Marin Community Foundation
Olympic Lessons

3 Things the Olympics Teach Us About Planning for Retirement

Originally published by TIME [link] on August 17, 2016

If you’ve been following the action in Rio, you know that the Olympics can teach us a lot about just how far the combination of intense competition and a fierce drive to excel can push the boundaries of athletic achievement. But the Olympic Games Rio 2016 also impart a number of broader lessons that apply beyond the world of sports, including these three that can improve your odds of success in planning for retirement.

Lesson #1: Preparation is all. The journey of the gold-medal-winning U.S. women’s eight rowing team didn’t begin on Saturday at the starting line of the 2,000-meter race course on Rio’s Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon. It began years before, with grueling weight-lifting sessions, countless winter hours on an indoor-rowing torture machine known as “the erg” and logging thousands of miles on the water. Without that commitment to putting in the time, energy and effort beforehand, there would have been no victory.

The same goes for achieving a successful retirement. If you want a reasonable shot at having a secure post-career life, you must begin laying the groundwork well beforehand—indeed, decades in advance—and then build on that foundation throughout your career. The top priority is saving regularly. Research by the Boston College Center for Retirement Researchsuggests 15% or so of salary is a decent target, although you may need to ramp up your savings rate if you get a late start. Also key: a reasonable investing strategy that begins with building a broadly diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds that jibes with your tolerance for risk. But the impetus to plan for retirement—and the dedication to stick with your plan—must come from you. A secure retirement isn’t going to happen on its own.

Lesson #2: You’ve got to be ready to rebound from adversity.British distance runner Mo Farah was nearly halfway through the 10,000-meter Olympic final Saturday night when he went sprawling to the track after being accidentally tripped by another runner. It’s the kind of mishap that can have devastating consequences. A similar spill in the 1972 Olympics prevented the U.S.’s Jim Ryun from making the final in the 1,500 meter race, a distance at which he then held the world record. But Farah managed to scramble to his feet, compose himself, get back on pace and go on to win gold.

The path to retirement can also have its bumps, stumbles and detours. Indeed, two-thirds of Americans say they’ve experienced disruptions in their retirement planning for reasons ranging from unexpected health bills to periods of unemployment to divorce. Whether it’s a layoff derailing your well-laid savings plan, a bad investment decision taking a bite out of the value of your nest egg or some other setback, it’s crucial that you immediately assess the damage and then quickly come up with a plan to get back on track. To determine whether your recovery effort is working, you can periodically rev up a retirement income calculator that uses Monte Carlo analysis to estimate your chances of being able to retire with the income you’ll need. 

Lesson #3: The finish line is also a starting line. When NBC’s Bob Costas asked Michael Phelps Sunday night whether he might have one more Olympics in him, the 31-year-old, 27-time Olympic medalist replied that he’d swum his last race. “At the age of 31,” Phelps said, “I’m happy to start moving forward into a new chapter of my life.” In other words, the finish line of one phase of life was the starting line for another.

In many ways, someone entering retirement faces the same challenge as an athlete at the end of his sports career: how to make that next stage of life satisfying, meaningful and rewarding. In the case of retirement, making a successful transition from the workaday world to a post-career life demands a serious shift in thinking. On the financial front, after years of looking for ways to save, the focus in retirement suddenly becomes deciding how much you can safely afford to spend so your nests egg can support you in a post-career life that, given today’s longer lifespans, may last 30 or more years. A tool like the American Institute for Economic Research’s retirement withdrawal calculator can help you with that decision.