When it comes to attaining financial security, women face a steeper climb than men. But we also have a few advantages.
Most Americans, regardless of gender, are financially illiterate. Few of us learned much about money in school, and it shows. Economists Annamaria Lusardi and Olivia Mitchell asked a group of Americans over the age of 50 three basic questions about finances, and only a third got all three right.
Thus, it's little surprise that too many Americans start saving and investing for retirement much later than they should, leaving them with woefully underfunded retirement accounts. According to the 2010 Retirement Confidence Survey, more than half of American workers have less than $25,000 socked away (excluding the value of their home and any pension they may have).
However, in addition to all these disadvantages, women must contend with several additional hurdles.
The short end of the stick
For starters, the average woman earns less than her male counterpart. According to the Labor Department, a woman's median weekly paycheck is about 20% lower than that of a man.
Compounding that problem, many women spend fewer years in the workforce, since they often end up caring for children, parents, or others. Thus, they have less time in which to build up retirement assets.
In addition, many women have participated in traditional gender-based role division, letting the man of the house manage their finances. And many of them supported spouses in their marriage's early years, too. These two factors can be problematic if a couple divorces. Women who leave money management to husbands also suffer when they're widowed and suddenly have to take control.
Lemonade from lemons
Thankfully, two other disadvantages that women face can be turned into advantages. First, women tend to live longer than men. That doesn't sound like a problem, but if the woman hasn't amassed a sufficient nest egg for retirement, she'll face a greater chance of running out of money. However, women who build a solid nest egg can often enjoy a bonus set of comfortable years.
In addition, various studies have demonstrated that men are more likely to be overconfident when investing, while women tend to be more risk-averse.
In fairness, avoiding risk too frequently can kill your retirement prospects. Investing all your money in super-safe CDs and bonds could leave you with slow growth and meager returns in the long run. Over most long periods, stocks have outperformed bonds, making stocks a far superior option for investors with many years left until retirement.
Still, the fact that the average woman tends to be more cautious than a man when investing is actually good. It's smart to spend time studying a possible investment and asking questions about it, rather than plunging ahead just because you have a good feeling about it.
Tips for a richer retirement
Women who want to enjoy financial safety and comfort in their golden years can benefit from taking a few simple steps today:
- Assess your financial condition and goals. Determine how much you need to save for retirement, and how you'll get there.
- Read up on personal finance and investing. If you think it's boring, or that you won't be able to understand it, you're selling yourself short.
- Study your insurance options. Long-term-care insurance and immediate annuities could make smart investments, depending on when you purchase them.
- Save and invest more.
- Consider working a few more years to beef up your nest egg. That can also help you delay taking Social Security, leaving you with a bigger monthly benefit when those checks do start arriving.
- If you're being too conservative with your long-term money, start investing at least a little more aggressively. If you lack the time or interest to pick strong individual stocks, even a broad-market index fund can give you better returns.
- Make the most of your tax-advantaged retirement plans. Fund your 401(k) at work up to your employer's match amount (at least!) and set additional money aside in a traditional or Roth IRA.
- If you and a bunch of friends all want to learn more about investing, consider pooling your money and research skills in an investing club.
Ginger Rogers, as the saying goes, did everything Fred Astaire did -- but backward, and in high heels. Just like her, women can perform as well (or better!) than men in investing. They simply have to overcome a few more obstacles.
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