Having healthy conversations about money before retirement can make that transition easier for all

For many couples, moving from a steady flow of dual paychecks to no paychecks at all can feel like stepping into the abyss — especially if the two partners are not on the same page when it comes to planning, saving, and priorities.

Couples who have a history of talking openly and honestly about finances from the get-go may find the transition to retirement a bit easier. Unfortunately, that is not the norm: the 2021 Couples and Money Fact Sheet issued by Fidelity Investments indicates that one in five couples say money is their greatest relationship challenge, with 44 percent of couples saying they argue about money at least occasionally. When it comes to retirement, Fidelity found that 48 percent of couples disagree about what age they plan to retire, 51 percent disagree about how much savings they need to reach retirement, and 34 percent disagree as to whether they’re savers or spenders. 

But even if you and your partner have never been terrific at talking about money, you can still take steps to help make conversations around finances more comfortable, less scary, and healthier all around. 

Senior couple arguing over finances
Photo: iStockphoto.com/PeopleImages.

Shifting Roles

Bill Selig is a financial advisor with CP Capital Management LLC in Clifton Park. During the seven years he has shepherded couples through their retirements, he’s seen a number of patterns. For starters, Selig says, couples seeking his expertise typically follow some basic scenarios. “There’s the couple that comes in that’s been conservative and have saved, and they’re on the same page about saving and future spending. They’re already in good shape.”

Other couples, though, are not on the same page at all when it comes to saving, spending, or future plans; they’re the ones who are going to have to work hard to get in good financial shape, Selig says. “The most difficult cases are those involving mixed families, couples who have been together for 20 years but have different ideas about, say, paying for a kid’s wedding. One partner may feel strongly that he or she should pay for the wedding, and the other may say, ‘No, that’s not how it works.’”

Other couples may have relationships where one person typically took the financial lead. Perhaps that person was the breadwinner, while the other partner oversaw the family and homefront. Retirement can change that dynamic, which can be tricky, Selig says.

Talking the Talk 

The good news is that couples can and do overcome the hurdles of learning to talk productively about retirement finances — and those that do may find their relationships enriched by the process.

As Adina Saperstein, MMHC, a therapist and couples counselor at Families Together Counseling Services in Catskill, puts it, “There always is the possibility to heal at any stage.” Saperstein, who works with many couples as they navigate the many issues that surround retirement, says things often get very bad before they get better. 

“Overwhelmingly, most couples don’t come in for counseling until they’re on the brink of splitting up,” Saperstein says. “Any time they come in sooner than that happens, they’re already ahead of the game.”

“When it comes to planning for retirement, there’s often a disconnect between the partners,” Saperstein explains. “One partner may want to retire sooner and enjoy life, while the other may want to continue working, either because they truly enjoy [their work] or perhaps it’s a new relationship, one that’s not fully established in terms of financial security.” 

“Financial issues are often just one piece of a lifetime of unresolved issues,” Saperstein says. A key point of contention that can come to a head as retirement approaches involves the couple’s reckoning with each partner’s relative contribution to the union in terms of employment. 

A common dynamic involves a breadwinner (often a man) and a partner (often a woman) who hasn’t worked outside the home but has been caring for the household, for her partner, for their offspring, and perhaps for a parent. That partner “finds herself in a position of not having the bandwidth to work outside the home,” Saperstein says. “When one partner’s been contributing such invisible labor for decades and the other has a sense of entitlement, saying, ‘Sorry, I’ve been the one working,’ resentment can creep in. That resentment can peak when retirement grows closer, and it creates an unhealthy dynamic on multiple levels.”

“In the many cases where there are financial constraints that make it necessary to adjust, scale back, or delay hopes and dreams for retirement that may be impossible, it’s important for both partners to make space to feel and acknowledge grief about that,” Saperstein continues. “Practicing what we call ‘radical acceptance’ involves acknowledging experiences of distress and disappointment without letting them fester into resentment and suffering.”

Senior couple discussing finances
Photo: iStockphoto.com/PeopleImages.

Tips for Talking About Money Around Retirement

So just how does a couple address these sensitive issues in a loving, productive manner? 

