How to Talk to Your Partner about Retirement
Tips for having a dispassionate discussion about the radical lifestyle changes that accompany your decision to stop working
Discussing retirement can be difficult for many couples. There are so many decisions to be made: When's the right time to retire? Have you saved enough (and what does "enough" mean)? How best to spend your time? Should you relocate, and if so, where?
"Retirement is a major transition that impacts every aspect of life," says Myra Strober, a labor economist and professor emerita at Stanford University. "And the more choices you have, the tougher the decisions can be."
"The more choices you have, the tougher the decisions can be."
In Strober's new book, "Money and Love: An Intelligent Roadmap for Life's Biggest Decisions," she and her co-author, the social innovator Abby Davisson, share research-based strategies for making better decisions around life transitions, including retirement, that involve money and love.
After reading the book, I reached out to her for advice on how to have a more productive conversation about retirement with your partner.
Following are highlights of our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
Can You Afford to Retire?
Next Avenue: Is there an optimal time to broach the retirement question?
Myra Strober: It's important to first address your finances because that drives so many other decisions. You need to answer the question: Can we afford to retire, and if not, what do we need to do to get there? Perhaps you can delay retirement or explore options for part-time work.
Sometimes, a financial planner who can help assess your finances and develop a financial plan can be helpful. Once you have a handle on your financial outlook, then you discuss the other aspects of retirement.
Clarify What You Want
In your book, you detail a five-step framework, the "5 C's," that guides readers through the retirement-decision-making process. The first step is "clarify." What do you mean by that?
It's important to clarify what matters most to you before initiating a conversation about retirement with your partner. Sometimes, it's challenging to separate out what you really want from what others say you should want.
For example, if your friends have recently retired you might feel pressure to join them. But upon deeper reflection, you might realize that what's most important to you is to have more time together for travel or exercise. Understanding your "why" can take time, and the same is true for your partner.
Once you are clear on what you want, the second step is to communicate with your partner. That sounds obvious, but it's not always easy to do that well.
It helps to set up a time to have this discussion in a quiet place when you're not rushed. Don't do it on the fly. Effective communication is a two-way street that involves both talking and listening. Really listening to your partner, and reflecting on what they say, can shift the direction and outcome of the conversation. Often, the retirement conversation involves multiple discussions; it's a bit like a long dance.
Weigh Many Options
The third step is to consider a broad range of choices. Why is that important?
These days, few retirement decisions are strictly either/or choices. Perhaps your spouse wants to keep working and you'd prefer they retire. So, you might want to explore ways for them to work on a part-time or consulting basis. Technology has really changed the options for work after retirement.
Another example: my mom always said she wanted to retire to Florida for the warm weather, but my father didn't like the idea. After my husband and I relocated to California, my parents realized that if they moved to California, they'd both be happy, even though it wasn't an option they'd previously considered. By broadening your options, you increase the odds of producing a solution that works for everyone.
"These days, few retirement decisions are strictly either/or choices."
When considering options, realize that you don't always have to do everything together. I know of couples where one enjoys travel and the other doesn't. The person who likes to travel has found other people to travel with, while their spouse remains happily at home. Of course, every couple needs to find what works best for their situation.
Involve Friends and Family
Step four involves checking in with friends, family and other resources to gather more information. What's the best way to do that?
Talk to lots of people. You'll be surprised by who might lead you toward the best solutions. If you're interested in a senior living community, check in with friends who've made the move and ask about their experience. Consider renting for a month in a new locale to get a more realistic feel for the area, before initiating a move. Trying out new things can be a surprisingly delightful experience.
The fifth step is to explore likely consequences. What do you mean by that?
You'll make better choices if you consider the likely outcomes of different paths. Consider what might go well, as well as what might go wrong. It helps to think about how your options might play out over time. For example, if you move to a new community, you might feel lonely for the first several months. But if you're reasonably outgoing, it's likely you'll make friends and be happier with your decision as time passes.
Any concluding thoughts on the retirement conversation?
Some couples include their adult children in these decisions. That's fine, but be mindful that your children's goals, though well intended, might not always be the same as yours.