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Dennice Leahey, retired bank ombudsman, walks in a Halifax park. (PAUL DARROW For The Globe and Mail)
Dennice Leahey, retired bank ombudsman, walks in a Halifax park. (PAUL DARROW For The Globe and Mail)

Financial planning

Retired banker takes on second career as a super-volunteer Add to ...

Dennice Leahey spent more than 30 years helping Canadians with their money. And she was careful with her own – allowing her to enjoy a second career that’s just as rewarding.

Ms. Leahey, 72, retired from the Royal Bank of Canada in 2002 as ombudsman and senior vice-president. Today, she spends her time volunteering – as the chair of four separate boards of directors, including Symphony Nova Scotia and the Community Foundation of Nova Scotia.

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Community service began as a passion for Ms. Leahey in 1980, when she signed up for the board of a multiple sclerosis-focused society in Toronto. Soon she was signing up for more, and as her career took her across the country, volunteering allowed her to put down roots in each new city.

Her efforts didn’t go unnoticed: Ms. Leahey was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 2005 for her extensive volunteerism. Today, she splits her time between Halifax and Pugwash, N.S., a two-hour drive away; when she’s not travelling or with her grandchildren, community work gets her full attention.

Whenever Ms. Leahey joins a board, she keeps a close eye on the balance sheet, making sure income lines up with expenses. It’s a simple habit, and one she’s always followed personally, too. Her career has taken her across the country, but she’s always made sure to live within her means. By not spending lavishly and diligently saving, she was able to transition from career banker to career volunteer.

Ms. Leahey’s father grew up in the Great Depression; he hated debt, and passed on that attitude to his only daughter, the eldest of four children he raised in Edmonton. “If you’re always worrying about your debt, then you haven’t got freedom – to maybe earn a little bit more, do something that’s a little bit more unique, try something new, because you’re so tied down,” she says.

Her father also passed on his copies of the Financial Post when he finished reading them, which sparked enough interest in business that she took a job as a teller as a teenager. She travelled east to study at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, where she met her husband, Stephen Leahey. The pair then began the first leg of a multi-decade Canadian tour as they moved to Kingston, Ont., where Ms. Leahey taught while Stephen earned an MBA.

His career with Bell, and later hers with RBC, saw the pair move between Montreal and Toronto numerous times, and in 1992 to Winnipeg, where she was the bank’s regional senior vice-president.

“It was a wonderful time for me, because it was early in the development of women in business,” she says. “I’m blessed to have had the career I did, and want to keep giving back.”

Moving so frequently meant uprooting her family, including her son and daughter; by volunteering, she was able to get involved in her community outside of work. In the early days, she gave her time to local causes, including church and youth organizations in Montreal’s Westmount neighbourhood, and began to serve on boards wherever she moved. She also mentored women in the banking industry and promoted business and civic engagement in aboriginal communities.

Ms. Leahey chose to retire to Nova Scotia, where she went to school and where her father grew up. Not moving back while he was alive is her “one regret,” she says – but she’s not sat idly by since returning, and has tried to make it a better place to live by serving on numerous boards including the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

Nearly a dozen years into retirement, Ms. Leahey’s commitment to volunteering hasn’t wavered. Hidden among the family photos in her living room sits one of her with philanthropist-composer Peter Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett, whom she helped to lure to Halifax in 2012 for a sold-out Community Foundation fundraiser.

She also served as Atlantic region co-chair of the capital campaign for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, which is slated to open in September.

“She is an incredibly dedicated and effective community volunteer,” says Gail Asper, president of The Asper Foundation, the charitable organization that has championed the museum. Calling her “a joy to work with,” Ms. Asper says Ms. Leahey’s endorsement and involvement “always lends great credibility to any cause.”

It took a lifetime of careful financial planning to ensure she could continue giving her time to others in retirement. Ms. Leahey is private with her money, much like the many Canadians she worked with as a banker. But that doesn’t mean being willfully blind to the implications of one’s spending habits.

While her career as a banking executive has certainly given her extra financial flexibility, her spending philosophy is grounded in a reality important for everyone: living within your means is crucial to achieving the retirement you want. “It’s not what you earn,” she says. “It’s what you spend. ... You can get flexibility at any income level as long as you control your expenses.”

“If you cannot manage money while you’re working,” she says, “you’re not going to manage it when you’re retired.”

“Ms. Leahey has really done something that many people should emulate,” says Caroline Dabu, vice-president and head of Bank of Montreal’s wealth-planning group. “Living within your income level, with all of the debt stats coming out, is something many Canadians do not do.” (A TransUnion report last December forecasted the average Canadian’s non-mortgage debt will jump to nearly $29,000 in 2014.)

Months at the cottage, opening a small business, or a second career in volunteerism – a great retirement means different things to different people. “You can have choices down the road by living within your means,” Ms. Dabu says. That means tucking extra income away into an RRSP or TFSA as often as you can to let it build and grow.

Defining your financial and life goals – and when you want to achieve them – is crucial, says Kurt Rosentreter, a financial adviser with Manulife Securities. Drawing up a complete, ongoing financial plan as young as possible, and regularly revisiting it, is the right way to go – especially if you see unpaid community work as an important part of your future.

Ms. Leahey’s cautious savings approach has given her the freedom in retirement to give back to her community, with enough time left over to spend time with her grandkids and travel the world.

“To have financial freedom,” she says, “is truly to know what you earn, to know what you spend, and to be on the right side of compound interest.”

To achieve what you want in retirement, you need a certain amount of financial flexibility. Here are five things you can do to achieve that, from Caroline Dabu, vice-president and head of Bank of Montreal’s wealth-planning group.

Five tips

1. Give your retirement plan a healthy diet instead of feeding it leftovers: rather than waiting until the annual RRSP deadline to make contributions, make regular payments with each paycheque.

2. If your job gives you bonuses or commission, train yourself to live off your base salary and use the extra cash for RRSP or TFSA contributions, or to pay down your mortgage.

3. Put away three or four months of salary in liquid savings in case of any unexpected life events. This helps you avoid dipping into retirement savings while you get your life back on track. And in case you’re sideswiped by illness or disability, make sure you have insurance to help cover lost income.

4. Keep track of all your expenses; you’ll be surprised how much you could be saving for the retirement you want if you cut back on some of your frivolous purchases now.

5. Revise your budget on an ongoing basis, especially when your income increases. Just because you make more doesn’t mean you have to spend more – instead, let the difference get you to your retirement goals faster.

Follow on Twitter: @joshokane

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