Retirement Planning: Focus on Life, Not Just the Money

Written by
Doris Green

May 6, 2018

May 6, 2018 • by Doris Green

Retirement is about more than the numbers. Most women in higher education have kept abreast of their pension accounts and considered when to take Social Security benefits. But few have thought about how they might live to enjoy the next 20 or 30 years after they leave academe.

Life reinvention coach Mary Helen Conroy learned by experience. Conroy is chief creative officer of the website Life’s a Daring Adventure and I’m Not Done Yet ( She started her company after a career as a sales executive for Women in Higher Education and adjunct professor for Cardinal Stritch University WI. Before those assignments, she served as a public library administrator in Chicago. Finding herself stepping away from WIHE in 2014, she asked, “What next?”

What Comes Next

Previously, Conroy had always known what she was going to do. But this time, “I spent three months in a robe and fuzzy slippers on the couch watching HGTV.”

The time, however, was not wasted. Conroy created her business based on a Helen Keller quote (“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing”) and today is happier than ever—coaching, consulting and making presentations. Along the way, she wrote the Kindle best-seller Your Amazing Itty Bitty® Retirement Book: 15 Essential Tips for You, the Nearly and Newly Retired (2016).

Upon retirement, a woman in higher education can go from being addressed as “Doctor” to not being addressed at all. She can go from having a business card that means something to having none at all, according to Conroy. “Her entire life was spent getting there … and many are now not able to stay until age 65,” she says. This situation can lead to “huge identity issues.”

Yet retirement is only another transition, like graduating from college or starting your first job. “It’s just been a while and doesn’t feel the same,” Conroy says, “but it’s not death. You’re not done yet.”

Forget Bucket Lists

She advises taking “our career-centric list” and transitioning it “to a curiosity journal, not a bucket list.” Conroy explained that Leonardo Da Vinci carried a curiosity notebook with him every day, in which he captured things he was curious about; then at night, he’d work on these ideas.

The problem with a bucket list, Conroy says, is that “we look at retirement like a vacation, to read, quilt or take a trip.” But that gets old fast. She coaches retiring women to build a life, not a vacation.

Actually, Conroy avoids the “r” word. “I don’t use the word ‘retired’ at all.… You will figure I’m dead. I’m the CEO of my life.”

Instead, Conroy advocates a three R’s approach to building a new life:

  • Review: “We need to Re-view our life to see what might be possible. What did we really want to do? What is your unique talent?”
  • Retreat: “Take time away … withdraw from the world and allow yourself to design your future. Re-treat yourself with fun and discovery.”
  • Reinvention: “Become a spaghetti maker: Throw ideas up on the wall to see what sticks. Re-invent every part of your life.”

When Conroy “re-viewed” her career as a librarian and teacher, she realized a need to share information and inspire. “I need to tell people they’re better than they [think] they are [and help them] to dream bigger,” she says.

A retreat provides the space for “people to sit down with their past … sit with it for a while and see what happens.”

The reinvention step provides an opportunity to pull forward into your new life those threads that have been important in the past. “List 100 things you always wanted to do,” Conroy suggests. “Allow your life to be brand new again.”

Plan a Life

How to find the time to focus on life planning? Many women leaders have enough to juggle without thinking about who they want to be in retirement. Conroy advocates small steps to take now that, like a marble dropped into water, will have a huge ripple effect over time.

“Don’t wait. Start working on your book now. Start volunteering,” or learning that new foreign language, or exploring a new business venture, she says. “How many women in higher education have never taken a vacation?” Conroy asks. Some of those saved vacation days might be put to good use planning for the inevitable life transition.

Conroy emphasized the importance of building a network of relationships that will be crucial in retirement. “Social isolation is the number-one killer,” she says. She advises, “Find someone to see a movie with. Make connections now” to prevent isolation later. “Have friends of different ages—some younger, some about the same age and some older,” she says.

She recommended joining a group or taking a class, as well as reaching out to individuals. “I started my 50 cups of coffee in a year challenge to meet people for coffee and learn how they lived their life,” Conroy says, though she had to explain to a few, “No, I’m not looking for a job.”

Another strategy is to invite two guests to a dinner party, asking each of them to invite two guests. The result? “You don’t know what conversations you’ll get or whom you’ll meet,” she says.