Golden Hours: Winning Key Transition Points in Money & Life

In photography, “golden hours” refers to the last hour before sunset and the first hour after sunrise. It’s when you get the perfect light for the best photos.

The light isn’t enough to transform a terrible photo into a great one, but can help a good photo become a great-looking one.

But the concept of a golden hour isn’t restricted to photography.

There are periods in our lives when we experience our own “golden hours.”

It is in these transition periods that we can experience the greatest change, both positively and negatively.

Unlike photography golden hours, which are based on sunrise and sunset, golden hours in life aren’t as clearly visible or predictable as the sun’s rising and setting. The challenge is recognizing when you are entering and leaving one of these “golden hour” periods.

We’ll look at a few of these moments in an attempt to “reverse engineer” when we’re likely to see these moments and how to take advantage of them.

Table of Contents
  1. 1. National Economy “Golden Hour”
    1. How to Prepare for Sunset (Recession)
    2. How to Take Advantage of a Recession
    3. How to Take Advantage of the Sunrise (Recovery)
  2. 2. Career “Golden Hour”
    1. How to Prepare for Sunset (Career Selection)
    2. How to Take Advantage of Peak Earning Years
    3. How to Prepare for Sunrise (Retirement)
  3. 3. Wealth Building “Golden Hours”
    1. How to Prepare for Sunset (Accumulation Phase)
    2. How to How to Take Advantage of Wealth-Building
    3. How to Prepare for Sunrise (Decumulation Phase)
  4. Conclusion

1. National Economy “Golden Hour”

Our economy goes through cycles.

The first step is to watch this 30-minute video by Ray Dalio:

The golden hours are those periods when we transition from periods of growth to periods of contraction and vice versa. It’s what you do immediately preceding the start of a recession through the start and what you do immediately preceding the end of the recession through the growth phase.

It is impossible to identify the exact moment when we’re in a recession.

But the exact timing is unimportant, like everything else investing and money-wise, you only need to get the trend right.

As I write this at the end of 2023, there’s been talk about a recession for nearly two years. It has not been officially declared but that doesn’t matter.

We’ve seen tech companies lay off tens of thousands of people. The recession started for them the moment they were told their time was over.

How to Prepare for Sunset (Recession)

When you think a recession is coming, you must play financial defense. Review your emergency fund and your emergency plan. If you’ve been aggressively saving into a retirement account, perhaps reduce it to build up a cash cushion. Go on the defensive.

If you have 6 months in an emergency fund, you may want to bump it to 9 or 12. If you lose your job, you want that cushion to be extra padded. It’ll only be for a (relatively) short time.

If you are adequately protected and feel safe even if the recession hits you personally, start investing more if it matches your time horizon. The stock market being down means there are sales to be had. If you’re like me and don’t pick individual stocks, get into an index fund and accumulate more.

How to Take Advantage of a Recession

But don’t stop there – financial defense is great but did you know that some of the greatest companies in the world were started during recessions? Here are five that were started in the Great Recession but you can find so many more (especially ones that don’t get big enough to capture headlines).

What happens when tech companies lay off tens of thousands of capable workers? Some get an opportunity to work on their own next big thing. That’s why we see so many great companies started during recessions.

If you are personally affected, this may be a chance to work on your next big idea or side hustle while you search for a new job.

How to Take Advantage of the Sunrise (Recovery)

What happens when we get to the other side? When sentiment starts to improve and the economy looks to bounce back, start to go on the offensive (financially). If you juiced up your emergency fund from 6 months to 12 months as protection, cycle back down and increase your investments back to “normal.”

The opportunity here is to look forward and make sure you don’t fall behind, positively or negatively, on the economic cycles and your own plans.

2. Career “Golden Hour”

Your working career will go through several transitions but the biggest ones are:

  • When you start the job you’ll hold during your peak earning years, generally 35-54 years of age
  • The final few years before and through your retirement from your peak earning career

How to Prepare for Sunset (Career Selection)

This career golden hour is when you should be the most aggressive about finding the job you’ll hold during your peak earning years. Once you get close to 35, you should start nailing it down.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans hold an average of 11.9 jobs between the ages of 18 to 50. Nearly twelve jobs with an average tenure of 4.2 years.

The 15 years of work before your peak earning years should be a time of exploration and discovery of the intersection of what drives you and what pays you the best. It can involve moving from job to job to find the best opportunity (job switchers almost always make more than job stayers).

It is when you may want to leave your options open so you can take advantage of opportunities as they come up. This means not tying yourself to a location (don’t rush to buy a house!) or locking yourself into a job.

Your goal is to develop your skills and career network so that you can get the job you hope to hold for the peak earning years.

But you want to reduce your options and lock it in at some point. As you near 35, optionality becomes a hindrance.

How to Take Advantage of Peak Earning Years

When you’ve found your career, it’s time to maximize your impact and aspirations.

This doesn’t mean you can’t switch companies for a better situation or compensation – but your career should be the same. Switching industries or careers will come at great personal cost, so avoid it unless it’s the only path forward.

That said, if you’ve decided that you really need a change… change. It’s your life!

