Looking to Leap

Edmund Marsh

I’M THINKING ABOUT retirement—again. But this time, it isn’t my retirement, but rather my wife’s. I earn our family’s primary paycheck, so I’m usually the focus of our discussions when we sit down to scrutinize the numbers and comb through the calendar, looking for a date when we should each hang up our physical therapist’s goniometer.

Even though I earn the bigger income, my wife has diligently worked just as long as I have, albeit in a changing capacity. In our 30s, we each began second careers as physical therapists at more or less the same time. I talked her into a blind date the week I started my first physical therapy job. She graduated PT school a couple of months later, and began work shortly thereafter. For five of the first seven years of our marriage, we spent most of our work days side-by-side in the same outpatient clinic.

After our daughter was born, my wife’s hours on the job dwindled, while her responsibilities at home increased. On weekdays, she now applies her experience as a former high school biology teacher to instructing our daughter at home. On top of that, she acts as caregiver to family members, including round-the-clock on-call assistance for any needs that arise. And then, of course, there’s the usual tasks involved in keeping up a home. I help, but the brunt of the burden falls on my wife.

Despite her hectic schedule, my wife continues to make a small but significant contribution at our workplace. She gives a few hours each month, plus some holidays, at our acute care hospital. Every few months, I ask if she’s ready to retire from her work away from home. My question brings a thoughtful expression, then the same reply of “not yet.”

Our ongoing conversation about our respective retirement dates would have been rare a couple of generations ago. Planning for a joint retirement is a fairly recent phenomenon. Retirement planning was once a mostly solo endeavor, even for married couples. In most families, the husband was the sole breadwinner. The income side of the family’s economic life revolved around his career, with the wife playing a supporting role.

The latter part of the 20th century witnessed a huge demographic shift. Women started pouring into the workforce. The percentage of women working doubled from 34% in 1950 to 60% in 2000. Last year, the figure stood at about 57%, and was even higher, at 60%, for women in the pre-retirement ages of 55 to 64.

With dual incomes came a new challenge for couples—how to coordinate two retirements. Researchers note that retirement is increasingly complex, with variables that include when to call it quits, whether to move or not, how to use our time in retirement, and the implications of declining health. Doubling those factors with the addition of another person compounds the planning intricacies.

Not all couples are adept at this financial dance, though they may not readily admit it. Seven out of 10 respondents to Fidelity Investments’ 2021 couples and money study say they communicate at least very well about financial issues. But a deeper look at specific retirement topics reveals 48% disagree on the retirement date. Also, 51% are out of sync on the size of the nest egg necessary to retire, and a significant number lose sleep thinking about it. Additional worries are retirement health care expenses, outliving savings and being derailed by economic conditions beyond their control.

The Fidelity survey also found gender continues to influence the planning partnership, with men more frequently taking the lead on longer-term retirement and investment planning. But in our case, the situation is more nuanced, because my wife has more of the planner personality.

Against this backdrop, my wife and I dance to our own beat. Still, we’re not far out of step with other couples as we ponder if we’re retirement ready. We share the familiar financial concerns about income and insurance during retirement, along with the subjective query: Will retirement make me happier? I’m not yet ready for a permanent vacation, but how does my wife answer those questions?

Income. When we launched our life together, my wife and I earned essentially the same amount. We also both started saving and investing for retirement with our first paychecks, kicking it off with 401(k)s and then soon adding IRAs. In the beginning, though, we followed different paths in choosing our funds. We even compared performance in a friendly competition. Eventually, however, we came to view our individual accounts as part of the same portfolio, a perspective that aids optimal planning.

While I tend to take the lead in longer-term planning, my wife is thoroughly versed on our overall money plan and intimately involved in every decision. She also handles the daily money chores, and knows how much money flows in and out of our household accounts. For these reasons, she’s aware that the loss of her income wouldn’t create financial headaches.

Insurance. My employer currently provides health insurance for my family and me. Even if I go part-time, we’re still covered. If I decide to retire fulltime at age 65—a little over three years’ away—Medicare will insure me. But at that juncture, my wife will be 62 and not yet eligible for Medicare. We’ll need to buy a private policy for her and our daughter, which we may pay for with my wife’s Social Security. According to Mike Piper’s Open Social Security calculator, 62 is the best age for her to claim, with me waiting until age 70.

Emotion. When our young lives are weighed down with work, and retirement is a distant dream, it’s hard to imagine postponing the day we call it quits. Yet, when the moment arrives, the choice can bring indecision and even trepidation. The path ahead may appear greener, but who knows how much we’ll miss what we leave behind?

My wife and I have a good bit of the interdependence—a “melding of the minds” in a relationship—that’s shown to be helpful during the shift to retirement. Still, I’m giving her room to decide when to give up her paycheck. Initially, she held onto her few hours of work as a caution and a comfort, just in case my income disappeared. Keeping a foot in the door would have allowed her to jump back in more easily. That concern should have faded as our savings grew, but old habits often die slowly. Maybe there’s still a sliver of uncertainty lurking in her mind.

Her real hang up may be her feelings of guilt about leaving me to carry the weight by myself. But the weight isn’t solely on my shoulders. How does she retire from being a daughter, wife and mother? Even when she finally leaves her job behind, she’ll still only be half-retired.

Ed Marsh is a physical therapist who lives and works in a small community near Atlanta. He likes to spend time with his church, with his family and in his garden thinking about retirement. His favorite question to ask a young person is, “Are you saving for retirement?” Check out Ed’s earlier articles.

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