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The 90/10 Rule of Retirement


Are you tired of all these rules yet? It’s starting to seem like personal finance and retirement have more rules than kindergarten.

These guidelines can be interesting, though, and this one from Fritz Gilbert comes from someone with a few years of retirement under his belt. Before he retired, he focused intently on the numbers. Dollars and cents occupied his thoughts. Nowadays? Not so much.

I would expect his to be true for many, but it’s a bit surprising coming from someone who regularly writes about retirement and even wrote a book on the topic. Personally, I think I’d spend 90% less time thinking about investing and personal finance if I didn’t have a blog keeping these things at the forefront.

This Friday Feature was originally published on The Retirement Manifesto.




I never thought it would happen to me.

Sure, I’d heard about the phenomenon from folks who had retired before me, but it didn’t seem possible.

Not in my case.

But, I was wrong.  Now 3 years into retirement, I’ve realized those folks were right.  I never thought I’d write these words, but I’ve changed my mind on this mental shift that I’d been warned about.  Until now, there wasn’t a name for it.  Today, I’m changing that.

I’m introducing a new rule.  A name, if you will, for the phenomenon I’ll be discussing in this post:


“The 90/10 Rule of Retirement”


I had coffee recently with Tom, a long-time reader of this blog.  He’s 2+ years away from crossing his “Starting Line” and wanted to meet me while he was in town on vacation.  We had a great chat, and I’m pleased to report he’s doing all of the right things as he prepares for retirement.

Like many of us do as we’re trying to figure out “When Can I Retire?”, Tom is running “his numbers”, and he’s done some excellent work.  We spent a fair bit of time reviewing his spreadsheets, and it brought back a flood of memories from when I was going through the exact same process in the final years before my retirement. After we got done reviewing his numbers, I told him I thought he’d be in good shape to retire on his targeted timeline.

And then, a thought struck me.

I recalled discussions I’d had with retired folks when I was in Tom’s shoes, and how they told me something that had stuck in my mind.  I later found it to be true in my own life, so I shared it with him:


“When we’re planning for retirement, it’s amazing how much time we spend working through the numbers.  What I’ve found interesting is how little time I spend focused on the numbers now that I’ve retired.”


Tom, knowing that I enjoy metaphors, suggested the time spent analyzing the numbers in pre-retirement is a good example of “sharpening the axe,” where the effort spent “sharpening” on the front end (crunching the numbers) leads to an easier job of chopping down the tree (enjoying a worry-free retirement).  Smart guy.

Bonus points for Tom.  He bought my coffee, he used a metaphor, and he added value to the discussion.

Thanks for stopping by while you were in the area, Tom.  The pic below is for you…


Running the numbers = Sharpening the axe


The 90/10 Rule of Retirement:  Defined


I hearby declare “The 90/10 Rule of Retirement” as follows:


“In preparation for retirement, most people spend 90% of their planning time on the financial issues and 10% on the non-financial issues.  After retirement, the ratio reverses, and most retirees spend the vast majority of their time focusing on the non-financial issues of life.”

In full transparency, I cannot claim credit for this “rule”.  While I’ve thought a lot about the topic in the three years that I’ve been retired, I had never summarized the phenomenon in words.  That honor goes to my friend, Kevin Lyles (AKA “Beach Walker” in Roger Whitney’s Rock Retirement Club).

Recently, I appeared as a guest at the Retirement Coaches Association Conference. In this LinkedIn post promoting the conference, Kevin left the following comment:


kevin lyle's rule of retirement


For history’s sake, I’m hereby claiming that the posting by Kevin was the first public declaration of the 90/10 Rule of Retirement.  Congratulations, Kevin.  You’ve once again proven your wisdom, and I value your friendship.


The Implications of the 90/10 Rule of Retirement


We could argue all day about the “90 or the 10”, but that’s not the point.

Rather, the point of the 90/10 Rule of Retirement is to make soon-to-be retirees aware of a likely shift in their pre- vs. post-retirement focus.  As Kevin said in his comment above, “if retirement coaches can help get these more in balance before retirement, their clients will have much better transitions”.


Obviously, there MUST be a focus on the numbers when you’re determining when you’ll be able to retire.  Likewise, the numbers remain important post-retirement, but somehow they seem less important than they were when you were deciding when you would be able to retire.

Maybe for you, it’s 70/30, and it’ll move to 50/50.  Perhaps it’s not a “Rule” at all, but rather a guideline to emphasize the reality of a phenomenon that many retirees experience.   And, of course, I realize that many retirees struggle with money throughout retirement, so there’s that.

This concept, then, most likely applies to folks like you, the readers of personal finance blogs who make the effort to plan their financial futures.  Apply it as you wish, but it’s a big mental shift to be aware of as you’re planning for your retirement.

Whatever you want to call it, consider it valuable advice from those who have walked the path before you.  Your perception of, and focus on, “The Numbers” will likely change dramatically after you cross The Starting Line. Recognize it, and try to focus a bit more on the non-financial aspects of your retirement during your planning years.

