Retirement Planning for One: Managing Finances When Only One Spouse Saves

Back view of embraced mature couple looking at view while relaxing on a jetty at river.
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Getting married is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make in your life. And while we often think of it as an emotional decision, it’s also a financial one. After all, you’re signing a contract tying yourself to that person. And even if the marriage doesn’t work out, there are still major financial implications.

But what happens if you and your spouse aren’t exactly on the same page when it comes to your retirement plan? Maybe one spouse wants to diligently save for retirement while the other would prefer to enjoy the money now. Or maybe one of you feels you’ll need more money in retirement, while the other things Social Security will provide everything you need (spoiler alert: it won’t). 

If you’re in this situation and are having a difficult time getting your spouse to see your point of view, there are some steps you can take and things you should consider.

Discussing Your Retirement Plan Together

No matter what your situation, it’s critical that you and your spouse discuss your retirement plans. Ideally, you and your spouse would start talking about money together long before you get married. Regardless of whether you decide to combine finances, have conversations about your income, debt, savings, spending, etc.

Included in your financial conversations with your current or future spouse should be your retirement plans. Discuss things like:

  • How much you currently have saved for retirement
  • How much you save for retirement
  • What type of retirement plan you have
  • When you hope to retire
  • What you envision retirement looking like
Are You Retirement Ready?

These conversations can help you determine if you’re on the same page and help you align your goals.

Evaluate Your Current Savings Plan With Numbers

Your spouse may not respond to your emotional pleas about why you both need to save for retirement, but it’s hard to argue with numbers. Run the numbers to show your spouse how much you’ll have for retirement based on your current savings plan. Compare that with how much you really need.

When you’re running the numbers, ask your spouse what they envision retirement looking like. If your spouse hopes to live a lavish lifestyle or travel the world, the numbers can help them see that’s only possible with diligent saving.

Make sure your spouse also sees that by failing to help with the retirement savings, they’re placing a greater financial burden on you to do it yourself.

If your spouse doesn’t respond to your math, consider setting up an appointment with a financial planner. An unbiased third party could help them see the importance of saving for retirement in a way you haven’t been able to.

Come to a Compromise

You and your spouse may never fully see eye to eye on the appropriate amount to save for retirement, compromise is a part of marriage.

Perhaps you want to aggressively save to retire early while your spouse doesn’t want to save anything and wants to enjoy all the money now. Perhaps you come to a compromise where you reduce your retirement contributions slightly to enjoy more of your money today. On the other hand, your spouse agrees to boost their retirement savings to ensure you’re financially prepared for the future.

Are You Retirement Ready?

If both you and your spouse are unwilling to compromise, it’s probably time for a much bigger conversation about your future together and whether your visions really align.

Who Owns the Retirement Savings?

If only one person in your marriage is saving for retirement, you may find yourself asking: who owns that money? After all, it seems unfair that you would use your income to save for retirement while your spouse spends theirs frivolously, only for them to own half of your retirement savings.

Depending on where you live, you may be required to split your retirement savings in the event of a divorce. Nine states — Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin — have community property laws, meaning any money you save for retirement during your marriage are equally owned.

In the other 41 states, common law prevails. In those states, each spouse is seen as a separate individual with their own property.

If you’re concerned about your spouse being able to claim a portion of your retirement savings in the event of a divorce, consider a prenuptial agreement (or postnup, if you’re already married) to ensure you won’t have to share your hard-earned savings.

When Only One Spouse Works

In many families, one spouse stays home to care for children while the other goes to work. Unfortunately, this often leads to unequal retirement savings. The good news is that even if only one spouse is working, you can both still save for retirement.

Are You Retirement Ready?

The IRS allows non-working spouses to contribute to spousal individual retirement accounts. These accounts are no different from any other IRA — the only difference is that the non-working spouse is contributing based on their working spouse’s income rather than their own.

For example, suppose one spouse works outside the home while the other stays home with children. The income-earning spouse can contribute up to $6,500 to an IRA, based on the 2023 contribution limits.

By using a spousal IRA, the spouse who works in the home can also contribute up to $6,500. Both spouses can contribute up to the maximum contribution limits, as long as their combined contributions don’t exceed their household income.

The Bottom Line

It may not be fun to put away money each month that you won’t get to enjoy for decades. However, retirement is the most expensive financial goal most of us will save for, and it’s critical to start as soon as possible.

In a perfect world, everyone would be on the same page their spouse when it comes to our future and the importance of retirement savings. But if you and your spouse don’t quite see eye to eye, some of the tips above can help.

And remember that if you try the tips above and still can’t come to a compromise, it may be time to bring in a third party, whether it be a financial planner or a marriage counselor.


Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about saving for retirement.
  • What is the recommended retirement savings by age?
    • The recommended retirement savings for your age varies based on your retirement goals. People who plan to retire early or have high annual spending during retirement may need more at any given age versus someone who plans to retire at 65 and enjoy a relatively modest retirement.
  • What is considered a good savings goal for retirement?
    • Experts generally recommend saving about 15% of your annual income towards retirement. For example, if you have an annual income of $100,000, you would aim to save at least $15,000 of that for retirement.
  • Is $2,000 per month for retirement good?
    • Whether $2,000 per month is an adequate income for you during retirement depends entirely on your situation. Some people can easily survive on $2,000 per month, while others would need a significantly higher income.
  • How much does the average 50-year-old have in their 401(k)?
    • According to a study done by Empower, the average 401(k) balance for a 50-year-old is between $123,686 and $161,869. However, the median balance for that age group is between $33,605 and $43,395.
Are You Retirement Ready?

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