For many women, retirement isn't the relaxing haven it's cracked up to be. Because women earn less over their lifetime than men, they tend to have less saved. Women also live longer than men, which means their savings needs to stretch longer. According to a 2012 Government Accountability Office report, 12 percent of women age 65 and older are living in poverty, compared with only 7 percent of men. For divorced and widowed women in the same age group, the poverty rate is higher, at 21 and 15 percent, respectively.
Even women with incomes over the poverty level often face financial stress. Nursing homes, which women have a greater chance of entering because they generally live longer, cost an average of $71,000 a year, and assisted-living facilities can cost $32,000 annually.
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What can women do to protect their finances? A lot, it turns out. Here are six strategies:
Save more. The Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement recommends that women develop three sources of money: Social Security, a pension or retirement savings plan like a 401(k) and individual savings. Partly because women frequently take time out of the workforce to care for children or parents, their Social Security benefits and retirement savings tend to be less than men's, making it more important to store up additional dough.
Start earlier. Manisha Thakor and Sharon Kedar, authors of "On My Own Two Feet: A Modern Girl's Guide to Personal Finance," recommend that women dedicate 10 percent of their income to retirement savings, starting in their 20s. Saving 10 percent of a $50,000 salary beginning at age 25, for example, would result in $2.2 million at retirement. (That calculation assumes that investments grow at 10 percent a year, gains are reinvested and annual salary increases offset inflation.)
Maintain management skills. Traditionally in a marriage, finances are turned over to one person to manage. But women who want to keep their investing and budgeting skills sharp for life should keep a hand in their finances. Since women live to be 80 on average, versus 75 for men, even those in solid marriages are likely to have to manage their own money one day. According to the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement, only one-third of women between ages 75 and 84 are married. Over age 85, the number drops to 13 percent.
Consider a spousal IRA. Nonworking spouses, like those who take time out of the workforce to care for children, can still contribute up to $4,000 a year to a retirement account. (In 2013, the maximum contribution is $5,500.) While in most cases wives are entitled to at least part of their husband's retirement savings, in the case of death or divorce, pensions often decrease when the working partner dies.
Overestimate money needs. Because people are living longer and inflation erodes the value of money, many underestimate their savings needs. The Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement says that women, given their longevity and lower savings, may want to consider replacing 100 percent of their income during retirement to keep up their lifestyle.
Manage your own money. A 2008 study from the Hartford Financial Services Group and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab found that couples who divide financial tasks, where one spouse handles day-to-day bill paying and the other investment management, fare better than those who hand over the financial reins to one person while the other takes a backseat. The couples with the divide-and-conquer approach were more likely to have more savings and develop a financial plan for the surviving spouse. Yet only 11 percent of respondents practiced this kind of shared division of labor.
The study also showed that in couples where one spouse (usually the husband) took charge of all financial matters, the other spouse (usually the wife) often faced financial struggles later in life. The problem with that approach – practiced by one-third of the couples – is that when husbands die, women often find themselves with less money than expected, and they don't know how to manage it. On average, Hartford reports, women experience a 50 percent decrease in income upon becoming widowed and only a 20 percent decrease in expenses.