By Kerry Hannon

Copyright © 2015 AARP. All rights reserved.

Making a career change after 50 can seem daunting. A police officer turned music agent. A Navy captain who became a circus manager. A botanist who traded plants for making chocolate. Those are a few of the major career changes among boomers and retirees. What do they have in common? They all share confidence in the direction they’ve taken. They collectively work longer hours, but it doesn’t matter. They only wish they had done it sooner.

If you hope to join these ranks, here are ten tips for making a career change.

Understand what’s behind your desire for a change

Maybe you’re starting to become disillusioned with work. You’re in a rut. Maybe your profession changed in a way that has made you less passionate about it. Whatever the reason, your current job or the job you just left or lost isn’t or wasn’t providing the spark to light your fire, and you need to change careers, or so you think.

Don’t base your decision on a negative motivation, such as hating your job. Base it on something positive, such as pursuing a more attractive possibility. Be warned, career changers often end up mourning their loss.

Do some serious soul searching before jumping ship. Think about life more broadly, about what you want to do, workwise, for the next 10, 20, 30, or 40 years. Find an activity or a cause you’re passionate about, and if you decide to pursue it as a career, start working in that direction by volunteering, taking a class or two, and so on.

Get your life in order

In the time leading up to your career transition, get physically and financially fit. Change is stressful. When you’re physically fit, you have more energy and are mentally sharper to face the challenges ahead.

Firm up your finances, too. Start by tackling your debt. Being debt-free gives you the freedom to pursue work that may pay less initially, if you’re starting over in a new field.

A new career is often a spiritual quest, too. So get spiritually fit by finding a space — perhaps through meditation or a yoga class — where you can get away from the stress and fears that go hand in hand with making major changes in your life.

Dream big, but be practical

Dream big, but be practical. That may sound like contradictory advice, but you can do both. Make your change in stages as much as possible. The most successful career changers typically spend three years or so laying the groundwork for their switch.

Avoid making costly decisions that further deplete your resources and limit your options. Why shell out the big bucks on an advanced degree when a few courses will suffice? Check out gratis career services from your alma mater. Look into tuition reimbursement options from your current employer (but check for any payback requirements if you leave the company). Take free courses.

Volunteer or moonlight

Before trading in your current career for a newer model, test drive the career(s) you’re considering. You may discover that the ride is bumpier than you had anticipated. You may need to test drive several careers before you find the one that’s right. If you are aiming for a nonprofit position, check out HandsOn Network, Idealist, and VolunteerMatch.org.

Find a mentor

Seek advice from people who’ve been successful in the field that interests you. Everyone likes to be asked for counsel. Find a mentor working in your new field. Reach out to your colleagues to see if they can make introductions for you. Two heads may be better than one, and together you can explore possibilities. Sign up with LinkedIn to meet others in a field or profession that interests you.

Keep your hand out of the cookie jar

As you explore career options, don’t dip too deep into your core savings. Of all the mistakes older workers make in launching second careers, this is probably the worst. Would-be entrepreneurs aren’t necessarily raiding retirement accounts to launch businesses, but they’re tapping home equity and other savings, and that has severe repercussions on your future ability to retire in the manner you’ve become accustomed to.

If you’re launching a business, consult an attorney and an accountant to find ways to limit your exposure to financial risk. You shouldn’t have to risk your home or retirement savings to launch a business.

Be prepared for setbacks

The biggest step you can take toward preparing for setbacks is to manage your expectations. Start your journey knowing it’ll be difficult. Here are a few additional steps to take to prepare for setbacks:

  • Draw up a plan. A good plan enables you to avoid some pitfalls and respond more effectively to others.

  • Anticipate difficulties. By anticipating difficulties, you won’t be blindsided when they arise.

  • Sock away some cash before making a change. You don’t need financial stress on top of the stress of dealing with the setback itself.

  • Share your burden. Having your family, your partner, or a dear friend or two at your back or by your side for support helps tremendously.

It’s not all smooth sailing, but if you’ve laid the proper groundwork, you’ll get through the rough patches.

Do your homework

Before hopping that train that’s heading off in a different direction, find out where it’s going. Whether you’re looking to make a career change, become a contract worker, buy a franchise, or open your own business, do some research to find out what’s involved.

Don’t lock yourself into a must-have salary

Insufficient funds are the biggest roadblock for most career changers. Chances are when you start over in a new field or move to a nonprofit, you’ll need to take a salary cut at least initially. If you have an emergency fund to buy you time, you can do a more thoughtful job search. Pare back your discretionary living expenses to reflect a more realistic view of what you’ll earn. Consider which expenses are necessary and which may be given up temporarily.

Do something every day to work toward your goal

Changing careers can seem overwhelming. To make the transition more manageable, take small steps toward that vision. Here are a few small steps to consider:

  • Draw a map or create a plan for how you’re going to navigate your career change.

  • Create a budget, so you can track the funds you need to finance your transition.

  • Create an extensive to-do list and do one thing on that list every single day.

  • Take a class on a topic that will bring you closer to achieving your career goal.

  • Design and print a business card for your new venture complete with your name, contact info, website address, and your LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter URLs.

  • Read at least one book per month that’s relevant to helping you achieve your career goal.

  • Identify and master a technology that you’ll need to use in your new career.

  • Find and bookmark at least one website per week that contains valuable information related to your career goal. (Visit the site regularly.)

  • Contact at least one person every day, preferably by phone, who may be able to bring you closer to your goal.