Stanley Bing's secrets to a happy retirement
Drive till you can't remember where you parked. Spend money on things you don't need. And eat four rashers of bacon every day.
by Stanley Bing, FORTUNE columnist

(FORTUNE Magazine) - For those at the fast end of the food chain, life gets more pressured and complicated every day.

Phones ring. Messages pile up. Entire coming months hover in the mind, reeking with incident and threat. We wake at dawn and get into the traces like pack dogs, pulling a sled of duties until, tongues lolling, we are allowed to curl up and sleep for a few hours at the end of another grueling day. And as we sleep, we dream, whimpering and twitching, and what we dream of is a land where biscuits grow on trees, and there is rest and warmth and happiness and no one to tell us what to do. We dream of retirement.

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Of course, the smart animals in the endless Iditarod do not simply imagine the wonders of the next world. We plot. We plan. We believe we prepare. Our preparation, however, too often focuses solely on the financial aspects of the trip ahead. We set up trusts. We sock away lump sums. We buy condos in weird places no person with blood in his veins would live, believing that because in the past we have enjoyed playing quoits or badminton we will enjoy doing so every day with a community of elderly strangers. Fie on it! That way lies madness, senescence, and the early-bird special.

The human aspects

The truth is, those who intend to have a happy retirement must deliver the goods on the human aspects of the issue as they do on the fiduciary ones. Unfortunately this takes the kind of cogitation that you, as a reader of this magazine, are no longer set up to do very well. You've been in business so long that your mind is accustomed to a fine blend of wishful thinking and can-do attitudinizing on subjective subjects. "It's gonna be great!" you tell yourself. "Wake up at noon every day like I did when I was a teenager! Have a bagel! Play 36 holes! Couple of drinks at the 19th green! Wake up and do it again the next day! That's what I call living!" Right. Have you thought about what 25 years of that will be like?

Get this: A life of incessant recreation and indolence is enough to drive any business entity like you or me mad after 3.5 years. And after you go mad, you get old. And nobody who is old enjoys his retirement. No, in order to make your ostensibly golden years work for you, you have to pursue a strategic plan as rigorous as any you implemented when your hair was as full and bushy as your ambitions.

The truth is, retirement is a job like any other and must be approached as such. Some of the sprouts that bloom from this assumption are counterintuitive. Some are dangerous and defy the exhortations of a medical establishment that wants us to live to be 120 and pay more for our drool buckets every year. Some are downright tough to accomplish. But those who do not put elbow grease into this, the final assignment, end up shuffling in house slippers through malls. Those who do it right stand before us, full of beans and good cheer, relaxed, tanned, capes flapping in the breeze, the apotheosis of all we desire.

Why relocate?

Let's take it from day one, the morning you first awaken to the life in which you are to enjoy the fruits of your lifetime of labor.

First of all, where are you? I hope you're at home. If for the past few decades that's meant the arid oven that is Phoenix, then by all means, good for you, enjoy Phoenix. Same goes for Miami. A wonderful place for those who don't mind the humidity and the naked roller skaters hard by the frightened old folks pushing their walkers down Collins Avenue. Me, I don't like it there, so I would never go there simply because I had suddenly entered the retirement zone. And yet look how many have done so over the years! Why?

Stay put. Where do you think you're going? Someplace new and strange? That's why God created hotels.

And what about those communities dedicated to like-minded haute bourgeoisie such as yourself? You like old people, do you? Just because they're old, I mean? As in, you're going to say to yourself, "Gee, I'm tired of seeing all these young, vibrant people around and associating with them every day. I'm going to search out a place where everybody is playing the back nine just like me. Same interests. Same slacks. Same stories day after day. Same obsession with bowel movements."

Bloom where you were planted

Look at it this way: You're a beautiful flower. You have flourished in the hard and flinty soil in which you were grown and in which you have raised your ancillary flora. Now, suddenly, you're going to rip out your roots and shove them into rich, loamy soil totally unlike any you have ever experienced? And live there? Really? Before, you were part of a gorgeous garden, with every sort of plant, shrub, and weed. Now it'll be just you and the other orchids?

And don't travel too much either. You want to establish a daily grind that, when necessary, you can escape from. That's why the Interminable Vacation approach is also bogus. I know a guy who daydreams about getting away in his little sailboat and disappearing into the sunset. And I wish it for him. And when all his socks are wet, and there isn't a wrinkle in his body that isn't filled with salt, I wish him a happy return to where he belongs, in metropolitan New York. Except when he gets there, several years and circumnavigations later, he won't have his pipe dream anymore. He'll have been there and done that. And then what?

Same goes for golf. I know a guy. For ten years all he did was play golf. "It's heaven!" he would tell me. Then, when he was in his late 60s, his game deteriorated, naturally. As a competitive individual, he became aggravated beyond all measure and broke all his clubs and quit. Now he sits and mostly chews on his lip. Sometimes he gasses up the car.

The conclusion is clear: You've got to keep your hobbies hobbies. They're called hobbies because you do them to relax, to get your mind off more serious things. They're not supposed to be done all the time. That's no fun. Oh, and speaking of the whole notion of fun, don't expect to have it every day. In fact, make sure that every day you do something that isn't fun. If you push the fun factor too hard, you'll end up enjoying your retirement as much as people savor the big mandatory-fun occasions like New Year's. There's a reason people get loaded that night.

Maintain your bad habits

Eat at least four rashers of bacon every day, depending on what your idea of a rasher is. I've never known the difference between a rasher and a slice, so I'm going to use them interchangeably. Be that as it may: Bacon is life. At times you may substitute sausage.

