When we're young, our plans for retirement tend to include lounging on a tropical beach or swinging a golf club as our regular Monday-through-Friday routine. But in reality, retiring comfortably and on your own terms is considerably tougher than it first looks.
It doesn't help that Americans as a whole are poor savers, and few of us are fully prepared for retirement.
According to Bankrate's June release of its Financial Security Index, of the 1,004 people it surveyed across the country, just 23% had the recommended level of emergency savings (at least six months of expenses). The remaining responses showed that 26% had no emergency savings whatsoever and were living from paycheck to paycheck, while another 24% had three months or less of an emergency fund saved up. Basically, half the country is in serious financial jeopardy.
Americans' inability to save adequately was on full display last year when Financial Finesse released its latest report. In 2013, only 19.7% or those surveyed reported being on track to reach their income-replacement goals in retirement. On the bright side, that's up from 16.6% in 2011, but it still shows that four out of five Americans aren't prepared for retirement.
Women face a steeper uphill climb to retirement than men
More interestingly, Financial Finesse's data showed that women tend to be far less prepared for retirement than men (by their own admission). Just 17% of women in its survey believed they were on target to replace their income in retirement compared to 26% of men.
These findings were numerically confirmed this week by an asset management survey released by BlackRock. According to BlackRock's Global Investor Pulse Survey, which questioned some 27,000 investors around the globe, including 4,000 Americans, just 53% of working-age American women had started saving for retirement compared to 65% of surveyed men.
Furthermore, the survey findings show that female pre-retirees (aged 55 to 64) had accumulated an average retirement savings of $81,300. By comparison, their male counterparts had amassed an average of $118,400 in retirement savings by the time they hit pre-retirement age. The Employee Benefit Research Institute also had similar recent findings, claiming that the average single female on the verge of retirement had a savings shortfall of almost $63,000, whereas single males within the same age range had a shortfall of about $34,000. This is particularly concerning because women in the U.S. live an average of five years longer than men, so they'll need their retirement income to last even longer.
Why women aren't saving enough for retirement
What accounts for this discrepancy between men's retirement savings and women's?I suspect it largely boils down to three factors.
First, women tend not to work as many years as their male counterparts, as they are more likely than men to leave the workforce in order to raise young children or care for elderly family members. Of course, being a stay-at-home parent or caretaker is a full-time job in itself, but nonetheless, women tend to spend fewer years earning income.
A report conducted by the General Accountability Office in 2000 showed that by age 62, the first age at which you qualify for Social Security benefits, women worked an average of 12 years less than their male counterparts. Fewer years on the job generally means less saving potential, less ability to generate investment income over time, and a smaller Social Security benefit. That said, the dynamics of the workplace have doubtless changed somewhat since this study was conducted in 2000, so take this data with a grain of salt.
Secondly, women's hourly or salaried pay tends to be lower than their male counterparts', which again lowers their ability to save, invest, and maximize their Social Security disbursement.
Last year The White House noted that women make just 77% of what their average male counterparts earn in a year, while a Pew Research study indicated a smaller, but no less glaring, gender pay gap of 84%. Presumably, the years women spend outside of the workforce hurt their ability to advance up the corporate ladder and earn higher wages.
Lastly, when women do set aside money for investment purposes, they often buy assets that tend to erode their money over the long run.
The aforementioned BlackRock survey notes that the average female investor keeps 68% of her investment portfolio in cash and cash equivalents. A cash equivalent would be a money market fund, a bank CD, or a Treasury bond. Because interest rates are near historic lows, these investment tools are yielding very small returns. Thus while some women believe they're preserving their capital by eking out small gains in a money market account or CD, they're actually losing real money to inflation over the long term as goods and services become more expensive.
BlackRock also notes that men allocated 59% of their investment portfolios to cash and cash equivalents. While that's lower, it's still alarmingly high, and it's likely hurting the ability for certain men to retire on their own terms as well.
How to fix this problem
This disparity isn't a problem that should be fixed; it has to be fixed.
Let's examine a number of solutions women can consider implementing now to get their retirement plans on track so they can retire comfortably. Keep in mind, though, that many of these solutions aren't gender-specific. As Financial Finesse's study noted, about three-quarters of men aren't on the right retirement track either -- so guys, you listen up, too!
- Make your retirement date fluid: First, you need to understand that it's OK for your retirement goals to be flexible. Retirement doesn't have to happen at age 65; it can come sooner or later. For women who may have taken time off work to start a family or take care of a family member, the solution might be to work a few extra years or pick up a part-time job. Ultimately, there is no perfect retirement age -- just whatever works for your unique situation.
- Formulate and adhere to a budget: Secondly, because women are being paid less than their male counterparts, it's especially important that they understand their cash flow in terms of income versus expenses. The smart move here would be to establish a budget and stick to it. That way nonessential spending is eliminated and women can put more of their hard-earned money into their investment account each month. This goes for men as well; Financial Finesse's survey noted that nearly one-quarter of men don't have a handle on their cash flow, which is where a monthly budget would come in handy.
- Invest in growth assets: Third, you should not be reliant on "safe" investments. You need to be willing to purchase assets that work to your benefit over time. Whether that means purchasing mutual funds, ETFs, or individual stocks, you'll have a much better chance at a comfortable retirement if you regularly seek growth opportunities and continue to invest even after you retire. Given the stock market's historic return of 8% per year, it's hard to argue against investing in equities for the long run.
- Use tax-advantaged retirement tools: Fourth, you should consider taking full advantage of tax-advantaged retirement accounts such as Roth IRAs and 401(k)s in order to maximize your nest egg's growth and minimize your tax liability. A 401(k), for example, might come with a matching contribution from your employer, which could supercharge returns, while a Roth IRA allows investments to grow completely tax-free over the life of the account.
- Optimize your Social Security benefits: Finally, you should learn the ins and outs of the Social Security system so you can make a smart decision about when to claim benefits. Delaying Social Security until you're 70 will certainly boost your benefit checks, but spousal benefits options could also come into play, which may alter your decision regarding when to claim benefits.
This certainly isn't an overnight fix, but the suggestions above could help women close the retirement savings gap with their male counterparts -- and they may just help everyone achieve the retirement they've always dreamed of.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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