How to plan for retirement as a couple

Money is a notorious source of friction among couples. And the battleground often extends to planning for retirement, new research shows.

Fidelity Investments surveyed over 1,000 couples in a committed relationship, more than half of whom were retirees or age 47 or older. Asked how much money they need for retirement, nearly half of the respondents had "no idea," while 47 percent disagreed about the amount needed. In another sign of many people's shaky understanding of their financial readiness, almost half (49 percent) of baby boomers don't know how much they will collect in Social Security.

Notably, this general state of confusion is accompanied by considerable anxiety: Over half of couples worry about running out of money in retirement. Yet only about one in five have developed a retirement plan to guard against that.

Vision statement

The following steps can help couples plan better for retirement:

  • Develop a shared vision of your retirement years. Where will you live? What will you do? Do you want to be close to children and grandchildren?
  • Realistically assess your financial resources. Learn how much income you might receive from Social Security and your pension, if you have one, and how much reliable retirement income your retirement savings can generate. See if you can support the life you envision. This will help you decide how long you need to work, and if you need to work part-time for a few years.
  • Prepare for unexpected events that can derail your plans, such as high medical bills, both before and after Medicare, and potentially ruinous long-term care expenses.
  • Plan together and share information and decision-making. Some 54 percent of couples assume joint responsibility for retirement investment decisions, according to Fidelity. Ideally that percentage should be far higher. Prepare for that inevitable time when one person survives their partner.

Women are most likely to suffer the consequences of poor retirement planning. The reason? Men tend to marry women a few years younger than themselves, and women tend to live longer. That means a wife could easily outlive her husband by five to 10 years. Those won't be very pleasant years if she's run out of money due to poor planning.

The good news is that women are increasingly taking responsibility for retirement savings decisions. In 2011, only 9 percent of women said they were the primary financial decision-maker, but by this year figure had jumped to 22 percent.

Fidelity's finding show that couples who plan for retirement are more than twice as likely to be comfortable in retirement than those who don't. They're also much more confident that their partner can assume full responsibility in their retirement years.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.