blank bucket list with coffee and glasses on bed

Popularized in the film, The Bucket List, this list of dreams to fulfill before you die often is associated with retirement or the end of life. In the movie, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman portray two old codgers diagnosed with cancer who embark on an around-the-world trip, coming to some realizations about the meaning of life along the way. 

“It’s pretty common that a person has a health scare or someone they know passed away, and that’s when they start thinking about these issues,” says Daniel Sullivan, wealth strategist for RBC Wealth Management-US in New Jersey. “They realize time is short.” 

Nearly half (46 percent) of Baby Boomers - people age 53-71 - have some type of a bucket list, according to the AARP. That majority of items on those lists revolve around travel.

But bucket lists have become more than places to see or things to do. They’ve evolved into life mission statements or personal manifestos of goals you want to accomplish during your lifetime.

That’s often because today, retirement is defined differently for many people. Some people may retire earlier than ever, while others must keep working longer.

“Most clients I see are enjoying their life rather than waiting for retirement to check off boxes as to what they want to do,” says Liz Jacovino, a wealth strategist for RBC Wealth Management based in Connecticut. “Maybe that’s the new retirement.”

No matter what age you are, everyone should have a list of goals. In a practical sense, it provides focus. On a deeper level, a bucket list or life manifesto provides hope and a sense of accomplishment that can be life-affirming and enhance our sense of happiness.

Here are five tips to making your dreams become reality:

1. How to start 

The first step is to set aside some time to think about your life and accomplishments. On a notepad, laptop or tablet, write down all of your dreams. Nothing is too big or too small.

First, many people want to ensure they’ll have enough money to take care of themselves and their spouse in retirement, says Sullivan, who specializes in estate planning. To help estimate that amount, which depends on individual needs and lifestyles, Sullivan will ask clients how they envision retirement and what they want to do in retirement.

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Then, he’ll ask tougher and more specific questions: Do you want to buy a sports car? Do you want to travel? What do you want your legacy to be? Do you want to establish an alumni scholarship?

Clients’ answers to these questions often become items on their retirement bucket list.

2. Where to find inspiration

If you’re looking for inspiration, Bucketlist.org is a good place to start. You can explore over five million ideas posted on the free site by over 400,000 people - and create and track goals.

You can find ideas in plenty of other places, too. Check out magazines and internet “best” lists, such as best small towns in America, and books with titles like 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.

Bucket lists often are travel-heavy. People want to see beautiful places and experience different cultures nationwide and worldwide. Travel destinations common on bucket lists include the Grand Canyon, Great Wall of China and Great Pyramids of Egypt. You get the picture.

According to AARP, 83 percent of Baby Boomers with a bucket list have travel-related items on it. And the average Boomer plans to take more than five trips this year.

While people age 33-71 say a travel list gives them something to look forward to, hope and motivation, more Millennials (24 percent) say their travel list pushes them to experience new things.

Bucket lists, however, can be much more than travel itineraries. RBC professionals say some clients’ goals include buying a vacation home to spend more time with children and grandchildren who live in another state or establishing a charitable trust, donor advised fund or private foundation to address their philanthropic goals. 

You can also include professional goals, such as starting a business, and activities, such as running a marathon or learning a second language.

3. Organizing your list 

Now, it’s time to break up your long list into digestible chunks. 

You can separate your goals by category: travel, professional, educational, etc. Another way is to sort the list by time – goals by year or season or goals to reach before you turn 40, 50 or 60. 

Entrepreneur Steve Kamb created a game, Epic Quest of Awesome, from his bucket list, which he carved into 13 categories including travel, personal goals and James Bond goals. 

Next, prioritize each category. Ask yourself which goal is most important, what excites you the most or which goal can you easily accomplish. The answers may change over time, so keep your list updated.

4. Achieving your goals 

Not all of your goals need to be lofty. Make some smaller and easily reachable, which will also increase your satisfaction level. 

Take blogger and author Annette White’s 1,000-item life mission statement. The giant list includes 84 UNESCO World Heritage sites, but it also includes many smaller goals, such as make a snowman, shuck oysters and design a website. 

Now you can plan how to reach your first goal. When should you do it? What are the logistics? Do you want to do it alone or with someone? 

Consider a step process. Say you want to visit the Coliseum in Rome. First, get or update your passport. Second, learn Italian. Third, fly to Italy.

5. Making your list real 

If it all seems too abstract, document your journey. Several free mobile apps, such as iWish for Apple and Android devices, let you explore ideas and create, track and share your bucket list. 

Write about your achievements in a journal, create a map to mark places you visit or blog about your experiences. Make it fun for you, your family and friends to follow.