Like surprises? Retirement—for better and worse—will change your life more than you anticipate.

That’s the consensus of those who should know best: retirees themselves. Recently, as part of a discussion in these pages about changes in later life, we asked readers for help: Tell us what has surprised you in retirement. What did the experts neglect to mention? What would you tell would-be retirees to watch for?

The answer, in short: almost everything.

The surprises ran the gamut, from the wonderful to the devastating. Many readers told us they were surprised that their savings are holding up just fine, although several said that household expenses—and Medicare premiums, in particular—have been steeper than they anticipated.

People Trying to Save Prefer Accounts That Are Hard to Tap

The research suggests policy makers could make retirement accounts even more restrictive without reducing their appeal.

Relationships? Conventional wisdom holds that making friends in later life is difficult, but numerous retirees told us the conventional wisdom is simply wrong. They also told us, however, that they miss being part of a team at work, much more than they imagined.

Fitness and health? Far from turning into couch potatoes, many readers told us they are in the best shape of their lives. “I feel better than I have in years,” says William Wilson, a doctor who lives in Atlanta and Portland, Ore., cycles daily and has lost 40 pounds since retiring in mid-2015. “I sleep well at night now, too. What a treat.”

Most wrenching of all: stories of retirements cut unexpectedly short. “The biggest surprise has been mortality,” notes Richard Sandaas, a retired engineer and project manager, in Kirkland, Wash. “My wife took early retirement in 2003—and less than 10 years later passed away. We thought we had many years of postretirement ahead of us.”

What follows is a closer look at a number of these surprises. (You can read a sampling of the emails we received in full here.) On balance, at least from those who wrote to us, there has been more joy than pain, more satisfaction than frustration. Indeed, most readers told us they are surprised at just how much they are enjoying retirement—even if retirement isn’t always what they expected.

The Joys of Taking a Risk

Walking away from work, as with any major transition, can be overwhelming. After all, almost everything is changing: finances, daily routines, social networks. As such, some retirees are inclined to stick with the familiar, the activities and interests they know best.

But the biggest, and best, surprise in retirement, according to many readers, is what happens when you take risks. More to the point: Trying or learning something new, and risking your time and energy (and perhaps your pride) in the process, just might change your life

Patricia Plumeri, age 69 and a retired accountant, has found a “second career” and “lifetime occupation” as, improbably, a guitar player in a four-person ensemble near her home in South Pasadena, Calif. The seed, she explains, was planted during her teenage years in southern England, where she grew up, watching fledgling bands—the Beatles, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones—perform in local music halls. A guitar, she recalls, “seemed to be an instrument that could really express feelings of joy and sadness.”

Six months after retiring in 2010—when “I could make a major time commitment [to] doing something purely for my pleasure”—she signed up for her first guitar lesson. Progress, she notes, was painful; hours of practice each week left her fingers numb. “I would go to my gym and swim in the pool, gently massaging my left hand to get feeling back into it.”

Today, her group (which includes her husband, also retired, on bass) plays two hours weekly. Performing in public, at least for the moment, isn’t part of the plan. But other rewards suffice.

“I wanted something in my life that wasn’t income-driven,” she notes. “The feeling of accomplishment—and the realization that I can actually play a guitar—is pretty heady stuff.”

Of course, change is difficult, and happy endings aren’t guaranteed. But reader after reader made the same point: Retirement is tailor-made for a leap in the dark.

“I thought of hobbies and other interests that I was ‘expected’ to do, but in the end did something totally different,” notes Bart Cormier, a retired engineer in Fernandina Beach, Fla. That “something” is volunteering full time with children’s programs, college students (as a mentor), senior home repair and his church.

Even “doing good” involves risks, Mr. Cormier notes. Tasks will come your way that, to your thinking, are a waste of your talents—or an affront to your dignity. Mr. Cormier, on more than one occasion, found himself “addressing waste-plumbing systems in homes that were a phone call away from being condemned.” There’s also a “risk of getting too committed and not being able to say ‘no,’ ” he adds. “The more you do, the more is wanted.”

Such hazards, though, tend to pale beside the payoffs, he notes. “There’s a deep satisfaction from knowing that you have changed someone else’s life for the better.”

