Personal Finance

Why millennial women don't save

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Millennials have it bad, from student loan debt to a sluggish job market to cutting commentary about their arrogance and entitlement.

But millennial women have another problem: They aren't saving, or at least not nearly as much as their male counterparts.

A recent study by Wells Fargo found that 61 percent of millennial men have started saving for retirement, compared with 50 percent of millennial women. Only 41 percent of millennial women are satisfied with their savings level, compared with 58 percent of millennial men.

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"It certainly doesn't look like they are starting off the way they need to," said Cindy Hounsell, president of WISER, the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement. "That's going to hurt them in the end."

Financial picture for millennials

What's going on? Wasn't this generation going to mark the end of the gender gap, with more women than men graduating from college?

Guess again, experts say.

Read MoreWhat women really want...from retirement

Why millennials have a tough time landing jobs

Just for starters, millennial women are earning less than men. The Wells Fargo study found that median annual household income for millennial men was $77,000, compared with $56,000 for women.

"The gap was exactly what it is for the general population. That was shocking to us. We thought younger women at this early stage would have narrowed the gap," said Karen Wimbish, director of retail retirement at Wells Fargo.

There is also the matter of awareness and confidence.

Millennial women tend to be less financially literate than their male peers, according to a study by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA. Only 18 percent of millennial women demonstrated high levels of financial literacy, compared with 29 percent of millennial men.

Even apart from financial literacy, women tend to be more risk averse than men, studies show, and they are less likely to take risk for the opportunity of a reward. So even if they do put money away, they are less likely to invest it.

"They just think it's a lot harder than maybe it is," said Hounsell.

Millennials may be more like boomers than we realize

She believes part of the problem for young women may be that many millennials are hoping to start businesses of their own. Hounsell recently spoke to an audience of college-age women leaders, and she was surprised by how many wanted to be their own boss and were trying to figure out how to get started saving.

"I could have done an hour on that small-business type of thing," she said.

Read More4 in 10 millennials overwhelmed by debt: Study

The Wells Fargo study, however, found that 72 percent of all millennials believe the best place to start a career is in a big company with clear career paths, compared with 28 percent who think starting a business is their best bet—and men were more likely than women to opt for entrepreneurship.

Whatever their numbers, those millennials who do strike out on their own will not have an HR manager sitting them down for the talk about 401(k)s and retirement—a moment that gets many young employees started on saving.

Student loan debt dragging on young households

Millennials of both genders are also contending with massive levels of student loan debt, which is impeding their ability to put money away.

Demos, a public policy organization, analyzed the long-term effect of a savings shortfall, and the results were alarming. A household with $53,000 in student debt would have a lifetime wealth loss of $208,000, with $134,000 of that due to reduced savings.

"The gap in retirement savings is particularly large because the household with student debt was forced to save significantly less for retirement early in their working lives while paying back their student loans," the study found.

Girls may not believe it, but they rule

The good news, Hounsell says, is that when women receive financial education, they do tend to quickly increase their saving.

"I look at some of the tools offered by employers and I think that will help enormously," she said.

Wimbish contends that parents can play a major role in educating their daughters about saving. "It's easy to lose your self-confidence based on all the pressures that come to bear when you're young," she said. "We need to build strong young women."

—By Kelley Holland, special to CNBC