Women and Retirement

Recent news has been filled with the Equal Pay movement (Hollywood stars and the US Women’s National Soccer team among the most prominent). The statistic oft quoted regarding the gender wage gap is that women working full time in the United States typically are paid just 79 percent of what men were paid, a gap of 21 percent. The gap has narrowed since the 1970s (when it was 59 cents for every dollar earned by a man), due largely to women’s progress in education and workforce participation and to men’s wages rising at a slower rate. But progress has stalled in recent years, and the pay gap does not appear likely to go away on its own.

Equally as concerning is the implications this gap has on the prospects of women in retirement. The combination of statistically lower earnings (that usually results in lower Social Security benefits and can also mean less saved) AND statistically longer lives presents a greater challenge for us. This is borne out from the following results of a recent study by the Thompson Reuters Foundation:

  • Income for women age 65 and older is typically 25 percent lower than income for men of the same age
  • Men's income is 44 percent more than women's income by age 80 or older
  • Analyzing U.S. Census Bureau data, the researchers found women ages 75 to 79 are three times more likely than men to live in poverty, and widowed women are twice as likely to live in poverty than widowed men.

All this points towards a need for women to be even more proactive in their financial and retirement planning. They are much better off acknowledging this problem and taking action now than waiting for the retirement years to address it. So what can women do to better prepare for retirement?

Start planning now

Whether you are a working woman, a stay-at-home mom, a mom with a son or daughter in college or just starting out in college, you have to think about your retirement now. As mentioned earlier, statistically, women live longer than men; they also tend to retire earlier than men. Put together, women have a much longer retirement than men. If you are going to be retiring early, you won’t have the entire 35 to 40 years to save. So you will probably need to put away more money than an average man to have the same income in your retirement. If you have not done so already, take stock of what you have already saved; calculate exactly how much you will need for your retirement and how much money you have to set aside every month to reach that goal.

Put your money to work even if you take a break from your career

Women tend to take the role of a caregiver more than men, and that means they are more likely to take a break from their career for a few years or work part time. Just because you are taking a break doesn’t mean your retirement savings has to take a break as well. If you are stay-at-home mom, open a spousal IRA and set aside the maximum amount allowed. If you work part time, take retirement benefits into consideration when you are choosing a job. If you are interested, create a small business in an area that you like and that won’t interfere with your caregiving duties. Then set aside as much as possible in a solo 401k plan.

Don’t quit your career

You can take a break from your job, but if you had a career before you decided to quit, don’t completely quit your career. Keep in touch with your colleagues, keep your knowledge fresh by reading journals in your field. If you have any time to spare, pick up volunteering or an open-source project that can be done from home. Take a certification course to update your skills. When you do rejoin the workforce, double up your effort to save and catch up on savings. If you are over 50, don’t forget to take advantage of the higher catch-up contribution limits.

Be involved with the family finances

If you are one of those women who doesn’t take much interest in finances other than the basic home budget, please set aside some time and study your entire finances — your tax returns, bank accounts, assets, debts, insurance and your investments. (What investments do you and your spouse own? How are they doing? Do they match your goals? Do they match your risk tolerance as well as your spouse’s?) I am not saying you should not trust your spouse, but make sure you and your spouse are on the same page when it comes to goals and planning. If you are not confident about investments, take time to learn more about them or meet with a financial adviser who can guide you.

Put your retirement savings first – before your children's college savings

It is natural to put your children first in everything you do, but in this case, you will be doing your children a favor by putting your retirement at the front of the savings line. Otherwise, you might end up in a situation where your children will have to support you. They can take a student loan for college education, but you can’t borrow for your retirement.

Understand how divorce and remarriage affect Social Security benefits

Divorce and remarriage is not uncommon. There are plenty of horror stories on stay-at-home moms sacrificing their career to raise the children only to find themselves single, without any retirement savings or job prospects once the children are grown up. In a divorce, you will most likely be entitled to half of your spouse’s retirement assets. You are also entitled to Social Security payments equal to 50 percent of your ex-husband’s benefits, if you were married for at least 10 years. If you remarry, you will lose those benefits but you will be entitled to collect payments based on your new husband’s benefits. If you are a widow, you can receive full benefits at full retirement age for survivors or reduced benefits as early as age 60.

The path to retirement is a little more challenging for women than for men, but by planning early, saving diligently and investing wisely, women can overcome any obstacle and take charge of their retirement.