Divorce can affect your life in many ways. Unfortunately, one big way it could have an impact is by making it harder to retire.

Divorce can affect your retirement security because the process itself can be costly and you may drain your savings to pay for legal support. If you lose a portion of your retirement savings to your spouse or your household income goes down after divorce and you find it difficult to continue saving, that could also reduce the size of your nest egg.

But just how much can ending a marriage affect your later years? Data from the National Institute for Retirement Security (NIRS) reveals that the consequences can be dire if you don't act. 

Wedding cake with cake toppers looking away from each other.

Image source: Getty Images.

Here's the impact of divorce on your retirement account balance

According to NIRS, divorced people have less money in their individual retirement accounts than the married do. While the mean value of independently owned defined contribution accounts is $84,874 for married men and $50,126 for married women, those numbers drop to $58,951 for a divorced man and $38,613 for a divorced woman. 

Married people also, unsurprisingly, have more retirement money for their households. For example, the mean value of household defined contribution accounts is $136,055 for married men, while it's the same $58,951 for the divorced. 

With such a discrepancy between the size of the average account balance, it's probably no surprise that NIRS showed the elderly poor are more likely to be divorced than married elderly Americans or seniors as a whole.  

The news gets worse for women, as those who divorce tend to do worse than men in terms of their retirement savings. However, women who divorce early in life aren't hit as hard as those who end a marriage later, since they have more time to bulk up their own retirement savings account balance. 

How to protect your retirement security in case of divorce

Divorce can make it more difficult to save, because household income usually falls when you become the only earner while expenses rise once you're maintaining two separate households rather than just one. And, as mentioned, the costs of ending the marriage itself can affect wealth, as can losing some of your retirement money in the divorce.

There are, however, some steps you can take to make sure that ending your marriage doesn't mean ending the dream of a secure retirement. Some options include:

  • Understanding how Social Security spousal benefits work. If you were married at least 10 years, you may be entitled to spousal or  survivor benefits even after a divorce. If your ex was a higher earner than you, look into whether claiming benefits on his or her work record could help you get larger Social Security checks. 
  • Prioritizing retirement savings. As soon as your marriage has come to an end, start rebuilding your budget with a focus on saving for the future. Take stock of where you are when it comes to your account balance, set a savings goal based on retiring without a spouse, and automate contributions to your retirement accounts to hit your target. This goal can be difficult to achieve in the aftermath of a failed marriage, but aim to begin investing as much as you can, as soon as possible. 
  • Making smart investment choices. If you relied on your ex to make choices about what your accounts should be invested in, dedicate yourself to learning the fundamentals of investing as soon as possible after your divorce. Earning a better return on investment can only help your nest egg grow. 

By reworking your budget as soon as possible after divorce and making sure retirement savings is a top priority, you maximize your chances of achieving the retirement security you deserve even without help from your ex.