I recently read a very enlightening article titled, "Study: Money Secrets and Sluggish Savings Put Couples' Retirement Dreams at Risk." The study, which was conducted by nerdwallet.com and Harris Poll, showed some very concerning trends in communication by couples about retirement:
- 21 percent of Americans have no idea how much their spouse has saved for retirement.
- 21 percent of Americans have not told their spouse how much they have saved for retirement.
- 43 percent of Americans don't consult with their spouse before making trading decisions.
- 52 percent of Americans have not determined how much they need to save to retire comfortably.
What are we to make of this? Well, it seems many couples prefer to mostly just skim the surface when talking about retirement. The article goes on to say:
It's fun to think about what the future may hold, but apparently only to a point. Three out of four (76 percent) Americans in a relationship where at least one [spouse] is saving for retirement say they've discussed general retirement planning issues, such as at what age they want to retire, where they want to live, and what they want to do. But, the conversation seems to trail off when it comes to calculating the specifics.
We tend to focus on generalities when talking about retirement and often don't go deeply enough into the financial details to develop a plan that will help make our particular vision or idea of retirement a reality.
In this article, I will discuss some of the reasons for these challenges and an approach for having these important conversations.
Celebrate and leverage your differences
There are probably lots of reasons for the statistics I cited above.
One may be, for some, that retirement just seems so far off. Another may be some level of discomfort discussing "end of life" matters of any kind. But I think one thing, in particular, can be the different temperaments of each spouse. It is important for couples to recognize these differences in each other and how they may affect their discussions about retirement.
Dave Ramsey reminds us that, typically, one spouse tends to be more of a "nerd" who loves crunching numbers and saving to meet specific goals. That spouse can probably give you all the details about a couple's saving, investing, budgeting, and future income needs in retirement.
The other, which Dave refers to as the "free spirit," simply likes what money can buy (things, experiences, etc.) – in other words, the journey rather than the destination. The nerd naturally wants to micro-manage things, but that can cause the free spirit spouse to feel distanced and even controlled. In some marriages, it can even cause resentment and distrust.
These differences don't naturally facilitate good communication as the free spirit wants to talk about what they are going to do in retirement whereas the nerd is more focused on how they are going to pay for it.
In reality, both perspectives are needed to put a good retirement plan in place. The nerd and the free-spirit need to work together.
If this sounds familiar, you need to embrace your differences!
Nerd, you need your free spirit to help you lighten up and live – dream, then plan. Free spirit, you need your nerd to help put a plan in place to realize your dreams – you need the structure and their attention to detail. If the two of you can learn to appreciate those differences, you will find that your communication is much more enjoyable and productive.
Start with a shared vision
A big part of retirement stewardship is planning, so you and your spouse need to plan together. You are in this together, even if just one will eventually retire from a full-time job:
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24 ESV)
Listen up, you nerds out there: good planning starts with imagining. Chris Hogan (part of Dave Ramsey's team), in his recently published book, Retire Inspired, stresses the importance of envisioning what you want your retirement years to be like:
It is time that we started reclaiming the idea of retirement. Retirement is not the finish line; it is the new beginning. Retirement is not your last paragraph; it is the long, rich, rewarding final chapters of your own book—as many pages as you can dream up. Retirement is not the end of your life; it is the beginning of the best years of your life!
Chris is saying that retirement can be the start of a new, exciting, and productive stage of life, but only if you craft a vision of what it look like for you. And it's equally important that couples have a shared vision of retirement and how to get there.
Couples need to discuss when and where they want to retire, and especially how they want to spend their time in retirement. As Christians, we also recognize that God has a purpose for all the days of our lives, and understanding his purpose for us in retirement is an essential starting point.
But if our hopes and dreams are going to become a reality, we have to have a plan. And a good one is one that both spouses understand and can buy into, and most importantly, both know what they need to do to make it work. Going forward, they will also need to know whether they are on track or not.
All of this means having more in-depth conversations about financial matters about retirement is something many couples struggle with, judging by the statistics cited above.
It's an ongoing thing
My wife and I have often talked about retirement. Not surprisingly, our conversations have been more frequent as we've gotten a little older.
Some conversations are pretty general while others are more focused on the financial details. In the latter, I want my wife to know how much we are saving, how much we have saved, and how I am investing our savings. We also talk about potential income and expenses in retirement, but we don't have a "retirement budget" yet.
My wife doesn't want all the gory details – sometimes she'll say, "OK, that's enough information for now…" (typical free spirit) – but I do want her to have a good general understanding of things and make sure she's comfortable with what I am doing on behalf of us both.
