Why women should think differently about retirement planning

Consumer Reports

A healthy man of 65 has a 40 percent likelihood of living to age 85, the Society of Actuaries reports, but for a 65-year-old woman, the odds are better than even. Women live longer, so they need their money to last.

Yet social and economic forces—lower average wages, positions less likely to offer pensions or retirement savings options, interrupted careers for child and parent care, and higher medical spending—contribute to a bleaker retirement outlook for women. Their income in retirement is about half that of men, according to the AARP.

Read "Stop Freaking Out About Retirement" to learn how to worry less and plan better for a secure and satisfying future.

A recent survey of Consumer Reports readers found that the more a woman contributes to the household’s overall income, the greater say she has about concerns related to retirement. But breadwinner or not, any woman can improve her confidence about money matters and, quite possibly, her chances of living securely in later years. Our suggestions:

• Educate yourself about investing. “The Little Book of Commonsense Investing,” by John C. Bogle (John Wiley & Sons, 2007), is a useful primer by the founder of the investment giant Vanguard. On Bogleheads.org, a community of Bogle’s followers share insights and advice on a variety of financial topics. Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement, financed by public and private grants and individual donations, offers simple explanations of investment concepts, such as dollar-cost averaging and mutual-fund expenses. The Securities and Exchange Commission’s topic pages provide more information.

• Don’t avoid risk. Stocks, which carry greater risk and potential for growth, can help savings grow before retirement. In retirement, they can protect a nest egg against inflation. You can reduce unnecessary risk by diversifying your holdings with broad-based stock (equity) index funds. Consider having at least 40 percent of your portfolio at retirement in stock funds. Put the rest into bonds, with a small ­percentage in cash. (If you’re expecting a significant pension, you may be able to hold more in stocks.)

• Count on a reverse mortgage last. None of our 22,000 readers reported using this arrangement, which lets homeowners draw from the equity in their homes and stay put for their lifetime. Among the negatives: potentially high up-front fees and the possibility later in life that you won’t be able to keep up with home maintenance, taxes, insurance and other loan requirements. Our advice is to investigate other options first, such as family financing, and to wait as long as possible to borrow. Ask a certified financial planner or other professional to determine whether you can pay required expenses.

• Share financial duties and information. As many a divorced woman or widow knows, depending on a husband to handle all of the finances can backfire once he’s no longer in the picture. Make a point of talking with your spouse about day-to-day and long-term finances. Three things to know or have access to: important papers such as wills and car titles; numbers and passwords for all financial accounts; and names and contact information of financial advisers, attorneys, accountants, and insurance companies or agents.

• Have your own retirement savings. Even stay-at-home moms can open and contribute to a Roth or traditional IRA as long as they or their spouses earn taxable wages equal to or exceeding those contributions. The maximum annual contribution for 2014 is $5,500 ($6,500 for those 50 and older).

• Keep beneficiary information up to date. If a husband has forgotten to remove an ex-wife as beneficiary for certain assets such as his life insurance, the money could legally go to her, not to his widow, depending on state law, how the insurance contract is written, and whether it’s an employee benefit.

• Be aware of options for Social Security. A married or divorced woman may receive more in retirement benefits by claiming a spousal benefit—worth half of her current or ex-husband’s Social Security earnings—than by claiming a benefit based on her own work history. If she claims the spousal benefit, she has the option to later claim her own benefit, allowing it to grow in the interim. 

• Research communal living arrangements. A growing number of single people older than 50 are living with relatives, friends, and acquaintances in a house or an apartment. One person might own the home and rent to others, or a group might buy or rent together. Participants get companionship and safety, and often lower ­living costs. To find out whether the option might work for you, check out Women for Living in Community and the National Shared Housing Research Center. 

• Tap community resources. Take advantage of senior resources offered through nonprofits, houses of worship, and county departments on aging. Connecting to those options can be even more important when you live alone. Some communities are setting up  “villages,” or supportive networks, for people who don’t want to move after they retire. Members who pay dues to Capitol Hill Village in Washington, D.C., for instance, get access to car rides, computer troubleshooting, light housekeeping, social events, exercise classes, lectures, and trips. They also get help when there’s a medical crisis, care after a hospitalization, and social services. Volunteers staff the organization. (To find  “villages,” go to the Village to Village Network.)

This article also appeared in the October 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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