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The Basics

Why women fall behind in retirement

Many obstacles hold women back in their savings, but with confidence and early action, a comfortable retirement is attainable.


American women have taken strides toward gender equality since winning the right to vote in 1920, but they still aren't exactly equal to men when it comes to retirement.

Women are more likely than men to spend their golden years in poverty. According to a report from the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement, more than one in 10 women in retirement live on less than $10,000 a year.

The reason has to do with financial physics: Women earn less than men over their lifetimes and live longer.

"This is not a complicated picture. And it's not a pretty picture," says Jim Toedtman, the editor of the AARP Bulletin.

Women are risk-averse

It's not that women don't worry about retirement. A study from the Society of Actuaries indicated that women are more anxious than men about that time of their lives.

Also, in investment matters, women are risk-averse by nature.

"Women tend to be more-conservative investors," says Phyllis Silverman, the vice president of PNC Wealth Management and director of Women's Financial Services Network at PNC.

But women know they should be saving for retirement, and they are doing so.

The 2009 Retirement Confidence Survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that employed women are as likely as employed men to contribute to employer-sponsored retirement plans.

Similarly, a 2008 retirement survey by found that women are just about as likely as men to have a retirement plan, with roughly two-thirds of each gender saving in a tax-advantaged account specifically for retirement. (Men did come out ahead by about 5 percentage points, however, with 68% owning an account versus 63% of women.)

Women are less confident

While confidence was low overall in Bankrate's survey -- only three in 10 respondents said they expect to be able to retire comfortably -- men expressed more optimism about their future retirement comfort than women, with 34% believing they will have more than enough money, compared with just 20% of women.

Mary McGrath, a certified financial planner and vice president at Cozad Asset Management, believes it may come down to self-confidence.

"In general, the male clients I see a lot of times just think that whatever it is that they want to achieve, they can do it. When I'm dealing with women, they don't have the self-confidence to think that they can actually do it," McGrath says.

Her experiences, though, may be generationally biased, she concedes. "The clients that I see this in are a little bit older, maybe in their 60s or 70s."

Women are too giving

In many respects, retirement planning for women looks the same as retirement planning for men.

"There are no special mutual funds for women. There is no insurance policy for women," says Patrick Astre, a certified financial planner and the author of "This Is Not Your Parents' Retirement."

"The difference is the need. We find that women have a greater need to engage in financial planning than men," Astre says.

Certain characteristics endemic in the female population often conspire against them when it comes to investing. For instance, they may tend to take care of everyone else in the family before considering their own needs.

As an example, says PNC's Silverman, "Women are more likely to feel like it's more important to save for their children's college."

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Rappaport, of the Society of Actuaries, agrees. "When they are taking care of kids or parents, they are probably quicker to say, 'I will use the money for someone else and not use it for myself.'

"We are not saying that women should think about going to the beauty salon but saying, 'Think about your long-term security and retirement and make sure you have resources for your retirement,'" Rappaport says.

Women face disadvantages at work

Cultural forces don't favor women in retirement savings either.

"Women make less money than men. It's unpleasant but a fact of life," Astre says. "There is also a glass ceiling. Women often don't get as many promotions as men."

Continued: Less to save

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