Ah, Free Time at Last

“My surprise in retirement was discovering the unexpected luxury of time.”

That observation, from Vicki Robb, a retired real-estate agent in La Jolla, Calif., was echoed in dozens of the responses we received. Even though retirement today, as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago, is seen as more “active”—more “purpose-filled”—many readers told us that “active” isn’t mandatory. That it’s fine simply to…chill.

Ms. Robb, for one, says there is now “time to take an extra moment to exchange pleasantries, and time to let someone in a hurry go ahead of you. (The hurried person used to be me.) Time to play with a child at their pace, and to meander when shopping, instead of power-walking to find the item and get ’er done. Time for slow cooking and to drive a friend to the airport. Time to ‘waste’ a morning at your first art class, even though you’ll never sell anything.”

A companion theme was the idea of “control”: retirees discovering that they are in charge of their daily routines—not their boss, their clients nor their children.

“The biggest surprise was realizing how much of our time when working was determined/dictated by someone or something else,” one couple told us. “In retirement, though, almost everything we do is because we decided to do it. It’s exhilarating.”

Brian McDonald, a retired pilot in Dillsburg, Pa., told us his days are filled with an eclectic mix of projects and chores: working in a small orchard on his property, shopping (“walking the aisles of deserted stores midmorning during the workweek is pure joy”), taking in the occasional movie matinee and, for good measure, building a small airplane. The point: He manages the schedule, rather than vice versa.

“I challenge myself daily with work of my own choosing,” he notes. “I get satisfaction from a well-built fence or a blemish-free restored piece of furniture.”

And the airplane? “The kit came with 10,000 rivets in a large cardboard box, so I use the level of remaining rivets as a thermometer of progress,” Mr. McDonald explains. “At last count, I have 9,000 to go.”

Careful Planning Pays Off

Financial surprises, not surprisingly, popped up in many of the responses we received. Frequently, a sigh of relief was audible: Nest eggs are working as planned. A number of readers noted that a healthy amount of self-discipline before retiring has a bigger impact afterward than most people realize.

“I’ve lived in the same house since 1972, keep cars for 10 years, exercise regularly for good health and, basically, live within my means,” says Rick Abell, a retired engineer who divides his time between Colorado and Ohio. If “you want to have a comfortable retirement, sacrifices are necessary while working.”

Interestingly, several readers pointed to the same factor as playing a critical role in their financial success: eliminating debt before leaving the workforce. (The Federal Reserve’s most recent survey of consumer finances found that, among older adult households with debt, median total debt increased to $40,900 in 2013 from $18,385 in 2001.)

“I was surprised how important it was to have no substantial debt,” notes Jonathan Stolz, a retired physician in Williamsburg, Va. “Having retired in 2004 without any money owed to the bank made riding out the stock market downturn and recession four years later easier to withstand. And I was able to sleep at night.”

Hit by High Costs

All that said, a number of readers complained about two disagreeable financial surprises: steep Medicare premiums and household expenses that were larger than anticipated.

With regard to Medicare, several readers said they simply didn’t realize how sizable and/or sudden changes in their income (example: taking a buyout) can make them vulnerable to Medicare “surcharges,” the larger-than-normal premiums that some individuals pay for Medicare Part B and prescription-drug coverage.

“The same change [in premiums] can result from the sale of stocks, bonds, etc.,” notes Elizabeth Gillette, a retired communications manager in Ossipee, N.H. “This was something we had never heard about.”

As for household budgets, some readers told us that one of the best-known rules of thumb in retirement planning—expect to spend about 80% of your preretirement income in retirement—is, well, hogwash.

“The big reality is that you will spend 100% of your preretirement income after you retire,” says Steven Fechner, a retired geologist in Reno, Nev. Yes, some expenses are lower, he allows, including commuting costs and clothing. But those savings, he adds, are “eaten up by costs associated with having more time.” Among them:

• Travel and recreation. “Instead of a yearly trip, now you take two or more.”

• Medical. “Instead of putting off medical tests because you didn’t have the time, you now try to figure out every ache and pain associated with aging.” And you often don’t have the same comprehensive insurance coverage you had through an employer.

