to others. 

Wealth is usually defined by money,” Hixon noted. “But you can be wealthy in purpose, wealthy in friendships and social connections, and wealthy in physical activity.”

A better path

Hixon has identified 10 common retirement stumbling blocks, and ways of turning each one into a “stepping stone” that leads to a satisfying, meaningful retirement.

For example, a common stumbling block is to spend too much time dreaming about the big things a person wants to do in retirement — the bucket list items — but too little time thinking about the day-to-day.

“Retirement in the media and in most advertising that is targeted toward pre-retirees depicts retirement as a golden paradise. Images of golfing in Florida, snorkeling in Hawaii, taking dance classes on Tuesday afternoons, and spending time with grandkids, family, and friends all come to mind. However, often when you wake up on day one of retirement, you’re stuck staring at your four surrounding walls and wondering: What am I going to do today?” 

The coaching workshop helps people create a plan for what their daily life in retirement will look like.

Another all-too-common stumbling block for the newly retired is a loss of purpose. The Refocus Coaching process helps people clarify their values, understand who they are outside of their former work, and find activities in retirement that enable them to live from their true self. As Hixon puts it, the goal is to “take an unflinching look at what gives you a sense of purpose, what you value, and your unique gift to determine how you can bring value into the world beyond your last day at the office.”

It’s also crucial to have a “Plan B.” Many retirees discover their Plan A isn’t as fulfilling as they anticipated. So, Hixon encourages people to pursue that plan with a backup at the ready. 

One of his clients, Dan, retired after a satisfying 30-year career as a dentist. His Plan A was to spend more time with his family and live in Florida during the winter. At the same time, Dan wondered if life might become boring after a while. So, he decided he would take two years completely off, and then, if he was feeling restless, his Plan B was to teach part-time at a dental school. That’s what he ended up doing.

One more stumbling block to a successful, meaningful retirement is a concern that a person’s life won’t have mattered, that how they lived won’t have any lasting impact. The Refocus Coaching workshop helps people take stock of and celebrate all they have contributed to the people in their lives thus far and to consider ways they might further their legacy. 

Intent on using his family’s tragedy for good, Tony Hixon is honoring his mother’s legacy by using proceeds from his book to help fund an annual college scholarship in her name for worthy nursing students with financial need. He meets with each year’s recipient and tells his mom’s story. He hopes the students will go on to meaningful, impactful careers in the healthcare industry and that they will carry their purpose beyond their career.

Written by

Matt Bell

Matt Bell

Matt Bell is Sound Mind Investing's Managing Editor. He is the author of five biblical money management books and the teacher or co-teacher on three video-based small group resources. His latest book, Trusted: Preparing Your Kids for a Lifetime of God-Honoring Money Management, was published by Focus on the Family in 2023. Matt has spoken at churches, universities, and conferences throughout the country and has been quoted in USA TODAY, U.S. News & World Report, and many other media outlets.

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