Downsizing in Retirement

By: Allison Pearson

Do you and your partner share the same goals & expectations for the future throughout your changing life phases?

My son recently headed off to college. It was an important life transition, not just for my son, but for me and my husband as well. Seeing our child move out of the house and start a new phase of his life inspired us to evaluate our outlook for retirement – or, more accurately, how we would approach our next stage of life and how we envisioned living it.

The notion that the traditional definition of retirement is changing is no longer a revelation. It’s not even a remotely provocative concept these days.

We’ve all seen the headlines about how people are working longer because they’re living longer, or simply because they want to remain active, engaged and productive. I’m personally very much on board with this – I plan to continue working into my “retirement” years, although not necessarily in the same capacity as what I’m doing now, or on the same full-time schedule.

In other words, I plan to downsize my career to some extent when I reach that point when I feel ready to shift some of my focus to other life goals, activities and interests. I think that’s what I look forward to most in retirement, and how I define this next stage of life for me: It’s a time to focus on whatever you choose to focus on, so long as you’re able to maintain the lifestyle you’re comfortable with financially.

“Our careers have always been the center point of our conversations about retirement, but now we are starting to consider other aspects of our plans for how we’ll live in the future.”

My husband and I are both in agreement that, barring any physical limitations as we get older, we intend to continue working, contributing and generally remaining active for as long as possible. Our careers have always been the center point of our conversations about retirement, but now we are starting to consider other aspects of our plans for how we’ll live in the future. In other words, we’re trying to develop a common vision of retirement that is both fulfilling and financially viable.

Where to Live in Retirement – The Housing Dilemma

The concept of downsizing is typically used in context with housing, of course. And as I look toward the future I (somewhat hazily) envision for myself and my husband, figuring out what will work best for us in terms of the size, cost and location of the place we call home has become a rather pressing topic. In fact, our initial conversations on the topic were my first indication that my vision of retirement was not entirely aligned with my husband’s – at least when it came to housing.

Before I go into how the housing situation exposed this gap in our retirement vision, I’ll give some background on the practical aspects of our downsizing dilemma.

Our situation is probably familiar to a lot of people in our stage of life. We realize it would make sense to downsize for a number of reasons – cost chief among them, but also the desire to have a smaller property to maintain. But we’re also at the mercy of the ups and downs of the real estate market.

We purchased our current home 15 years ago in the midst of a classic “buyer’s market” and were pleased to see it appreciate considerably since the 2008 recession as the location is very favorable and home prices in general have enjoyed a steady climb.

Now that we’ve reached this point and the housing market is strong, we feel we should consider selling, as it appears we’re solidly in a seller’s market – but are we? After all, a healthy real estate market means we have a good chance of making a profit on the sale of our current house, but as we peruse listings in the area, I was disheartened to realize that there’s no way we’ll find another house with a comparable value. Even the smallest houses we’d consider are now going for around what we originally bought our current house for. As it stands, we don’t have the opportunity to make a profit on the sale of or current house that we could add to our retirement savings, or even make enough money so that we could have a very small mortgage or eliminate it altogether. That was eye opening!

Of course, I’m not implying that one should consider their house to be a retirement nest egg. The unpredictability of the real estate market makes that idea a very risky bet! But the Catch-22 nature of trying to buy in a seller’s market is simply a complicating factor as my husband and I attempt to downsize as one of many aspects of our lives in preparation for retirement.

Getting back to the vision side of things, our discussions about downsizing bring to mind a time several years ago when we purchased a property in Utah. It was in a fairly remote, secluded location – more or less rural compared to where we live now.

I had always considered the Utah land to be an investment property, so it took me by surprise when I learned that my husband had always assumed that’s where we would live when we retired. I told him that wasn’t what I had in mind at all – I envisioned having a smaller, more manageable house but still wanted to be located in a suburban area with easy access to grocery stores and other conveniences.

“You can believe you share the same vision as your partner, when in fact you have very different ideas about what your future needs will be.”

We have since sold the Utah property, but it’s a good example of how you can believe you share the same vision as your partner, when in fact you have very different ideas about what your future needs will be.

How to Live in Retirement – A Shared Vision

The housing detail – while it’s certainly an important one – is nonetheless a relatively tactical decision and I’m confident we’ll be able to come up with a compromise that works for both of us. In fact, finding a house that’s slightly more off the beaten path than I’d prefer could allow us to find something that’s more affordable and gives us the financial lift we’re looking for with the sale of our current house. But we’ve agreed that we will not rush out and do anything unless it makes good sense. We love our home and views of the mountains and don’t want to have to give that up.

Still, the fairly stark contrast between our preferences on this point opened my eyes to the larger, more philosophical question of whether we shared the same vision of retirement. In other words, not just where to live, but how to live.

Perhaps the reason it’s so difficult for me and my husband – and for most couples, I assume – to find common ground when it comes to our long-term outlook is because of the uncertainty involved. Strictly from a health perspective, it’s very difficult to know what we can expect to be capable of 20 or 30 years from now. It’s also a rather scary and unsettling thing to think about, so the natural tendency is to block it out of your mind entirely – you can worry about it later.

With so much of our future unknown – and unknowable – how can we ever be sure that we’re both moving toward a shared vision of retirement, or of our future together in general? For me and my husband, I think the best solution is to make retirement an ongoing conversation. It’s a key piece of our future that should come into play whenever we’re discussing finances, career paths, housing decisions, major purchases, and our college-aged son’s financial situation and future as well.

I’ve written about talking with your parents about their retirement and educating your kids about money in my previous columns. And I firmly believe that communication is absolutely critical to financial success and maintaining a healthy relationship with money. It can be a difficult thing to discuss, but having honest, open conversations with your family members can help ensure everyone is better prepared for those important transitions – both expected and unexpected – in our lives.

“I firmly believe that communication is absolutely critical to financial success and maintaining a healthy relationship with money.”

Your vision for retirement is a very personal thing. But when you’re expecting to share the rest of your life with your partner, you want to make sure your visions are at least somewhat aligned. Keep those lines of communication open, and remember: the future is what you make it, so it pays to remain focused on your goals and prepared for the unexpected.


Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

Diversification does not assure a profit or protect against loss in a declining market.

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Allison Pearson currently serves as Vice President of the National Sales Desk for Jackson National Life Distributors LLC (JNLD). She is responsible for the Career Development Program, coordinating recruiting efforts and training and supporting the Sales Desk management team in strategic initiatives. Allison joined Jackson in 2002 as Director of Recruiting with Human Resources.

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