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What to Do When Your Spouse Retires First

Insights & Ideas Team •  November 4, 2014 | Home and Family, Enjoying Retirement

There’s a new social dynamic emerging in America these days. With more than 47 percent of married couples in dual-income families,1 it’s becoming more common for one spouse to retire while the other keeps working, especially in marriages where there is an age difference between spouses.

According to Angela DiCastri, a director for the Retirement Market at Northwestern Mutual, those staggered retirements can lead to a variety of challenges, both financial and emotional.

Going in Different Directions

“After years of waking to the same alarm clock and racing off to their respective jobs, many couples find themselves having to adjust to a sometimes significant shift in their domestic lives,” said DiCastri. “For some, one spouse chooses or is forced to continue working, either for financial reasons or to maintain health benefits. For others, one spouse has to retire earlier than planned either because of a layoff or illness. Either way, resentments can start to build, especially when the working spouse also would like to stop working but feels he or she can’t.”

Traditional gender roles can complicate the issue. Men who retire first may suddenly find themselves with a new and unexpected status: that of cook, cleaner, and all-around househusband. Women with careers who retire first may feel curtailed in their activities and spending choices by a husband who is now sole breadwinner. Not surprisingly, even the strongest of marriages can be tested when one spouse has to get up early for work while the other hits the snooze button and rolls over for some extra sleep.

“For better or worse, retirement is a major life transition that can change the marital dynamics of a couple in much the same way the birth of a first child changes it,” explained DiCastri. “Conflict can easily arise when partners aren’t on the same page about their hopes and dreams for retirement, as well as their expectations and fears about the future.”

Separate, but Together

How do you cope when you and your partner retire at different times? Here are five strategies to consider.

1. Share what retirement looks like to you. A lot of people are surprised to discover that they have very different ideas about retirement and that they don’t always match with their partner’s. For some, retirement is a long-awaited time for new adventures or discovering a new purpose. For others, it means a lot of time relaxing on the golf course, at the computer, or in a hammock. In order for retirement to be mutually satisfying, it’s crucial for both spouses to discuss their goals in advance, especially when one partner gets a head-start on retirement.

2. Talk about timing. DiCastri believes that one of the most important discussions for a couple retiring at different times is the retirement schedule itself. This means talking about which spouse should retire first and how that loss of income and/or health care and other benefits will impact your lives. However, keep in mind that the question of when to retire is often mixed with other issues. For example, your spouse may want to retire early and be willing to sell the family home and relocate to a less expensive area in order to make that doable. In contrast, you may want to work longer to boost your savings in order to remain geographically close to your family. Getting clear on what is driving the decision to retire can help ensure that you and your spouse make the best timing decision for your family.

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3. Take a reality check. Retiring on different schedules can offer an important opportunity to test your financial assumptions about retirement. By living on one paycheck instead of two, you can get a clearer sense of your spending and what you can and can’t live without. At the same time, having one income still coming in can help you preserve your nest egg for a while longer. This can make it easier financially when it comes time to transition to joint retirement.

4. Manage expectations. Many couples are unprepared for some of the common conflicts that arise when daily routines shift significantly. Most men who retire before their spouse don’t envision spending their days on household chores and shopping. Yet tensions can rise when the still-working spouse comes home to a messy home and an empty fridge.

“Clarifying your respective roles and establishing ground rules for how time will be spent can help you avoid conflict,” said DiCastri. “If your partner didn’t help with household duties before retirement, ease into sharing those tasks. Start with the things you dislike most, and take it from there.” DiCastri also suggests that you discuss when and how much you want to socialize separately and together and how you plan to handle vacation time.

5. Say goodnight together. When both spouses are working, having a regular routine can help support a healthy marriage by ensuring you have time together. That routine can be upended when one spouse is no longer beholden to a schedule. For this reason, some couples find it beneficial to set a regular bedtime and stick to it. Having a shared time for ‘lights out’ can provide an important opportunity to connect; it can also help avoid the disruption to sleep patterns that can occur when one person calls it a night early and the other hops into bed much later.

Achieving a successful retirement is a process that takes planning and communication. However, when spouses retire at different times, it can take an even greater level of commitment and flexibility to stay on track. That’s why DiCastri encourages couples to share their vision for retirement and work through the differences. “Getting clear on your hopes and goals for the future and negotiating clear expectations can actually strengthen your marriage and help you both move toward a better life together no matter when each of you decides to retire.”

1 April 2014 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

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