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How Women Can Overcome the Retirement Wealth Gap

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It’s tough enough for women that they earn less money than men—even in similar jobs, a mere 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. They often enter lower-paying kinds of careers and take time out of the workforce to have children. Over time, these and other factors snowball into a huge wealth gap.

Shocking statistic: On average, by retirement age, a woman will have accumulated $1,055,000 less than a man in earnings, investments, retirement savings, property and other financial assets.

But it’s not just external circumstances that disadvantage women in the retirement game. It’s also deep-seated attitudes toward money that hold many women back.

These statistics and insights come from a new survey, “Women & Financial Wellness,” that explores the challenges a woman faces in building a secure financial future—and how to overcome them. The investment firm Merrill Lynch partnered with Age Wave (a research and marketing company focused on trends in aging) to survey 3,707 women and men over age 18 who represent a cross-section of US adults.

First, the good news: Women have made significant gains. Total earnings increased by 75% between 1970 and 2015—compared with a rise of only 5% for men. That’s a reflection of more women entering the workforce during those years, as well as increases in wages. Women now control $14 trillion—51% of America’s wealth. But women need more money than men in retirement because they tend to live longer—by age 85, women outnumber men by two to one. Those extra years require not only continued spending on housing, food, etc.—but also much higher healthcare costs. On average, a woman’s healthcare in retirement costs 39% more than a man’s, amounting to an average additional $194,000 (and much more in many cases).

Even when a woman inherits assets from her husband, it often isn’t enough to close the gap. So it’s no surprise that 42% of the women surveyed fear that they will run out of money by age 80. Reality check: Those worries are well founded, given that the typical retirement now costs $738,000 and only 9% of American women have $300,000 saved by the time they retire.

Why Women Miss Out on Building Wealth

The most significant factor is the zigzag nature of a woman’s life. From early adulthood to midlife and beyond, women confront job interruptions and greater challenges to career-building and saving than men. Telling statistic: 44% of an average woman’s adult life is spent out of the workforce versus 28% of a man’s.

When a woman has children, she’s likely to experience a “mommy penalty” of lost wages and missed promotions when she leaves the workforce temporarily for child-rearing. But she will often pause her life again years or decades later to provide care for an elderly or ailing parent, which can also involve out-of-pocket costs—the average caregiver shells out $7,000 a year to the person cared for, which can take a significant bite out of long-term savings. And women often become their husbands’ caregivers as their husbands fall into ill health. This, as well, can mean leaving the workforce earlier than planned and taking a financial hit as a result.

Every departure from a job can also diminish a woman’s Social Security retirement benefits because the amount is based on a worker’s 35 highest-paid years of employment. Added burden: Women hold 64% of all college debt, which means the squeeze of loan payments affects them out of proportion.

The truth is, women often put their children’s, husbands’, parents’ and others’ needs first. Case in point: 77% of women surveyed said they see money in terms of what it can do not for themselves but for their families. But whatever your goal, if you are a woman, you may well be putting mental roadblocks in your path, the survey found.

A Lack of Investing Confidence

It’s clear from this survey that women have some hurdles to jump over to have a solid retirement nest egg. To do that, they’ve got to get savvy about investing—but that’s exactly where many women lack confidence. Women feel very confident paying bills and managing budgets, but only 52% feel confident managing investments. In contrast, 68% of men feel confident doing that. Most of the women surveyed wished they had had more education about money and finance.

There are understandable reasons for women’s’ reticence about investing, including perceived societal taboos about talking about money—61% of women surveyed said they’d rather discuss their own deaths!—as well as financial planning models and tools that are geared toward men’s needs. Those models tend to default to men’s salaries, career paths, family roles and life spans. Plus, 60% of women say they lack the knowledge to invest.

Biggest financial regret: 41% of women said it was not investing more. However, when they did invest, 77% said they expected to succeed in saving enough money to last their lifetimes.

Steps to Greater Wealth and Security

To counteract the forces working against women’s financial stability, the report suggests that women adopt these strategies…

  • Speak up and learn more about money. Discuss it with your spouse, friends—and financial professionals. Look for mentors and seek information about money and investing.
  • Plan for your financial challenges. Whether it’s career interruptions, longevity that runs in the family, or high health-care costs, include them in your financial planning to be sure you prepare for them.
  • Make longevity an asset. Start a retirement plan as early as you can to benefit from compound interest…but also realize that it’s never too late to save and invest. Join your employer’s 401(k) or other retirement savings plan and contribute the maximum—or, at the very least, what’s needed to get the company’s matching contribution. You may also need to consider working beyond 65 and taking Social Security later to max out your benefits.
  • Revisit your overall plan frequently. Make course corrections as often as you need to, and consider consulting a professional.
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Source: Survey titled, “Women & Financial Wellness: Beyond the Bottom Line,” by Merrill Lynch in partnership with Age Wave. Date: May 31, 2018 Publication: Bottom Line Personal
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