• Strategy
  • CFO Magazine

Can This Retirement Be Saved?

When spouses disagree about when, where, and how to retire, each may wonder just what they were working for all those years.

The question of where to retire has become knottier, too, given complex family ties and increasing mobility. A couple with children from previous marriages might want to live near their grandchildren — but which grandchildren? “We’ve had one spouse look at the other and say, ‘Go ahead and live there. I’m living here,’” says Kevin Reardon, a CFP and president of Shakespeare Wealth Management.

Spouses can differ enormously in their taste for travel versus more sedentary pursuits. Perhaps most thorny of all, couples can have trouble communicating about and compromising on these and a host of related issues. But there are steps you can take in advance that will help you actually enjoy your postcareer years.

Step one: Lay out your vision. Write a letter to your spouse that describes your retirement dream and have him or her do the same. You may find that your vague fantasies begin to give way to more-realistic ideas when you put them on paper. At the very least, your descriptions will serve as a starting point for discussion.

Even better is to nurture that vision in a manner similar to the Steuls. Jere Michelson, 38, is the CFO of nonprofit group Libra Foundation, in Portland, Maine. He and his wife, Jennifer, have already begun to plan for a retirement that will suit them both. Jennifer goes along on 80 percent of Jere’s business trips, and the couple usually sets aside a day or two for joint pursuits. “We both feel that our shared interests are almost as important for our retirement as our financial planning,” says Jere.

Step two: Consult reality. Your dream retirement may be impossible to implement no matter how appealing the vision. For example, you may not be able to live in Costa Rica full time if one of you is responsible for an aging parent in Seattle. Such commitments may narrow the possibilities, but they can make negotiations easier. Why argue over a move that isn’t realistic?

The biggest reality, of course, concerns assets and how long they will last. For the more affluent, the issue may not be paying the bills or even underwriting the trip to Europe many years hence, but leaving behind a suitable estate or funding philanthropic endeavors as you had hoped. Not only is the advice of a financial planner essential, but if one spouse has been the primary contact person with that planner, it’s time to schedule a couple of meetings with both spouses present.

Step three: Experiment. Let’s say your spouse dreams of moving to Northern California, but you’re not sold on the idea of winery tours, surfing, or early morning trips to the meditation hut. One solution is to try it: rent a house for a month or two and see how you both like it.

A common theme among happy retirees is to focus not just on the R&R but on some continued involvement with reality. Don Seaquist, 59, was the CFO of Embrex Inc., a biotech firm in Durham, North Carolina, that was acquired by Pfizer Animal Health in January. He plans to consult for the firm as he transitions into retirement with his wife, Janet, 56, who has an MBA but has stayed home for the past 15 years to raise the couple’s daughter. Don likes to cite advice from a retired relative: “Don’t rush into it; let retirement come to you.”

Don and Janet have discussed their retirement plans, which include travel and going back to school to pursue intellectual interests. But they know the change will present challenges. “We’ll have a lot of adjusting to do when I’m home more, making sure we give each other space,” says Don. “We’ll have to learn as we go.”

Which brings us to Step four: Compromise. You want to retire now and move to ski country; your spouse wants to stay put and keep working for five years. Maybe you can put off retirement for a year or two, providing you can take some longish ski vacations that include looking for a potential vacation home near the slopes. The ability to work out such issues requires self-knowledge, generosity, flexibility, and good communication: the same qualities that make for a happy marriage.

Clint Willis writes about finance, adventure, and other topics for publications ranging from Money to Outside.

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