5 Financial Obstacles That Are Especially Tough for Women


I love being a woman.

I love how far we've come, all the opportunities we're seeing now, and all the potential in our future. Plus, I love the shoes… women have a fantastically broad selection of shoes to work with.

But when it comes to money, we still seem to struggle.

Studies show that of the 62 million of us currently in the workforce, only 45% have a plan for retirement. Even more interesting is the mindset behind that statistic. In a 2013 study by Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, over half the baby boomer women surveyed said they didn't plan to retire at all, and would continue working after age 65. (See also: Why One-Third of Americans Haven't Saved Enough for Retirement)

And for many women, working past retirement is their only option.

But why is that? Why do intelligent, savvy women have such a hard time protecting themselves financially? The answer isn't always a simple one, but may well have to do with a number of factors,

1. Women Earn Less

Despite all the political movements, women still earn on average, one-third less than men. This is partially due to the long-standing wage disparities between men and women, and partially due to our own priorities. Women are more likely to take part-time jobs or less-demanding (and therefore less profitable) positions to give them more flexibility at home.

Women are also more likely to take off for maternity leave or to care for an elderly parent, decreasing the amount of time they're in the workforce and actively contributing to a retirement plan. This same family-first mentality also makes it harder to compete for those higher-paid positions, so we have less opportunity to increase our income.

2. Women Are More Financially Conservative

While we might be more open to new experiences than men in other aspects of our lives, we have a tendency to play it safe when it comes to taking financial risk. Men play the stock market; we like bonds and mutual funds. And that means we're seeing fewer rewards for our efforts.

Maybe we're just wired that way or maybe it's because we're working with less and don't feel we have the luxury of playing "fast and loose" with our retirement. But whatever the reason, the end result is the same… we're seeing smaller returns on our investments.

3. We Save Less

According to a 2013 Aon Hewitt study, women contribute less of their salary to retirement than men do, 6.9% to 7.5% respectively. That means that even when we do invest, we're doing it in smaller increments, further reducing our potential for financial growth.

In addition, because we're more likely to take those part-time positions, we're also more likely to be working without receiving any type of employer-sponsored retirement benefits, and that means more women are on their own when it comes to saving for retirement.

4. Women Live Longer

According to the Social Security Administration, a woman turning 65 today can expect to live just past her 86 birthday. And, the CDC says, that lifespan is going to continue to grow. Men, on the other hand, don't live quite as long — on average, about 7 years less — meaning that not only do women often have fewer financial resources to work with, but we also have to rely on them for a longer period of time.

5. It Isn't a Priority

For the most part, we've evolved beyond the "my husband handles the finances" mentality, but does that mean that savvy financial planning is always priority number one? Yes, we know the value of saving, and yes, we're concerned about retirement, but those concerns are often lumped in with the gazillion other things we're busy managing. And quite often, those gazillion other things take precedence. So, while we might have plans to learn more about investing or take a closer look at our 401(k) plan, we just haven't gotten around to it. But we will… really… right after we get through the holidays, finish with soccer season, bake these 40 cupcakes, help with the math homework…

So tomorrow… Definitely, maybe tomorrow.

How to Make a Change

Okay, so now that we've painted this dismal picture, what can we do to change it?

Get Healthy Now

Since it's pretty clear that you'll need your money for a longer period of time, take actions now to improve your health and minimize the potential for illness down the road. Granted, sometimes things just "happen," but there are things you can do to lessen your chances of becoming sick or disabled. Eat better, start a doctor-approved exercise program and do what you can to keep your mind active and alert. (See also: Don't Let Poor Health Kill Your Retirement Fund)

Remember, basic necessities like rent and groceries aren't the only things you'll need to pay for in your golden years; health care expenses are more likely to increase during this time, so doing what you can now to maintain good health later is just smart.

Save, Save, Save

While you can't really give up maternity leave or your role as caregiver (nor should you have to), you can ensure that your savings don't suffer while you're out of the workforce. Opening an IRA is an easy way to continue contributing to your retirement, even if your career is on pause. Granted, that's still a challenge if you're working with less, which brings us to tip #3.

Learn to Negotiate

If your employer doesn't offer you a retirement benefit package, ask. If you think you're being paid less than you should be, start talking about a raise or promotion. Although we've gotten much better at it, women still have a tendency to "take what they can get" instead of negotiating for a better deal.

So, how can you become a better negotiator?

One of the easiest ways to improve your negotiating skills is to take time to learn what the other side really wants. According to Joyce Russell, President of Adecco Staffing U.S. and negotiations expert, Dr. Victoria Medvec, it's easy to leave money on the table (or fail to reach an agreement altogether) when we don't understand our opponent's objectives.

Dr. Medvec suggests using a technique called Multiple Equivalent Simultaneous Offers (MESO) — essentially, creating three different, yet equally satisfactory offers — to gain insight about what's most important to the other side. This technique exhibits your flexibility and opens the door to more productive conversations.

But perhaps even more importantly, women need to learn to ask. Failing to see the opportunity for negotiation is one of the biggest traps women face, according to conflict resolution expert, Tammy Lenski. Simply learning to assume that everything is negotiable gives you new perspective on your situation and flexibility in deciding how you want to improve your circumstances.

Know Your Finances

You also need to get very clear about how much money you'll actually need to retire and then find a realistic plan to help you reach that number. The idea that you'll just work past retirement to boost your savings is a nice idea, but what if you can't? What if something happens that forces you to retire before you're ready?

Increasing the amount you save now is the only real way to counter that possibility, so up your contributions if you can and plan to sock away any windfalls that might cross your path in the future.

Increase Your Investing Confidence

And lastly, do what you can to become comfortable with a little more risk in your investments. For example, experts at Fidelity Investments cite diversification and education as good strategies to help you overcome the fear of risk. Also remember, it doesn't have to be "a lot" of risk… just enough to balance things out. The same studies that showed we're more conservative in our investing strategy also revealed that an "all-risk" portfolio isn't the way to go, either.

In fact, from a long-term perspective, women's portfolios tend to outperform men's investments because our conservative nature allows us to hold the investment longer. Men on the other hand, tend to panic and dump the stock. This buy-and-hold mentality can pay off big if you learn to balance your "safe" investments with a few that offer a slightly larger payoff. You'll become more confident about investing in the process, and your portfolio will thank you for it.

How are you preparing for retirement? Please share in comments!

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Guest's picture


Women save a smaller percentage of their income than men do because they earn less. However, their costs of living are similar. Therefore they have less to save.

Most women know they should save more, but they are unable to do so even if they live modestly.


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