How Long Do You Plan on Living?

I thought that headline might catch your attention. And I’m not joking. So what’s your answer?

I know I am putting you on the spot right now, but that’s only because I recently had to face that question myself. When it was posed to me by my financial advisor, trust me when I say that I felt just as confused as you probably do right now as to what the correct answer is. Especially because there are plenty of variables that you have to take into account when pondering a reasonable response.

  • What’s your physical health history?
  • What about your family’s health? Good or bad?
  • Do you have a healthy diet? Exercise for 30 minutes (at a minimum) per day?
  • What’s your mental health like?
  • Don’t forget about your bucket list! Are there still plenty of “must do” items to check off?
  • And your career goals! How do they factor?
  • Oh yeah—your kids! Do you want to see them grow up and have their own kids?
  • Ah-hem—then you need money too…

This list goes on and as you can see there are plenty of variables.

At first, of course, I thought my financial advisor was joking. I mean, realistically, how is anyone supposed to be able to answer such a ludicrous query? It had to be a trick question. I briefly considered different answers. If I only planned on living another five years, did that mean he would have to do less work with my existing resources? Was he looking to put the “auto pilot” on? Or if I said that I actually planned on living another fifty years, would he realize that I was a client that he was going to have to handle with “kid gloves”? Was he basing his own level of service on my answer?

But he simply replied, “We need to know how long your money needs to last.”

Again, another absurd line of inquiry. Does my money need to last as long as I live, or can I only live as long as I have enough money to do so?

My advisor then went on to explain choices, lifestyle, values, ability to downsize, and so on. Frankly, as a business psychologist, I felt that I was more qualified to ask, as well as answer, those questions than he was. I was just coming to him for financial and investment advice after all!

I told him I would think about it.

The Theory of Motivation

As I write this article, I’m still pondering just how long I plan to live. But I have also realized something else while I seek my own personal answer: Thinking ahead and planning are hallmarks of success. As I coach executives and consult with organizations, I regularly proselytize on the merits of strategic planning, project planning, and even daily planning. Therefore, long-term planning regarding one’s future certainly makes sense in my eyes.

Time Management 101 insists that before you make plans on how to spend your time, your values, priorities, and needs must be clarified. Throughout your life, the majority of life choices usually have some sort of requirement, desire, or motivation behind them—the same holds true in the case of retirement as well as “twilight years” planning. As such, I turned to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to reflect upon them.

A bit of history for you in case you are not familiar with this theory. In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed a theory of motivation based on the premise that all individuals have a strong desire to realize his or her full potential, to reach a level of “self-actualization.” He went on to assert that there are five human needs that drive behavior. These five needs are often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid, with the largest, essential needs on the bottom, and the need for self-actualization at the top.

MaslowMaslow suggested that an individual must “move up the pyramid” in order to progress through the individual levels; i.e. basic physiological needs of food, water, sleep, and sex must be met before one can reach advanced stages of safety, love/belonging, esteem, and then, self-actualization. While it’s true that our brain can multi-task and focus on different priorities at the same time, Maslow was ardent in his belief that the capstone or “pyramidion” can only be met when the previous and fundamental four have been addressed.

I decided to apply this to the question posed in my financial planner’s office.

How could Maslow help me in my retirement planning?

The idea of what constitutes “the best retirement” is a completely subjective question. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. To me, I have considered different options:

  • Am I interested in full-time play 24/7?
  • Should I start a new career?
  • What about donating my time? Is there an organization I can assist?
  • Perhaps mentor younger or inexperienced professionals?
  • And what about fulfilling some great social responsibility?

Taking my quest for answers to the Internet, I realized that a simple Google search provided a plethora of information that yielded myriad retirement and financial planning tidbits from “gurus” the cyber-world over. But there was little soul-searching advice. It was then that I realized that the self-actualization questions that this research focused upon could only be addressed once basic retirement planning needs were met.

So, before exploring your own self-actualization journey, let’s look at how Maslow’s lower level needs meet up with your own.

Need #1: Physiological

This need addresses what you require to survive. Each one of us obviously requires air, water, food, clothing, and shelter to exist on a day-to-day basis. And while air might still be free (at least for now), we do need money for basic elements. The amount you have to spend comes from a combination of your income and savings (I won’t even begin to touch the subject of debt.) When you retire you are left with only your savings to spend. Hence, our basic needs suggest that we make a conscious effort to save money. Starting now. It’s simple math. The more you save now, the more you’ll have to spend in retirement.

With the loss of current income, “downsizing” is a theme that often comes into play in retirement.  Smaller houses cost less than larger ones. Smaller cities require a lower cost of living than big ones…this is easy stuff to realize! However, the math becomes a bit more murky and complex when we consider other needs and priorities. Financial experts will help you do the math in assessing how much you can or want to spend on lower-order needs, which usually includes housing, transportation, food, and medical care. Again, simple math. The more you spend on basic needs, the less you have for other needs. If you want to live in a big house, you may need to eat out less often. Or vice versa. Of course, careful reflection is needed. What else matters? What can we get by with? What is it that we cannot live without? What are your physiological needs in retirement?

