Making up for lost time

I was quoted in Barron’s this week in an article called “Covid has stolen time from retirees. Here are some tips for making it up.

I have been pondering this concept since the writer reached out to me a few weeks ago, because I find it fascinating to think about the opportunity cost of time in different stages of life…Now that her piece is published, I can write more about it.

My first thought: we are all going to die eventually. We might have Four Thousand Weeks (I hope more) but time is ultimately limited. It’s harder to see that early in life, when time feels expansive, and possibly even endless, but the older you are, the more that reality starts to hit.

This is a particular issue for folks who are retired. At least on the middle-to-upper income side of things, sixty-something people often retire with the goal of doing  activities such as travel, hanging out with family and friends, spending time on community endeavors that were tough to do while working full time, eating out, going to matinees, whatever. The goal is to do this for a good long time, but at some point (for many folks), health concerns make it harder to take a trans-Atlantic cruise or take that woodworking class. So there’s always a question of how many healthy retirement years you have available for these pursuits, and how you should distribute these pursuits over these hopefully-numerous-but-possibly-not years.

For certain folks, the 1-2 years (depending on place) when many activities were limited by Covid and Covid restrictions represented a very high proportion of their healthy retirement time. Obviously dying of Covid would end those healthy retirement years completely, so this is a question of calculating risks, but not doing things like visiting family, acting in the local theater group, or traveling to Europe, involved severe trade-offs, given that there may not be much time left to do those things.

Covid isn’t over, but now that there are vaccines, and boosters, and milder variants, some folks are wondering if you can make up for lost time. That’s why Barron’s — a publication aimed at people with portfolios large enough that money is not the primary limiting factor — ran this story.

The short answer is: no. Once a second is gone, it is gone. All the money in the world can’t buy it back. I know some retirees who made certain choices even during the darkest days of Covid — such as continuing to visit family members — precisely because they weren’t willing to accept the risk of for sure not seeing their loved ones vs. the lower percent chance of contracting Covid in its riskier forms. Others made different choices. That is the tough calculus of a pandemic.

But that doesn’t make for a good article, so I did offer some thoughts on how to think about time now. One is to think about what you would have liked to have done in 2020 and 2021, and accelerate the timeline on doing more of that. So, for instance, if you would have taken 2 big trips a year, try taking 3 or 4 per year. If you’d go visit some old friends who live 3 hours away once or twice a year, do that more often. Accept that life will feel a little more “full” now— even “busy.” It balances out the time when it wasn’t full at all. Life goes in phases, and no one phase ever lasts forever.

(Speaking of which, I am flying three times in two weeks — including making good on two talks booked for June 2020 and rescheduled for June 2022. It seems that phase of my life is back…)

Photo: This photo doesn’t have much to do with retirees, or Covid, but I enjoyed that I could see Canada from my Detroit hotel room, and even cooler, I was looking south to see our “northern” neighbor.

15 thoughts on “Making up for lost time

  1. That’s really interesting to think through. In some ways, the pandemic focused my parents’ attention a bit. They were planning on retiring and moving to Southern Europe (to be closer to us in the UK, a particularly North American understanding of closeness) but after 18 months where they weren’t able to see us/their grandson, this accelerated their timeline, and they moved in June 2021. Their means are much more limited than the readers of Barron’s but family time has always been more important to them than money. Now they are more regular (physical) presence in our lives. They can help out with childcare and every trip feels easier – it’s 4 days ever 6 weeks or so where they slot into our lives, rather than 10 days every 6 months where we feel like we need to jam in adventures etc. There is something really valuable in doing the school run, making dinner, reading bedtime stories for that regularity.

    My mother in laws live much closer but their response to the pandemic is to accelerate activities for the organisation they run and they are booked up months in advance. Which is sometimes tough to reconcile. I’m glad they can pursue their passions but find their intentions on involvement vs reality quite different.

    1. @Cb – great to have grandparents closer! But yes, all activities have trade offs. People might want to travel AND care regularly for grandkids or travel AND be the leaders of an active civic organization but sometimes it’s hard to make the two work together in terms of timing. I know a lot of my church’s activities go dormant during the summer and that is when a lot of my fellow choir members travel.

  2. Interesting concept. After about one year of safely isolating, and after vaccinations, my family tried to make up for lost time and see my retiree parents frequently in 2021 and early 2022. My mother died suddenly of a heart attack in March, just echoing the theme that life is short. I’m glad that we saw her frequently over the pat year but think about how much she missed while we were isolating that first year. Trying to live life while assuming/considering risk for ourselves and others is the lesson going forward.

    1. @Emma – I am so sorry for your loss. I’m glad you got the time with her in 2021 and 2022 but yes, it is hard to think about the opportunity cost of 2020 given how things turned out.

  3. My dad retired and was excited about bicycling, traveling, and devoting much more time to playing the flute. Two months later, he had a bike accident that resulted in (among other things) 11 stitches in his lip, which meant that he wasn’t able to bike or play flute or travel for what seemed to him an interminable length of time but was actually like 4 months, ending in Februarly 2020. He was planning to take a very long, leisurely road trip (with his bicycle and flute, of course) with departure scheduled for April 2020. When COVID hit, he was definitely bitter at the continual thwarting of his plans by an indifferent universe. He did end up hitting the road as soon as he was fully vaccinated, traveling from May-August 2021. Your post here made me think about the concept of sequence of returns risk, where timing matters – a market crash in early retirement can be much more consequential for an individual than one that happens early in working life or later in retirement.

