When a Woman’s Work Is Done

One of my jobs at The Motley Fool is to serve as the internal financial planner for Fool employees. Lately, however, I've been answering more questions my colleagues have about their parents — and it's more likely about their mothers or mothers-in-law. The truth is, women face a more difficult task when it comes to retirement planning, for several reasons:

Women earn, and have, less. According to the Census Bureau, women earn just 77% of what men make. They are also more likely to interrupt their careers to raise children or take care of older relatives. According to the Social Security Administration, the typical woman spends 12 years out of the workforce. This results in lower retirement benefits and smaller portfolios. On average, a female's 401(k) is 40% less than a male's.

Women live longer. Generally, retirement begins when a person leaves the workplace and ends when life leaves the person. The longer someone lives, the longer retirement lasts — and the more assets will be needed. On average, gals live five years longer than guys, which means they tend to be retired longer. Add to this the fact that, with most couples, the wife is a few years younger than the husband, and you can see why most women should plan on spending their last few years on their own. Which leads us to…

Women are more likely to spend part of their lives single. Though my wife may not believe it, marriage enhances retirement security. According to a National Bureau of Economic Research study by Susann Rohwedder and Michael Hurd, 80% of married couples in the 66-69 age group are adequately prepared for retirement, whereas just 55% of single persons have enough resources. Unfortunately, more than twice as many older women are single than older men. According to the Census Bureau, 19% of men over the age of 65 live alone, compared to 40% of women in the same age group. More than two-thirds of 85-year-olds are women.

Women tend to retire earlier. According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, the average retirement age for men is 64, whereas the typical woman retires at age 62. This is often because a wife will retire at the same time as her husband. It's just another reason why women can be expected to fund a longer retirement than men.

Women often leave financial planning to their husbands. According to a survey from ING Direct and Dailyworth.com, 40% of married women leave retirement planning to their partners, and almost 30% say they don't know what their main source of future retirement income will be. This leaves widows and divorcees vulnerable when they find themselves single again, and could contribute to a general lower knowledge about money matters. According to studies by Dr. Annamaria Lusardi, director of the Financial Literacy Center, women score 12 percentage points lower than men on tests about concepts such as inflation and diversification, as well as other measures of financial literacy.

What's a Woman to Do?
While all those statistics can be discouraging, the good news is that there are plenty of solutions. Here are the steps all women (and the men who love them) can take.

Become a money master. Regardless of whether you're single, married, or living in a hippie commune where no one bathes but someone has to pay the bills, make sure you keep learning about financial planning and have a hand in the household finances. According to a study from Hartford Financial Service and the MIT AgeLab, couples who share the financial housework are more prepared than couples that rely on just one member to do all the financial lifting; the former group is more likely to have saved more and developed a plan for what will happen when one spouse passes away. This doesn't mean that each spouse must do everything together, but it does mean that each spouse should know enough about what's going on, and how to manage the family finances in the case the other spouse becomes ill or passes away.

Manage the couple's benefits with the survivor in mind. The timing of when one spouse begins receiving Social Security and pension benefits (if any) can affect the financial security of the other spouse. The questions to ask are: 1) Will the primary beneficiary receive a larger benefit for delaying, and 2) how much of the benefit will go to a surviving spouse? In the case of Social Security, the benefit does increase for each year of delaying, which can be very important source of income for a retiree whose lifetime earnings record is not as high as her or his spouse's, because that higher benefit will continue to the lower-earning spouse when the higher-earning spouse passes away.

Be ready to be on your own. The last time I covered this topic in a GRS post, a reader linked to a New York Times article, written by a woman who had once been an advocate for stay-at-home motherhood:

So I was predictably stunned and devastated when, on our 40th wedding anniversary, my husband presented me with a divorce. I knew our first anniversary would be paper, but never expected the 40th would be papers, 16 of them meticulously detailing my faults and flaws, the reason our marriage, according to him, was over….

The judge had awarded me alimony that was less than I was used to getting for household expenses, and now I had to use that money to pay bills I'd never seen before: mortgage, taxes, insurance and car payments. And that princely sum was awarded for only four years, the judge suggesting that I go for job training when I turned 67. Not only was I unprepared for divorce itself, I was utterly lacking in skills to deal with the brutal aftermath.

I hate to be so cynical as to suggest every person should be ready to become single at any moment, but I do think everyone should have a Plan B at the ready.

Delay retirement until everyone is ready. The decision to retire should not be based solely on whether both spouses have enough money to cover expenses, but also on whether a surviving spouse would be secure should the other spouse pass away. According to the Hartford study, the typical widow sees her income drop 50% when the husband passes away, yet expenses drop just 20%. To make sure they have enough in their later years, people should continue to work — and save — until they have enough to survive on their own, and not retire just because their spouse does.

Everyone should know the team. If you use any financial-services professionals — accountants, advisors, attorneys — both spouses should know at least enough to know what they do for you, and how to contact them. If you don't use pros because one spouse does the work, you may want to begin assembling a team in your later years to smooth the transition in case that one spouse is no longer able to do the job. You can start with a fee-only financial planner, such as those who belong to the Garrett Planning Network or the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors.

The Times, They Are A-changin'
These kinds of posts can be tricky, since they're based on generalizations that obviously don't apply to every woman or couple, and can come off as sexist. To be sure, I know plenty of couples in which the wife is in charge of the household finances. These folks tend to be younger, which is why I think the difference in retirement prospects for women and men is partially a generational issue. It's certainly my experience that women in their 70s — like my mother, who found herself divorced and re-entering the workforce in her 50s — are more comfortable leaving all the financial housekeeping to their husbands, and also less comfortable talking about money. Maybe that's just my personal experience. But I do hope, as the income gap between men and women shrinks, and more men share in the child-raising responsibilities (for example, The Motley Fool offers paternity leave to new dads), that a post like this will be largely unnecessary several years from now.

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