Retirement planning solo vs. coupled - what’s different

This article will:

  • Describe how being single or coupled may affect how you plan for retirement.
  • Highlight factors and life events that may impact your planning.
  • Note key considerations for planning on your own or with your partner.

Whether you’re married, partnered, or living solo, your approach to planning and preparing for retirement will involve different phases and, sometimes, pivots based on bigger life events and changes. As you grow closer to your planned retirement age, there are specific considerations that will arise and different ways to approach them based on your current life situation and future goals. There’s no one right way, but being prepared for life’s changes — planned and unplanned — and staying informed can make all the difference for individuals and couples approaching retirement.

Considerations for Couples

For those in long-term relationships, it’s common that one of you may take charge and be more directly involved in managing finances and/or planning for retirement. Some couples approach their retirement planning together as a team with both contributing jointly to saving and investing. Others have individual plans set up through their employers or personal investments and consider their planning separately. While all these models are common and can be workable, there is often a gap in communication around plans and their outcomes. These gaps lead to uncertainty — studies have found almost half of couples disagree on the age they plan to retire, and about the same percentage disagree on how much savings is required for that retirement. 

It’s crucial that you and your partner have conversations together, and ideally with a financial professional to make sure you are both aware and informed of all your investments, savings, and goals for their use. These conversations can be challenging and bring up many emotions. No one wants to think about their partner becoming very ill, disabled, or dying. However, there is also potential comfort and connection to be found when all possible experiences are considered and planned for accordingly. A good financial professional will know how to guide these conversations with care, and will have the experience and resources to help you think through and plan for situations you may not yet be considering.

Gray Divorce, Loss of a Spouse, and How Being Single Again might Affect Your Retirement

Another important consideration is the fact the 50s can find many people transitioning from being in a marriage or partnership to being single —  since 1990 the divorce rate for couples over age 50 has doubled. Today, 1 in 4 people going through a divorce is over 50. This means that many couples who have been planning and investing together, may face the need to divide these assets and make alternative plans independently when they are much closer to retirement age. There are many considerations in the divorce and division of assets process at this stage, including the current employment status of both partners. If one partner is not employed, they may be entitled to alimony. While Family Law varies by state, alimony and community property division laws will usually take into consideration your current living standards, income, property and other assets, investments including 401(k)s and IRAs, as well as life insurance policies and annuities.

Divorce at this stage is complicated, but like all difficult times in life, can potentially lead to new growth and potential once resolved. Enlisting the expertise of lawyers, real estate and financial professionals can help you navigate this transitional phase with support and confidence. 

Even for those who stay strong and together as they approach retirement, it’s important for those couples to include in their planning the likelihood that one partner will predecease the other. In the United States women outlive men by approximately six years on average. Making sure both partners are fully informed of all accounts, assets, and estate plans is essential to minimizing stress and uncertainty in case of this sad event. This is especially true in cases where one partner is a higher earner or has managed most of the couple’s financial planning.

Planning Retirement Solo

Approaching retirement as a solo individual might be the result of the aforementioned experiences of divorce or loss or it may be a life choice on its own. In fact, US Census data from 2021 shows that nearly 50% of American adults are currently single which includes over 40% of individuals over 65. Many of the same considerations and questions apply to single individuals as those in couples — determining your retirement goals, target age, and amount of savings to have, bolstering your plans against potential inflation or market drops — while other specific issues, strategies, and options may also apply. One major piece to consider is that it is often more expensive to retire solo — the American Academy of Actuaries found one single person spends 70-75% of what a couple spends — so you’ll likely want to save and invest more or with different strategies than a couple might.

Questions to Consider

There’s no substitute for good professional guidance, but there are many basics you can begin thinking about on your own, or discussing with your partner which will help you determine which areas might need additional support. While all of these questions are relevant to each person’s retirement, some have special considerations related to whether you are partnered or approaching retirement solo. 