Also, since we invest our retirement savings, I want her to understand the risks involved and to assure her that I am moderately conservative in my investment choices. We sometimes talk about specific investments, but not in a lot of detail. For example, I want her to know that I invest in mutual funds and ETFs, not individual stocks.
More recently, our conversations have shifted to discussions about actually retiring. When I retire from my full-time, salaried job, it will significantly impact both of us.
As we get closer to retirement, there are lots of details to discuss.
Things like the financial implications (can we afford to retire, how much income will we have, etc.). Also, timing (when can we/should we retire), housing decisions (do we stay or move), medical care (Medicare in particular), and what God wants us to do while we're retired.
We have discussed how we would like to devote more time to serving in our local church, perhaps travel some, and also spend a little more time doing things we enjoy (hobbies, grandchildren, etc.). We haven't discussed moving to another city or state or making any significant lifestyle changes – we're where we believe God wants us to be for now.
I think biblical retirement stewardship means that Christians should make retirement decisions based on God's plan and purpose for their lives and not just a desire to live in a particular locale or to pursue a particular lifestyle. Of course, it's certainly possible that God could give you a desire and the means to move to a particular area because he has a specific plan and purpose for you there, in which case I say "go for it!"
Couples should start talking about retirement stewardship when they are in their 20s and 30s. You may not have any idea about when or where, or to what, you might retire. But you can start discussing how you will save and invest for the long haul, which I discuss at length in this article.
If communication about how you will retire is a weak area of communication in your marriage, then it's time to take action, especially if you're older. Chris Hogan (Retire Inspired) again reminds us that planning is essential, but you have to take steps to realize your goals:
Planning is the process where you connect your actions to your goals…Execution means taking the right steps at the right time.
So what actions can you take to ensure that you and your spouse are on the same page when it comes to retirement? Here are some suggestions that will apply to most couples, regardless of age:
- Pray for guidance and wisdom. Prayer is important in all areas of personal finance, but especially retirement stewardship and planning. The decisions you make will have long term impact.
- View retirement through the lens of biblical stewardship. In my description of retirement stewardship, I explain we have a responsibility to use the time, talents, and treasure that God has given us for His glory throughout our lives, including so-called "retirement."
- Work together as partners. You're in this together. Even if only one partner is "retiring" from a job, it will have a significant impact on both of you. Most decisions you make will not affect just one of you, so discussing things and making decisions together is paramount.
- Have a "retirement dream session." Take some time to consider what your "dream retirement" might be. Talk about the things you'd like to do (and not do). The goals of the conversation, and it may take several conversations to get there, are to develop a shared vision for retirement. You may find that you don't plan to make a lot of significant changes, or you may decide to do something more extreme. The most important thing is that you and your spouse discuss it and come away with a shared perspective.
- Define some specific goals. Goal setting is a form of practical dreaming – and who doesn't like to dream about what the future could be? It isn't just about financial goals; it can be other things. For example, you and your spouse may want to spend more time with family members in another part of the country, travel overseas, take up a new hobby or pursuit, or go on short-term mission trips.
- Hold some retirement planning sessions. Now it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty. Once you have a vision for your retirement and some specific goals, you need to come up with a plan for realizing it. You'll need to talk about how much you have saved already and how much you need to save (this may require you to examine spending patterns and identify ways to save). Also, discuss how you want to invest those savings, the sources of income you'll have during retirement (Social Security, pensions, etc.), and when and how you'll generate income during retirement.
- Get help if you need it. Engaging a third party to help facilitate your discussions may help. A good candidate is your financial planner/advisor or a financial coach, especially if he or she has experience with retirement planning. You may need the most help with the financial side of things, and that's where a trusted financial professional can help. If you use one, just make sure they adhere to the "fiduciary standard."
- Implement your plan. Now comes the hardest part. After you have set goals and expectations for retirement, determined how much money will be needed, shared how much money you are saving, learned how much your spouse or partner is saving, and talked about how your savings are invested, you can work with your financial advisor/planner/coach about how best to implement your plan. Remember, having a plan is not enough – you must implement the plan to reach your goals.
- Schedule regular check-up discussions. Once you have your goals and plans in place and are working toward them, set up regular meetings to check on your progress.
Start communicating and working together
How is your communication with your spouse in this area? Ask yourself these simple questions: Do you discuss the subject at all? Have you discussed your vision of retirement with each other? Do you have a plan at any level of detail? Do you know how much your spouse/partner is setting aside for retirement? Does he or she know how much you're saving? Does your spouse understand what you are investing in and why? Your answers may be very revealing of the level of communication in this area in your marriage.
As you can see, there is only one answer to this problem of the general lack of communication in marriage about finances and the more specific area of retirement planning – it is simply to communicate and work together. There is no magic formula – it will take prayer, hard work, diligence, and patience; but of course, so does marriage!