Retirement Read Time: 4 min

Don’t let bad financial habits haunt your retirement

It’s human nature to fall into habits. Some habits can make life better, like exercising, creating and following a spending plan, or calling Mom every Sunday. But bad habits, like shopping when you’re bored or living beyond your means, can be harmful, even haunting us like a ghost in a scary story.

When it comes to retirement, some people can quit working and fall immediately into good money habits that they’ve practiced for years. Other people find themselves haunted by past missteps or bad financial habits. Feeling financially unready for retirement is so common that one recent survey found that forty-one percent of respondents said it’s going to “take a miracle” for them to feel financially secure by retirement age.1

When people feel like they won’t be financially ready for retirement, they tend to be hard on themselves. But this doesn’t serve anything — and it doesn’t feel good to live with the ghost of past money mistakes or habits. Instead, whether retirement is off in the distance or just around the corner, you can chase away the specters of your bad money habits as part of your retirement strategy.

Shake off the shame

People can feel ashamed when they can’t see themselves living the classic retirement dream. But remember: shame often comes from the idea that everyone else has things figured out. That’s simply not true: you are not the first — or the last — to worry about your retirement. It’s quite common for people to have to adjust their retirement plans.2

Don’t go it alone

In the words of author Dr. Brene Brown, “The less we talk about shame, the more power it has over our lives.”3 The first step in letting go of bad financial habits is to release the shame around them, and one way to do that is through talking with others. If you haven’t already done so, talk with a financial professional to help you set up a retirement strategy that is tailored for your circumstances. A financial professional can help keep you accountable for changing bad habits to meet your retirement goals. One study found that if you set up specific accountability appointments to check in on a goal, your chances of successfully meeting it skyrocket to 95 percent.4

See retirement as a fresh start

Conventional wisdom sees retirement as an end, and yes, it’s often the end of one’s prime working years. But it can also be a beginning. Think back to other times in your life when you’ve changed habits. You may have used a special date, such as a birthday or New Year’s Day, to set a fresh start. Now bring this idea to your retirement strategy. Choose an upcoming milestone and commit that date to begin boosting your savings. Researchers at Harvard Business School discovered that people who started increasing their retirement contributions on a special date boosted their savings rate over time.5

Replace old financial habits with better ones

Breaking old routines can take some planning. As you work toward healthier financial habits, look ahead and note any upcoming occasions that could trigger your old ways. For example, maybe you often treat your family to a fancy dinner out to celebrate milestones. This habit is full of good intentions, but if it’s not within your budget, plan a celebration that doesn’t require an expensive tab. Start a new family tradition of cooking a meal together, or choose a new group activity like going on a hike. Use this new ritual to honor the occasion as well as your new commitment to long-term financial security.

Create reminders for your long-term goals

It’s not easy to change old patterns of behavior. To stay the course, keep your goals front and center. Put a daily reminder on your phone that you want a financially secure retirement. Set a regular check-in with a financial professional to make sure you’re staying on track. Put up visual reminders — if you desire to travel in your later years, for example, hang photos of your dream destinations around your home. Then, when you’re tempted by old spending habits, you’ll be faster to remember why you’re changing your ways.

As you leave bad habits behind, keep in mind that this process isn’t all or nothing. Just because you slip up and splurge today, for instance, does not mean that you have to do so again tomorrow. No one can change everything overnight. It takes small steps. Eventually you may find that your old money habits are — like monsters under the bed or ghosts from a story — nothing more than a figment of your imagination.


1 41% of Americans Say It’s Going to ‘Take a Miracle’ to Be Ready for Retirement, Report Finds, CNBC, Sept. 14, 2021

2 Older Americans Are Increasingly Unwilling  – Or Unable – To Retire, NPR, Oct. 2, 2019

3 5 Ways to Silence Shame, Psychology Today, Jan. 13, 2015

4 Psychological Secrets to Hack Your Way to Better Life Habits, Observer,  March 20, 2017

5 Using Fresh Starts to Nudge Increased Retirement Savings, Harvard Business School, June 23, 2021


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