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Retirement Planning Tips for Couples

Avoiding marriage conflicts when you stop working

spinner image Issues with retiring at different times.
Spouses often assume they both see retirement the same way, but that's not necessarily so.

 Talk, talk, talk to each other. That's what every financial planner tells me couples need to do when retirement first springs to mind. Single people have to think only about themselves when making plans. Couples, however, make a dual decision. Are you both ready for retirement? If so, what next? If one of you wants to keep working, how will you handle the new relationship?

Spouses often assume they both see retirement the same way, but that's not necessarily so. When they start to talk, one might be surprised — pleasantly or otherwise — by what the other thinks.

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For example, a husband might expect his working wife to retire when he does, when in fact she's not ready to quit her job. A wife at home might think her husband should work a little longer, to accumulate more savings. They might have different dreams about where and how to live. "We have had clients say to each other that they had no idea that that is what the other wanted to do, and not so nicely," says planner Marc Roland of San Diego. (Roland, like all the experts quoted here, belongs to the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors.)

Planner Jamie Milne of St. Johnsbury, Vt., is helping a couple, both 62, with different feelings about work and risk. The husband wants to retire. The wife wants to work for four more years but worries that, if something goes wrong financially, she'll be forced to bring in a paycheck for even longer than that. As she sees it, he's taking her options away.

Some retirements are driven by a bad workplace situation. Planner Mary Lacey Gibson of San Juan Bautista, Calif., had a client, 59, who hated her job. At a meeting in Gibson's office, she asked if she could retire. It meant that her husband would have to work three extra years — and he instantly agreed. Gibson says the wife gave "the first real smile" she'd seen.

If you want to retire early, however, planner Andy Tilp of Sherwood, Ore., has a cautionary question: "What will you do next?" You might not have fully considered this point, he says. There are many hours and days to fill, especially if your spouse is still working. Are you planning a second career? Full-time grandchildren or golf? Part-time volunteer? Continuing education? Women are more likely than men to have a web of friendships that will keep their lives busy and interesting.

Retirement is a financial decision as much as an emotional one. You might be shocked by how much you have to cut back with no paycheck. Planner Joan Gagnon of Mansfield, Mass., advises pre-retirees to spend a year trying to live on only the money they'll have when they quit work. That forces you to analyze — as a couple — where the money goes and whether it might be smarter to work for another couple of years. "The numbers don't lie," she says.

The numbers can also help couples reach an agreement about their lives ahead. At the start of the conversation, write down your separate goals. See what you agree on, then compare your other wants with the money you'll have. "That helps partners understand if one of their goals doesn't make the cut," says planner Craig Larsen of St. Charles, Ill.

"Most couples overspend in the first few years of retirement," says planner Tyler Cook of Columbus, Ohio — especially when one spouse keeps working. Why? "Because they still have extra income," he says, "so they think it's OK if they tap the portfolio early in retirement." Bad choice.

Health insurance is critical to your retirement decision. If you're under Medicare age (65) and have health problems, you might not be able to find affordable individual coverage. One spouse might have to keep working solely for group health insurance, though that might change, depending on what happens to the health care law.

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Ultimately, good retirements lie in good relationships — including negotiating the retirement talk. For a couple of years, my late husband, a lawyer, wanted to quit but didn't tell me. He thought I might not want to be the only breadwinner. But I didn't mind! In fact, life got easier when he retired because he took on some extra chores. I remember my son taking him to the laundry room and saying, "Dad, this is the washing machine …"

Jane Bryant Quinn is a personal finance expert and author of Making the Most of Your Money NOW. She writes regularly for the Bulletin.

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