How Couples Can Retire in Harmony

Strategies to get on the same page – or chart a new course.

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When I was married, my husband often expressed a desire to retire to Phoenix. He liked the area’s dry heat and the beauty of the desert. I hated the idea. Nothing against Phoenix—I’ve never even been there. But I was perfectly fine where I was and had no plans to uproot myself.

The one happy byproduct of my divorce? Phoenix is off the table.

My ex and I obviously had other issues, but even rock-solid couples can discover that they have different goals or expectations for retirement. A 2015 Fidelity study of couples showed that half of baby boomers (people ages 52 to 70) don’t even discuss a post-career plan, much less agree on it. “He wants to live at the beach; she wants to live in the mountains. He hopes to spend more time with her; she wants to spend more time with the grandchildren,” says John Sweeney, executive vice president of retirement and investing strategies at Fidelity.

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Couples also have trouble expressing their expectations for each other in retirement, especially if one spouse retires first, says Dorian Mintzer, a retirement-transition coach in Boston and coauthor of The Couple’s Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Creating an Amazing New Life Together (Sourcebooks). The working spouse, for instance, might expect the at-home spouse to do more of the household chores, whereas the at-home spouse—let’s just say it’s the husband—has no clue that’s on the agenda. “If you’ve been with someone for a long time, you imagine you can read your spouse’s mind. Sometimes you can and sometimes not, but you can’t assume,” says Mintzer.

Make a plan.

The first logical step in avoiding a marital disconnect is to discuss up front how and where you want to spend your retirement, expressing your views as “this is what I’m interested in doing” rather than taking aim at the other person’s ideas, says Mintzer. The goal is for each person to hear the other out and then work toward a mutual decision, she says. “Talking sets the framework and allows people to realize they can problem-solve together.”

Once you have the outlines of a plan, you still need to identify how you’ll pay for it. A financial planner can help you run the numbers and, if necessary, provide a reality check. Anne Chernish, a certified financial planner in Ithaca, N.Y., has her clients describe how they see their life at key stages, including retirement, and helps them budget their expenses accordingly. “I make sure the cash will support different objectives,” she says.

If it doesn’t, you could end up on the same page faster than you think. For example, suppose one of you wants to downsize and the other has been resisting the idea, but both of you want to travel. If you discover that your retirement budget doesn’t support frequent trips, you might decide to free up cash by downsizing after all. Or, if you can’t agree on whether to retire at the same time and the budget shows an income shortfall, having one person work longer (maybe part-time) becomes a no-brainer. Even disagreements about who will do the chores when one spouse works can be partly solved if you know you can afford to hire a housekeeper a few times a month.

Still not on the same page? Give your separate visions a trial run, says Mintzer. “One spouse could say to the other, ‘For the next couple of years, I want to stay where we are, and then we can reevaluate,’ or ‘Over the next few years, we’ll visit places where you want to move.’ ” If you’re desperate to escape cold winters and you’re both willing to think outside the box, rent a condo in Florida (or Phoenix) for a few months and have your spouse visit. Maybe you’ll both end up loving it there—or not. Either way, problem solved.

Jane Bennett Clark
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
The late Jane Bennett Clark, who passed away in March 2017, covered all facets of retirement and wrote a bimonthly column that took a fresh, sometimes provocative look at ways to approach life after a career. She also oversaw the annual Kiplinger rankings for best values in public and private colleges and universities and spearheaded the annual "Best Cities" feature. Clark graduated from Northwestern University.