Need #2: Safety

Like Physiological needs our Safety needs are important to our physical survival and safety. Maslow often defined these as “deficiency” needs meaning that a person will feel anxious and tense if they don’t have a level of safety they can be comfortable with in their life. This drives behavior as simple as wearing a coat when it’s cold out to wanting job security as a part of one’s career. It is why people buy insurance.

Physical safety entails personal safety, health, financial stability, a life lived with people who are not abusive, and a world without disasters, wars, etc. However, this is also a need that is highly affected by individual, subjective situations. After all, a person who experiences trauma in their life will view their existence with this past or current trauma in mind. Economic safety, for instance, requires a steady job, living within one’s means, and saving enough to survive economic downturns. Think about Depression-era children who grew up during the 1930s. They are currently the parents of the Baby Boomers who are now facing retirement. These are individuals who likely planned their retirement in a completely different manner when compared to that of their children. The majority of them scrimped and saved their entire lives simply because of the reality they faced earlier on. Their needs are different from that of their children who grew up in a different time and with different ways of assessing economic safety. When thinking of what makes you feel “safe” what are your answers to these questions?

  • How do you define personal security? What factors determine this?
  • What level of financial security do you need to have to feel confident and comfortable? What investment or financial vehicles are included in this?
  • How are you protecting/maintaining your health? What happens if you get sick? How do you handle a health crisis?

What safety nets or contingency plans have you developed to address an issue that presents itself in any of the three previous areas?

Need #3: Love and Belonging

Once your physical needs are satisfied, you can now meet your psychological and emotional needs. Maslow’s third human need is interpersonal, involving feelings of love and belonging. These needs are met through satisfactory relationships with your family, friends, peers, and other people in your life. Not to mention the substantial social support most people get from their co-workers. Yet in retirement we lose the daily connection with our co-workers, and are left to fill that void. So the 40 – 80 hours per week that you used to spend with work-relationships, you now have to spend with personal relationships. That’s the good news for some; the bad news for others. Either way, it is a substantial shift in personal relationships. Some couples find renewed joy together that they haven’t experienced in years, if not decades. In contrast, some relationships become more strained as problems can no longer be swept under the rug. And while some kids are happy that their parents may be around more, other kids were just as happy that their parents hadn’t been around to notice that they were on Facebook or Instagram as opposed to doing their homework.

So, consider how important spending time with people and belonging to something are to you? Are you extraverted, and want a lot of people contact? Or introverted, and just as happy to be home alone. Spending time alone by choice is different than loneliness and the social anxiety that retired people can be susceptible to experience. So, consider joining social groups, religious organizations, sporting clubs, etc. And if you’re having trouble finding something of interest to join, check out Its sole purpose is to offer things to join. And if you’re not a groupie per se, consider living in proximity of friends and/or family. If you’re lucky, you will have received one of life’s greatest gifts; grandchildren.

Need #4: Esteem

As being loved and valued by others is essential; so too, is being loved and valued by yourself. Maslow’s fourth need is to have self-esteem and feel respected. People want to feel competent in what they accomplish – whether it’s an award-winning project or a productive afternoon. When esteem levels are high, a person feels valued and accepted by the people around them. Typically, people will pursue professional passions or personal interests in the form of hobbies to garner this esteem and feel as if they are making a contribution to society or a community. If you get a lot of value from accomplishing things at work, consider what you’d like to accomplish in retirement. A second career? Volunteering your time? Learning a new hobby? Mastering relaxation?

I recently read a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that noted that self-esteem drops sharply after retirement. The study involved 3,617 American men and women ranging in age from 25 to 104. Self-esteem was lowest among young adults, but increased throughout adulthood. It peaked at age 60, just before it started to decline. There are reasons for this. During your 40’s and 50’s, people typically have stable work, family, and friends. This level of success breeds self-esteem. Yet, some of these things disappear later in life, causing an individual to question their self-worth or value. So, keeping this in mind, what would you need to be in place to ensure that your self-esteem and self-respect remains intact in retirement?

Need #5: Self-actualization

This level of need refers to what a person’s full potential is and the overall realization of that potential. Maslow described his pyramid’s capstone as the desire to both accomplish everything that one can and to become the most that one can be. And these are personal decisions. For instance, one person may have the strong desire to be an ideal parent. Another person may find this through athletic or artistic expression. The cost of self-actualization is the time it takes to do the things that bring meaning to our lives and the personal insight to appreciate it. Look at self-realization in terms of feelings such as self-confidence or by accomplishing a life’s goal. Think about need number five as the realization of all of the dreams that you have developed in your life. What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to do? What do you want to have? I have worked with some very talented professionals who didn’t appreciate their contributions and abilities. I suggested that they “literally or figuratively read their own resume.” The reactions were astonishing. One woman smiled and simply said, “Wow. I did it.”

What is your “it”? And what do you need to accomplish “it”?

Figure these out, and you may be able to answer the question, “Just how long do you plan on living?”

Contact Julie Kantor at