If you do not, for some reason, eat delicious, greasy, fatty smoked meats, substitute a tempting portion of the worst food imaginable for you, and eat some of it every day. Old people are encouraged to eat reasonably. This ruins their lives and makes them irritable. I know I'm crusty when I don't get a big slab of meat when I want one.

This is only the first of many bad habits you're going to want to maintain. I include in this category smoking and drinking, by the way, although smoking is a nasty habit unless you like it a lot. As for drinking, never get drunk more than once day. You're not a kid anymore. Less than that, however, is ill-advised as well, unless you've developed the habit previously.

Not that you should be completely reckless with yourself. A physical disaster can really derail you. So chew your food very carefully, and stay away from those that give you problems. Halibut, for instance, can be dry and have tiny hidden bones. I don't believe my grandmother ever had a piece without nearly going into respiratory arrest. She should have stuck to the chicken. The bones are bigger.

This brings us to the general question of being careful. As you pursue your retirement, you will become increasingly elderly unless something really bad happens to you. This is inevitable, but it doesn't have to happen right away. There are, in short, things you can do to slow down the process. Be pleasantly reckless when you are able. Again, don't break the mold. If you never skied a double black diamond, now is not the time to try, unless you're with a 24-year-old flight attendant who wants you to try it with her.

Which leads us to the issue of staying in shape. You may think you know what that means, but you don't, because we've been sold the stupid idea that there is a perfect shape. There isn't. There's just one that's right for you.

What is yours? I'm an apple. You may be a pear, in which case I like you. You may be a stalk of celery, in which case more power to you. Whatever you are, play the game that got you here, unless you're really fat. I don't know if you've noticed this, but there are very few very fat very old people. Make of that what you will.

That's why it makes sense to exercise more than you used to, not less. You have the time. You want to continue to abuse your body in a million other ways, so take care of it. That doesn't mean going completely around the bend and becoming a hardbody for the first time in your life. I can't tell you how many guys I've known who keeled over about a week after they told me they were running 25 miles a week and were in the best shape of their life.

This was possibly because they were under the care of doctors. As you go forward in your busy and fulfilling retirement, avoid contact with physicians by any means necessary. At your age, the purpose of doctors is to supervise the long decline and demise of old people. Your goal is to go down face first in a 28-ounce T-bone at the age of 90. Extensive exposure to doctors will eliminate that possibility.

So will listening to all the people who love you. They mean well. But they don't get it. You're not winding things down. You're ramping up! So don't hang with your children too much. Visit them. Give presents. And then move on. You've got fish to fry.

And to do so, you must implement a policy: Always look your best. As you become older and less attractive, the need for aggressive grooming and sartorializing grows exponentially. So forget about all those lifelong aspirations to let it all hang out. Some tips:

  • Get a haircut every week, even if you have no hair.
  • Don't grow a beard unless you're a woman. But seriously, if you had a beard before, you may keep it. Other than that, it's a place to store crumbs.
  • Do not take up the wearing of bow ties unless you are attempting to create a persona where before you had none or are on MSNBC, which amounts to the same thing.
  • Shower regularly. People like smelly old people about as much as they like smelly young ones.
  • Bag the comfy clothing. Wear a jogging suit only if you intend to go jogging. Always wear a belt, and make it leather or cloth, not shiny plastic. A belt keeps more than your waist in. It constrains the part of your personality that wants to sag.
  • Wear no spandex. You look terrible in it.

There's a reason to take such good care of yourself. Retirement is a prime opportunity to bang the gong and get it on.

Yep. That's what I'm talkin' about. Married. Single. Whatever side of the salad bar you sit on, now is the time to amp up the juice and cut loose. I'm going to assume that those of you living in connubial bliss may now simply get a hot tub and continue to explore each other in useful ways. Those who are on the prowl, however, have a multitude of opportunities. Have an affair with your yoga instructor! Strike up an acquaintance with that dental hygienist you've had an eye on since the time you had teeth! Younger people are often attracted to affluent older individuals who look even marginally acceptable. I put that in boldface because it's a key insight. You may now be able to nab someone you had no right to when you were 30.

Spend like there's no tomorrow

To keep that ball in the air, however, you're going to need to spend money like it's going out of style, purchasing things you don't need and having a terrific time with the cash you've accumulated. Go! Spend! Your whole working life you did everything possible to live it up, but you're not on an expense account anymore. You're spending your own money. And for a while it will hurt. But push through that and look at the vistas that lie ahead.

Cars! They have so many gorgeous vehicles right now, little deuce coupes and big fat eight-cylinder limos and cool hybrids that run on ethanol if you're in California and want to attract a hippie. You're going to need a new car, you know, because you're going to drive until you can't remember where you parked. That's the key. If you can't recall where you put it, you won't need it anymore. Until then, don't let anybody take away your wheels. I'm interested in a BMW Z4, but you might want one of those big boys that let you tower over everybody else. So grab a Tahoe, slap a handicapped sticker on it - even though you're not one bit handicapped, are you, you big faker! - and roll right up to the front door. Out of the way, losers! Retired behemoth comin' through!

Speaking of cool machines, you're going to need an iPod, cellphone, BlackBerry, digital television, HD Radio, whatever they got out there that's not analog. Get a computer and learn how to use it, even if up until now that's been your assistant's job. You'll be able to go online and talk to people who can't see how tiny and wizened you are, and reach out and caress the entire world, and start being interested in superficial, idiotic, and distracting things, which is the perfect antidote to the natural drift you're fighting toward the central questions of existence.

That's it! You're fit. You're well fed. You're in the groove, baby, spending and wending your way around a world that was made for you. And when you get tired of all this and run out of money, like everybody told you you would?

Get a job, pal. You didn't think this nonsense was going to last forever, did you? Ah, yes. Back in the saddle, whatever that saddle may be.

Don't that feel good? Top of page

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