The Stresses in Staggered Retirement

The Stresses in Staggered Retirement

August 02, 2017

The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale is a list of 43 stressful life events that can contribute to illness. Developed in the late 1960s and regularly updated, the most stressful life events are relational – the death of a spouse, divorce, and marital separation are the top three.

Retirement comes in at Number 10, which is sort of a surprise, since it’s supposed to be an end to the daily grind, and a reward for a lifetime of diligence. So where’s the stress? It’s the changes that occur when work no longer dominates the schedule. And like other high-stress events, the biggest challenges in retirement can be relational, particularly in a staggered retirement, where one person retires while the other continues to work.

That retirement might cause stress isn’t a new discovery. But couples may be surprised by how far-reaching the effects can be, both to their relationships and finances. And the scenario where one person retires only expands the number of issues that must be addressed.

Lifestyle Challenges

Relationship experts know that seemingly small but unresolved issues can create deep, sometimes irreparable fissures in a relationship. When one person retires, small issues can mushroom into large stresses. Here are a few examples:

Schedules. What happens when one person doesn’t have to get up for work each morning? Out-of-sync schedules can create relationship stress where none existed. Robert Laura, a social worker turned retirement planner, says “Couples should make a commitment to keeping a regular bedtime,” because this simple routine fosters relationship stability in retirement.

Responsibilities. Part of the advantage for couples is a division of labor. Does this division change when one person is no longer working? There may be the expectation that the retired individual has more time to assist in household chores. Or, now that they have the time, the retiree may want to “take over” areas where the still-working partner doesn’t want to relinquish control.

Leisure Activities and Social Circle. The workplace can be a social center for many couples; co-workers become friends, and influence leisure activities. At retirement, these social circles may shrink or close. In their place, new relationships may form at clubs, with volunteer organizations or in other recreational pursuits - which may mean adapting to a new set of friends and acquaintances – for both parties.

Financial Challenges

The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale puts a “change in financial state” six places lower than retirement, but when you combine their scores, the two events are the stress equivalent of a divorce. And a staggered retirement will almost certainly cause a change in financial state.

Household Budget: Primarily because the expenses associated with working can be eliminated, most retirement projections assume a lower cost of living. But when only one person in a couple retires, you may still need two cars, may not be able to move (to a smaller residence or different location) because of work, and you may still be locked into other financial commitments. This financial inflexibility could mean the cost of living is the same, but total income is less.  

Social Security: Social Security issues are made more complicated by a staggered retirement. It starts with a decision about when to begin benefits, then continues with electing one’s individual or spousalbenefit, and concludes with an assessment of the tax consequences of these choices.

Benefits: According to Mr. Laura, the retirement of one person can make the other a “benefit slave,” i.e., they must continue working to maintain employer-sponsored health insurance and other benefits. And, if some group benefits are no longer available, a couple may find individual rates for the same coverages are more expensive due to their current ages or physical condition.

Saving: If more of the current income from a still-working partner will be required to make the first retirement possible, this will impact saving for the second retirement. Contributions to retirement plans may stop, and other savings vehicles might need to be considered.

Preparing for a Staggered Retirement

For couples, a staggered retirement is a half-in, half-out condition; as an economic unit, you’re working and retired. And often, it is less than ideal. Glenn Ruffenach, in a June 2, 2017, Wall Street Journal article says:

“Retiring at the same time tends to work better. Most couples, by definition, navigate big changes in their lives together: relocating, starting a family, choosing (and changing) career paths. Retirement, of course, is a very big change.”

Ruffenach is right. Just addressing the items mentioned above could easily require multiple conversations and extended planning sessions. And ideally, these discussions should take place well before a retirement, staggered or not. Unfortunately, a staggered retirement is often a surprise.

A disability, a company downsizing, a situation with extended family, all might lead to the conclusion that it’s just not practical to continue working. If a staggered retirement has the potential to be stressful, an unprepared, forced, staggered retirement is even more so. It’s all the same issues, with very little time to prepare.

To mitigate against an unexpected retirement, some financial professionals recommend that households between ages 50 and 60 consider themselves in a “pre-retirement” phase, where some of the following topics might be explored:

  • Estimates of retirement income based on today’s accumulations.
  • Strategies for Social Security, should retirement occur today.
  • Transition scenarios for covering income needs if retirement occurs before one person is eligible for Social Security.
  • Projections of tax consequences if one person keeps working.

Most of these pre-retirement discussions with a financial professional are money discussions – how much you have, how long it will last, etc. But couples should also converse – with or without a financial professional – about their retirement lifestyle expectations. If the relationship is strong, other stressors will be far more manageable.

Voluntarily or otherwise, most Americans will retire. For couples, this nearly-inevitable conclusion to a working life should be regularly considered, and discussed.

If they prepare during pre-retirement, couples are less likely to stumble, even in a staggered retirement scenario.

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