Three years ago this month, Louis DelMuto took an early retirement after 35 years as a middle school history teacher and high school wrestling coach. Now, as he relaxes at home, his wife, Jean, continues her work as a county day-care administrator.
"My wife enjoys being out there and working," says Mr. DelMuto, of Hatfield, Pa. "We have talked about this for years. We planned it out carefully with a financial guy."
In earlier days, when most families had one wage earner, decisions about when to retire were relatively simple. A worker, typically the husband, would turn 62 or 65, bid colleagues goodbye, and begin collecting Social Security and other benefits.
Today, dual-career couples face more complex choices. Many retire together. Others, like the DelMutos, stagger their departures by months or several years – a pattern retirement experts expect will increase.
"This notion of staggered retirement is a new phenomenon," says Helen Dennis, a specialist in aging, employment, and retirement in Redondo Beach, Calif. "This is a whole new issue in terms of numbers. How do you time retirement? Who retires first? It could be the source of some interesting discussion if both parties don't share the same vision of their future together, and how time will be spent and allocated."
For some couples, leaving the workforce at different times offers greater financial security. It gives one spouse time to earn more and serves as a hedge against uncertain financial markets. It can also provide health insurance for the retired partner if he or she is not yet 65 and thus eligible for Medicare.
DelMuto says that his retirement package included no health insurance. "So I'm on my wife's medical [insurance]."
But finances tell only part of the story. Couples stagger retirements for other reasons as well. "Typically the wife is a little younger and took time out for raising children," says Ronald Manheimer, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement in Asheville. "She came back into the workforce and is short of achieving full pension capability or is enjoying her level of accomplishment. She's not willing to give it up yet."
But when women stay on the job and men retire, household chores can become an issue.
"There's an expectation that since they have time, they should be responsible for more domestic responsibilities – shopping, cleaning, paying bills," Mr. Manheimer says. "Friction can arise about the man not picking up the slack when she's still working. A wife might say, 'He's a nuclear engineer, but he can't load the washing machine.' "
That's no problem for DelMuto, who does laundry. "I like to cook, and I learned how to do the other stuff," he adds.
One working wife with a retired husband told Ms. Dennis, "When I got home, I really expected dinner to be made. He said, 'What's for dinner, dear?' "
"Men are doing more at home, but wives who are still working don't think they're doing enough, such as getting dinner on the table and cleaning," says Phyllis Moen, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota.
Conversely, when a wife retires first, other issues can arise.
"If the husband is continuing in his job and his wife is retired, he's quite happy with that situation, because he's got a full-time homemaker now," says Ms. Moen. "She's very unhappy with that situation, because it's putting her back in the role of doing all the domestic work."
Other issues facing couples with staggered retirements revolve around leisure time. The person who is retired may want to travel more, visit grandchildren, or attend Elderhostel, Moen says. Yet constraints on the other person's job make that difficult.
Husbands who 'want a playmate'
Some women feel coerced by their husbands to retire, especially if he is older and ready to start a new chapter.
"The conflict we're dealing with is that the husband wants a playmate," says Elaine Morgillo, president of Morgillo Financial Management in North Andover, Mass. "He wants to retire, and he wants to do things with his wife."
Other wives simply feel obligated to join their retired husbands.
"I never thought this would happen this soon," says a woman in Charlotte, N.C., whose husband just retired. She asks that her name not be used because she does not want her employer to know she is thinking of retiring. "Now the question is, what about me? We are just waiting to see how this works out for him. I work such long hours that if he doesn't have something to occupy his time it would be a very long day for him. Right now I am looking to continue to work at least through the end of the year." She likes the "hustle and bustle" of work and is concerned about losing her paycheck.
"Sometimes women are reluctant to give up their identities as professional people and turn into essentially housewives," says Ms. Morgillo, "Many women see that as a less important role, and less respected in the community than their roles as professionals had been."
Attitudinal differences can also affect the timing of a couple's retirements. "One might be more of a risk-taker and really want to do other things and not wait any longer," Manheimer says. "The other might be more cautious and want to accumulate more money."
Retirement, he adds, "brings up long-simmering issues that have been held in abeyance by the fact that both partners have been very busy with work. If they suddenly have a lot more time together, these issues come to the surface."
What helps in these situations is if the retired spouse takes a part-time job or is involved in volunteering, which keeps people busy and gives them obligations, says Moen.
About 30 percent of men who retire go back to work and about 12 percent of women, Manheimer says.
Moen knows a retired lawyer who filled bags at a checkout counter for four hours a day. "He wanted a mindless thing," she says. An engineer was happy selling hot dogs at a ballpark.
Some people who like to work start their own business. Their spouse may then get involved. That's one possible scenario Gerriann Fagan and her husband, Gene Beatty, envision if he eventually leaves his position as an attorney in Birmingham, Ala. She owns a career and human resources counseling firm. He is nine years older than she is.
"It's possible he could get more involved in my practice," she says. Adds Mr. Beatty, "We like to spend time together. I don't think we'll ever stop doing something productive. We're 'new retirement' thinkers."
Whatever a couple's situation, Morgillo says, "It's a hard decision for people to make as to when to pull the plug. Sometimes the reasons are as emotional and psychological as they are financial."
She asks couples who are considering retirement, "If money were not an issue, what would your preference be?"
Morgillo also finds that financial advisers who counsel prospective retirees "need to be very sensitive to the fact that it isn't just about the numbers."
Yet numbers do matter. "If you can stagger your retirements two years to potentially three years apart, that's providing downside insurance on your combined portfolio for the husband and wife," says P.J. DiNuzzo, president of DiNuzzo Investment Advisors in Beaver, Pa. "A lot of times, at least one spouse does have flexibility and can stay on a year or two."
Natalie Michalek, a certified financial planner in Dallas, finds that although most of her clients come in with the idea of staggering their retirements, they often retire about the same time.
"They may not initially think they're going to do that," she says. "But one person tends to get jealous of the free time and new endeavors of the retired partner. They'll say, 'I've always wanted to volunteer, garden, visit family, start new hobbies.' As we work through the financial plan and the retirement cash flow, sometimes we can justify to them that they have sufficient resources to do so."
Discuss how you want to live
When couples do stagger their departures, Ms. Michalek says, "Usually the person who has better benefits and a better lifestyle is more likely to stay longer. If one is a teacher and the other a doctor, the teacher would leave first."
As couples consider their options, Dennis offers a reminder: "It's a new opportunity when both partners are fulfilled in their life," she says. "The challenge is, what makes this time of life the most gratifying, most fulfilling?"
In seeking answers to questions about the timing of retirement and satisfying activities during this new chapter, many people need to plan better, Moen says. "They do more planning for next year's vacation than for the next 10 or 20 years. They talk about the date, sometime in the future, or the financial stuff. But they don't talk about how they're going to live as a couple in retirement."
For couples like the DelMutos who have planned carefully and discussed these issues, the future looks promising.
"Our idea was to maintain our lifestyle and travel and do the things we want to do," he says. "It looks like we'll be able to do that." Anticipating the day when his wife retires and they can take to the road in their 36-foot RV, he says, "We'll go full blast in a few more years."
That attitude squares with Moen's philosophy. "No one size fits all anymore in retirement," she says. "That creates anxiety, but it also creates opportunity. I can create my own pathway."