Updated 1/3/18

By Adam Hunter and Frances Denmark

September 01, 2017

The decision to retire and enter a new, unfamiliar stage in life can be a challenge for anyone who has spent decades in the workplace. But including a spouse or partner in the equation—whether he or she is ready to retire—adds another layer of complexity. Without adequate planning, conflicts can arise to test a marriage—conflicts around how to spend time, loss of identity, moving residences, travel and money.

This challenging transition—one that baby boomers and Gen X couples will soon face—inspired Prudential to invite seven Chicago-area couples approaching retirement years to participate in an experiment filmed for the latest ad in the company’s “Bring Your Challenges” campaign. Each participant was asked to predict how much money they thought they and their partner would need to live comfortably in retirement. The couples then set out on an LED walkway that illuminated to reveal how far their money would take them.

Differences between some partners’ estimates were eye-opening. One woman’s prediction would only support her and her husband for nine years based on their current lifestyle; her husband’s prediction would last them for 24 years. Most estimates fell short for even the average length of retirement, 15 years.

That doesn’t surprise Prudential Advisor Jonathan Viscounte. “Half the time I feel like a marriage counselor,” he says. “I spend way more time making sure couples are on the same page than I do planning their finances.” He estimates only 25 percent of the clients he’s seen in his 32-year career have discussed what life will look like in retirement, and only 5 to 10 percent have discussed it in detail.

“Baby boomers and Gen Xers are facing challenges that their parents likely didn’t. We’re living longer, working longer, lacking pensions,” Viscounte says. “It can be scary. Talking to a financial professional is the best first step.”

A decision for one, a conversation for both
“Your life will change if one or both of you are retiring,” warns Jaye Smith, co-author of The Retirement Boom and co-founder of Reboot Partners, a team of former executives who provide planning and seminars for organizations looking to prepare their employees for retirement. “One of the biggest questions is, ‘Who retires first and how do you figure that out?’”

Before women entered the workforce en masse, this was less of an issue, says Richard Johnson, senior fellow and director, Program on Retirement Policy at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. Johnson observed in a 2004 paper, Do Spouses Coordinate Their Retirement Decisions?, that the movement of married women into the labor market transformed retirement behavior.

Decades ago, a couple’s retirement decision focused on the generosity of the husband’s retirement benefits and the impact the timing of his retirement had on future benefits. Not so today. Many women have accumulated substantial retirement savings, and these differences in employment and personal circumstances can complicate a couple’s retirement planning efforts, explains Johnson.

Over time, women increasingly have been retiring after their husbands.

Johnson cites findings in the Health and Retirement Study, a 2014 longitudinal survey conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research of households with members aged 50 and over. The results found that 49 percent of women born between 1948 and 1953 have remained in the workforce after their husbands retired. A generation earlier, only 19 percent of women retired after their husbands. 

Financial tools for retirement readiness
Prudential’s Viscounte advises his client couples to re-chart their financial priorities together, including how much to set aside for children, grandchildren and charities: “Ask each other, ‘What does your day look like in retirement?’ I’ve been married for 33 years to my high school sweetheart. I know how hard it can be to communicate sometimes. If you and your partner have completely different plans, you can’t wake up the first day of retirement and start arguing about it. It takes compromise. It’s better to do that 10 years ahead of time and be financially prepared.”

One important financial consideration in retirement planning is coordinating the Social Security options of both spouses to create an efficient claiming strategy, says James Mahaney, vice president, Strategic Initiatives at Prudential. If the older spouse is also the higher lifetime earner, choosing to delay his or her benefit can provide a larger survivor benefit when passed on to the spouse due to delayed retirement credits and periodic cost of living adjustments. No matter what a couple’s circumstances are, they need to assess their anticipated benefits if they will qualify for them at different points in time.

Still, “finances are arguably not even the most important part of the discussion about a couple retiring,” cautions Mahaney. “There’s got to be a lot of dialogue.”

Sparking conversation—and romance—in retirement
Prudential’s Walkways ad illustrates the very different expectations that partners can have about their next chapter, no matter how in sync they may have been throughout their working years.

Dr. Pamela Corson, a vice president in Health & Wellness at Prudential, observes that this is a common issue among pre-retirees seeking support through the company’s Behavioral Health Services team of counselors and life coaches. One partner might want to spend more time socializing with friends in retirement, or even taking a solo trip, while the other expects to spend more time together. Or one person wants to move south while the other wants to move north. 

“This can leave one partner in a really difficult position,” says Corson, who advises that clients begin to address these considerations early on in the decision-making process.

To avoid these conflicts, a place to start is for both members of a couple to write down their ideal retirement day and compare them to see differences, Smith counsels.

Smith teaches that the first 30 days of retirement should be like a sabbatical when a person detoxes, followed by moving into a “clearing space,” reconnecting with friends, exploring new hobbies or perhaps learning a new language, and ending with “re-entry” into part-time or volunteer work, for example, or displaying one’s wares at a crafts fair.

There can be a surprising bonus to retirement planning as a couple, when the joint activity rekindles the original romance.

“The ultimate goal,” says Smith, “is to be ‘each other’s best friend and keeper at this stage and, most likely, increasingly as you both age.’”

To speak with a financial professional about developing a couples’ strategy for retirement, request an interview on retirement issues, or for media inquiries about Prudential’s “Walkways” ad, contact Scott Gilmore.   


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The Prudential Insurance Company of America and its affiliates Newark, NJ.