Planning for Retirement When There’s an Age Gap in Your Relationship

Photo credit: Richard Walker, CC BY 2.0.

My husband and I met at a mutual friend’s housewarming party when I was 25 years old. My friend had wanted to set me up with her brother, but that plan was foiled when I looked across the room and spotted a cute guy wearing glasses and a particularly ugly shirt. We were introduced, started talking, and couldn’t stop. We exchanged numbers, had our first date the next day, and were engaged four months later. I was head over heels in love and the fact that Michael was 17 years older than I was seemed mostly unimportant. Sure, we didn’t always get each other’s pop culture references — he believes the 1970s were the golden era of American cinema and I came into the relationship owning more than one Britney Spears CD — but we were so compatible in every other regard that it just didn’t seem to matter.

We’ve been married for almost 13 years now. We have two young children and are in a financial phase of life defined by multiple pressures: we’re still paying off my graduate school loans, dealing with the expense of having kids, and trying to make sure we’re on track in terms of saving for retirement. It’s that last item on the list that has me feeling more aware than ever of our age gap.

When it comes to retirement planning, much of the advice doesn’t really fit our situation. Most articles seem to presume that married couples will hit retirement around the same age. The rare examples that do talk about couples with an age gap often assume that the older partner makes more money and provides the health insurance benefits, which isn’t the case for us. Although my husband is a talented writer, my job as a college administrator is likely to continue to be our main source of income and benefits.

Because our situation is somewhat unusual, it’s hard to know if we are on the right track. If my husband were the same age as me, I think I’d feel comfortable with where we are in terms of retirement savings. Through my employer, I have the equivalent of 10.5 percent of my monthly gross pay added to my individual retirement account, plus I make a monthly contribution to a Roth IRA. I have about 1.5 times my annual gross income in retirement accounts and, with over 25 years to go until I hit 65, time is still on my side. But sometimes I worry — what if I don’t want to work until I’m 65? When I’m 65, my husband will be 82. I don’t want us to miss our window to travel and have other retirement adventures.  

I also wonder whether working until I’m 65 is a realistic option. While my husband is a devoted runner who looks at least a decade younger than his actual age, he is statistically likely to die before I do — so what if he develops a medical condition that requires full-time caregiving before I’m able to tap into my retirement benefits or qualify for Medicare? Should we be thinking about an early retirement for me, perhaps at 55 instead?

Despite the fact that we are pretty financially responsible, I’m not sure an early retirement makes sense for us — especially if we decide we want to contribute toward college costs for both of our kids, who’ll be hitting college age when my husband hits retirement age. The cost of private health insurance alone makes early retirement seem unlikely, so I continue to plan on making it to 65 before ditching my suits for good.

As we sort out what our version of retirement will look like and when it will happen, I try to stay focused on the financial decisions we’re making now. Our first priority is to continue to stay out of consumer debt and to aggressively pay off my student loan debt and our mortgage. I recently switched to a faster payment plan for my student loans and plan to use the snowball method to pay off the mortgage once the $63,000 in student loan debt is cleared. If I can follow our current plan, I should have my loans paid off in 6–8 years and the mortgage paid off before I’m 55. Given that our mortgage payment ($1,443) and my student loans ($721) are our two biggest monthly expenses, having those paid off will give us breathing room and might allow for some flexibility as we both age.

A second — and perhaps more controversial — decision has been to not focus on building college savings accounts for the kids. We’ve also agreed that we won’t go into debt by taking out parent loans for their college expenses. This is a calculated risk because I work in higher education and there is a better-than-average chance that my kids will be eligible for free or reduced tuition as one of my employee benefits. Even if they don’t get that benefit, their college costs are a distant third on our list of financial priorities (after getting out of debt and saving for retirement).

Another major financial decision we’ve made is to prioritize building my retirement accounts over building my husband’s, so any extra contributions we make can go into my Roth IRA. He has some retirement savings, but they’re a small fraction of what I have, and are unlikely to grow significantly enough in the next ten years to move the dial on when I could retire.

I’m also prioritizing doing some family adventures now and not waiting until we retire to travel. I’m hopeful that my husband and I have decades more time with each other, but I also recognize that life can be uncertain. I don’t want to reach retirement age and have regrets or resentment if travel isn’t in the cards for us anymore. A little money squirreled away for a yearly family trip isn’t the same as a retirement account, but it sure helps make it easier to get through the years until we can retire — whenever that ends up being!

Wendy Robinson is a community college administrator in St. Paul, Minnesota. She’s hoping her next trip will give her a chance to break in her new passport. You can find her on Twitter as @wendyrmonkey.

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