But the goal in these peak earning years is to earn.

During your peak earning years, you want to invest as much as possible to meet your financial goals. It will be challenging because you will have a lot of goals – such as family, house, and recreation. But these are your peak earning years and you should take advantage of that by investing as much as you can and being aggressive in your asset allocation.

How to Prepare for Sunrise (Retirement)

That’s the front side – the back side is when you near retirement. There are two aspects of this “golden hour” that need to be addressed:

  • Financially, you should transition from a portfolio growth strategy to a portfolio preservation strategy.
  • Personally, you need to identify what you will spend your time on once you retire.

Plenty of articles and resources are out there to help you understand what you need to do before you retire. You may even want to work with a financial advisor to help you transition through that period.

What is less often addressed is what will you do now that you don’t work a full-time job? I experienced this personally when I sold my first business at the ripe young age of 30. I had to work at the acquiring company for a few years but also to find a way to fill my time. It was very difficult because I identified so much with my work and being a provider for our family.

As you near retirement, you’ll want to address this and find projects you can work on that energize you, challenge you, and grow you as a person. This might be volunteering with an organization you love. This might be starting a new sport or physical activity you’ve always wanted. Maybe it’s playing an instrument.

As long as it challenges you and helps you grow, it’s a valuable pursuit. And be OK with taking a long time to figure out. If you can do this while you are working, on weekends or vacations, even better because you can transition quickly without a dreaded “empty” downtime.

3. Wealth Building “Golden Hours”

Did you know that building wealth, similar to your career in terms of timing, also has periods where your behavior should change?

When you are accumulating wealth, what you do will be different than what you do in the “decumulation” phase of life. (yeah, decumulation is a real world, I didn’t just make it up!)

The challenge here is that when you do it wrong, your quality of life suffers. This is why the book Die With Zero is so popular – it explains that accumulation isn’t everything.

Maximizing your balances isn’t everything, maximizing your enjoyment of life is.

How to Prepare for Sunset (Accumulation Phase)

This is where you set the foundation for your investing.

The keys here are to set up your investing accounts:

  • Retirement (401k, Roth IRA, Traditional IRA, etc.)
  • Taxable brokerage

Your goal, in this period, is to make it easy for your to contribute to your accounts because that’s the biggest indicator of success. If you’re able to get comfortable with investing a healthy percentage of your income into index funds, you’ll be fine in retirement.

If you can, automate the contributions.

At this age, you likely have quite a bit of free time (certainly more than in ten years!). This is before a house, family, kids, and the litany of obligations that come later in life. Use this time to learn as much as you can about investing.

How to How to Take Advantage of Wealth-Building

This is the easiest part – don’t mess with it.

You can periodically adjust your contributions to fit your life goals and you want to re-balance your portfolio at least once a year. This is to keep it in line with your age and your goals.

In the early years, you can be aggressive with your allocation. Mostly equities. 120 minus your age is a fine rule.

But the key here is just to wait. Don’t get dragged into the news hype about what to invest in. Just stick with the fundamentals and live your life.

How to Prepare for Sunrise (Decumulation Phase)

As you near retirement, you’ll want to ensure your portfolio has some growth potential but starts shifting towards a mix that protects its principal so you can spend it.

“What got you here won’t get you there” is an idea that some retirees forget. Your portfolio doesn’t need to grow aggressively anymore. It should still have a mix of equities so you can get some upside but you don’t want to risk large drops.

If you’ve planned properly, your portfolio should meet your needs. If it does, you shouldn’t put it at risk to get more. Don’t chase more!

If your portfolio doesn’t meet your needs, then you shouldn’t and try to get more by putting your nest egg at risk. You should look elsewhere. You should work a few more years or adjust your lifestyle.

Either way, don’t put your retirement funds at risk.

I’d also recommend reading Die With Zero. If nothing else, it should shift your perspective a little bit.


These are just three examples of golden hours that will occur in your life.

Here are a few other examples (not everyone will want to or get to experience these but for those who do, these are examples):

  • Buying a home – You should be renting and “test driving” areas before you commit to a home because buying and selling a home is very expensive (time and money). Rent in a few different areas to get a feel for how life would be like before you jump to buy something. Take that time to save up for your down payment too and build up a cash cushion for after your purchase, just in case something creeps up.
  • Getting married – This isn’t that different from what I wrote earlier about a career and just shift the dates around. You want to learn about yourself, what you want out of a relationship, what you’re willing to put into one, and how important this relationship is to your life and your finances.
  • Having children – Kids are expensive and require a lot of time, but they’re worth it. You want to make sure you’re adequately prepared to become a parent and that’s everything from making sure your finances are in order but also that you’re psychologically prepared.

Any major change in your life will have golden hours. Many won’t be financial in nature, like how the economy or your career clearly are, but they represent significant shifts when a lot can change in that transition period.

If you can win the golden hours, you should be set up well to take maximize what comes next.

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a forty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and farms in Illinois, Louisiana, and California through AcreTrader.

Recently, he's invested in a few pieces of art on Masterworks too.

>> Read more articles by Jim

Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank or financial institution. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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