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Why Couples Retire Together – or Don’t

Married couples don’t necessarily know what the other spouse is thinking about retirement.

This insight came out of a new Fidelity Investments survey that asked some 1,600 people if they knew when their significant other planned to retire. Only 43 percent answered the question correctly. This disconnect reveals just how few couples are talking about retirement, said Fidelity spokesman Ted Mitchell, who worked on the survey.

Fidelity’s survey went out to adults of all ages, so the younger ones no doubt felt they’re too young to be thinking – much less talking – about what their lives will be like decades from now.

But things change as couples age. When retirement comes into sharper focus, it’s natural to start talking through the options – mine, yours, and ours.

One option is to retire around the same time, and prior research has shown that roughly half of older couples do so.

New research takes a more nuanced look at how couples retire and finds a more complicated picture.  Mixed arrangements are common in the pre-retirement years. Perhaps one spouse continues working full-time, even though their partner has retired, or one spouse might shift down to part-time work while the other is either still in a full-time job or has already retired.

Two sentiments are usually in conflict when older workers are trying to decide whether to retire: a longing for more leisure time and a need to bank more in savings, Social Security, and pensions.

Spouses often influence one another’s retirements for a variety of reasons, including their health, their relative ages, and how much each one likes their job. But financial security is usually a major consideration.

Courtney Coile at Wellesley College found that older workers partly based their retirement decisions on their own financial outlook – the more a wife can increase her pension or Social Security through additional work, the more likely she is to continue working. The same thing goes for husbands.

But men, far more than women, were influenced by their wives’ financial prospects: if their wives were working longer for financial reasons, husbands – usually older – would tend to work longer too. More men in Coile’s study also reported getting enjoyment out of spending time with their spouse, giving them a good reason to work longer and retire around the same time.

It’s important, even for the couples who don’t retire together, to be on the same page, said Mitchell, the Fidelity spokesman. He has one piece of advice for any couple thinking ahead to retirement: have conversations regularly about your plans.

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