Should Couples Retire at the Same Time?

Most of us have heard the stories: the wife of many years whose husband has always been the breadwinner–but who is now retired and, for the first time in either of their lives, is home with his wife most of the time, instead of at work. Many of these women, accustomed to being able to do pretty much what they like during the day–whether housework, shopping, a hobby, or volunteer activities–must now contend with a mate who is in unfamiliar territory, struggling to redefine himself, and generally underfoot. And the same applies to the working wife with the stay-at-home husband.

Though the above scenario is often presented in a humorous light, it points to a serious question: What happens when couples enter retirement at the same time? Baby Boomers, who are now retiring in droves, are the first generation to feature a huge number of two-income households. What are the implications for these couples as they transition simultaneously from career to retirement? What will they do as they both try to adjust to the very different challenges and opportunities of their post-working years? Should they even attempt to make the transition together?

Many advisors suggest they should not. These experts point not only to the financial disadvantages of simultaneous retirement, but also to its emotional and marital complications.

In many situations, it can make great sense for one spouse to continue working after his or her partner retires. Financially, this can benefit the couple by allowing more time for the working spouse to contribute to Social Security, a pension plan, and a 401(k) or IRA. Especially for those whose family histories indicate a probability of longevity, accumulating those extra assets can go a long way toward assuring greater comfort in the later years. Also, by working longer, the other spouse will increase the amount of his or her Social Security benefit upon leaving the workforce. Another financial benefit is that the working spouse can continue employer-sponsored health coverage that also includes the other spouse. Especially when the retired spouse does not yet qualify for Medicare, this can save hundreds of dollars per year that would otherwise have to be spent for obtaining individual coverage.

Emotionally, retirement can present steep challenges. For someone who has spent years in a career, retirement often occasions serious questions about self-identity and personal significance. And if both partners are undergoing this process of redefinition at the same time, major stress can be placed on the marriage. This can be particularly true of women, many of whom put careers on hold to raise children, then re-entered the workforce with renewed determination and ambition. Additionally, consider the adjustment needed between two people who have become accustomed to being active in their own individual spheres and must now figure out how to spend their time together, without the stimulation and sense of purpose afforded by work.

For all these reasons, it can make very good sense for couples to stagger their retirements. In this way, one partner can make the financial and emotional adjustments to a new lifestyle while still enjoying the support of the other, who remains anchored by familiar routines, surroundings, and income.

Certainly, togetherness is vital for the health of any marriage. But, contrary to Mae West’s famous dictum, in retirement, an excess of togetherness may actually be too much of a good thing.

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