Retire In Sync With Your Spouse

To avoid conflicts, each of you should visualize what a day in retirement might look like.

The prize for inspiring my column this month goes to reader Michael Hagedorn. In his first year of retirement, Hagedorn is struggling to reconcile the goals of his wife, Caranell, who has her sights set on travel—encouraged by HGTV and the Travel Channel—with his desire for “a little breathing room” to get their finances settled. “Perhaps if I canceled our cable subscription, I could better manage both expectations,” he quips.

Spending more time with a spouse or partner can be one of the high points of retirement. In a study by Age Wave and Bank of America Merrill Lynch, 48% of retirees said their marriage has become more fulfilling, compared with 11% who said it is more contentious.

Still, each person has his or her own vision of retirement, and they’re not always compatible. “Retirement is usually portrayed as a solo project, but it’s not,” says Ken Dychtwald, CEO of Age Wave, a think tank focused on aging. For example, the Age Wave/Merrill Lynch study found that two-thirds of retirees who have a spouse or partner haven’t discussed or agreed on how much leisure time to spend together, and two-thirds haven’t budgeted for travel. Sometimes the source of friction is simply spending more time together—especially if one spouse, often the wife, has already established a busy at-home routine. “My wife told me, ‘I married you for better or worse, but not from 9 to 5,’ ” writes reader Paul Wallick, who joined a gym, volunteers at church and is a part-time consultant, among other activities. “Joining my wife of 41 years on a full-time basis was a bigger adjustment than expected, and I’m sure the same applies to her,” says Greg Miles. “I still feel the need for structure and routine.” (Get In on a Stellar Second Act takes a look at how Kiplinger’s readers are spending time in retirement.)

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Some couples have come up with creative solutions. “Spouses don’t have to do everything together, and my wife and I take separate trips,” writes Thomas King. “But the three weeks I was gone on a trip to New Zealand was too long to be apart.” To avoid being underfoot, Tom Morris adjusted his retirement activities to mimic his previous work schedule—leaving the house early in the morning, taking care of chores and projects, exercising, and returning home as if he were ending his workday.

The situation is trickier if, as in the Hagedorns’ case, you disagree about fundamental roles or goals. Ali Hutchinson, senior vice president of private wealth management at Brown Brothers Harriman, tells of a client who was a corporate CEO while his wife managed the household bills. When he retired and began taking more of an interest in household finances, she balked. “She told him, ‘Just because you were CEO of a company doesn’t mean you become CEO of the household,’ ” says Hutchinson. They’re still negotiating their roles.

Get on the same page. It’s critical to talk with your spouse before you retire to pinpoint and address any conflicts. “Each of you should visualize what a day in retirement might look like,” says Judith Ward, senior financial planner at T. Rowe Price. “Ask yourself a series of questions: When, where, and why do you want to retire? What will you be doing, and with whom?” Write down your answers separately and then compare them.

Sometimes it makes sense to stagger retirement dates or shift roles. Reader Bill Smith’s wife kept working after he retired, so he made her breakfast, packed her lunch, cleaned the house and made dinner. Another reader writes: “My wife became bored and went back to work at REI. As an avid hiker, I enjoy the spousal discount.”

The key, says Dan Tindell, is “adjusting to changing circumstances,” as Michael and Caranell Hagedorn have discovered. “It’s likely best that Caranell pushes me to do more, and I try to get her to consider more of the costs,” writes Michael. “We have attained a certain balance that seems to work for us both.”

Janet Bodnar

Janet Bodnar is editor-at-large of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, a position she assumed after retiring as editor of the magazine after eight years at the helm. She is a nationally recognized expert on the subjects of women and money, children's and family finances, and financial literacy. She is the author of two books, Money Smart Women and Raising Money Smart Kids. As editor-at-large, she writes two popular columns for Kiplinger, "Money Smart Women" and "Living in Retirement." Bodnar is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University and is a member of its Board of Trustees. She received her master's degree from Columbia University, where she was also a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics Journalism.