Study: Money Secrets and Sluggish Savings Put Couples' Retirement Dreams at Risk

By Dayana Yochim

A new survey from NerdWallet, conducted online by Harris Poll, reveals that despite the financial and emotional perks of being married or living with a partner, when it comes to saving for the future, Americans in a relationship seem to struggle with communication issues.

A survey of more than 1,800 Americans in a relationship, defined as those who are married or living with a partner, found that savings inaction, failure to share financial specifics with their significant other, and reliance on overly conservative investments may be jeopardizing their chances of achieving a happily-ever-after retirement.

Among the key survey findings:

  • One in three Americans in a relationship (33%) report that neither they nor their partner are saving for retirement.
  • Among the 36% of Americans in a relationship who report that their partner is saving for retirement, roughly one in five say they do not know how much their partner contributes to long-term retirement accounts (23%) or have even a general sense of the total value of their partner’s retirement account (21%).
  • Of the 14% of Americans in a relationship who have been saving for retirement and have a brokerage account, more than two in five (43%) say they do not consult with their partner before making trading decisions on their brokerage account.
  • A workplace retirement plan, such as a 401(k), is the main retirement savings vehicle for 39% of Americans in a relationship, followed by a bank savings account (31%). Despite the absence of tax breaks and availability of investments with higher potential returns than cash, more Americans in a relationship use a bank savings account for their long-term retirement funds than an IRA (31% vs. 25%, respectively).

Couples share dreams, not specifics

It’s fun to think about what the future may hold — to a point. Three out of four (76%) Americans in a relationship where at least one partner is saving for retirement say they’ve discussed general retirement planning issues, such as at what age they want to retire, where they want to live and what they want to do. But the conversation seems to trail off when it comes to calculating the specifics.

Thirty percent of Americans in a relationship who report at least one partner is saving for retirement say that they do not talk to their significant other about how much money they will need to retire. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to avoid crunching the numbers.

According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, fewer than half of workers or their spouses have attempted to figure out their retirement needs. Fear is one reason people avoid calculating their retirement readiness, says Jack VanDerhei, EBRI research director. “People are too scared to see the results, or they think they are too old to do anything to improve their overall retirement adequacy,” he says. “But no matter how bad the news is, you’ll be a lot better off if you start dealing with it today.”

Failure to calculate is only part of what’s being left undone: The NerdWallet survey found that about one in five Americans in a relationship with a partner who is saving for retirement (21%) say they don’t have even a general sense of how much their partner has saved. They also seem to be secretive about their current savings habits: 21% of Americans in a relationship who are personally saving for retirement say their partner doesn’t know how much they are contributing to their long-term retirement savings.

“It’s surprising to see that nearly 1 in 5 couples are left in the dark about what their true retirement picture looks like,” says Kyle Ramsay, chartered financial analyst and head of investing and retirement for NerdWallet. “Studies show one of the top causes of divorce is financial disagreement. Just like marriage, your financial plan should be built to last — and that means open communication and commitment to your shared financial goals.”

Lack of communication also plagues Americans in a relationship who are saving and use accounts with brokerage firms to save for retirement, with 43% of respondents stating that they do not consult with their partner about trading decisions regarding their brokerage account.

Lack of commitment to saving for the future

Perhaps one reason Americans in a relationship avoid talking about their retirement readiness is that the savings picture is far from flattering. NerdWallet found that 33% report that neither they nor their partner are currently saving for retirement.

Based on average benefits paid to retirees in 2016, couples whose long-term savings are lacking should not expect that Social Security will replace their pre-retirement income. The average monthly benefit for a retired couple who both receive Social Security benefits is $2,212, according to the Social Security Administration. About half of retired couples rely on Social Security for 50% or more of their income, and 21% of married couples depend almost exclusively on that monthly check to provide 90% or more of their income.

That leaves two choices for couples who are not yet retired: Plan a dramatically downsized lifestyle in retirement, or invest more money now to build enough retirement savings and cover potential income shortfalls.


Skip wine with dinner (or BYOB), pack a few lunches each week, set up a babysitting swap with pals, borrow power tools and weed wackers from neighbors. Boost your retirement readiness a few dollars at a time and let compound interest take it from there.
Amount saved monthly Amount in savings* after 10 years Amount in savings* after 20 years Amount in savings* after 30 years
Source: NerdWallet compound interest calculator (compounds interest monthly). *Based on 6% average annualized return on amounts saved. Numbers are rounded to the nearest 100.
$50 a month ($12.50/week) $8,200 $23,200 $50,500
$100 a month ($25/week) $16,500 $46,400 $101,000
$300 a month ($75/week) $49,400 $139,300 $302,900

Account choice can dampen long-term prospects   

Preparing for the golden years requires not just setting aside money for the future, but picking the best type of retirement account for that money to grow.

Thirty-nine percent of Americans in a relationship are saving for retirement using a workplace retirement savings plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b). These retirement accounts come with several valuable tax breaks for savers. Contributions are made with pre-tax dollars — lowering the saver’s taxable income for the year — and taxes on earnings are deferred until money starts being withdrawn in retirement. Plus many employers offer to match a portion of a worker’s contributions to the plan.

Without retirement savings goals, you may find yourself unable to meet your financial needs in the future. Use NerdWallet’s retirement calculator for a clear picture of how far today’s savings will go in retirement and what adjustments should be made now.

One surprising finding from the NerdWallet survey was that the second most common account Americans in a relationship use for their long-term investments is a bank savings account (31%), despite the fact that these accounts typically pay minimal interest.

Not only that, but savings accounts lack the tax advantages and array of investment choices offered in retirement-specific accounts like individual retirement accounts, which just 25% of Americans in a relationship report using to save for retirement.