Saperstein says she often advises that couples “adopt basic relationship and couples-counseling approaches that have applications beyond retirement.” Taking that approach can enhance the relationship generally. “The process can really lead to second acts of relationships as couples shift gears on finances,” she says. “Even when people have been stuck in patterns for decades, they can reset at any stage.” 

Here are the five steps Saperstein encourages couples to take:

  • “Each partner should get clear for themselves about their hopes, needs, desires, and requirements” for retirement. “From there, the partners should communicate in a straightforward manner using ‘I’ statements such as ‘I hope to spend more time with the grandkids,’ or ‘I want to travel more.’ … In and of itself, that approach may be new to the couple,” Saperstein adds. “The ability to claim and express hopes and desires can be really revolutionary, especially for the generation of women now retiring.”
  • “Be prepared to listen, reflect, and validate what the other person has said. In practice, I’ll guide the first person to express their needs and desires, then ask the other partner to reflect and summarize what the first person said. Often they’ll jump in with an emotional, triggered reaction. But instead they can say something like, ‘I heard you say …,’” which is more respectful and productive, Saperstein says.
  • “Express any reaction calmly with an ‘I’ statement: ‘I hear you say you want to travel extensively, but I’m afraid we can’t afford it.’”
  • “Explore compromises required to create a viable plan and budget. Reframe the conversation away from defensive, reactive, and contentious to collaboration and compromise.”
  • “Prioritize allocating a budget for activities that keep both partners healthier, more active, and more fulfilled. Hobbies, classes, learning something new that involves mind/body connection, such as learning a new style of dance, or reading — specifically, reading fiction novels, which, because you have to keep track of characters and plot in a way you don’t need for reading nonfiction, is super powerful for memory and cognitive function. Instead of saying, ‘This is a waste of money,’ get creative about finding free or inexpensive options.”

As couples proceed through retirement, these communication skills can help them address and manage all kinds of matters, including those involving their children, real estate, and pretty much anything that comes up along the way. “The common denominator,” Saperstein says, “is that the sooner these questions are broached and discussed, the better.”

Kim and Mike McMann
Recent early retirees Kim and Mike McMann of Stephentown, N.Y., have been communicative about finances from the beginning.
—Supplied photo

Kim and Mike McMann: Walking the talk

Admittedly, Kim and Mike McMann of Stephentown are not a textbook retired couple. As Kim readily relates in a phone conversation, their situation differs from that of many other couples. They have been communicative about finances since the start of their 20-year marriage, they’ve retired a bit younger than the norm (Kim’s about to turn 60, and Mike turns 58 in December), and, with no children or other direct heirs, their planning didn’t entail leaving inheritances or other legacies. 

Having said all that, Kim and Mike were thrust unexpectedly into retirement when Mike, a professional musician, was offered an early-retirement package during the COVID pandemic, at a time when demand for gig players like him dried up. Lucky for the McManns, Mike worked for a company that offered a buyout package that allowed for him to receive his hard-earned pension, though he was a year away from retirement. 

At the same time, Kim, who was helping run a program that provided free meals to those who needed them, found demand increase even as staffing shrunk; the program let all of its volunteers go during the pandemic, leaving just Kim and her kitchen manager — and their spouses — to continue providing this much-needed service.

“I was exhausted,” Kim says, “and nobody knew what was going to happen next. I loved the job, so I just kept my head down and kept going.”

Kim had crafted a plan for keeping the program running should she get COVID; when eventually that did happen, she was gratified to see that nobody missed a meal during her absence. That drove home the fact that the organization could survive without her. So she decided to find work that was more fun and less demanding — and that offered health insurance. 

Kim now works part-time in visitor services at an art museum, and the McManns are living on her paychecks and benefits and his pension. “We decided we can live — frugally — but live, so long as I provide health insurance.”

“Some people thought we were crazy, cutting out 10-12 years of prime earning time. But if we’d kept working the way we were, we’d be cutting out 10-12 years of healthy life,” Kim says.

“The best advice I would give to others is to know what’s important to you and stick with it, even when people tell you you’re crazy.”

Top illustration: iStockphoto.com/filo.

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