The Future You’ve Earned

For the last several months, I’ve been in serious debt payoff mode; My student loan is almost history, I’m working towards selling my house, and I’m planning for how I’ll tackle my auto loan. Bryan is working on straightening out his own financial picture; Building a new career for himself, and trying to reach an agreement with his ex. Our focus right now is on the present, and fixing our past mistakes. But part of becoming financially responsible means that we are planning for our future as well.

At this point, we don’t have a solid plan for the future. Right now we’re in the dreaming phase. We talk about our likes and dislikes, and then discuss ideas from there. We both have a lot of family and friends here in our home state, so we might stay here. But neither of us enjoy the cold and snowy winters. So maybe we’ll move south? Or become snowbirds?

There’s almost a 20 year difference between Bryan and I. Day to day, that age gap doesn’t even make a difference. And I’m one of those people who everyone assumes is either much older than I am, or much younger, depending on the context that they know me. When Bryan and I go out, no one even gives us a second glance.

But planning for the future has many more nuances when there’s a large age difference. And, honestly, it brings up a lot of uncomfortable feelings for me. I don’t want to end up in a situation like so many older women find themselves in, where their husband passes away, and they’re left unable to make ends meet. In a traditional relationship, women outlive their partners by 5-10 years. In Bryan and my situation, that’s likely to be 25 years.

I’m in the weird situation where I’m having the same conversations with Bryan about health, and retirement, and long-term care, as I am with my parents. There’s literally only a couple of years age difference between them. I’m often a “worst case scenario” kind of person, so I think of all of the things that could go wrong, and plan for how to make the best of each situation. Bryan hasn’t done the best job of taking care of his health, so I’m prepared for that to be an issue as he ages. He has high blood pressure, he’s always been a smoker, and he drinks more than he should. Add to that the fact that he’s really tough on his body (his back is a mess, and is filled with plates, and screws, and clamps), and it’s pretty easy to predict that aging is going to be tough on him. I imagine he’ll need to retire before he’s mentally ready, because his body won’t be able to keep up anymore. He constantly jokes that he doesn’t expect to live much longer than 5 years, but with a grandmother in her 90’s, and both parents striding into their 80’s, I expect him to have a long life ahead of him.

Having spent close to 30 years as a union employee, Bryan is in a pretty good situation when it comes to retirement. Last year’s statement showed that, as of his full retirement age of 62, his union pension is currently worth $6,000 a month. Every year that he continues to work, that amount goes up. Of course, there are a lot of things that will affect how much his benefit will actually be worth. For starters, his ex-wife is technically entitled to 50% of that (up to the date that they filed for divorce). But she also has a pension with her employer of the last 35 years, along with other retirement accounts, which he is entitled to 50%. He’s hoping to be able to leverage other assets, and leave their respective retirement funds in tact. How that gets settled is between them and their lawyers. Bryan is hoping they can reach an agreement in the next few months. Given how things have been handled so far, I’m guessing she’ll drag everything out as long as possible.

So, his pension is currently estimated at $3,000-6,000 per month, as of age 62. Every day he works increases that amount. He became eligible to retire as of age 55, but would lose up to 3% for every year between age 55 and 62. He’s 56 now, so if he retired this year his pension would be worth up to 18% less. There’s also the “beneficiary factor”. He only gets 100% of that amount if he chooses not to leave anything to a spouse or beneficiary when he dies. So, for example, if he wanted me to continue to benefit from his pension once he was gone, his monthly benefit would be decreased, depending on how much I would continue to receive once he was gone. The options range from 50% to 100% of the monthly benefit, but they don’t provide any information on how that changes the payout amount until your are ready to retire.

And that’s where things start to get weird for me. I’ve always been an independent woman, and am used to taking care of myself. I don’t feel like I’m entitled to the pension that he’s spent his whole life earning. But the choices he makes regarding retirement will have a huge impact on what I’m able to do. If I’m 100% responsible for my own retirement, then it will likely be 20-30 years before I can consider leaving the workforce. Let’s be honest, my $14,000 401(k) isn’t going to go too far when I’m 65.

