Joan Fradella, a family and divorce mediator with Divorce thru Mediation, Inc. in West Palm Beach, Fla., has been saving for retirement on a regular basis.

But it's not her Golden Years she's worried about.

"I'll end up O.K., just maybe with not as much money as I should have," she states. "But my Aunt Marie is 87, and in poverty through no fault of her own. She was widowed at the age of 27 with two small children. She worked all her life in the garment industry as a piece worker, for low pay, until retirement."

Fradella notes that, widowed at such a young age, her aunt didn't have anything saved for retirement by her or her husband. "She lives on Social Security, and now has a reverse mortgage on her townhouse to supplement," Fradella adds. "She never remarried. Her living son has never been in a position to help her. She had so many strikes against her: being widowed so young, being skilled but not educated, not remarrying, unable to put away money. She blames no one, regrets nothing. It is just what is."

Fradella's Aunt Marie could easily be a composite of millions of women in retirement, single or otherwise, who simply don't have enough income and assets to make ends meet.

There is no shortage of struggling American women in that regard.

According to a brand new study out from the National Institute on Retirement Security, 80% of U.S. women in retirement are more likely to be "impoverished" than men. A big key to that retirement risk short fall is income (specifically, lack of it) for women in their later years.

The NIRS study notes women age 65 and older have an income that's 25% lower than men. "As men and women age, men's income advantage widens to 44% by age 80 and older," the study says. "Consequently, women were 80% more likely than men to be impoverished at age 65 and older, while women age 75 to 79 were three times more likely to fall below the poverty level as compared to their male counterparts." 

U.S. economic, political, and investment leaders do know about the gender-based retirement income gap -- they just don't see any significant momentum going to alleviate the problem.

"It's well documented that the nation faces a retirement savings crisis, but the pain is particularly severe for women because we need a bigger retirement nest egg than men thanks to our longer life expectancy," explains Diane Oakley, NIRS executive director. "This new data is troubling -- it shows that a woman's nest egg is substantially smaller than a man's and that we're not making real headway toward closing the retirement gender gap."


"The fact that women over 65 are 80% more likely than men to fall into poverty in their retirement years is tragic and should be a call to action for policymakers," Oakley adds. "Women are financially disadvantaged because we still earn less than men and we typically take time out of our careers for caregiving -- both of which reduce our ability to prepare for retirement. As a result, more women are spending their retirement years working."

The NIRS study numbers back that sentiment up:

-- In 2010, men received $17,856 in median retirement income from a pension, whereas women received $12,00 -- or 33% less.

-- In 2014, the median amount accumulated in these savings accounts was $36,875 for men and $24,446 for women -- or 34% less, according to Vanguard.

-- Widowed women are twice as likely to be living in poverty than their male counterparts. White and black women are almost twice as likely to be living in poverty than their male counterparts during retirement.

-- Even though the median household incomes of individuals aged 65 and older has increased, women have 26% less income than men.

-- Women who are widowed, divorced, and over age 70 rely on Social Security benefits for a majority of their income.

The NIRS is advocating a multi-pronged approach to solidifying women's tenuous grip on a stable retirement, calling for, among other steps, strengthening Social Security benefits for women, increasing retirement plan coverage through auto enrollment in individual retirement accounts and providing spousal protections in defined contribution accounts.

Yet even those aggressive steps may not be enough to help America's impoverished women in retirement. "Women tend to be in lower paying professions in the first place," notes Coleen Pantalone, a finance professor at the D'Amore McKim School of Business, at Northeastern University.

While that scenario is changing, there is more to be done and it really starts early on in education, Pantalone adds. "Look at most engineering classes today or science classes -- other than biology -- and the ratios tell the story," she says. "Women aren't entering these fields in equal numbers as men and, even in the 21st century, the culture and long-engrained biases in these fields still makes it tough for many women to persist."

Additionally, women, much more often then men, step out of the workforce to take care of children, thus compounding the earning and income problem. "It's very hard to get a career back on track after a step-out," Pantalone says. "And, even if you do make it back, you've lost many years of raises and contributions to retirement plans."

Steve Anzuoni, a financial services specialist with Fairway Financial in South Yarmouth, Mass., agrees, noting that women work, on average, 12 fewer years than men do over the course of their careers -- often because they take time off work to raise kids or take care of a sick spouse or aging parents.

But in Anzuoni's mind, Uncle Sam isn't stepping up and helping older women when they need it most. "The federal government just made it even harder for many women," he explains. "There are provisions within Social Security meant to boost income for many people by allowing them to suspend their own benefits and claim benefits based on their spouse or even an ex-spouse. These provisions really helped bridge the retirement income gap. But both are being phased out to help keep Social Security from running out of money."


It's up to women retirees to stand up and better their own financial situation in retirement, and that, too, starts with Social Security. "Women need to make better Social Security decisions," says Jim Uren, a financial advisor and psychologist who specializes in working with women saving for retirement, with Phase 3 Advisory Services. "According to the statistics from the Social Security Administration, more than 50% of women start taking Social Security retirement benefits before they reach their full retirement age," he notes. "Using this data the SSA's life expectancy data, the average woman loses over $100,000 in retirement due to these early retirement penalties."

"Simply put, women need to make better Social Security choices and financial advisors should be better trained to assist them with these decisions," he adds.

Women also need to be better prepared for potential widowhood and should not make rash decisions in the immediate aftermath of spouse's passing. "Widows can make decisions too soon after losing their husbands, they can miss out on tax planning opportunities in the year of death, and they can be hesitant to make a change to their investment strategy even though their financial situation has significantly changed," Uren adds. "Advisors need better training to work with those who are grieving."

For women who recognize the struggle for a decent retirement, especially if they're on their own, the above tips are a good place to start, along with a long talk with a trusted financial advisor.

If they don't, the downside risk is abundant -- and it could lead to an impoverished retirement.

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