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Tips for the Softer Side of Retirement Planning

The working years may be over, but retirement can be a time of stress not a time of bliss when partners have completely different ideas of what that next phase in their life will look like. Adviser Michelle Petrowski Buonincontri provides tips on how to prepare for this life changing event.

By Michelle Petrowski Buonincontri, CFP®

We’re told that retirement is supposed to be that time in our lives that we all look forward to, to relax and enjoy the fruits of our labors with our spouse or partner. The working years may be “over,” but if not thought out or planned, it’s a time of stress not a time of bliss. Many times, partners have completely different ideas of what that next phase in their life will look like, and I’m not talking about the financial aspect here. I’m referring to the “vision” each spouse/partner holds around the daily details of life in retirement.

Michelle Petrowski, CFP®, CDFA® (formerly Michelle Buonincontri), is a financial planner, wealth manager, divorce financial strategist, and personal finance coach. She is the founder of Being in Abundance and Being Mindful in Divorce, as well as an avid volunteer at Savvy Ladies in NY and Fresh Start Women's Foundation in Phoenix, and has worked closely with the Arizona U.S. Service Members. Michelle has been featured in CNBC, Forbes, MarketWatch, Investment News, Yahoo Finance, and other media outlets. You can email her at or schedule a Q&A call with her here.

Michelle Petrowski Buonincontri, CFP


I believe this is where values come into play. Our life values are important because they inform the decisions we make – from who we are spending time with to what we do for a living and how we spend or save our money. When our choices or actions are out of sync with our values, there’s disharmony, stress, and there can even be a sense of loss. Consequently, if we don’t know what our values are, it’s harder to decide what needs to be done to improve a situation.

Retirement is no different. Although we may have known our values as a couple before retirement, they can be very different when viewing our lives through the lens of retirement. Getting in touch with those values through self-examination and reflection, either on your own or with a professional, can help support a more successful transition.

Possible retirement values could be family, travel, downsizing, moving to another area of the country, living near friends (maybe away from family), starting a business, playing golf/tennis/pickle ball, or some volunteer activity.

The Change Cycle

Remember, change can be difficult, even if we believe that we are welcoming or initiating it. Think back to when you planned a wedding, were married, had a child, maybe pivoted in your career, or moved. According to the book, Changing for Good, there are six stages to change: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and termination. And retirement is a big change in a couple’s life, even if one continues to work part time. One partner may be in the “action” stage, meeting with their advisor next week to firm up the details, while the other is still in “contemplation.” Fear many times accompanies the idea of retirement. So in addition to values, it’s important for couples to understand where they and their partner are on the change spectrum, and to prepare psychologically.

Scheduling Time Together

Once we have done our work, and developed self-awareness around our values, what we would like our retirement to look like and where we stand in the stages of change, we can schedule time to share with our partner and identify if there is compatibility or a disconnect. I strongly believe this is something that should be discussed a few years before retirement.

Pick a time that works for you both, where’s there’s no distractions. Maybe even treat it like a date, as it is a special time in which you are creating together the possibilities for the next phase of your life. This is the exciting part!

Tips for Your Creation Conversation

The conversation date is set!

Come with “beginner’s mind.” Be aware of any bias or pre-conceived notions of how the conversation will go, and check them at the door. Simply be curious of your partner’s dreams and expectations.

Practice active listening. Ask open ended questions, or make requests such as

o Describe to me, a day in the life of our retirement.

o When would you like to retire?

o Will we be retiring at the same time?

o How will you spend your time?

o Where do you want to live?

o Who do you want to spend time with? (Family? Friends?)

o If you could waive a magic wand, what would our retirement life look like?

Lean in, make eye contact, touch your partner’s hand while being together.

Practice reflective listening, so you can track and follow your partner’s thoughts as well as create trust by enabling them to feel heard.

Allow yourself to be authentic and vulnerable. If the sound of that makes you cringe, spend some time on your own, before this conversation, to gain an understanding of what’s going on for you.

Notice if your partner (or yourself) appear to be stressed or uncomfortable. Don’t ignore that. Either share what is going on for you using an “I statement” (“I message”), or inquire as to what’s going on over there with him/her. You could ask something like, “I notice you seem uncomfortable, what concerns or fears do you have about _______(for example, retirement).


It’s never too early to start mapping out the next phase of your life. No one wants to be meeting with their financial advisor to discuss the date of retirement and a distribution strategy only to find out they are looking forward to travelling while their spouse is excited to open the yoga studio she always dreamed of.

· Start to think about retirement together several years in advance

· Identify your values

· Understand where you each stand in the change stages

· Schedule time with your spouse to create a vision for your retirement, and exercise exquisite listening

· Revisit these conversations as retirement inches closer

But don’t forget, once in retirement, there are additional change phases there as well. Lastly, ensure you meet with the appropriate professionals to help you save and plan for the financial aspects of retirement.

About the author: Michelle Petrowski Buonincontri, CFP®, CDFA®

Michelle Petrowski Buonincontri, CFP®, CDFA®, is a divorce financial strategist, personal finance coach and mediator. She is the founder of Being Mindful in Divorce and New Direction Financial Strategies LLC, as well as an avid volunteer at Savvy Ladies in NY and Fresh Start Women's Foundation in Phoenix, and she works closely with the AZ National Guard. You can email her at