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How Focusing on What's Within Your Control Can Lead to a Successful Retirement

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

Transcript summarized below.

“You can influence, direct and control your own environment. You can make your life what you want it to be.” - Napoleon Hill

After 2020 ended, I began to reflect a lot on the past. Not just on my career as a financial advisor, but as a father, husband, son and friend. And in the wake of the pandemic, as we begin to emerge from one of the worst years in recent history, I've learned it's sometimes hard to follow your own advice.

Throughout my life I've always tried to live by the credo, "Focus on what you can control." This advice has always helped me cope with fear and anxiety, acting as a compass when I veered too far off the beaten path.

To be perfectly honest, last year put me to the test, as I'm sure it did to others. Too many unknowns and uncertainties made it hard for me to focus on what I could control, causing undue stress and angst at a time when a clear and tranquil mind was needed.

Ultimately, I came to my senses, regained focus on what's in my control and arrived at the following conclusions: I can't control when COVID-19 will go away or when the next pandemic will hit. I can't control the car in front of me driving 19 mph when the speed limit is 40 mph. I can't control cancer, terrorist attacks, or how quickly one moves through the self-checkout line at Target. What I can control, however is my mindset, the choices I make, and how I deal with adversity.

I've been working with retirees of all shapes and sizes most of my professional career. In every case, without exception, investors have expressed concerns regarding their retirement. "Do I have enough?" "Will I run out?" "What happens if I die tomorrow?" The list goes on.

As I remind myself of the importance of focusing on what I can control, I realize this advice applies as much to life in general as it does to retirement specifically. And not just financial control like spending and saving, but mental and physical too. Think about it: How would retirement look without your health, a sound mind, and loved ones to engage with?

Of course, there are things in life and in retirement that fall somewhere between controllable and non-controllable - a gray area where we're able to influence and manage rather than harness complete control.

I created a "Plan for a Chill Retirement" guide to supplement the video above and help you make the most of your retirement by first understanding what's in and out of your control, and what lies somewhere in-between.

Click here to download your free copy of the guide.


Spending and Savings

A 65-year old retiree with $3 million in investments and a $300,000 per year lifestyle will have a much different outcome in retirement than someone with $1 million in investments living off of $42,000. I know this because I managed both of their accounts and their retirement plans couldn't have looked any different.

Save more, spend less sounds like a simple enough concept to adopt, but breaking habits is easier said than done. Controlling what goes out of your account on a monthly basis is critical to ensuring your money lasts in retirement.

The Bottom Line: Live within your means and develop the discipline to control your spending and saving.

Investment Strategy

There's a lot of noise in the financial media these days - big banks, brokers, your friendly neighbor...all claiming to be financial experts with their own formula for wealth creation. And with all the differing opinions and recommendations aimlessly floating around, determining how you should be investing may feel like a daunting, uncontrollable task.

But remember, you are in control of how your money is managed, including the advisor you choose to carry out your investment strategy. All stock or all funds, fiduciary or broker; it's all your call at the end of the day. Be sure to do your homework so you can cut through the noise and focus on what's right for you.

The Bottom Line: Whether you manage your own money or outsource to a financial advisor, you control how your investments are to be managed.


Here's a quick and simple breakdown of average costs for investment products and services (Multiply the % by the money being managed to get the $ amount in fees):


Mutual funds - .5% - 1%

Individual securities - transactional costs vary


DIY - 0%

The Bottom Line: There will always be a cost to doing business, however you get to choose which mix of products, services and fees is right for you.

Relationships with Friends and Family

Warren Buffet said: Basically, when you get to my age, you’ll really measure your success in life by how many of the people you want to have loved you actually do love you.”

Pick up the phone and call your mom or dad if you haven't spoken to them in a while because you've been too busy. Invite a friend to dinner, join a social club, strike up a conversation with a stranger at Starbucks, move closer to your kids who now live in Chicago.

The Bottom Line: Building and enhancing relationships with loved ones is a retirement topic financial advisors rarely address, yet it's one of the most important components of living a successful and fulfilled retirement. And it's 100% in your control.


Investment Risk

The risk-free rate of return is defined as a hypothetical return an investor can expect with no risk. The benchmark used for the risk-free rate is the 10-Year US Treasury Bond, currently yielding 1.4%. Subtract inflation from that, and you're in negative rate territory, meaning you'd need to live off of cash in retirement if you want zero risk.

