Dance of Coordination

Dan McDermott

MY WIFE AND I DROVE back from Arizona in June, so we could spend the summer months here in Minnesota. We took a longer but more scenic route through Utah and Colorado, and saw many natural wonders, including several national parks and the Rocky Mountains.

How did we spend our “windshield time”? Knowing we had an upcoming meeting with our financial planner, we discussed our work and our finances, along with when it might make sense for each of us to retire.

During the winter months in Arizona, we’d heard many couples having similar conversations. We both currently have rewarding careers, but we’re both also planners. Starting a phased approach to retirement, or retiring outright, is a substantial change in a couple’s life, one that can upend our routine and our identity. Combine that with the complexity of two people navigating retirement at roughly the same time, and the “dance of coordination” gets even more complicated.

We quickly realized that this should be something we navigate together, rather than making two independent decisions. We’ve heard from others that the failure to communicate and to jointly prepare can lead to misunderstanding and even resentment. Looking ahead to retirement? Here are five questions you might want to tackle.

First, will you opt for a slow, phased retirement or for full retirement on a specific date? Perhaps your employer would allow you to reduce your hours and phase down over time. Perhaps your career, like my wife’s career as a real estate professional, gives you the freedom to ratchet back the time you put in. Adopting a phased approach to retirement would let both of you adjust to your new routine together.

Second, what’s your overall financial situation? You’d want to consider income from your current positions, including any bonuses or other incentives, and your investments, along with your debts and other financial commitments. Both of you—or one of you—working longer means more opportunities to save and to collect investment returns, as well as the ability to delay spending down your savings and postpone claiming Social Security.

Third, what are your retirement lifestyle goals? If your plans include extended travel together, those trips may have to wait until both of you are retired.

Fourth, how healthy are both of you? Good health may affect your ability to continue working. But you also need to consider how long you’ll be healthy enough to do all that you want to do during your retirement. As a couple, remember that you’re forecasting health and longevity for two people.

Finally, should you get professional help—the financial kind? With so many variables in play, you might benefit from someone who can help you connect all the dots to create a holistic plan. Those dots include when to claim Social Security, health insurance benefits from an employer versus Medicare, long-term-care insurance, income from investments, where to live and more.

While you probably can’t get through all these topics over coffee, you also don’t need to drive 2,000 miles to have a fruitful discussion with your life partner. Still, that sort of captive time together does help you to have an in-depth conversation, rather than skirting topics that need to be discussed.

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