Book review: 'The Couple's Retirement Puzzle'

ByKerry Hannon, Special for USA TODAY
November 28, 2011, 4:10 PM

— -- How many times have you been asked, are you saving enough to retire?

In The Couple's Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Transitioning to The Second Half of Life ($17.95, LincolnStreet Press), Roberta K. Taylor and Dorian Mintzer, both therapists specializing in life transitions, don't overlook this essential question, but money isn't everything when it comes to planning for retirement.

A "myth about retirement is that as long as you're financially secure, everything else will fall into place," they write. "But money, in and of itself, does not buy love, companionship, friendship, respect, self-esteem, joy or a sense of being part of something greater than oneself. This essential life lesson, once learned, can bring a great deal of comfort and joy in the second half of life."

That's hard to argue with. How do you prepare for a happy retirement?

If you're part of a couple, you start by talking about it. It begins with a frank conversation about how you want to live the next part of your life, they write.

"It does not necessarily mean not working," they say. They're spot on there. Many "retirees" will start a second act, or encore career. Others will keep working part-time either for the money, the mental engagement, to give back in some way or all of the above.

But you need to begin to prioritize and make decisions. You may not have a choice about whether to work well into your seventies, but "there may be creative options for how to work and what you can do, given your interests, experience and skills," according to the authors.

That's precisely why you need to be on the same page. Having someone to grow old with is great and helps defray stress. It frequently provides financial support, and, of course, a human bond that's priceless. But unless you have a general roadmap that you're both following, it can get pretty complicated.

Taylor and Mintzer hit on some key concerns:

• How do dual-career couples make decisions about when to retire, whether to retire together or separately, or if they can afford to retire at all?

• What if you're out of sync? A woman who has put her career on hold until children are grown might be re-entering the job force as her husband is thinking about leaving his job and winding down or transitioning into something less demanding.

• What do you do if you're used to working out of your home office as a freelancer, and suddenly, your spouse is underfoot 24-7? Resentments can build.

• How can you successfully meld two individuals' innermost needs, desires and dreams for the next chapter? You want to live in the country, say, with your dogs and horses. He's a city boy and enjoys being able to walk to the grocery store, slip into a theater for the latest movie and has a hankering for public transportation.

Taylor and Mintzer's mission is to present a strategy to start the conversations that help couples tackle some pieces of the puzzle. Most couples aren't going to agree on everything. But if you can communicate, you can find solutions, they write.

They provide practical questions to get you started:

• What are my goals for the next stage of life? Have you always wanted to learn Italian or buy a vacation home in Maine?

• What are my options if I decide to continue working?

• How do financial decisions get made in our relationship? Do I want that to change?

• How do my family relationships and current or anticipated obligations and responsibilities affect my partner and our relationship?

• Have we talked about our current and future health care needs?

• Do I want to explore a different lifestyle?

• What is important for us to do as a couple?

In each chapter, each of you answers a variety of questions within a specific area. These range from finances to health and wellness, time together/time apart and changing roles and identity. Then you sit down and compare your responses together, making a list of what you agree on.

You eventually draft a "shared vision," which should be revisited at least once a year. You might review your plan, much as you do your investment portfolio and rebalance priorities as things shift.

It makes sense. What couples are thinking about and planning for at age 46 or even 50 is very different than it is at age 60 or 70. Moreover, "relationships are always a work in progress," Taylor and Mintzer write.

Getting these hot-button topics out front is uncomfortable and awkward, but step-by-step, the two relationship coaches direct a thoughtful conversational process to ease you along.

The serious exercises they dole out to help jump start these discussions are balanced with some fun to keep things flowing. Learn to tango, for example, is one suggestion to improve your health and wellness together.

It's ultimately freeing to have these conversations about money matters and dreams, but lack of smooth communication tools trip us up. Simply put, it's hard to get started. Even when you do, it's easy to become frustrated and angry when your partner doesn't share your future goals.

But you've got to push on through. Make a date to talk. Set a time limit for it. Avoid such words as "always" and "never." Then set a time for your next conversation.

The takeaway: Couples need to start talking about retirement well before they get there, and reassess as circumstances change.

Today's retirement puzzle can have thousands of pieces. "There is no magic wand," the authors concede. How to put it together is your challenge.

Some people are better at it than others, but the authors promise if you practice being a good listener, are open to concessions and remember to share something positive that you learned about each other after each conversation, it will make the process a little easier.