Last month’s Down to Business column presented the concept that it’s never too early to start thinking about retirement. But these days, it seems you almost need to work at it.

People put a lot of thought and effort into their jobs, careers and businesses, but then they let retirement come as it may. Like most business tasks, it starts with planning.

As part of that process, you should run through some typical questions, such as: What kind of retirement do you want? Where do you want to live? How do you want to spend your time, and with whom?

While trying to have enough money for retirement has always been an issue, today it’s even more so because people live longer, and they stay active longer.

Other questions to consider: Do you have enough money to retire comfortably? Is there a danger you will run out?

Equally important (retirement experts often say more important) are the emotional and psychological issues surrounding retirement.

To get in the right frame of mind about retirement, it’s wise to think of it as a full-time job — a new career with its own challenges, stresses and rewards. When you seek a new job or career, you ask about pay and benefits. But you’re also interested in the emotional and intellectual rewards of the job, and how it will affect quality of life. You consider issues like, what are the working conditions? Will you look forward to going to work everyday? What do you want to accomplish in your new job?

Shouldn’t retirement receive the same considerations?

Perhaps you’ve never thought of it this way. But consider the problems that often arise out of improperly planned retirements.

Loss of identity is a legitimate concern. Many people, particularly those who are deeply committed to their careers, attach their personal identity to their work. People always ask, “what do you do?” Responding, “I’m a retiree” doesn’t have the same emotional feel as, “I’m a business owner,” “a production manager” or “an accountant.” 

Successful people in careers have clear goals, such as, “I want to build my own company;” “I want to double the size of my operation;” or “I want to become a regional manager.” But you can, and should, apply the same goal-orientation and desires to retirement planning.

You may tap into your former career. For example, as a former business owner, you may serve as a paid or volunteer advisor to others who are starting a business.

You might chose to do something more removed from your working years. Perhaps you will paint, tutor students or teach others to read. Perhaps replying with “I’m a painter” or “I’m a tutor” will provide the fulfillment that you want.

To get an idea of what their clients want to do in retirement, financial advisors often ask thought-provoking questions, such as: “If you had all the money you could ever want, what would you do?” Or, “If you had only five years to live (but were healthy the entire time) what would you do?”

Boredom is another psychological fallout of a poorly planned retirement. That’s why it’s increasingly common for retirees to return to the workforce, at least part-time.

One way to avoid boredom is to practice retirement before you retire. If there’s a hobby you think you’d like to take up, such as carpentry or volunteering, start to pursue it before you retire. Explore this new career five or 10 years before retirement. Take some classes. You may have to try out several retirement “careers” before you find something that’s comfortable and fulfilling.

The same principle applies to deciding where you want to retire. On vacation, lots of places seem like an ideal retirement spot, but what’s it really like to live there? It’s important to try to find out. 

Talk it through with those around you—not just your spouse—so that you can work through differing expectations. This is often important in agriculture, where a retiree might want to keep his or her fingers in the business. Will that be acceptable? What are the ground rules?

Finally, people often fail to realize that retirement comes in stages. Those stages include changes in personal interests, activity levels, health and financial needs. These are all points that you need to think through as you plan for your retirement career. n

This column is produced by Financial Planning Associates, and is provided by R. Hutton Cobb, a Wachovia Securities financial advisor in Greenville, N.C.