I sometimes feel like I have an overwhelming number of priorities when it comes to retirement planning. I’d like to have a 100% paid off home, in both of our names, before Bryan retires. I can’t consider retiring, or even switching to “alternative employment”, (i.e., us running a small business) unless I know that I’ll have enough money coming in when I reach retirement age. And, should I decide to retire early, I’ll need to know that I have money available until I reach full retirement age. Bryan doesn’t really understand all of my fears. But then, he potentially has a $6,000 per month pension, plus is at an age where he can actually expect to get something from social security. All of which took zero planning on his part.

All of this brings me back to my last post; I’m learning that I don’t have to follow the expected path in life in order to find happiness. When Bryan and I talk about what we want out of the future, it doesn’t include the “work a regular job until we’re 65” module. But, especially as a woman, living outside the norm can be uncomfortable. If I retire with Bryan in 5-10 years, will people see me as a gold-digger? Is it fair to depend on a pension I didn’t earn? Let’s face it, women are judged if they choose to leave a career to raise children. Leaving the workforce early, and not even having children? As we plan for the future, Bryan is looking to me as the financially savvy person who can make our dreams come to life. And, even with his higher income, I’m much better at saving than Bryan. Even if I bust my butt for the next 5-10 years so we can buy a home, and live the lives we want, people will always attribute our lifestyle to Bryan’s higher salary and pension. Does any of that really matter?

The reality is, Bryan and I aren’t a “traditional couple”. And we aren’t planning a “traditional life”. Instead, we’re planning a life where we can both be happy, and comfortable, and secure in our future. We want to be able to enjoy whatever time we have left together, and do what we can to take care of each other. And that means we have to be willing to break a few rules, and deal with other people’s judgment and assumptions.

Does it really matter what anyone else thinks?

– Cindy W.


  1. First of all, Cindy, my congratulations for your considerate approach to your special situation. I find it absolutely appropriate because a loving partnership now is one thing but being alone *and* broke in old age is no fun. You are responsible to take care of yourself now when you still have time. So I’d like to encourage you to go on with your preparations with Bryan’s full support, hopefully.
    I also have brooded quite a long time if a modern woman is entitled to her partner’s lifestyle if she can’t afford it on her own. My answer is: yes. Here’s why: it is immanent to our western economic system that many jobs that women typically hold are paid much less than men’s jobs. (If you are lucky enough to have technical talents, you can escape this sometimes.) Furthermore, a lot of women have setbacks in income through caring for children, sick relatives etc. On the other hand, a lot of men earn more than they need for themselves just because they are male. That’s certainly a deplorable situation but honestly, I don’t think that there will be a system change for the next fifty years. So I came to the conclusion that it is fine when a man and a woman put their incomes together and share and enjoy the life that is possible then. I find that a lot of men are only too happy to share with a beloved woman without being condescending. It is *not* necessarily a sign of a personal failure when you go and live (partly) off your partner’s income. Of course we all have heard of women exploiting their partners out of greed, but the people knowing you and your situation will definitely not think that.
    Please just take care that your income and Bryan’s income and pension will be enough for both of you and for your time without him, considering possible entitlements of his ex-wife.

    1. I think it’s easier when a couple is close in age, and has been together long-term; then people see it as them having supported each other through their earning years. But Bryan earned the majority of his pension long before I was in the picture.

      I look at it as there being “trade-offs” in life. Right now, my salary is covering a big portion of our day-to-day living expenses. He doesn’t like it, and doesn’t plan on that being a long-term thing. But it’s necessary for him to be able to get things sorted out, and get back on his feet. In the future, Bryan wants to enjoy the rest of his life with me. That includes us having much more free time to travel, or do things together. And there’s a large possibility that I will need to leave the workforce to care for him when he’s older. But I can’t do any of that if I don’t have security for myself once he’s gone. I don’t want to build a life together that isn’t sustainable if something happens to one of us.

      Which goes both ways; I’ve been making changes so he’s the beneficiary on all of my retirement / life insurance. He doesn’t think it’s necessary, but right now, he’s very dependent on my income in order to make ends meet. I don’t want him to end up in a situation where his way of life is unsustainable if something happens to me either.

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