How women can better prepare for retirement

5 ways women can become more proactive about creating a healthy retirement stash

Women and men are well-known to approach finances in strikingly different ways, from how they spend to how they save. Unfortunately, when it comes to preparing for retirement, many women are jeopardizing their financial future.

A dizzying number of recent studies show that American women lag far behind men when it comes to amassing retirement savings. The 2016 Transamerica Retirement Survey found that men's household retirement savings are three times higher than that of women. A MassMutual survey reports that 44 percent of women interviewed said they can't afford to save for retirement, compared to 14 percent of the men. And the National Retirement Institute reports that women are 80 percent more likely to be impoverished upon retirement age.

Yikes. What gives?

"The plain and simple truth is women face a unique set of problems going into retirement," says Pamela Yellen, financial advice expert and founder of Bank On Yourself. "Women generally earn less than men and typically take time out of their careers for caregiving. They also need a bigger nest egg for retirement because they tend to live longer than men and are more likely to end up alone in old age."

Depressing? A bit. But take heart: Women can reverse this trend. Here are five ways women can become more proactive about creating a healthy retirement stash.

1. Start immediately

Saving for retirement early is key to having a hefty stockpile in your golden years. If you begin saving in your 20s, your money has a good 40 years for compound interest to work its magic. It's especially important for women to start generating compound interest early because it can help mitigate any reduction in retirement contributions that may occur if they later leave the workforce. But, in fact, women tend to start saving for retirement later than men.

"Open an IRA (Individual Retirement Account), contribute to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, or both as soon as possible," says financial wellness coach Marques Lang, founder of Prosperity Consulting & Coaching. Arrange to have a sum, even a small one, directly deposited from each paycheck to your retirement account, so you won't miss a contribution opportunity and your savings can flourish.

If your 20s are already a distant memory, start playing catch-up right away. You can make contributions to a Traditional IRA until age 70-1/2. If possible, max out your allowable contribution of $5,500 ($6,500 if you're over 50) every year.

2. Get savvy about investing

Ladies — grab the bull (market) by the horns. Women are less likely to invest in the stock market than men and tend to stash their cash in low interest-bearing bank accounts. What's more, when women do invest in stocks, they often gravitate toward less risky investments than men. While such caution may seem sensible, low-risk investments don't generate as large returns as riskier ones and often can't outpace inflation over time.

"Women must become informed and knowledgeable investors," says Ilene Davis, author of Wealthy By Choice. She encourages women fearful of investing to buckle down and educate themselves on the stock market and investing vehicles to lessen their anxiety. "The more you know, the more you're able to protect yourself."

Equally important, women must take a good hard look at the relationship between their financial goals for retirement and their tolerance for risk. If your risk tolerance is too low to finance your intended level of income in retirement, your retirement strategy isn't viable, says Davis. Working with a trusted adviser can help increase your tolerance for short-term risk in exchange for potential long-term benefits.

3. Prioritize saving for retirement

Women are much more likely than men to push "saving for retirement" to the bottom of the to-do list — or sometimes off the list entirely. Instead, many women prioritize spending money for their families' needs or education, among other things.

For a financially secure retirement, women must avoid being "financial martyrs" — sacrificing their financial needs for others — when possible. "Women lose sight of the fact that if they don't take care of their own financial future, they can end up burdening the very people that they're [sacrificing] for," says Davis. She urges women to commit to setting aside a specific amount each month for retirement, even if it's $3 to $5 a day.

Invest such savings into a stock/growth mutual fund or balanced fund, depending on the length of time you have to invest before retirement, Davis says. Even tiny contributions can make a difference over time.

4. Continue saving when outside of the workforce

Because women are more likely to leave the workforce to care for children and aging parents, it limits their ability to put aside savings. But a lack of job-based income doesn't necessarily mean that you can't save at all. Lang says that even if you're not working outside the home, you can — and should — open and contribute to an IRA. You can use money from sources such as alimony, scholarships, or even your spouse's income.

5. Create a retirement budget based on life expectancy

Women have a tendency to underestimate their life expectancy, which can create a drastic shortfall in retirement. To be better prepared, create a retirement budget based, in part, on how long you're estimated to live. The Social Security Administration's "life expectancy calculator" estimates the average number of additional years a person might expect to live upon reaching retirement age, based on your birth date and gender. With this calculation, you can estimate the length of your retirement.

Next, use a retirement calculator to assess the amount of money you'll need to finance your retirement. "Figure out the lifestyle you want to have and what would it cost in today's dollars," advises Davis. "Where do you want to live? What will your mortgage or rent be? How often will you eat out?"

A good retirement calculator allows you to factor in specific estimated costs such as these, will adjust for inflation and contingencies, and much more. In the end, you should not only know the amount you require for a comfortable retirement, but be able to determine how much to save each month to make your golden years shine.


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