Risk can't be avoided completely, but it can be managed and reduced. Balancing your investments between stocks and bonds, domestic and international and large-caps and small caps are some of the ways you can diversify your portfolio to earn a risk-adjusted return sufficient enough to support your lifestyle in retirement.

The Bottom Line: Risk is inevitable when investing in the stock market, but can be reduced and managed through diversification. Be sure to have a good understanding of your investment strategy, and the diversification tactics used in order to obtain an optimal risk-adjusted rate of return.


There are two certainties in life: death and taxes. The former is inevitable and the latter unavoidable, however when it comes to taxes, careful planning and strategizing can help with reducing your tax bill, leaving more money for you to spend how you choose.

Whether it's favoring mutual funds in an IRA and ETFs in a taxable account, or offsetting realized gains by harvesting unrealized losses, effective tax management can help optimize investment returns and make your money last longer in retirement.

The Bottom Line: Tax management can lead to higher returns and more money in your pocket. Be sure you and/or your advisor have a good understanding of all tax implications.

Health and Wellness

With most things in life like studying for an exam or training for a 10k, the more work you put in, the more you get out. We have little control over when and where we'll meet our maker. But the better we treat our mind and body, the higher probability we'll live a longer, healthier life.

I'm no doctor or dietitian, but I know doctors and dietitians and read a lot! From what I can gather, exercise is a good thing for your body. So is keeping your mind stimulated and eating fruits and vegetables.

The Bottom Line: Don't neglect your health.


It bothers me that many people squander their most valuable asset on a daily basis which, I'll admit, I fall victim to as well. What you're really saying when you proclaim, "I don't have the time," is, "I haven't made it a priority." Time is finite and can't be bought. While it can't be entirely controlled, it most certainly can be managed better.

Hopefully when you're ready and able to retire, you'll have more time on your hands. Be sure you're spending time wisely each and every day.

The Bottom Line: Whether you're nearing or in retirement, time is your most valuable asset. Don't waste it.


The Stock Market

The stock market is, and has always been simultaneously rational, and irrational. It can react the same to good news as it can to bad. Apple can be overvalued one day and undervalued the next. A company with no profits can be worth $20 billion dollars while another highly profitable business can be in financial distress.

There's no rhyme nor reason to how the stock market moves from one period to the next. Yes, stocks go up more than they go down and over long periods of time, they tend to outperform bonds. Aside from that, there are no certainties--no guarantees--no control to be had whatsoever. And if you meet someone who claims to have the secret sauce and knows what's going down tomorrow, run away as fast as you can!

The Bottom Line: Don't stress over what happens or what some predict will happen in the stock's entirely out of your control.

Fiscal and Monetary Policy

With the exception of being able to vote for who's in office, you have no control over the policies your local, state or federal government enact, unless of course you work there and have a say in those decisions.

I've heard it in client meetings and on CNN, people complaining about the passing of a new spending bill, or raising taxes on capital gains or investing in clean and renewable energy. There's a difference between engaging in thoughtful conversations regarding these topics and getting so worked up over them that it ends up effecting your day.

The Bottom Line: Don't lose your cool over policy changes you can't control.

The Unknown

There are few things more terrifying than the unknown. Maybe clowns.

The uncertainty of what the future will hold for any of us can cause stress and anxiety in our lives. What if you run out of money in retirement? What if you go into a nursing home? What if the stock market crashes again (it will)? The "what-ifs" are endless.

You can't control the unknown, as much as you'd like. What you can do, however is have a financial plan in place that takes into consideration your most pressing "what-ifs," allowing you to better prepare yourself today for the unknowns tomorrow.

The Bottom Line: Unless Elon Musk invents a time machine, no one will be able to control what happens tomorrow. Until then, plan as best you can for the unexpected but then let it go.


When thinking about your retirement, you will undoubtedly at times feel overwhelmed with all the uncertainty that's an inherent part of planning any future activity, much less your future life. Don't worry, it's normal.

When you begin to worry about running out of money or your health or whatever else is keeping you up at night, remember to always ask yourself, "Is this in my control?" If it isn't, take it a step further and think, "Can I manage this better?" If the answer is yes, then take whatever steps are necessary to put a plan in action. Anything that falls outside of your control or your management isn't worth wasting peace of mind over.

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Image by Aaron Burden


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