When it comes to retirement planning, the thought of doing what you want, when you want, where you want and how you want is ideally suited to singles. But when couples are doing the planning together, that message might be a little more challenging.

When I think of retirement planning for couples, I recall a conversation I had with a lovely twosome many years ago when I was a financial advisor. I asked them what they planned to do in their retirement. The husband excitedly and quickly responded with "WE plan to travel as much as we can. WE plan to golf together around the world. And WE plan to try new things like scuba diving."

His wife paused and then responded with this: "I'm okay with travelling, but I have two amazing grandkids here at home who I want to spoil rotten. I don't golf and I don't really want to spend five hours on a golf course listening to you curse and swear because your shots were not perfect. And you can go scuba diving if you want, but I plan to lie on the beach with a book."

While it may not appear so, these two were very much in love and were looking forward to their retirement years. Despite their different responses, they still wanted to retire together.

WE and ME

If you think about it, retirement is an individual, not a couples event. For two working spouses, there are two separate retirements that happen in the same household. And more often than not, they happen at different times. Most couples don't retire at the exact same time.

One of the challenges for couples is the idea that they are going to retire and spend every waking moment together. (How does that sound to you?) While couples may want to spend time together, it's important to understand that no matter how much we love our spouses and even like spending time together, we all need some time and space apart. I call it "ME time" or “alone time.” Couples may find more success in retirement by thinking not only about things they want to do together (WE) but also about things they might like to do apart (ME).

One of the  tools I suggest for couples planning for retirement is a brainstorming exercise where each spouse takes a pen and paper and writes down all the things he or she wants to do in retirement from a ME perspective. The idea is that each spouse makes a retirement wish list independently of the other. It's about being selfish and coming up with a ME list instead of doing it together and coming up with a WE list – and being selfish isn’t always easy for spouses to do.

Communication is the key

Once the ME lists are done, spouses then need to come together and start comparing their lists. Some things on the lists are bound to be similar. These similarities can represent things that couples can do together. Differences can also be very powerful. They can represent things that spouses can do when they need some time away from each other.

The exercise emphasizes that retirement planning is about more than just money. It's so important to think about and design an entire retirement life. The point behind the exercise is really to foster conversations about lifestyle and help couples understand that retirement dreams don't have to perfectly align. It's about helping couples talk. Too often, I have seen people who assume they know what their spouse wants to do in retirement. I always say, “Don't assume. Instead, ask questions and discuss.”

If you and your spouse haven’t started to plan for your retirement yet, it’s not too late (or too early). An advisor can help you create a plan that will work for both of you.

Jim Yih is a group retirement consultant at Clearpoint Benefit Solutions and founder of the award-winning RetireHappy.ca blog. For more information, visit JimYih.com.