How Women Can Take Action, Catch Up With Men on Retirement Savings

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — March might be Women's History Month, but with a good retirement at stake, it's better for women to be looking forward.

Eleanor Blayney, a consumer advocate with the Washington, D.C-based Certified Financial Planner Board, says her gender faces an "uphill battle" in preparing a financially secure retirement. "As women, we face unique and sometimes overwhelming challenges when preparing for the retirement that we envision," Blayney says. "Men are typically well ahead of women in terms of financial security and the resources they bring into retirement. Given this reality, women must plan with equal parts strategy and tenacity in order to reach our retirement goals."

According to the latest Retirement Income Literacy Survey from The American College of Financial Services, only 11% of women could pass a basic quiz on retirement, compared with 29% of men. Additionally, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, just 45% of salaried women participated in a retirement plan last year.

As the ACFS says, the retirement knowledge gap is "a problem" considering women live two years longer than men on average, and that a women who is 65 can expect to live another 20 years.

Why the disparity between the sexes on retirement planning? Financial experts point to a number of reasons, and the lack of focus and urgency is at the top of the list.

"One female client of ours liked to shop and was spending a couple thousand a month buying things she didn't remember a month later," says Dak Hartsock, an investment manager with Naples, Fla.-based ACI Wealth Advisors. "We already had an investment savings account for her, and together we decided that every time she wanted to go shopping she would deposit $100 into the account before she went."

After a few months, Hartsock says the client's shopping "habit" was shrinking and her investment savings account was growing faster than ever.

"Within a year she was thinking more about her savings balance getting bigger than filling her closet," he adds.

Other, larger factors come into play as well.

Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a Ph.D., and professor of marketing and behavioral finance at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, says "women may be saving less in part because they are earning less to begin with. The problem, of course, is that women actually tend to live several years longer than men, so if anything, they should be saving more for retirement."

Strahilevitz advises women looking for an edge on their long-term savings.

"Any money that your company matches you need to put aside," she says. "You can't get a better return anywhere than matching funds from an employer. Even if they are only contributing 50 cents to the dollar, that's a 50% return instantly, before your investment dollars even start going to work. That's a huge deal, and not taking advantage is like refusing a bonus from your employer."

For a more creative way to generate income for (and in) retirement, try owning rental property, says Bonnie Russell, founder of CaliforniaRetired.com. "If possible, buy a duplex in need of repair," she advises. "Renovate one side while living in the other. When renovations are complete in the first side, rent it out. Continue renovating in the second unit."

"When renovations are complete; enjoy it for a month or so and then rent it out, also," she adds. "Move to a smaller type of place while looking for another, perhaps, single home renovation."

Knowing how much money you have, and where it's going, can also help.

"Create a current income and expense calculation and make an exact list of what you are spending your money on," advises Melody Juge, founder and managing director of the money management firm Life Income Management and founder of Juge Girls, a social network for women. "Now you have something to work with. This will allow you to 'see' clearly what you are spending your money on so that you can consider where you can cut back and save more for yourself." 

Juge also highly recommends tax-favored retirement planning vehicles such as Roth IRAs and 401(k)s to maximize savings. But be careful about managing those accounts. "Don't sell out of your major 401(k)/IRA when the market goes down," she says. "Always, always sell off when your investments are on their way up and buy when the prices are down."

No doubt, women struggling with their retirement savings should reach out to a credentialed investment advisor for help. There is ground to be made up, but the good news is that it's possible if you have a good blueprint in hand.

— Written by Brian O'Connell for MainStreet

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