The Economy

Can This Retirement Be Saved?

When spouses disagree about when, where, and how to retire, each may wonder just what they were working for all those years.
Clint WillisNovember 1, 2007

Whether you are contemplating retirement in the near term or further down the road, you’ve no doubt run plenty of numbers, from asset-allocation percentages to investment returns to vesting schedules. Maybe you’ve even taken a guess at your estimated lifespan.

But you may not have calculated the potential damage to your marriage. According to a recent survey by Fidelity Investments, 41 percent of married couples disagree about whether one or both of them will work in retirement, and more than a third argue about when to retire. During the first two years of retirement, according to a 2001 Cornell University study, couples fight much more and are significantly less satisfied with their marriages. “When we ask couples to describe how they envision retirement, one starts talking and then looks over and sees the puzzled look on the other one’s face,” says Helen Modly, a certified financial planner and executive vice president at Focus Wealth Management. “And that’s the end of that conversation.”

Not all couples are at odds over how they’ll spend their retirement years. “We like to say we grew up together and developed similar interests over time,” says William Steul, 65, who retired last October as CFO of Eaton Vance Corp., a financial-services firm in Boston. He and his wife, Judy, married for 43 years, have mapped out a retirement that combines continuing involvement in the business world with volunteer activities, trips to visit their children in London and San Francisco, and plenty of sailing.

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Idyllic? Yes. Possible? Yes. Easy? Not necessarily.

The prospect of a longer, more active, and more affluent retirement creates expectations that are vastly different from those of previous generations. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently noted that whereas there used to be simply adulthood and old age, a new life phase, “active retirement,” has emerged. Many retirees embrace the concept, forging elaborate plans for their postwork years that may lead to problems if spouses have different ideas.

It can be so daunting that people may prefer to simply keep working. A survey from Phoenix Wealth Management found that 44 percent of high-net-worth individuals plan to work at least part time in retirement, while only 40 percent plan to retire full time. That marks the first time that those planning to retire full time actually constitute a minority. And while an enjoyment of work certainly factors into their plans, Modly says that in many cases couples “don’t want to face the reality that they don’t have a workable plan for living together without work.”

That reality can be bleak: in the United States, the divorce rate is highest among those 55 and older. An analysis by Prince & Associates found that, among high-net-worth individuals, concern about losing money in a divorce or family conflict increased in direct proportion to wealth.

So Many Questions

While it can be difficult to ascertain how much of that discord can be traced to retirement issues, there are certainly plenty of things to disagree about, beginning with when to retire. The Cornell study found that marital conflict early in retirement is worse when spouses retire at different times, yet it’s not always practical — or desirable — for both members of a couple to retire at the same time. A common scenario: the husband is ready to retire just as his wife, after taking time out to raise children, is hitting her stride at work.

The question of where to retire has become knottier, too, given complex family ties and increasing mobility. A couple with children from previous marriages might want to live near their grandchildren — but which grandchildren? “We’ve had one spouse look at the other and say, ‘Go ahead and live there. I’m living here,’” says Kevin Reardon, a CFP and president of Shakespeare Wealth Management.

Spouses can differ enormously in their taste for travel versus more sedentary pursuits. Perhaps most thorny of all, couples can have trouble communicating about and compromising on these and a host of related issues. But there are steps you can take in advance that will help you actually enjoy your postcareer years.

Step one: Lay out your vision. Write a letter to your spouse that describes your retirement dream and have him or her do the same. You may find that your vague fantasies begin to give way to more-realistic ideas when you put them on paper. At the very least, your descriptions will serve as a starting point for discussion.

Even better is to nurture that vision in a manner similar to the Steuls. Jere Michelson, 38, is the CFO of nonprofit group Libra Foundation, in Portland, Maine. He and his wife, Jennifer, have already begun to plan for a retirement that will suit them both. Jennifer goes along on 80 percent of Jere’s business trips, and the couple usually sets aside a day or two for joint pursuits. “We both feel that our shared interests are almost as important for our retirement as our financial planning,” says Jere.

Step two: Consult reality. Your dream retirement may be impossible to implement no matter how appealing the vision. For example, you may not be able to live in Costa Rica full time if one of you is responsible for an aging parent in Seattle. Such commitments may narrow the possibilities, but they can make negotiations easier. Why argue over a move that isn’t realistic?

The biggest reality, of course, concerns assets and how long they will last. For the more affluent, the issue may not be paying the bills or even underwriting the trip to Europe many years hence, but leaving behind a suitable estate or funding philanthropic endeavors as you had hoped. Not only is the advice of a financial planner essential, but if one spouse has been the primary contact person with that planner, it’s time to schedule a couple of meetings with both spouses present.

Step three: Experiment. Let’s say your spouse dreams of moving to Northern California, but you’re not sold on the idea of winery tours, surfing, or early morning trips to the meditation hut. One solution is to try it: rent a house for a month or two and see how you both like it.

A common theme among happy retirees is to focus not just on the R&R but on some continued involvement with reality. Don Seaquist, 59, was the CFO of Embrex Inc., a biotech firm in Durham, North Carolina, that was acquired by Pfizer Animal Health in January. He plans to consult for the firm as he transitions into retirement with his wife, Janet, 56, who has an MBA but has stayed home for the past 15 years to raise the couple’s daughter. Don likes to cite advice from a retired relative: “Don’t rush into it; let retirement come to you.”

Don and Janet have discussed their retirement plans, which include travel and going back to school to pursue intellectual interests. But they know the change will present challenges. “We’ll have a lot of adjusting to do when I’m home more, making sure we give each other space,” says Don. “We’ll have to learn as we go.”

Which brings us to Step four: Compromise. You want to retire now and move to ski country; your spouse wants to stay put and keep working for five years. Maybe you can put off retirement for a year or two, providing you can take some longish ski vacations that include looking for a potential vacation home near the slopes. The ability to work out such issues requires self-knowledge, generosity, flexibility, and good communication: the same qualities that make for a happy marriage.

Clint Willis writes about finance, adventure, and other topics for publications ranging from Money to Outside.

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