Are You Two in Sync About Retirement?

older couple

My husband and I have mused about where we’d like to retire for most of our 22-year marriage. Cape Cod so he can spend his time deep-sea fishing? A pied-à-terre in New York, where we lived when we were first married? Or perhaps Napa Valley so we can indulge our shared passion for wine?

It turns out that we are talking about the wrong things when it comes to retirement planning, says retirement coach Roberta Taylor co-author of The Couple’s Retirement Puzzle. “The mistake many people make is basing their decisions on a fantasy.”

Ouch. It seems that while it’s good to have a vision, you also need a plan—and it’s far too easy to imagine sunset walks in wine country and postpone grittier discussions about how to pay for it.

One tiny consolation: We have lots of company. Most people don’t talk about retirement planning in a thoughtful, constructive way until, well, it’s time to retire. One 2006 study found that a third of people over age 40 said they have not yet saved any money for their retirement.

And according to Fidelity Investments, just 41% of couples surveyed in 2011 do handle retirement decisions together—which leaves about one in six couples
who don’t.

Is that surprising? Most couples have a tough time talking about their monthly credit card bill, never mind the vast unknowns of retirement. Plus, surveys show that many couples lie about debt, spending, and fight like Congressional reps facing a fiscal cliff.

How do you get past all that to get in synch about one of life’s main events?

Agree to agree. You’ve heard that one way to diffuse tension is to list your wishes and goals for your golden years, and ask your partner about theirs. Take the convo to the next level and focus only on what you agree on. Novel idea: don’t even discuss the points of contention (for now).

Work as a team. Most couples fall into static financial roles over time. She always pays the bills. He keeps track of the 401k. She’s the breadwinner. He stays home. Whatever your pattern is, make an Olympian effort to step out of those roles in order to start your action plan, says Judy Haselton, president of Harmony Financial Advisors
in New York.

Practice. What do football teams do before a championship? They scrimmage, i.e. rehearse plays and tactics. Do the same with your retirement. Get one set of plays down: a) you’re going to buy a house in Cabo San Lucas (what’s the cost of living, how are property values?); b) you’re going to retire at 70 (how much will you save by then?); c) you’re going to collect $X from Social Security (here’s a calculator).

The game may change, but at least you’ll get the basics down now.