Perhaps it’ll be helpful to share what I was thinking about when I was in my pre-retirement vs. post-retirement years.  What better way than to take a journey through Every Article I’ve Written, which I’ve stored chronologically so you can jump in and read regardless of where you are on your journey.


Pre-Retirement Thinking:

If you’ve not yet retired, you’re likely very focused on the numbers.  I know I was.  Looking back, I would consider myself nearly obsessive on the topic.  I enjoyed the process of laying out spreadsheets to determine if my retirement income would cover my expenses.  Playing with different scenarios, spending shocks, bear markets, long-term care, longevity risks, etc.  Fun stuff, actually. Interestingly, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve opened any of those spreadsheets since I’ve retired.

A good way to demonstrate the pre-retirement thinking of many of you, perhaps, is to lay out my Top 10 posts (based on the number of views).  “The Numbers” are clearly a topic of interest, which makes sense given that many of my readers “find” me when they’re starting to plan for retirement:



I would argue that all but #9 (The Dark Side of Retirement) focus on the numbers.  Validation enough for Phase I of The 90/10 Rule of Retirement, “in preparation for retirement, most people spend 90% of their planning time on the financial issues and 10% on the non-financial issues.”

Post-Retirement Thinking


If you scroll through my archives for all of the articles I’ve written since my June 2018 retirement, you’ll find a significant shift in focus, which reflects the reality that I’m now thinking more about the non-financial aspects of retirement.

Looking through the history of my mind as captured in my writing, here are the most frequently read non-financial articles since my retirement:



I find it interesting that all of my “Retirement Reality” Series (#1, 5, 6, 7, 9) posts have been among my most popular post-retirement articles.  I didn’t realize that until I compiled the list above for today’s post, but I’m pleased to see that folks are interested in the “reality” of my retirement transition.

Bottom Line:  I’m spending a lot less time looking over “The Numbers” these days, and a lot more time focused on the things that bring true contentment in life.  It shows in my writing, and it’s a reality in my life.


The Key Take-Away of The 90/10 Rule of Retirement


If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this:

To ensure your best possible transition into retirement, find a way to bring a bit more balance into your retirement planning.  Increase your focus on the non-financial aspects of retirement.  It’s been demonstrated that those with the smoothest transition were those who spent the most time thinking about what their life would be in retirement.

Finding a way to focus on the non-financial aspects of retirement has been a major topic of mine in the 3 years since I’ve retired.  Heck, I even wrote a book about it.  Consider this “90/10 Rule of Retirement” my humble attempt to shine a bit of light into the unknown world of retirement for those who haven’t yet experienced it.

If you’re like me (and countless others), you’ll soon realize that a successful retirement is about a lot more than money.  If you do it right, you’ll also find yourself thinking about it a lot less after you cross The Starting Line.

Sharpen The Axe.

Then, Enjoy Cutting Down The Tree.


The 90/10 Rule of Retirement is intended as a simple reminder that you’ll be thinking more about the non-financial aspects of life after retirement.  Sure, you’ve got to get “the numbers” right when you’re figuring out when you’re going to retire, but don’t stop there. To ensure your best chance at a successful retirement, find a way to focus more on the non-financial aspects of retirement in your pre-retirement years.

Your future self will thank you.



Not yet retired?  Do you think this rule will apply to you?  Why or why not? 

Already retired?  Have you experienced the shift in focus I’ve attempted to explain with this 90/10 Rule of Retirement?  What have I left out that those approaching The Starting Line should be aware of?


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25 thoughts on “The 90/10 Rule of Retirement”

  1. I retired about a year ago at 70 –I’m a psychiatrist so I didn’t have the lavish lifestyles of the surgeons to support but I do have two disabled kids in their mid 20’s who still need monthly support. I didn’t spend ANY time running the numbers. I didn’t look at how much was in my various retirement accounts. Most of my equity is in our houses and violins. We signed up with Vanguard and the financial advisor ran the numbers for us and we had plenty. And I didn’t enter medicine until I was 40! Plan less, spend less and have more fun.

  2. Subscribe to get more great content like this, an awesome spreadsheet, and more!
    • Mike, considering the feedback is offered with respect, it’s taken in the same manner. I do have 6 1/2 years of weekly writing on my site, I can assure you there are plenty of articles there that are more “substantive”. Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Still working but creating life outside US with missions and working with locals to support community organic farm. Always opportunity to help others and expand one’s horizons! Finding spiritual meaning and realizing one’s life can find that infused in both pre and post retirement!

    • T – congrats to you for focusing on “creating life” in pre-retirement that can serve you well after you cross The Starting Line. I agree that focusing on helping others is one of the best places to search for Purpose for your life, and can be an especially rewarding way to spend your time post-FI.

  4. I hate to be a boo bird, but consider a couple of additional things that don’t go into pre retirement planning. I retired at the end of last year. Unfortunately, I also developed throat cancer last year. This has certainly thrown uncertainty into the plans. In addition, I am going through a divorce at this time. Also a disruption, to say the least. You can only plan so much.

