How to survive and thrive when one spouse retires before the other

Retiring can be complex, even at the best of times. When couples stagger their retirement dates, there can be further challenges — and benefits. While the traditional assumption has been that couples will finish their working lives together and start enjoying all the activities they've been dreaming of for years, a growing number are, voluntarily or otherwise, taking separate paths into retirement. 

So how can you ensure you get the best of both worlds in such a situation and make sure it doesn’t create problems in your relationship?

First, acknowledge there may be a few bumps in the road early on. For a time, a couple will have to coexist in different realities, something for which many people are ill-prepared. Like most things in a relationship, communication and compromise are key. With some preparation and taking key steps, you can not only survive, but also thrive when one partner retires before the other.

Money matters

Having a frank conversation about income with your partner is necessary so you’re both aware if there will be less disposable income following retirement and agreeing where you could make cutbacks if required. If your retirement is planned and not voluntary, you could increase your readiness for the change by living on the reduced income for a trial period, such as 6 months or a year beforehand to get used to it. This rehearsal could show you may need to continue working a bit longer or help identify areas where you can make small changes in your spending habits. 

If your partner is still working, their employer healthcare coverage may be valid for both of you, thus avoiding having to pay higher individual rate premiums. But have a backup plan discussed and budgeted if your partner’s job security is a concern. 

Ongoing work for one partner may allow the other to delay filing for Social Security, which increases the amount they will receive when they eventually do, and may mean they can contribute to retirement accounts for longer, ensuring fewer years of living on savings. There are also opportunities around benefits and delayed retirement credits, depending on individual couples’ situations. 

Consult a financial professional if you’re not sure which option will work best for both of you.

Build a new routine

Staggered retirement dates can allow the retired spouse to take stock and prepare for when both are out of the workforce. Perhaps you are anticipating years of travel and adventure while your spouse is envisioning staying close to home, gardening, playing golf or working part-time. You should talk about issues, such as how much time you will spend visiting your children and grandchildren, and whether you want to explore new interests or volunteer.

Many retirees feel anxious about having considerable free time in retirement when a spouse continues to work. While one partner may return home from the office tired and wanting to rest or relax, or just talk about what happened at work that day, their newly retired partner has been at home all day and is brimming with ideas for energetic activities. This can lead to clashes, so understanding and flexibility is needed. Separate interests and schedules mean each must make adjustments and often need to make the effort to be together. 

The first to retire has the opportunity to develop individually and focus on their personal interests and passions while being respectful of their partner’s situation and stresses. Watching one spouse make the transition to retired life can help the other spouse navigate those waters when the time comes.

A new sense of purpose

Developing a “purpose plan” is an important step for anybody retiring — especially if their partner continues to work. Our identity is often wrapped up in our professional careers and for many retirees, co-workers were some of their closest friends, so finding ways to make new friendships and connections is important. Those who are not engaged socially and feel life has no meaning can sink into depression, while studies also show purpose helps prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s and other cognitive impairments.

Skills, experience and talents developed throughout a career can effect positive change and renew a sense of purpose. They might help lead you to part-time work, humanitarian efforts or community involvement, entrepreneurial adventures or even forgotten passions you hadn’t considered before.

Read more about how to start developing your very own purpose plan here.

Making not working work for both of you

Considering each of these issues will help you avoid falling into the trap of leading essentially separate lives if either of you retires before the other, and ensures you maintain shared interests, experiences, ambitions and dreams.

It’s never too early to start planning for retirement — the sooner you do, the better prepared and more knowledgeable you’ll be when the time comes. There are steps you can take at any age that will help create savings to last long after your final paycheck. No matter how old you are now, retirement planning begins by imagining the life want when your work days are over. If you don’t know where to start, the first place could be a financial professional who can help you take things one step at a time.
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GE-3125996 (06/2020) (Exp. 06/2022)