    1. @Seppie – I am so glad your dad took his bike trip last year! Good for him for not putting it off any longer.
      Because yes, timing matters. There’s been some research, I know, looking at income of people who graduate from school during recessions. It is lower, though interestingly, one of the catch-up mechanisms is that those people are more likely to pursue more education (going to school since the opportunity cost of not working is lower) and with more education they then earn more on average. Fascinating stuff.

  4. My mother (who attended one of your talks on working from home in the last days of her legal career) retired during the pandemic. She is a relatively young and healthy retiree, but she absolutely refused to stop traveling the 3500 miles to see us. For her retiring is all about spending more time with family. I appreciated not everyone would make that choice, but for her it was the right one. We actually traveled less than she did even though we are younger and presumably at less risk. With school quarantines after travel the perceived downsides were higher for us.

    1. @Gillian – sounds like she made a very rational risk analysis! Ultimately we all have to ask what we want our lives to look like.

  5. I am 40 (41 next month), so not near retirement age (though my husband likes to follow the FIRE people and I’ve read Your Money or Your Life), but that idea that you don’t know how many healthy years you will have in retirement has made me prioritize differently now. (And, having seen so many colleagues and family members die shortly after or before retirement.) I have a sabbatical coming up, and while it is a drop in pay to take the whole year, I’ve decided to take the whole year and have been pushing for us to travel in South American for four months. We might not be able bodied enough to do it when we retire – if we do retire/make it to retirement.

  6. No one should ever wait until retirement to “finally” do all the things they want to do. They should do them NOW. If you don’t have the money for traveling now, there are ways to travel cheaply (ex. hostels) and countries that are so much more affordable than others. Sure it won’t be as comfortable, but it *could* work. As for hobbies and community volunteering and other activities: make it work NOW!!
    I have decided work is not my life. Workaholic culture can kiss my butt. I have cut down on work hours in order to volunteer, engage in hobbies/classes, and mainly to prioritize short monthly vacations with my husband. I’m 38, nearing middle age soon. Most definitely not “old,” but I could get hit by a bus tomorrow (I have personal met/known young people who have died of motor vehicle accidents, killed in action overseas deployment, etc.). I am NOT waiting!

    1. Sam – we should be besties or at least accountability partners! I am trying to kick the workaholic mindset but after 30 years of practicing it, it is the default and hard to give up, even though I want to!

      1. LauraC, It’s a tough mindset to get rid of, as we’re all raised to make work be THE purpose in our lives. (BS sayings include, “Follow your passion!” and “Do work you love!”) Except, it’s just a job, and that’s TOTALLY OK. That’s actually all it should be. We have to step back and realize that WE, us as human beings, are ends in and of ourselves, and we are not meant to be means for other ends, such as work (especially not “the man”). I do believe work is important, and it is needed to make the world go round and we all need money to pay the bills plus some extra for vacations and other luxuries that help us live a good life. I also do believe we should ask for those raises and earn what we are worth. I go in, *I do good work*, and that’s it. No more, no less. I refuse to go “above and beyond”. My company and my coworkers are lovely, but they are not “family,” as so many like to insist.
        By making work the center of our lives that everything else revolves around, we shortchange ourselves, and we shortchange our families, friends, and communities by prioritizing them less.
        Kicking the workaholic mindset is hard to do. I began that journey many years ago. Psychologically, it didn’t happen overnight.
        I highly recommend Jonahtan Malesic’s book “The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives” and Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less” to help you along. 🙂

        1. OMG YES. All of this. Bravo!
          I’ve had a lull in my job for a few months now, where new projects haven’t started up yet, and old ones are humming along and I’m struggling with boredom and sameness at work. It took a little while, but I realized I don’t always need WORK to provide that mental stimulation – maybe I can focus on the time outside of work to learn new things or add more fun activities. I have a great job that gives me a lot of flexibility (full remote work, chill team) and it can be just that. Work doesn’t have to be my “family”, or my primary source of interesting activity 🙂

  7. Funny – I hadn’t thought of it that way, but that’s what I’ve been doing. I usually take a couple of trips a year, but couldn’t during the worst of COVID, when everything was shut down. Since early December, I’ve already taken THREE week-long trips, and three or four day trips. I’m leaving in another week-long trip next week, a trip with my daughter’s family in late August, and two trips back-to-back in late September/early October. And there will probably be a couple more before the end of the year.

    I usually take at least one (sometimes two) trips a year with my oldest sister. I’m 65 and she’s 77. We lost our middle sister in December. I missed out on our sister trips during the COVID shutdowns, and there will chime a time when she won’t be able to go with me, either because of her physical health, or her husband’s increasing dementia. He still functions fairly well for now, and is working and writing a book, but one day she’ll be tied down at home with him, so I’m trying to get as much fun time with her as possible before that happens.

    1. @Ruth – I’m so glad you’ve stepped up the pace of travel! And yes, there will be a chime in time, whether for your sister’s health or her husband’s. It’s good to spend as much fun time as you can with her before that happens.

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