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Coping when not entering retirement together

NY Times Illustration
Published Apr. 27, 2014

After spending 36 years in sales and marketing at MillerCoors, Daniel Ryan retired. At age 61, he was in the enviable position of having a pension and ample savings. The challenge, he said, is that his wife, Cheryl, 58, is still fully engaged in her interior design business. So he has to negotiate both his new play schedule and his wife's work schedule.

"There is no easy answer," said Ryan. "Hopefully, we both stay healthy and the strength of our 36-year marriage will help us ride out these bumps until we get at least near the same page."

With more and more baby boomers retiring each year, many couples must coexist, if only temporarily, in different phases of life. Living two different realities can lead to a variety of challenges, both financial and emotional, from brewing resentments about how a partner is spending free time, to how to reconcile the spending mind-set of a retiree and the outlook of someone still collecting a paycheck.

"A lot of people carry around this misunderstanding that if you disagree about something, it's a problem," said Susan Zimmerman, a financial consultant. "A big part of what I do is remind people that disagreeing and having varying opinions on how things can be isn't a problem, but necessitates more discussion."

One of the first big discussions for a couple retiring at different times should revolve around the retirement schedule itself. One partner may be more than willing to sell the family home so as to more easily (and quickly) afford to retire, while the other may not want to sell. One partner's job may still be thrilling, as is the case with Mrs. Ryan's work, or perhaps the working partner will simply feel more secure by remaining employed for a few more years and saving more.

Starting the dialogue with the facts, experts said, is one way to lessen the chances for conflict. It's hard to argue with the numbers, particularly if you have an independent financial expert use different timetables to analyze how long your retirement portfolio could potentially last, given your expected cost of living. To figure out how much it might cost to live, however, couples first need to spend time thinking about what they're going to do to fill their days.

"People don't have the conversation, 'What do you want the next phase to look like?' " said Paula Nangle, a financial planner. "Only then can you start to put numbers around that."

Jeff Hazlett, a retired trial lawyer in Dayton, Ohio, had many of these conversations with his wife, a physical therapist, before he stopped working last September. But since he was only 57 at the time, they needed to prepare for a significant loss of income. They approached the process carefully and set financial parameters that had to be met before he stopped working. "We asked ourselves questions about what things we will do differently, what things will we not do at all, and what things will remain the same," Hazlett said.

Once those ideas are sketched out, couples need to go through the age-old preretirement exercise of estimating "absolutely necessary expenses," Nangle said, as well as costs where there is some control (eating in versus eating out) and completely discretionary expenses.

But that does not necessarily prepare couples for some of the common conflicts that arise when daily routines become so different. "Do I tell her that I am out on my Adirondack chair on my third beer, or that I have been pushing the vacuum all morning?" joked Larry Hemstreet, who is 67 and retired from his job at NASA. Hemstreet said his wife, Susan, 61, will continue working at a technology firm until she is fully vested in her pension plan.

Hazlett, the retired lawyer, took on more household chores to make his working wife's life easier, but he said he did not anticipate such a steep learning curve. Then there was the matter of reinventing himself in a way that made him feel relevant — he took up photography, plans on hiking the Appalachian Trail and remodeled a bathroom. But what really took him by surprise were his newfound feelings about spending money.

"When I retired, there was an insidious shift in my mind from 'our money' to 'her money,' " said Hazlett. He said his wife expects to work for at least eight more years. "When I stopped working but still spent, at times I felt guilty for doing so. That has been a tough one to get over."

Conversely, working spouses may want to continue to spend money on niceties, something that suddenly may make retirees uncomfortable.

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