• Family duties. As in: “Attending social events that you always had an excuse to avoid. Examples: weddings, funerals, baptisms, anniversary and birthday parties.”

• Vehicle maintenance. “The vehicles always seem to need something that you always ignored because you never had time to deal with it.”

The Pain of Mortality

For all the “good” surprises in retirement, several readers said would-be retirees should beware of unexpected jolts. The most devastating: the loss of a spouse.

Bill Sears, a retired contractor in Greenwood Village, Colo., lost his wife last year to Alzheimer’s. He had spent five years as her caregiver.

“Don’t wait until you retire to start enjoying life,” he cautions. “Appreciate that every day you’re as healthy as you’re ever likely to be.”

That sentiment was echoed by Mr. Sandaas in Washington, who lost his wife early in their retirement. The two had hoped to plant a vegetable garden in their yard and take cooking classes together to “get out of the rut of a revolving menu each evening,” he recalls. “But that didn’t happen.” And while they managed to travel extensively early in retirement, they had hoped for more.

“To those who might think there may be too much postretirement travel, I say: Don’t hold back,” Mr. Sandaas says. It “may not be possible in later years for a variety of reasons.”

Mr. Sears added that he is remarrying, much to his surprise. “It never occurred to me to think about marrying again,” he notes. But he credits his wife-to-be with “saving me from giving up.” The two have known each other since the 1960s.

“She and my wife had been friends all those years, so my wife is still part of our life,” Mr. Sears notes. “Her name comes up often and comfortably.”

And Mr. Sandaas, after his wife died, eventually bought an Airstream travel trailer and began crisscrossing the country, logging 20,000 miles in the past three years. “In addition to all the sights, the bonus is the interesting people along the way,” he notes.

Losing Yourself

Another warning from readers: Don’t be surprised if walking away from work is more painful than you anticipate.

“My biggest and most unanticipated retirement adjustment was my temporary loss of self-value,” says Kevin Blakely, a former banking executive in Carefree, Ariz. “Having burned both ends of the candle for 40 years, it was a shock to the system to suddenly find myself and my calendar no longer in demand.”

To deal with this, Mr. Blakely eventually took a part-time position with a consulting firm, a position that offered a mix of purpose and freedom. Bill Fenton, a retired doctor in Folsom, Calif., says he took a “slight self-esteem hit” when he walked away from medicine. His response, he says, has been to “redefine” what constitutes “work.”

“My former definition of work was to earn money to pay bills. My current definition is any activity that benefits me or society and [that] has a goal. After a little trial and error, I came up with exercising every morning as my ‘work,’ with the goals being to stay healthy and to reduce my time in the local sprint triathlon to under two hours.”

He has “no idea where this will end up, as things are still evolving, but my need to ‘work’ is fulfilled, [and] self-esteem is back to normal.”

The Ties That Bind

Finally, reader after reader told us that, despite concerns to the contrary, they are finding new friends in retirement.

“Maybe the biggest surprise was the change in my social life,” says Erika Lockhart, a former fire investigator in Albany, Calif. Her work typically had involved long hours, and, after retiring, “I was feeling isolated,” she recalls. Her solution: She organized two meetup groups—a walking group and a cooking group, both of which have been active for two to three years.

Today, “I have a better social life than I can recall ever having during my working years,” Ms. Lockhart says.

Readers said that retirement offers countless opportunities to meet people if you’re willing to be proactive: exercise classes, coffee-shop get-togethers, shared hobbies and interests (“getting my two dogs [in retirement] has been the best thing I have ever done; I have met so many wonderful people when I take the dogs for walks”), volunteer groups, nonprofits. The list goes on.

“What surprised me most about retirement was how quickly and completely I left behind a 37-year career,” he recalls. His days filled up immediately: golf and cycling with new neighbors, photography, woodworking, volunteering (with Score, a national organization of retirees who mentor entrepreneurs) and serving on his community’s board of directors.

“I learned the truth in what I had heard: Happiness in retirement is directly related to the people you spend time with,” he says. “What I found remarkable is that, in a community full of extremely successful retirees, very few talk about their careers. People here are focused on each other and in learning new skills and exploring new adventures. What a life!”


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