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Putting out fires without planning for future

Couples aren't always in agreement about retirement issues and a surprising number don't even talk about finances, the national survey for Fidelity Investments says.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Imagine reaching retirement age and preparing to leave your job for good only to find your spouse expected to work a few years longer to support the lifestyle you've both become accustomed to.

It sounds absurd that such a big issue wasn't discussed, but a new survey may indicate that scenario isn't that far of a stretch.

Couples aren't always in agreement about retirement issues and a surprising number don't even talk about finances, the national survey for Fidelity Investments says. Even the basics like when they plan to retire and how much money they need to save just don't enter into conversation.

In the "Do as I say, not as I do" department, nearly 60 percent of married couples say that newlyweds should make daily finance decisions together, but less than half say they actually do so themselves.

The survey, conducted in April, included 502 married couples between the ages of 45 and 72. The statistical margin of error was plus or minus 4 percent. It was a followup to a study done two years ago to see if couples were now reacting differently as the result of the market downturn.

Instead of driving couples to talk more about retirement and finances, the economy seems to have had the opposite effect, said Kathleen Murphy, president of personal investing at Fidelity.

"We were at first surprised at the results which showed no improvement really," she said, noting that in some cases it looks as though communication may be getting worse.

For example, this year's survey shows 82 percent of couples said they don't agree on retirement basics including when they'll retire or whether they'll keep working in retirement. That figure was 79 percent two years ago.

The fact that many couples lack a plan and fail to dig into financial detail is no surprise to Nicholas Yrizarry, a financial adviser in Herndon, Va. For many people, the economy has forced them to focus on putting out fires, dealing with budgets, worrying about interest rates, credit card debt, an over mortgaged home and job insecurity. "You'd think it should raise some eyebrows and they would say we'd better start thinking about this, but actually they just shelve it even further, defer the inevitable," he said.

This year's survey shows that 45 percent of couples make decisions jointly regarding day-to-day household financial decisions such as budgeting and bill payment. Even fewer — 38 percent — discuss how they should invest for retirement.

Perhaps one of the most surprising results from the survey is that just 15 percent of couples feel confident that either one of them could alone assume responsibility for their joint finances if necessary.

That's an indication that one person in the household handles most of the finances and the other just doesn't care about the numbers, said Dean Barber, president of Barber Financial Group in Lenexa, Kan.

"Typically what we find is you've got one spouse that's adamant about it and one spouse could really care less," he said. "It makes it very difficult and puts a lot of stress on a marriage." He frequently feels more like a marriage counselor than a financial adviser, coaching couples on how to open up and talk about finances in a way both can understand.

Sharing knowledge about finances is very important because statistics show that women frequently outlive their husbands and will often be left to handle financial matters, said Murphy, the Fidelity personal investment president.

What's more, the survey shows that many couples aren't even sure what assets they hold.

Bob Wood, 52, and Noreen Powell, 50, a Potomac Falls, Va., couple celebrating their fifth anniversary this year make it a point to talk about retirement and finances in general.

Powell, a senior account manager for Tandberg, a video conferencing provider, said such conversation are vitally important.

"I do think having a plan is really important and facing it, talking about it, figuring out what it is you want to do so you can put the steps in place to get there," Powell said.

They talk regularly about retirement plans, said Wood, a retired Navy pilot who now works at Northrop Grumman Corp. That includes where they're going to live and whether they'll maintain their residence along with their Cape Cod summer home.

Although he's the one that frequently checks the retirement accounts and works with their financial adviser on details of their portfolio, both of them could handle the finances if necessary. That's because they have talked about the location of all paperwork, passwords and other details, Wood said.

So, what's the solution to the communication gap many experience? A good place to start is to carve out some time to sit down and talk and come up with a plan. When you do, here are three things to include:

1. Cover the basics. Define what kind of retirement you envision for yourselves. Do you want to work? How many hours? What kind of savings do you have in 401(k) and other accounts?

2. Work as a team. Create a retirement plan that includes a budget, asset allocation strategy and withdrawal strategy. Many Web sites offer tools.

Make sure both spouses know providers and account information for all savings and investment vehicles, including bank accounts, workplace savings plans, pensions, IRAs, brokerage accounts, life insurance, and annuities.

3. Discuss future needs. Talk about events that could throw your plan off track and prepare for them. Have you considered the cost of health care? Do you have aging parents that you may need to care for?

Yrizarry said couples should turn this tough economic time into a positive by taking action to devising a financial plan for themselves. "If this survey says boomers are not prepared for retirement, let's embrace this reality, let's get on it," he said. "Find somebody you trust, check their references and get a plan together."