The biggest financial threat women face

Biggest retirement mistakes
Biggest retirement mistakes   

Saving for retirement isn't easy for anyone, what with wage growth slow and underemployment stubbornly high.

For women, it's even harder.

According to a recent study by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, 62 percent of women said they were saving for retirement, but just 15 percent said they were saving enough; 22 percent were barely saving at all. That means 85 percent of women aren't saving enough money to support themselves in retirement.

There are a number of reasons why women fall behind in saving for their post-career lives, ranging from lower pay to taking time off from the workforce.

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Cindy Hounsell, president of the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement (known as WISER), pointed to another reason.

"They'll save for their kids before they'll save for themselves," she said.

Cost of caregiving

Is this just a product of different saving and spending habits? Hardly. Women face special hurdles when it comes to saving for the so-called golden years.

For one thing, women are more likely than men to step out of the workforce, or work part time to care for children or elderly parents.

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When they do work, women are often confronted with the gender pay gap. That gap has narrowed since it was first identified, but on average, women still are paid just 78 percent of what men with equal qualifications receive, according to The American Association of University Women.

Woman working serious sad
Mark Bowden | Getty Images

Divorce, too, tends to have more negative financial consequences for women than for men. A study by Kenneth Couch, a professor at the University of Connecticut, found that even divorced women who ramped up their careers fared worse in retirement than divorced women who remarried, or women who never divorced at all.

What's more, Census Bureau data show that women who divorced reported lower household income than men in the following 12 months, and were more likely to receive public assistance.

The longevity problem

When women do save for retirement, another challenge they face is that they may invest too cautiously. Research has found that women view themselves as less financially knowledgeable than men do, and they express less confidence in their financial decision-making.

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Hounsell recalled her stepdaughter's questions as she set out to start her own business as a family therapist. The stepdaughter had no idea how to save without a 401(k), Hounsell said, nor did she know the names of companies offering low-cost Roth IRAs—an IRA where savers set aside after-tax money and investment earnings and withdrawals are tax free.

A recent study of women's financial behavior by Prudential found that the "women we surveyed feel no more prepared to make wise financial decisions today than they did two years ago or even a decade ago."

To top it off, since women have a longer life expectancy, whatever they do save has to last longer—only that's not happening. The poverty rate among women older than 65 reached 11.6 percent in 2013, and elderly women accounted for two-thirds of the elderly poor.

Stepping up savings

Luckily, women can take steps to boost their nest eggs.

First, in terms of tax-deferred savings, it's a great idea to take advantage of an employer-sponsored retirement plan like a 401(k). Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, recommends contributing at least enough to receive the maximum employer match.

They can also contribute to a Roth IRA, and depending on income, that contribution may be tax deductible.

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Another opportunity to consider is the savers credit, which enables people below certain income thresholds ($61,000 for married couples filing jointly, $30,500 for single filers) to offset some of their retirement plan contributions.

Second, women can boost their financial knowledge and their confidence in making financial decisions. Investment firms hold regular seminars on retirement-related issues, and nonprofit organizations such as AARP or WISER provide information as well.

Hounsell advises seeking out financial experts who can help.

"If you have access to some kind of a planner or you can even get help in your community, that's a start," she said.

Collinson suggests looking into continuing education classes on money and saving at local community colleges and universities. There's also power in women learning about retirement saving together, she said.

"We need to find a way to cut through the noise and make it a topic among women. Men are more likely to discuss saving and planning for retirement than women are," she said.

Still, Collinson is hopeful that women will soon conquer the retirement challenges they face.

"In the years I've been doing this, people over time have become much more engaged in the topic," she said. "Women still lag behind men, however as a woman, I know that once we put our mind to something, we make things happen."