    • Allan, sorry to hear about your throat cancer and divorce, definitely some tough curve balls to handle early in your retirement. Indeed, you can only plan so much. I hope things turn to the better for you in the days ahead.

  5. As a physician who retired over 10 years ago now I must say that the 90/10 division is way too simplistic. First, we started saving very early in our lives and we are very pleased how it has worked out. We still think about our finances altho we are doing well….we want to keep it that way. For docs who have overspent, and I know many of them, it is going to be difficult to navigate the times of retirement without good support.
    So I advise finding a competent financial planner sooner rather than later and heeding the advice given. It can really be very simple and straightforward. Don’t spend too much and save for the future. Don’t be stupid.

    • D – I agree it may be a bit simplistic, but the point I was trying to make is that there’s a lot more to think about for a successful retirement than “simply” managing your money. I, like you, also started saving very early in life and spent a lot of time analyzing the numbers to ensure I was able to retire. Now that I’m retired, I find less of a need for constant analysis, and it’s a trend I’ve heard from many other retirees. I also agree hiring a good planner is a great option for someone who doesn’t have the expertise to handle this critical area on their own. Thanks for your comment.

  6. I too took early retirement about 4 years ago. I have to admit although I was super intense on figuring out the numbers (always conservative financially), I was very anxious about the quality and fullfillment of retired life. After all, we have spent so many years and effort to become a physician which I felt identifies who I am to a large extent. I was really afraid that I would not feel fullfiled and missing a purpose in life. So I explored a ton of stuff that I could do from medical missions/wildness medicine/state park docents/music instruments. I am happy to say these all helped. Not everything worked out. For example, travelling has been difficult last two years. But if you prepare enough, you will find yourself happier.

    • Glad to hear I wasn’t the only one who was “super intense on figuring out the numbers.” Curious, do you find yourself spending less time on the numbers now that you’re retired? I also applaud your focus on the “non-financial” aspects that are critically important for a successful retirement.

  7. Yes good things to consider.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Agree with Adel above thought this could have been a 3 paragraph essay instead of a multi page infomercial.

    • I agree…before one writes, it’s best to define the points one aims to make then, while writing, always remember that the readers’ time is valuable…don’t waste it.

    • Steve, glad you found “good things to consider”, my apologies if it came off as an infomercial. Certainly wasn’t my intent.

  8. I found it helpful to try out retirement activities part-time before retiring. For example, always thought teaching at the medical school, part-time would be a great activity post-retirement. Realized there were a lot of politics in medical school teaching and found it did not work for me. Doing a dry run was helpful for me.

  9. Such great advice from Fritz. I never give money a thought now. Our retirement life is totally about other things. My volunteer work. The active outdoor hobbies my wife and I share (It was 17 deg F on the morning run at 5:30AM today!). Church activities. The small amount of paid work I sometimes do. Visiting our scattered grown kids, travel. The people I know who failed retirement had no plan for the 90%. But if you do it’s pretty glorious!

    • Thanks for supporting the thesis, Steveark. Planning for that “other 90%” is one of the important lessons I’ve learned on my journey, glad to see I’m not alone in that finding and that you understood the point of the post.

  10. It is very thoughtful of you to share your experience. It is very useful advice.

    One comment is that the article is too long and repeat the same message multiple times.

    • Adel, sincere feedback, and much appreciated. Being Pithy has never been one of my strong points, but your point (and J Zack’s above) is well taken. There’s always room to improve, and I appreciate the suggestion.

  11. Really enjoyable read. With my father retiring about a year ago I have witnessed this first hand. He never planned on how to live a life where he no longer defines himself as a dentist. Because of this, since the day of his retirement he has struggled with how to fill his time. He did not spend the time needed to know how best to live when he is not going into the office every weekday. It got me thinking about my long term goals, as well as legacy, family, and travel. If you don’t spend your time planning the transition, retirement will blindside you. If you put in the time thinking about it before retirement, you can hit the ground running the day you start to ‘chip away at the tree.’

    Really insightful post. Got me thinkin…

    Stay motivated,
    The Motivated M.D.

    • I’m also the physician son of a dentist, but my Dad had far more hobbies than he ever had time for. Woodworking, deer hunting, bargain hunting, fishing (summer and winter (ice fishing)), travel, etc… He’s had a glorious retirement, now about 12 years running. I haven’t missed my old job a bit, and it’s been nearly 2.5 years now.


    • Glad to hear the post struck a chord with you, TM. Glad to hear you’ve learned from your father’s experience. I’ve seen it first hand – it’s critically important to focus on the “other 90%” during your retirement planning years to ensure a truly successful transition to retirement. Best of luck on your journey.

  12. Inspiring and insightful…. to someone think about the financial AND non-financial aspects of my future retirement (15-17 years from now) 🙂

    • I’d say you have plenty of time to think about it. Wink. Glad you found the post inspiring, impressed that you’re thinking about the importance of effective retirement planning while you still have plenty of time to get it right. I suspect yours will be a very successful journey.


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