When it comes to saving for retirement, women have a much tougher mountain to climb than their male counterparts. The cards are stacked against women, especially if they opt to stay home to raise their family, and many women report they don't understand how to financially prepare for retirement in the first place.

On average, women have saved about half of what men have saved for retirement, according to a recent Student Loan Hero study. More troubling, 48% of the women surveyed reported that they don't even have a retirement savings vehicle, compared to just 29% of men who don't.

Frustrated woman with head in her hands

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The good news is, with careful planning, it's possible for women to overcome these obstacles and save enough for a comfortable retirement. Here's a brief overview of the unique challenges women face when planning for retirement and how they can maximize their savings.

The many challenges for women saving for retirement

The first reason women struggle to save enough for retirement is no one's fault, but simply a matter of biology. In almost every country in the world, women live longer than men, with the difference averaging about six to nine years in most developed nations. This means they need six to nine more years worth of income during retirement than their male counterparts -- no small amount -- and that's before you consider the next challenge.

Women in the U.S. still only make on average about $0.81 for every dollar that men make, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau. And it's actually closer to $0.50 on the dollar for black and Hispanic women. In order to achieve the same amount of retirement savings as men, women have to contribute a much larger portion of their incomes, which they may not be able to afford. 

Then there's the fact that women are more likely to take time away from work or to work part-time in maternity and while raising their children. Their incomes may be reduced or eliminated during this time,which makes it more challenging to put more money in retirement savings. Plus, when they aren't working, they don't have the option to contribute to a 401(k) and receive an employer match. Once women return to the workforce, they often suffer a "mommy penalty" -- that is, they earn less than they did before they had children. On the other hand, men typically earn more after having children.

Their lower incomes combined with the pressure to take years off of work to raise a family also hurts women's Social Security benefits, because this income is calculated based on average monthly earnings during a person's 35 most profitable years. In fact, stay-at-home moms may not be eligible for Social Security benefits at all if they didn't work for at least 10 years, though they may get a spousal benefit if they are married.

Then, there is the "pink tax." Women pay more for female-specific products, even when the products are largely similar to products marketed for men, like razors, haircuts and clothing. This forces them to spend more and leaves less cash left over for retirement savings.

Women also regularly shell out cash for visits to the OB-GYN, a near-lifetime supply of feminine hygiene products, bras, make up and a whole host of other items that men are never expected to spend a dime on. All this spending takes away from their bottom line and dampens the amount they can sock away for retirement.

How women can bridge the retirement-savings gap

If you're feeling overwhelmed, you're in good company, but there are things you can do to give yourself a chance at a comfortable retirement. The first step is to begin saving as much as you can as early as you can.

The sooner you begin saving in a retirement account or non-tax-advantaged investment account, the more time your money has to grow before you need to begin tapping into it. A $1,000 investment could grow into $24,402 in 40 years, assuming an 8% rate of return. And the more you can contribute, the faster your portfolio value will rise.

If you're currently working but plan to leave once you have children, make sure you understand your company's 401(k) vesting schedule, which determines when employer-matched funds become yours to keep. Some companies may require you to work there for a certain number of years before you get to keep employer contributions, while others use a graded system in which employer-matched funds are transferred over to you gradually. You don't want to risk losing this free money, so try to stay there long enough to get the full match.

If you're married and not working and your spouse has extra cash left over after contributing to his or her retirement account, the two of you could open a spousal IRA in your name. This enables your spouse to contribute some of their income to your retirement. In order to qualify, you must be married and file joint taxes. In addition, your spouse must have earned at least as much income this year as he or she contributes to both IRAs.

Women going through a divorce should also take steps to ensure they aren't left with nothing. You can negotiate for some of your spouse's retirement funds in mediation or litigation. If you have little savings of your own because you were not working, this is a way to make sure you aren't left with no retirement savings at all. You also may be eligible for a spousal Social Security benefit based on your ex's work history once you turn 62, but only if you were married for at least 10 years.

The road to retirement is significantly steeper for women. In fact, women over 75 are twice as likely to live in poverty as men over 75, according to a recent Senate report. But by understanding the challenges and knowing what options are available, you can do a lot to ease the pain. If you haven't already, set aside some time to run the numbers and figure out how much you need for retirement. Then take steps to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be. You got this, girl! 

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