  • When will you retire? While every person must consider this decision, it’s good to know that there are strategic ways of approaching it and also to recognize that for many people retirement may come at a different time than chosen. Layoffs may occur or health challenges may arise and preparing for this possibility is an important consideration. For couples, depending on each of your ages and careers you may find there are benefits to retiring at the same time, or the opposite, that there are strategic or other reason why one partner might retire before the other. While many people consider 65 the target retirement age, the facts of when people actually retire are quite different. A 2022 Gallup poll found that the average retirement age has increased from 57 in 1991 to 61 now. Moreover, non-retirees thinking about retirement have shifted their target age from 60 in 1990 to 66 now. Many people plan to work later, but may find that health issues force an early retirement, or in some cases economic conditions lead to layoffs that may affect older workers more. Regardless, it’s important to plan for different possibilities and take into consideration your own health, job status, and financial situation, as well as your emotional or purpose-driven goals in terms of work, as well as your partner’s if you have one, at different ages and plan for contingencies if possible. 
  • When will you begin to collect Social Security? Generally, the rule of thumb is that the higher earner in a partnership should delay filing for Social Security until they have reached the Full Retirement Age (usually 67). However, depending on your situation it’s sometimes helpful to have the additional income Social Security provides as early as 62. Filing for SS early does lead to lower payments down the line, though, so it’s important to take in your financial picture and get expert advice as well. 
  • What are your dreams and goals for retirement? Dreams of a small business or charitable endeavor? International travel? Time to pursue hobbies or be with family? For both solo individuals and couples, it’s essential to get clear ion your individual and joint priorities. From there, working with an experienced professional for additional guidance, can help ensure you can afford the things that are most important to you alongside all the necessities. 
  • What about long-term care? 70% of 65-year-olds will require long-term care at some point. Planning for this potential expense now can prevent serious stress and financial loss later. You may want to consider adding an insurance policy specifically for long-term care as you plan your budget for retirement. You may also want to expand your conversations to include other family members or close friends, so that you have a community of advocates aware of your wishes if you face longer-term illness or injuries. 
  • How will you protect yourself from potential risks? Inflation and its attendant increased cost of living, market fluctuations that can affect investments, and the real-life realities of injury, illness and death are all unpleasant subjects that must be addressed wisely in the retirement planning process. While it’s sad and stressful to imagine, for couples, it’s likely that one partner will face the loss of the other. Candid and informed planning now can help make sure the pain of that loss isn’t compounded by financial distress.
  • Power of attorney: drafted with an estate planning lawyer, a POA is granted to someone you trust to make financial and/or medical decisions for you in the event that you are incapacitated. For many couples, a spouse is the clear choice for a POA, but it’s also important to consider and consult with trusted individuals who are willing to take on this responsibility if your spouse is unable to, or if you become single at any point. 
  • Community: the change of retirement can sometimes be lonely — Pew research found that 27% of adults over 60 spent more than half their day alone. Finding ways to connect to other people, through hobbies, religion, community service, or participation in other civic or social groups can offer emotional support, provide a sense of purpose, and create bonds that can be incredibly helpful while aging. 
  • Living Situation: downsizing or changing homes is a very common event in the years leading up to and into retirement. Both couples and single folks will do well to consider how their living space can support their lifestyle long-term. Some people may plan to move into retirement communities for services and ease, others might wish to remain at home. For those who are approaching retirement on their own, you will likely want to consider living in closer proximity to friends, services, and leisure activities. Sometimes called the "Golden Girls" trend, small but increasing numbers of older single adults are choosing co-living situations with friends or roommates. If you would like to avoid traditional retirement homes or communities, this is one option to consider. 

The years leading to retirement can motivate us to think differently about our lives and how we want to spend our time. Being open and honest about our needs and goals is key to securing the resources and stability to maintain and achieve them. Whether in partnership or solo, working with a financial professional can help address any life change and lead to greater confidence and security now and through retirement.

Equitable is the brand name of the retirement and protection subsidiaries of Equitable Holdings, Inc., including Equitable Financial Life Insurance Company (Equitable Financial) (NY, NY), Equitable Financial Life Insurance Company of America (Equitable America), an AZ stock company, and Equitable Distributors, LLC.  Equitable Advisors is the brand name of Equitable Advisors, LLC (member FINRA, SIPC) (Equitable Financial Advisors in MI and TN).
GE- 5459712.1 (03/2023) (Exp. 03/2025)