Retirement planning for couples is not all that different from planning for individuals – it just takes infinitely more communication. Combining two sets of goals, retirement dreams, financial behaviors and discipline can make for powerful motivation if successful – but if not, it could derail the best-made plans should an unexpected curve ball event occur.

Let’s look at the steps that planning should take, regardless of whether you’re newlyweds or nearly retired.

Communicating your retirement vision

Nothing can derail a smooth retirement faster than not being on the same page. Couples may assume their partner shares their view on retirement but never ask the question. It’s critical to get goals, dreams and plans out on the table to ensure you’re both striving for the same thing – and that one or both of you won’t retire with a head full of dreams you can’t afford or agree on. Goals and dreams may change over time, so this step could fall under the “wash, rinse and repeat” rule.

Discussing your housing in retirement

Your individual and combined housing wishes may well evolve. As you raise your family, your house may feel like the forever solution. But, with age, the stairs and climate may become an issue. Do you stay put? Downsize? Move closer to adult children and grandchildren? Move somewhere warmer? It makes sense to run through different scenarios to understand what each wants when it comes to housing and long-term care. (Assisted living is “housing,” too.) Each option has financial implications that are vital to retirement planning.

Organizing your health care and long-term care

One of your most significant expenses in retirement – and one that causes considerable stress – will be health care. Early in marriage, it may be challenging to focus on how you’ll feel at 65 and 70. Still, a lack of forethought and adequate insurance coverage can devastate any retirement plans in case of severe illness or accident. If retirement comes – by plan or by force – before you reach age 65, you’ll want to have thought of how to cover the gap before Medicare coverage begins. As for Medicare, to the surprise of many, it’s neither free nor all-encompassing. And it doesn’t cover long-term care, a very costly proposition if needed. It’s vital to be informed on what options exist and what care costs.

Estimating how long you’ll live

People typically think of retirement lasting about 20 years, say from age 65 to 85 or so. But that’s not what the Social Security calculators tell us. Today’s 65-year-old man can expect to live to 84 but with a 10% possibility of living beyond 96. For a woman, the average expectancy is 87, and 10% live beyond 98.

Traditional retirement planning considers investment strategies for one’s life expectancy, which is based on averages. Wisely, planning has shifted to “longevity planning,” which considers the human lifespan – all the years you could live beyond the average age. You’ll look specifically at the resources needed to live those years well.

Calculating your retirement budget

People use a back-of-envelope calculation that says they need 80% of their last annual income to pay for each year’s retirement. That may work as an early starting point, but a more detailed approach will establish expenses you expect in retirement: some that you have today and some new ones. Even this figure can’t be multiplied by the number of years you expect to live; you have to factor in inflation. The more detailed you can be in your calculations, the more relevant your number will be. And now, as a couple, you can start playing around with different retirement ages.

Saving for retirement

You may already be saving for retirement with 401(k)s, employer pension plans or personal savings. The annual retirement income you estimated in the last step, minus your estimated Social Security benefits and any pension plans, will tell you the gap you will need to fill. Filling that gap should be a top priority as a couple – with a target figure for the year – combined with an investment plan that grows your savings as aggressively as your personal risk profiles allow. Why is setting targets important? Because if you don’t have specific goals, you’ll never know if you’ve reached them.

Strategizing your Social Security claims

You can let the decision to claim Social Security be spontaneous – when either of you feels like it – or you can make the most of your contributions by putting together a smart claiming strategy. Yes, you can start claiming at age 62, but you handicap how much you receive for the rest of your life.

Instead, you can time your individual and spousal claims – where one partner claims on the work record of the other – for the best results. For example, the spouse with the lowest earnings record might claim early while the other spouse allows the benefit to grow – ideally to age 70. You might seek some help to understand Full Retirement age (FRA), early claiming reductions, delayed retirement credits and how they all affect the survivor benefit – or what’s left to the surviving partner when the first one dies

Updating your finances regularly

Life is full of twists and turns: new jobs, promotions, babies, new homes, job losses, illnesses, divorce, inheritances and family deaths. Each can affect your finances and long-term plans, so regularly revisiting your planning as a couple will keep things updated. This step will be invaluable if one of life’s curve balls threatens to derail everything.

Staying informed of financial events

We live in a fast-paced world that is affected by local, national and global events. Your planning is not immune to change – particularly involving regulations, taxes, and financial or government rules. You don’t have to be an expert to know how significant changes can impact your financial situation. You will likely have to adjust your retirement plans more than once due to changed laws and regulations, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. What’s important is not to ignore change.

Keeping track of finances

It’s easy to let one partner in a couple take charge of the finances. However, that can lead to devastating circumstances if that spouse should die suddenly – the ultimate curve ball. Numbers need to be updated regularly to be of any value – ideally monthly or quarterly before the job becomes overwhelming. That’s the time to review progress towards your plan, shortfalls, detours and shifting goals. It’s also the time to be sure both partners are entirely in the loop.

Deciding on who retires when

Retiring takes time as a process, especially considering it’s not just “stopping work.” Each partner may have to find a purpose, a new routine, hobbies and non-work social activities. Your calculations may orient when your finances allow you to retire. However, it may work best if you retire individually rather than together so one partner is on firm footing while the other faces significant change. The decision should be mutually agreed upon.

Going on retirement dates

Looking forward to retirement can be a major motivator. Setting time aside to discuss it over dinner – as a couple or with friends exploring the same topic – can be a source of ideas and valuable information. Your retirement plan is a work in progress, one that should be far more than just “crunching numbers.” As the day approaches, it can be a smooth transition because each of you is financially and psychologically prepared.

And how do financial planners fit in?

Any efforts made by engaging in the 12 steps listed above serve to prepare you as a couple to work with a professional who can support, supplement and formalize those efforts. Does it make sense to have separate planners? Not really. By using the same planner, decisions are considered in light of the couple’s entire financial picture, thus avoiding gaps, overlaps or conflicts.

But just as vital as communicating is throughout the 12-step process, it is critical in selecting a financial planner who aligns with both partners. It might have felt acceptable for your parents and grandparents to place the burden of finances on the husband, which all too often left the wife out of the loop and unprepared when he died.

In 2023, one would think this outdated thinking was over. However, Forbes reports a McKinsey study that found that 70% of widows in the U.S. change financial advisors within the first year of inheriting. Finding a financial planner who meets the needs of both partners – and who can provide the long-term continuity when one inevitably becomes widowed – multiplies the benefit of both partners having been on the same page from the outset.

This article originally appeared in the Old Colonial Memorial.

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