by Peter Keers
Communication is key when planning for retirement…
I’ll never forget the shocked look on my wife’s face when I said, “I’m retiring in two months.”
I was surprised at her reaction. During the prior year, we frequently discussed (I thought) the idea of my retirement after 40 years of work. Yet, her expression told me there was a big disconnect. It was a stellar example of different retirement expectations. Failure to deal with such differences in advance often results in a rocky start for your golden retirement years.
During my working years I constructed a vision of the ideal retirement, adding chapters to my dream as time went along. By the time retirement arrived, I had an emotionally powerful set of expectations. Yet, I shared few of these thoughts with others during this time. Most importantly, I didn’t communicate with the person it affected most, my wife.
When I thought about retirement, I never asked myself, “Are these expectations realistic?” My ideas of a comfortable retirement life most frequently took shape during years of stress-filled workdays. I devoted little time to carefully assessing the feasibility of those dreams.
I also gave little thought to how I would spend my time. A long mental list of tasks and activities waited for me, such as cleaning the basement, sorting years of photos and re-landscaping the garden. However, two things happened. First, some of those urgent tasks just didn’t seem as important anymore once I retired, so they ended up back on the procrastination pile. Second, I finished some tasks faster than expected, prompting me to ask, “Now what?”
Money: One worker/one retiree
The good news on the money front was my wife planned to continue working for the foreseeable future. In contrast, social security became my sole source of income after retirement. Our discussions about how to make this financial transition generated a lot of anxiety. Would we need to tap into our retirement savings? The idea of drawing on money accumulated over decades was more psychologically troubling than we anticipated.
We met with our financial planner to create a spending plan that we felt confident could sustain us over the coming years. In addition, we agreed to revisit the plan periodically to ensure we remained on track. We were fortunate our money situation worked out; we were good stewards over the years and had significant savings. Still, if we assessed our financial situation sooner, before retirement, we wouldn’t have wasted as much time and energy worrying about money issues.
I recommend you and your partner have a serious conversation about finances long before you stop working to ensure you understand how life may change without your income.
My wife and I spent a lot of time apart during our working years, interacting with many other people every day. After my retirement, which coincided with the Covid lockdown so my wife started working from home, we were together all the time. We get along great, but so much togetherness can strain any relationship.
My wife still interacted with work colleagues, albeit over Zoom, but I no longer had a professional outlet. As a result, I depended heavily on her for social contact. When it became too much for her, we had a frank conversation about the importance of developing other ways to combat my feelings of isolation. I took this opportunity to rekindle some old friendships, which turned out to be very satisfying. She also had other creative ideas that helped me find enjoyable and productive ways to spend my time. For example, she suggested I volunteer at the local historical society since I have a passion for history.
Again, this issue is best handled by talking in advance. Some of you may plan to spend hours upon retirement on hobbies for which you didn’t have time in the past. Others, like me, may have unrealistic expectations that your spouse’s life will change to accommodate yours when you leave your job. Still others may have partners that want to spend all their time with you after you retire. Whatever your situation, communicate openly to ensure a smooth transition.
Who Does What?
For many couples, retirement prompts a recalibration of household roles. I assumed I’d help by taking over more of the cooking and food shopping responsibilities. My wife, however, felt this was an invasion of her space. She enjoyed those tasks; they helped her to separate from work. She doesn’t like to do laundry though, and once we had the opportunity to discuss what chores she did want to hand-off, I became the chief laundry guy. Admittedly, I needed a crash course in how to properly run the washing machine’s delicate cycle.
One of my big dreams for retirement was to travel. I created plans for my wife and myself without putting a whole lot of thought into the logistics. I assumed we would travel together.
The reality was very different. As my wife continued to work, she did not have the same flexibility I did. In addition, as she traveled extensively for work for many years, her vision for her future retirement focused on time at home to relax.
This issue required multiple conversations. Ultimately, we agreed to travel for a few weeks each winter to a warm climate and to extend our traditional summer vacation. She also suggested I travel with friends or solo when she was not available to join me. And so, in February 2022, I took a dream ski trip to Colorado.
The retirement expectations discussion is not a one-time event. Couples benefit tremendously from ongoing conversations about different aspects of their post-career years. One difficult subject to broach is the possibility of serving as a caregiver in a situation where one partner needs assistance. According to a 2020 study by AARP and the National Alliance of Caregiving, almost 6 million Americans provide care for a spouse or partner. About a third of those have provided care for five years or more.
Couples who cared for an elderly loved one know the importance of planning ahead and are more likely to engage in this difficult conversation. As we took care of my mother-in-law for three years, we were motivated to contact an attorney to draft important documents such as healthcare directives and power of attorney. Taking this step provided a framework for the larger conversation about potential future caregiving needs.
The bottom line
Not discussing our respective visions of my retirement before I retired was definitely a mistake, though my wife and I did get through the tough times with communication and compromise. When we finally did take the time to talk about our expectations, the honest discussions both strengthened our relationship and provided peace of mind.
That said, please don’t wait until retirement to have that discussion as we did if at all possible. Instead, share your future plans and expectations with your partner early and often. And don’t hesitate to enlist the support of qualified professionals. Exploring these issues sooner rather than later truly helps minimize the shock factor in your relationship.
About the Author:
Peter Keers is a writer and video blogger focusing on topics for the over-55 audience. Defining himself as a curious seeker, Peter’s interests range across both the art and the science of living an authentic and fulfilling life in the 21st century. See Peter’s recent posts at cantissimoseniorliving.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.