What if I Retire Long Before my Spouse?

Nicolas Cesare  | 

Retirement is the finish line for many American workers. Someday we all hope to reach that line and cross it in style, taking our “winnings” in the form of 401(k) plans and retirement savings accounts with us. With enough money saved up, we can enjoy retirement in peace, free from financial troubles and the stress of managing a career.

Some of us expect to join our spouse or have our spouse join us in retirement. The dream retirement scenario for many couples involves sitting on a warm beach with careers in the past and margaritas in the future. However, what if you and your partner plan on retiring at very different times? This can happen for couples with a wide age gap. In fact, if you plan on retiring soon and your partner belongs to Generation X, he or she many never retire.

Couples with an age gap have to face a lot of unique challenges. When it comes to retirement, things are no different. If you or your partner is retiring soon and you’re worried about the gap between your retirements, here’s everything that you need to know.

Make Plans Around the Younger Partner

Once you retire, your schedule is about as free as it can ever be. In fact, outside of saving for retirement, one of the biggest problems that retirees face is figuring out what to do with all their free time. So as long as one of you is still chugging through the 9-5, that person’s schedule has to be the fixed point in your lifestyle.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Having an anchor can help a recent retiree ease their way into the retirement lifestyle. By making plans around the life of the working spouse, the elder partner can retain some of the familiarity of a fixed schedule while dabbling in total freedom.

It’s not just activity planning that has to follow the beat of the younger partner’s drum. Financial planning will be dictated by their behavior as well. Since the younger partner is the one with an income, their credit score will be the one determining the couple’s loan eligibility. With only one source of income in the household, it’s more important than ever for the younger partner to keep an eye on their credit and repair it if necessary.

Don’t Let Boredom Into Your Savings

Your retirement savings is probably one of the most important projects that you have ever undertaken as part of your career. Your final sum is the product of years of work and meticulous savings, calculating each dollar and cent to make sure that you have enough to support you through your retirement.

At the dawn of retirement, your savings account can seem like an unassailable monolith — the sum is likely to be greater than any amount of money that you have wielded in your working life. However, you need to keep in mind that this savings is supposed to last you for the rest of your life, whether that be 20 or 30 more years. It may seem big now, but when you start to face the costs of assisted living and medical bills that come later in life, your savings can dwindle quickly. Your spending during retirement is based on a fixed income, so prudence is a must in order to not run out of money.

Boredom can be a serious problem for those new to retirement, especially if your spouse is out at work during the day. It’s important to find thrifty ways to pass the time so that you can hang on to your savings for the days that it really matters.

Save Separately for Retirement

After marriage it’s common for a couple’s finances to intermingle. Once you’ve tied the knot, your income and spending will often blend together. This is a natural part of many people’s financial lives. However, if there is a large age gap between the two of you, it’s important that your retirement savings are clearly distinct.

The reason for this has to do with how our spending in retirement changes as we age. When the younger partner retires, the elder will be facing medical expenses that they didn’t have to handle in their 60s. By keeping individual retirement savings accounts, you can both be confident in your retirement planning.

Speaking of medical expenses, retirees who have relied on their employers for healthcare will need to adapt to their new health insurance reality. If the younger partner is still working, it can be a good idea to seek spousal healthcare through their company. Indeed, their income may complicate things for the elder partner if he or she is considering Medicare enrollment.

Finally, it’s also important to recall that the younger partner may face a very different kind of retirement. If they get to retire at all, it will be under very different conditions than the elder partner. Younger generations are expected to live longer and so they must plan to save more or retire later because of that.

Retirement can be the best time of your life. If you belong to a couple with an age gap, you will likely face unique challenges around retirement. However, by planning appropriately, spending wisely, and separating your retirement accounts, there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy retirement as much as any other couple.


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Nick Cesare is a writer from Boise, ID. In his free time he enjoys rock climbing and making avocado toast.

This post was updated July 31, 2017. It was originally published August 5, 2017.