Should we retire together? 10 retirement questions to ask your spouse

Photo of a couple who have determined the ideal timing for their retirement lifestyle.

Do you plan to retire at the same time as your partner?

So many variables make it harder for modern couples to figure out the answer to that question. Today’s seniors are healthier and active. Workplaces offer more flexible schedules. Crazy health care costs may make it attractive for at least one partner to continue drawing benefits and a salary for longer than expected.

Tyler De Haan, director of business development—retirement solutions for Principal®, travels around the country to give retirement seminars, helping people understand their options as they near that life stage. He’s seen the emergence of what he calls “a different type of retirement.” The possibilities can feel endless and overwhelming, as retirees now juggle traditional pursuits like grandkid time and travel with an array of other ventures such as civic activism or a second career.

Retirement can feel almost like a fresh start, especially when you plan well together. In that spirit, De Haan has formulated these 10 questions to help pinpoint retirement timing that can be right for both of you.

1. When do you want to retire?

Many couples don’t confront this soon enough. And if you and your partner lack common goals on a retirement date, you’re destined for conflict, De Haan says.

LIMRA has found that effective retirement planning helps deliver peace of mind: Those who retire when planned say they feel more financially secure (68%) compared to those who retire later (38%) or earlier (55%) than expected.1

2. How should we spend our time in retirement?

Retirement may upend your everyday schedule and how you and your spouse relate to each other. Spending more time together at home or balancing competing commitments with shifting schedules may require adjustment. Some retirees also worry whether part-time work or a hobby can fulfill them as much as the career they left behind.

“What else are you going to find that you love as much as what you’ve already been doing?” says Melvin “Bo” Bobo, a mental health therapist in Des Moines, Iowa, on the verge of retirement.

Confront this question together honestly to set expectations and deal with problems before they arise.

3. How should we spend our money in retirement—use it all, or leave a legacy?

Talk over issues like:

  • Will we spend it all or save money to carry on our work after we’re gone?
  • Will we leave a financial legacy for our family, a charity, or a pet cause?
  • Do we want to consider long-term care insurance to help prevent spending down all our remaining assets?

“The death part is incredibly difficult to talk about,” De Haan says. But it’s essential to be blunt with each other before you enter retirement.

4. How can we afford health care in retirement?

Health care cost is a big concern for retirees for good reason: If medical treatment and prescription drugs become a financial burden, they limit your lifestyle. And the average healthy 65-year-old couple retiring today can expect to pay $363,946 in lifetime Medicare and supplemental insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs.2

This can make timing trickier for those who retire before Medicare eligibility. As an early retiree, can you rely on good health coverage from your spouse? COBRA health coverage (short for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) lets you extend what your last employer offered for up to 18 months. But it can be expensive and tether you to any plan change by your employer.

“It really comes down to shopping,” De Haan says. A state health care exchange may provide an affordable option. Or a spouse may opt for part-time work to help pay medical costs in the early years of retirement.

Photo of Tyler De Haan.

Personal side of a retirement professional

Tyler De Haan (pictured above) doesn’t have to look beyond his own family for life lessons in how couples should confront retirement with open and honest discussion.

His parents (see main image) in Storm Lake, Iowa, initially had 2 different views on what they wanted retirement to look like.

His mom, Deb, 65, a music teacher, sought an earlier and more social retirement. She retired for the first time 9 years ago.

“Just because you retire you’re not dead,” Deb says. “You have to keep actively involved. You have to plug yourself into other areas you’ve always wanted to be a part of—but weren’t at the time, because you were working.”

His father, Fred, 68, an optometrist, spends more time at home, with occasional trips to the golf course or to watch his favorite sports teams. He’s been retired for less than 2 years.

“They had to sit down and say to each other that maybe they needed to align or compromise on some of their retirement plans,” De Haan says.

The couple also had to prioritize caregiving for De Haan’s 94-year-old maternal grandmother.

“They realized how much time it took to care for their parents,” De Haan says. “Time spent taking them to appointments or family functions. They realized that this is going to be a part of their retirement as well.”

5. Which one of us is more likely to live longer?

The question is literally morbid but incredibly crucial. Which of you faces better genetic odds for longevity? The higher-earning spouse (no matter his/her genes) might want to work longer or at least delay drawing Social Security, to preserve more of an earnings cushion for a spouse who may end up alone early in retirement. You don’t want a grieving partner returning to the workforce just to make ends meet.  

6. Will we begin to draw Social Security together, or at different times?

Longevity isn’t the only factor determining when to draw Social Security, De Haan says. Those who retire early also face an “earnings test.”

Let’s say you plan to do consulting work on the side in retirement. If in 2019 you earn more than the Social Security annual limit of $17,640, that reduces or can even eliminate your Social Security benefit. So you may want to delay drawing Social Security until your full retirement age, when you can earn as much as you want from a job and still receive the full benefit.

7. How active do you want to be with family, friends, and community?

“You see a lot of retirees who are more active than me,” says 36-year-old De Haan. “They’re involved in charities, they’re doing stuff in the community, and they’re still working.”

Talk about how active each of you want to be—and how you might handle it if you have differing desires.

8. Should either of us work part-time?

A part-time job may help afford health care or generally provide a financial bridge into retirement. It’s worth talking about the potential social benefits, too.

De Haan’s mother, for instance, is working her 5th consecutive season at a local lake marina (see the personal story for more about his parents).

“She does it because she likes it,” De Haan says. “It’s social. She earns a little extra money. But she’s still retired.”

9. How much debt will we have when we retire?

A home mortgage is common. But De Haan says he notices more couples downsizing their main residence to minimize cost or relocate closer to family and grandkids. Maybe a second home or vacation home is your financial burden. Don’t gloss over any medical debt or credit card bills.

And don’t worry: You can take steps now to both pay off debt and save for retirement.

10. Will we support anyone else in our family after we retire?  

A grandchild, an elderly parent, a dependent adult child—these scenarios are increasingly common as a record 64 million Americans now live in multigenerational households.3

Some modern retirees find themselves a “sandwich generation,” helping a child pay massive college loans while caregiving for an elderly parent.

“That can play a big part in the retirement decision-making process,” De Haan says. “One spouse may have had to quit their job to take care of their parents full time. That makes a big impact on retirement strategy. You may lose income during your peak earning years.”

Talk about how those possibilities apply to your family. For instance, if one of you dies, and your survivor is left to care for a dependent elderly parent, that parent may qualify for an increased Social Security benefit to help cover household expenses.

Determine what’s likely and take all your questions to your financial advisor.

Let these questions help you both find a shared retirement formula—one that may not resemble the lives of other retirees you know. Don’t feel like you should fit anybody’s prescribed plan. Your retirement lifestyle can be as unique as you and your partner.

“It really comes down to individual goals, situations, and personalities,” De Haan says.

Next steps:

  • What’s your retirement personality? Take our quiz and see how you and your partner’s retirement lifestyle profiles match up.
  • Work with a financial advisor. Some of the Social Security and health care considerations are hard to navigate on your own. Don’t have an advisor? We’ll help you find one.
  • Read more stories on how people of all kinds are handling the unique challenges of modern retirement at principal.com/retire.

1 2017 LIMRA Secure Retirement Institute Consumer Survey. Based on 521 retirees aged 70 or older.

2 HealthView Services 2018 Retirement Healthcare Costs Data Report. Excludes long-term care.

3 Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data, April 2018.

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