Women typically enter their golden years with less retirement income than men. According to a report last year from the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS), women are 80 percent more likely than men to be impoverished at age 65 and older. Women face unique challenges in saving for retirement, but much of the guidance on saving for women may be based on out-of-date assumptions. Let’s consider a few of the unique circumstances facing women as they prepare for retirement.
Researchers who study retirement often look at household data when assessing retirement preparedness. This approach, however, may obscure how prepared women are for retirement. According to a recent report from the Center for Retirement Research, women are spending more of their lives unmarried. The report finds that women now spend less than half their lives married. There are several reasons for this: women wait longer to get married; women are more likely to never marry; and women are more likely to get divorced than previous generations. Spending less time married also means not necessarily having a spouse’s income or savings for financial support during working years or in retirement. This suggests that rather than focusing on households, researchers and retirement security advocates should focus on how individual women save and invest throughout the course of their lives- married or not.
Women are also affected more by the increasing amounts of student loan debt than men. According to the American Association of University Women, women take out more money in student loans and take longer to repay their loans because of lower earnings during their careers. We’ve discussed before how student loan debt can negatively impact the ability of workers to save for retirement. If women have to devote more of their financial resources to paying off their student loan debt, then that means they will have less to save for retirement, if they save anything at all.
One way women can improve their retirement security is by increasing their Social Security benefits. The most obvious way to do this is to wait longer to claim Social Security benefits. Baby Boomers who wait until age 70 to begin claiming their benefits could receive up to 76 percent more in monthly benefits than those who claim their benefits at age 62, the early retirement age. For women, though, there is another advantage to delaying the start of Social Security benefits. Social Security calculates benefits based on the 35 years of highest earnings during a worker’s career. Because they take time out of the workforce to raise children or perform caregiving duties, many women have at least one year of zero earnings counted in their 35 years for Social Security calculations. The advantage of working longer and delaying benefits is that working women are able to replace those years of zero earnings or lower earnings with years of, hopefully, higher earnings. This then increases the Social Security benefit these workers will earn in retirement.
The NIRS report on women and retirement found that public pensions greatly benefit women in preparing for retirement because women are more likely to work in professions, such as teaching and nursing, that still have pensions. Having access to a defined benefit pension plan means women have higher incomes in retirement and are less likely to be in poverty. Given the challenges faced by many women in saving for retirement, participating in a pension plan can make all of the difference. Not every woman- or man- can delay retirement in order to increase their Social Security benefits. Protecting pensions for teachers, nurses, firefighters, librarians and other public employees is one of the best ways to protect retirement security for women.