“While a savings account may be easily accessible and offer consumers peace of mind, this oversight exposes your money to another risky specter: inflation,” says Ramsay. “Protecting your money against inflation is critical, particularly with banks paying such low interest rates on deposits these days. By playing it too safe, couples run the risk of their money not keeping up with consumer prices, severely shortchanging themselves when they enter retirement.”

The financial advantages of investing money earmarked for retirement in an account designed for that purpose are clear: In 30 years, a couple that saves $5,000 a year in a Roth IRA earning a 5% average annual return will have approximately $332,000 in savings — $180,000 more than if they let their money languish in a bank savings account earning 0.1% interest.

Lack of eligibility may be one possible reason couples choose a bank account for retirement savings instead of opening an IRA. Anyone is eligible to fund a traditional IRA, but deductibility is based on income, tax filing status and whether or not a workplace retirement plan is available to either member of a household filing a joint tax return. Roth IRA eligibility, however, is based on household income.

The IRS adjusts IRA income and contribution limits each tax year, which makes it worthwhile for couples to review whether they are eligible for a full or partial contribution or deduction. See NerdWallet’s guide to choosing between an IRA and Roth IRA.

That said, even couples who do not qualify to deduct an IRA are missing out on greater returns that they could get by investing their long-term savings in a regular brokerage account, even if they don’t get the tax breaks that come with an IRA. Yet just 14% of Americans in a relationship say they have a brokerage account for retirement savings, while 4% say their partner does.


  Savings Account 401(k) IRA: Roth, Traditional, Spousal Brokerage account
Who can contribute Anyone. Current employees. Roth or traditional: Anyone with earned income.

Spousal: Contributions for non-working spouse can be made by either spouse based on joint contribution and deductibility limits.

Tax treatment Contributions are not deductible.

Earnings taxed annually at regular income tax rate.

Contributions are pre-tax, lowering taxable income for the year.

Taxes on earnings are deferred.

Roth IRA and spousal Roth IRA: Earnings grow tax-free; withdrawals in retirement are not taxed.

Traditional IRA and spousal IRA: Contributions may be deductible; taxes on earnings are deferred.

Contributions are not deductible.

Earnings taxed at ordinary rates; if dividends are reinvested, investment income is deferred until withdrawn.

Investment choices Cash or cash equivalents (e.g. a money market account) with annual percentage yields of 0.01% to 1.10%. A mix of mutual funds or ETFs chosen by the plan administrator. Stocks, bonds, mutual funds, cash and any investment offered by a brokerage. Stocks, bonds, mutual funds, cash and any investment offered by a brokerage.
Good to know Principal is guaranteed (which is why returns are so limited).

Money can be withdrawn at any time penalty-free.

Employer may offer a match; employees can roll balance directly into an IRA with no tax penalties after they leave the company.

Early withdrawals may be allowed but may trigger penalties and taxes.

Provides access to a much wider range of investment choices (and potential long-term returns) than workplace retirement plans.

Early withdrawals allowed, but may trigger penalties and taxes.

Access to a wider range of investment choices than a workplace retirement plan.

Investment gains may be taxable.

No early withdrawal penalties; losing investments can be sold to offset taxes on gains.

2016 contribution limits No limits. $18,000; $24,000 for those age 50 and older. $5,500; $6,500 for those age 50 and older. No limits.

Retirement savings tips for two

The biggest advantage couples may have when it comes to planning and saving for the future is having a partner to help with the heavy lifting. But money conversations can turn into money tiffs when partners are not forthcoming about their current savings, future financial needs and the best strategies for investing their retirement savings. NerdWallet recommends:

Use a savings account for short- to mid-term savings only: A savings account, where the goal is to preserve principal, is appropriate for money earmarked for emergencies and mid-term financial needs, such as a down payment for a home or car. See NerdWallet’s recommendations for the best online savings accounts.

Use the right retirement accounts in the right order: Couples should order their retirement savings based on saving incentives, such as tax breaks and employer-matched contributions; retirement account eligibility, as far as qualifying for an IRA; and their choice of investments options. Here’s NerdWallet’s guidance on maximizing retirement savings plans:

  1. Contribute to a workplace retirement account at least up to the point of matching contributions: Those who have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan should direct at least enough money into the account to receive any employer match — it’s essentially free money.
  1. Open a brokerage account to set up a Roth or traditional IRA: Like employer-sponsored retirement plans, IRAs offer tax benefits to savers who qualify. An added plus: IRAs also offer access to a wider variety of investment options than workplace retirement plans. That gives consumers the power to control wealth-eroding fees that they may be subject to in a 401(k) plan. For guidance on choosing an IRA, see NerdWallet’s top choices for the best IRA providers.
  2. Use a taxable account for additional retirement savings: After maxing out tax-advantaged retirement savings accounts, couples should continue to take advantage of the stock market’s long-term earning power. Any cash that’s not needed in the next five to 10 years should be invested in low-cost index mutual funds, exchange-traded funds or individual stocks, which you can do in a regular taxable brokerage account. See NerdWallet’s top picks for the best online brokers.

Seek help from a neutral third party: Self-managing an investment account isn’t every couple’s idea of a romantic way to spend time together. Robo-advisors — which automate portfolio management based on a customer’s age and risk tolerance — offer affordable hands-on help managing retirement savings by handling asset allocation, offering tax savings strategies, and providing access to financial professionals to answer retirement savings questions. See NerdWallet’s top choices for the best robo-advisors.

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Dayana Yochim is a former NerdWallet authority on retirement and investing. Her work has been featured by Forbes, Real Simple, USA Today, Woman’s Day and The Associated Press.


This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from Aug. 10-12, 2016, among 3,068 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, among whom 1,832 are married or living with a partner. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables, contact Jessica Ayala at [email protected].