Retirement at the age of 60 was the goal for Gale van Lier. After 11 years working in finance at a small family office in Toronto, she knew she was ready to make the change.

She set that target as it was the earliest she could go without taking a reduction in her workplace pension.

So about four years prior to reaching 60, van Lier began having annual reviews with her pension adviser, financial planner and accountant to see if the forecasts showed retirement was possible.

When the numbers came up, she worked until February of last year.

The first day of retirement was "amazing," she said.

Planning is key so the changes you face in retirement don't catch you off guard, experts say. That means thinking not just about financial requirements, but also about the people you want to be around, the place you want to live and the things you want to do.

"Everyone thinks, 'Oh, retirement is way off in the future.' But it's not," said Tracey Marshall, a Milton, Ont.,-based certified financial planner with Security Financial Services & Investment Corp.

"We all know the earlier we start planning the better. People just don't. It's human nature. They put it off," she said. "They procrastinate until something happens in their life."

That "something" could be a health issue, mounting stress at work or even a child's graduation.

"They finally look ahead and think: 'Wow, what's ahead of me?'" Marshall said.

Setting goals

When it comes to advance planning for life after work ends, Canadians must think about their retirement goals — be that travel, volunteering, opening a business or a change of address.

"Each of the goals will have very different price tags," said Pam Katunar, an investment adviser and certified retirement specialist at TD Wealth in Victoria.

'Now I feel ... more freedom because I don't have to count every minute.' - Katarzyna Harasiewicz

"There's always a link to finances, but that's not where we have to start. We have start with defining goals," she said.

Katarzyna Harasiewicz, 64,  has turned to yoga in her post-work life. She retired in February 2015 from her job managing an ultrasound imaging research lab in Toronto.

She practised yoga for about eight years before deciding three years ago she wanted to study to become an instructor. 

"Yoga, and studying it, is giving me opportunity to open a completely new chapter in my life, and to learn about myself and about the world and about others," she said.

Her job at the lab was rigorous and she tried to account for every minute of the day. Her responsibilities included handling grants and dealing with students, as the lab was part of a graduate school at the University of Toronto.

"Now I feel, in one way, more freedom because I don't have to count every minute. I can do it today or tomorrow or in a week. This gives me more freedom and I'm relaxed."

While she said her transition into early retirement has been "smooth," she does admit to feeling some nervousness about where she may be in five years, when her instructor study will be complete.

"I trust that with time I will find what I want to do and how I want accomplish it," she said.

Donna McCaw, author of It's Your Time: Information and Exercises to Get You Ready for a Great Retirement, said there are three things people need to determine in retirement: a sense of purpose, or the reason they get up in the morning; who are the people in their community; and how they want to structure their time.

Stages of retirement

Retirement can be divided into three stages, said McCaw.

First is the "go-go" stage, which could involve travel and home renovation. Early in that stage, during the "honeymoon" phase right after retirement, spending tends to go up as people fulfil their retirement goals, be that travel, renovation, starting a business or joining clubs, she said.

"You're getting your hobbies up and away," McCaw said.

That honeymoon phase usually lasts anywhere from a few months up to about two years, she said, although the go-go stage lasts longer.

What retirees don't think about is what McCaw calls the "slow-go" stage. In this phase, a retiree's energy level may have changed, priorities may have shifted and they are not doing the travelling and active things they may have previously done.

"You may want to stay home a little bit more. You're a bit more adjusted to the retirement and more connected with your community and your interest groups," she said.

Last is the "no-go" stage. At this point in life, people's health is such that they are not able to travel.

In this stage, a retiree's health-care costs are probably higher than they were in the past, McCaw said. They may also be downsizing or going into a different living situation.

Sold the house, now the payoff

Van Lier, who is now 61, made a change in her living situation shortly after retirement. She sold the three-bedroom home she had lived in for 27 years and moved to a 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom condominium. Making a move had been on her mind for about five years prior to retirement, she said.

In hindsight, she thinks moved too quickly.

"I think I should have taken more time just to decompress from the job before doing that because that was such a lot of work," van Lier said.

After the busy period that involved selling her house, buying her condo and moving, van Lier believes this year will be when she figures out what kinds of things she wants to do in retirement.

"I'm pretty much settled now in the condo, so I think that's coming," said van Lier. "I think that is the next step: what do I want to do with my time, and how do I want to structure it."

She already has some travel planned, including a trip to New Zealand, and is considering volunteering. But van Lier said she would even be open to working part time.​