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How Women Can Narrow the Retirement Savings Gap How Women Can Narrow the Retirement Savings Gap
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How Women Can Narrow the Retirement Savings Gap

Northwestern MutualVoice Contributor •  February 24, 2016 | Focus on Women, Your Finances, Enjoying Retirement

By Lisa Wirthman

Women face an alarming gender gap in retirement savings, according to a recent report on savings shortfalls by Financial Finesse, a financial education company. It found a 26 percent gap between how much extra women need to be saving versus men in order to replace 70 percent of their pre-retirement income in retirement.

But when looking at the amount needed to meet actual retirement expenses at age 65, we see the gap widened significantly. Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Financial Finesse found that the median 45-year-old man will have a shortfall of $267,000, compared to $522,000 for the median 45-year-old woman. That’s a 95 percent gender gap.

“Women need to know that they fundamentally will have to save more, on average, to adequately fund retirement than their male counterparts,” said Liz Davidson, Financial Finesse CEO.

Spending More in Retirement

There are many factors causing women to fall behind. Similar to falling dominoes, one action can trigger the next throughout a woman’s career, said Angela DiCastri, director of retirement markets for Northwestern Mutual.

To start, women have longer life expectancies than men do and typically survive an extra three to seven years, DiCastri said. That means they need to save more than men do to cover those additional retirement years. Women also tend to spend more on health care, she added, in part because they go to the doctor more than men do and in part because of gender-specific conditions such as pregnancy, menopause and female cancers. The extra spending on health care can mean they’re saving less while working—and could additionally have higher expenses in retirement.

Compounding the fact that women need to save more is that they typically earn less while they are working—on average just 78 cents for each dollar earned by a man, reports the U.S. Department of Labor. Here’s how that wage gap starts to add up: Women with lower wages typically have less money to save for retirement. If a woman saves 6 percent of her salary in a 401(k), for example, and her company matches 3 percent, she’ll automatically save less than a man would.

“You’re making less money, which means you are saving less money, which means the company match isn’t as much percentagewise,” DiCastri said. Making matters worse, a woman’s Social Security benefits will likely be lower when she retires because her contributions are smaller.

Stepping Out of the Workforce

Women are also more likely to be caregivers, which can further reduce their retirement savings. Even if a woman stays in the workforce after having children, a short maternity leave can affect how much she saves, DiCastri said.

If she takes a 12-week maternity leave with six weeks of short-term disability and six weeks of unpaid leave, a woman may end up making no 401(k) contributions and receiving no employer matches during that time. That’s in addition to her lost income, DiCastri added.

If that same woman has three children, she’ll have about nine months without any retirement contributions, which compounds over time, doubling about every seven years until she retires.

In addition, about two-thirds of family caregivers for aging seniors are women, whose retirement savings and Social Security benefits will shrink if they leave the workforce early to care for parents or older siblings, according to a 2015 AARP study.

“That’s a significant percentage of women who are going to provide care, which as a result has an impact on their retirement,” DiCastri said.

Save Smarter: The Truth About Your 401(k)Saving More and Faster

The good news is that there are steps women can take to plan for a more secure financial future. Tax diversification is critical, DiCastri said. Pre-tax retirement savings sitting in a 401(k) or an IRA, for example, are typically taxed as ordinary income when you withdraw them. In contrast, you can make after-tax contributions to a Roth account and then take out withdrawals tax free.

In addition to a mix of retirement vehicles, women should also consider guaranteed income streams, such as pensionsSocial Security and annuities that provide a steady paycheck in retirement, to cover their essentials.

Other tips include maxing out retirement contributions and catch-up contributions, as well as paying off debt before retirement. Women also need to make sure they are engaged and involved in the decision making for their retirement planning, DiCastri said.

Most important, she advised, is to make a long-term plan. It’s never too early to begin.

“You need to really start having those conversations about ‘What does retirement look like?’ and ‘What kind of money do I really need?’” DiCastri said. “Make sure that the amount of money you are saving is the right amount of money for what you want to do.”

By starting early and planning for realistic expenses, women can work to narrow the gender gap in retirement savings and create a more secure future for themselves and their families.

Lisa Wirthman writes about business, sustainability, public policy and women’s issues. Her work has been published in The Atlantic.com, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Fast Company, Investor’s Business Daily, the Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal.

Originally published on Northwestern MutualVoice on Forbes.com.

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