When it comes to preparing for retirement, women are faced with slightly different considerations than men as they have historically earned less while having a longer life expectancy. "This means women are presented with the unique challenge of preparing for a longer retirement with fewer funds," said Katie Ross, education and development manager for American Consumer Credit Counseling, a national nonprofit, financial-education organization.
What's more, according to a recent report from the life insurance company Mass Mutual, women are three times likelier than men to say they can't afford to save for retirement. Cheapism asked financial experts about the special concerns women face, and they shared their top tips to help women achieve retirement goals.
OPEN A SPOUSAL IRA
Even if you are a stay-at-home mom, you should still have your own retirement savings, says ACCC's Katie Ross, adding that spousal individual retirement accounts are a good option. Typically, you need earned income to contribute to an IRA. But spousal IRAs relax this requirement and allow a nonworking spouse to have access to the tax benefits that IRAs offer. In order to open a spousal IRA, you must be married and filing a joint tax return. The IRA, however, is not a joint account. It is a separate IRA belonging exclusively to the spouse of the working individual.
PRIORITIZE RETIREMENT SAVINGS
Women often place other saving and spending needs ahead of their retirement, says Ross. Unfortunately, this approach often leaves women ill-prepared for their golden years. "Remember that while you have expenses now, you will also have expenses when you are retired with no monthly income, and will need a nest egg as support," Ross said.
NEGOTIATE RETIREMENT FUNDS IN A DIVORCE
When a couple struggles through the end of a marriage, thoughts about retirement funds are not typically front and center. But, that's no time to overlook long-term financial needs, says Ross. "Don't forget to negotiate retirement funds that were created to support you both," she said. "This is an asset that you may have a right to despite the fact that you are splitting up."
RESEARCH YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS
While debate continues regarding the longevity of America's Social Security program, it remains an important piece of the retirement puzzle and one that women should be knowledgeable about. Visiting the Social Security Administration website and creating a "my Social Security" account provides access to detailed information regarding your benefits. "This is an area many overlook," said Kevin Ward, president of Indianapolis-based Park + Elm Investment Advisors. "There is a big difference between taking Social Security at age 62, or waiting to max out the benefit at age 70. The income from Social Security will make a huge impact on the amount of income needed from other retirement sources." And particularly for women, who live longer, this extra money can make a difference.
ESTABLISH RETIREMENT GOALS EARLY
There are some basic questions that need to be answered when thinking about retirement, and these questions should be answered as soon as possible, Ross said. In particular, identify the age at which you would like to retire, where you would like to retire, whether you plan on downsizing or staying put, and how much money you will need to achieve all of these goals.
PAY OFF ALL DEBT
Carrying debt into retirement will increase your monthly bills, which will drain your savings more quickly. "Develop a plan that enables you to pay off debt before you retire so that you can use savings for other necessities, such as food, medical care, and housing," Ross advised.
SET UP AUTOMATIC TRANSFERS TO YOUR RETIREMENT ACCOUNT
This piece of advice is practically universal among financial advisers. One of the best ways to keep your retirement savings on track is to create an automatic transfer from your checking account to your retirement savings that occurs each time you're paid. Doing this is a good way to ensure you won't spend money that should be going toward retirement.
ACTIVELY MANAGE YOUR MORTGAGE
Whether you're married or single, paying attention to the rise and fall of interest rates is an important habit to establish, Ross said. When interest rates fall, consider refinancing the mortgage and putting that extra money toward retirement. In addition, it's best to plan to pay off your mortgage entirely before retirement rolls around.
CONFIRM ESTATE DOCUMENTS ARE IN ORDER
Do not neglect establishing and reviewing important estate documents, which outline who has control over finances and health-care decisions in the event you or your spouse become ill or pass away. Ensure that an estate executor has been named, as well as an individual who will have power of attorney for health care and finances, says Benjamin Westerman, senior vice president for HM Capital Management in Clayton, Missouri. "We recommend reviewing all estate documents annually, as changes will often be needed every three to five years," Westerman said. "In addition, confirm that the beneficiaries of retirement accounts (such as 401(k)s and IRAs) are the correct individual."
EXPECT MORE CAREER BREAKS
Both men and women take breaks during the course of their careers to assist with family obligations or for a variety of other reasons. But the reality is, women take career breaks at a higher rate, said Gretchen Caldwell, president of Danville, California-based Pure Planning. "Women may need to save more for retirement while they're working to account for the fact that they may take time off where they are not earning money or saving for retirement," Caldwell said. "Investing is key so that money can compound while women are not actively adding to their retirement accounts."
DECREASE FUTURE MEDICAL COSTS BY STAYING IN SHAPE
While this tip is not directly tied to investments and finances, maintaining good health will have a tremendous impact on your eventual retirement expenses, says Joshua Zimmelman, president of Westwood Tax & Consulting. "Manage your medical expenses during retirement by taking care of your health now," Zimmelman said. "Start exercising, improve your diet, quit unhealthy habits like smoking, and take advantage of preventative care programs."
CONSIDER EARLY DISTRIBUTION OF AN IRA OR 401(K)
For those who enter retirement prior to age 70½ with zero or very little ordinary income, there is the potential to take early distributions from a 401(k) or an IRA and pay little or no taxes, explained Westerman of HM Capital Management. "This is due to the fact that most retirees do not have any ordinary income and thus are in the lowest tax brackets," Westerman explained. "These funds can be used for current spending or converted to a Roth IRA, which can generate significant tax savings."
DIVIDE YOUR PORTFOLIO
We should all know by now that it's never good to put all your eggs in one basket. But it's an adage worth repeating. "Diversify your portfolio by dividing it among stocks, bonds, and other types of investments," Ross said. Keeping a portion of your funds in stocks in particular, will help your money grow over time.