How to talk to your spouse about retirement

  @Money September 25, 2013: 10:04 AM ET
How I talk to my spouse about retirement
(Money Magazine)

You've got your dream retirement all figured out ... but does your fantasy match your spouse's?

With only 38% of couples planning together, as a 2013 study from Hearts & Wallets found, it's no surprise that nearly two-thirds don't agree on when they'll each leave their jobs, and a third aren't in sync on where they'll live.

"Most couples avoid having these conversations because they know there's conflict," says psychologist Dorian Mintzer, co-author of The Couple's Retirement Puzzle.

But the sooner you air expectations, the better your odds of having a retirement that will make you both happy.

The Ground Rules

Prioritize your wants. Suggest that you and your spouse independently make lists of what you want from your retirement before you chat. This ensures everything gets out in the open, says Jan Cullinane, co-author of The New Retirement.

Ditch the "all-me" attitude. Making your wants clear is necessary, but for the best result, avoid pitting your vision against your partner's. Listen without interrupting, repeat back responses, and avoid criticizing.

When You're Face to Face...

1. Opening gambit: "We haven't really ever discussed what we want to do when we retire. Can we set aside time to talk?"

Why it works: You're easing in by focusing on what will make you happy. "Asking 'What are your goals for this stage of life, and what will fill your hours?' will help you figure out what retirement means to both of you," says Bart Astor, author of The Roadmap for the Rest of Your Life. This can also tee up a discussion of timing.

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2. Explain concerns: "You said that you'd like for us to retire together in 10 years. Because I'm younger, I worry that I'd end up having to quit at the peak of my career."

Why it works: Repeating a partner's point shows you appreciate his or her view but also gives you a chance to subtly raise concerns and alternatives in a way that feels collaborative.

Age differences and life expectancy -- however tough to discuss -- must be brought to bear, since wives tend to be younger than their husbands and usually outlive them, Cullinane notes.

3. Talk money: "Let's go through our finances and see if we can afford some of these ideas."

Why it works: Once you understand the realities of your budget, you can better prioritize competing goals, says San Diego financial planner Andrew Russell.

You may want to sit down for a session with a financial planner, who can help you run scenarios (figuring out when to claim Social Security is a particularly hairy challenge) and who can also serve as arbiter to keep emotion out of the discussion.

4. Know the backstory: "Can you tell me why it's important to you that we buy a condo on the beach?"

Why it works: Focusing on the "why" vs. the "what" pushes you toward compromises that reach the heart of both your desires, and are within the terms of your budget. This also makes it less likely either of you will see concessions as losses.

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5. Go to middle ground: "Since we both want to retire by 67 and live an hour from the grandkids, how about we work on a plan around that?"

Why it works: Even if you can't agree on specifics yet, stressing your similarities can help you move ahead on a general path that places your wants as a couple first. "But don't feel like the plan is set in stone," says Mintzer. "Revisit it as often as you would your portfolio." To top of page

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