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Purpose Built: How to Give Back in Retirement

Nov 16, 2017 5 min read Hank Gilman

Key Takeaways

  • To achieve the financial freedom you’ll need, start saving early.
  • Find a cause that builds on your passion and fits your lifestyle.
  • Stay flexible: Your retirement goals may evolve over time.


Decades of saving. Years of planning. And then the methodical execution of the plan.

By 2008, these steps had landed Terry Eggert and her husband Dave Barber what they thought was their dream retirement: a comfortable, state-of-the-art motor home and the financial freedom to spend their golden years using it to “really see America.”

Only after they’d set out on that journey, however, did they realize that vision was incomplete. “You feel there’s something missing,” Dave says of the couple’s initial months criss-crossing the states.

He struggles to put that something into words...then hits on it: “Your purpose.”

Nearly ten years later, Terry and Dave have found that purpose, and then some, by blending their ambitious travel with volunteer work. “It’s been very, very rewarding,” says Terry. Adds Dave: “I mean, how many times can you play golf?”

The story of how Terry and Dave found their purpose is a case study in the whys—and hows—of giving back in retirement.

Putting the pieces in place

When Terry and Dave first met their financial advisor, 30-year Prudential veteran Edward Newman, in 2006, they’d been living in Wisconsin for decades. Terry was running her own direct sales business and Dave was working nearly full time doing architectural work.

When Newman asked them to talk about their retirement goals, Terry and Dave explained that they hoped to retire in about two years and that their bucket list contained just one major item: domestic travel. They’d vacationed abroad in the past but felt they’d never really seen America, at least not “the way you want to see it,” as Terry puts it. To do that, they decided, they’d need a sizable motor home.

They spent a good part of the next couple years researching the lifestyle of perpetual travel and the type and cost of the vehicle they’d need to live it. Newman, meanwhile, ran the numbers. Happily, Terry and Dave had been diligent savers throughout their working lives; plus, they’d come close to paying off the mortgage on their home. Newman figured the couple could sell the house, buy the bus-sized RV they had their eyes on, generate enough income to travel on, and still have enough assets to purchase a smaller home once they exhausted their wanderlust and decided to come in off the road.

During those planning conversations with Newman, it also became clear that Terry and Dave needed something else to help make their dream real: a level of comfort about their financial status. In short, they felt comfortable with a certain amount of market risk, but also hoped to turn at least some of their savings into a dependable stream of retirement income. So, Newman helped them select an annuity that would help protect a portion of their retirement income during market volatility. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision: Unlike countless Americans, Terry and Dave were able to stick with their retirement plans even after the global financial crisis and its accompanying market meltdown struck in 2008.

Putting their plan in action

After nearly three years of planning, Terry and Dave finally pulled the trigger. The house sold quickly in late 2007. They purchased the motor home with part of the proceeds and, with Newman’s help, invested the balance—hoping both to enhance their income and grow their assets enough to buy a small home when the time came to taper off their travels. They gave away most of their furniture and bulky belongings and hit the road in early 2008.

That first year on the road was indeed a dream come true. Terry and Dave traveled the country, reveling in their freedom and experiencing the joys of discovering new places and meeting new people together. At the same time, however, they began to feel that something was missing—that sense of purpose, as Dave later put it. Terry and Dave had long been active members of their Wisconsin church, which had channeled not just their faith but also their impulse to give back through community service. Suddenly, Terry says, “we were going to a different church every week, so we really couldn’t get involved in the same way.”   

That realization led them to start looking for volunteer opportunities that would enable them to get involved even as they continued their travels. They soon hit on Habitat for Humanity’s RV Care-A-Vanners program, which recruits people just like Terry and Dave to travel the country helping build homes for people in need of safe, affordable housing.

Within days of arriving at their first building site, Terry and Dave were hooked. They loved joining the community of fellow Care-A-Vanners, who often gather at their camp sites after working to share a meal and swap stories of road trips and volunteer experiences. And they took deep satisfaction in helping the new home recipients, who are frequently victims of natural disasters and who often work alongside volunteers on their own homes.

“It’s just a hand up for them,” says Terry. “And they’re always so grateful and so appreciative.”

Over the past eight-plus years, Terry and Dave have helped construct dozens of homes through the Care-A-Vanners program, and have four more builds planned for the year ahead.

Paying it forward

They’ve also become evangelists, not just for the Care-A-Vanners program but, more broadly, for devoting time in retirement to giving back. “When you retire, you don’t have to stop being productive,” Dave insists. “I mean, everybody has 365 days in the year and it’s what you do with those days. You can sit and watch television. You can waste a lot of time. Or you can go out and be a productive citizen.”

And building houses is hardly the only option, Dave adds. “We choose to do this, but you can probably go down to your local library and teach somebody to read. No matter what your physical abilities or educational background is, or where you are in your life, you can help.”

Perhaps more importantly, Terry and Dave have also become evangelists for the kind of careful retirement planning that’s given them the freedom to retire on their own terms. “We always try to talk to young people about planning for the future,” says Terry. “When you’re young you think the future is a long way away. But when you look back you realize it wasn’t that long away at all. All of a sudden it’s here.”

“We’re working on this with our grand kids,” adds Dave. “We’re trying to teach them to put away money that they’re not going to touch and that, if it’s invested properly, will amaze them. Once you get them in that mind-set, anybody can save money. It’s not that hard.”

Terry and Dave have even had an impact on Ed Newman, the Prudential financial advisor who helped them make their retirement dream a reality. “The way it’s played out is the way they planned it, and it’s really a site to see,” he says. “To retire with purpose that way—it’s an inspiration going forward in my own retirement.”


What you can do next

Enriching one’s retirement through charity or volunteer work involves two key components: One, having the financial and personal freedom to devote time and resources to an organization or cause you care about; and two, finding that organization or cause that truly instills you with a sense of purpose.

You can get started on both right now. It’s never too early—or late—to save for retirement. Even small amounts add up over time and will open opportunities down the road. And if you already have a nest egg in place, consider Terry and Dave’s example by using some of it to generate guaranteed retirement income and keeping some of it in the market to battle inflation and manage market volatility. That approach gave them the flexibility they needed to help pursue their evolving dream.

As for finding a cause you care about, Terry and Dave got lucky by discovering an organization that blended so well with their passions and lifestyle. But you can start dabbling in your passion project long before retirement and be ready to jump in with both feet when the time comes. Websites like All For Good Opens in a new window, Catchafire Opens in a new window, and VolunteerMatch Opens in a new window help match people to volunteer opportunities based on their interests, skills, and experience.

Just a reminder: Investing involves risk and it is possible to lose money. All references to guarantees are backed by the claims-paying ability of the issuing company and do not apply to the underlying investment options.


Hank Gilman is a long-time business news editor and a former personal finance columnist for the Boston Globe.


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