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Retirement confidence boosters for women

(MoneyWatch) Although women are fairly confident in their ability to achieve financial goals like buying a house, they tend to be less certain about ensuring they have enough money for retirement and protecting their investments from the vagaries of the market, according to a recent Prudential study.

The study also found a difference in the level of confidence between women younger than 35 and female baby-boomers. Both groups have well-defined financial goals, but younger women often identify themselves as investment beginners and are less likely to say they feel well-prepared to make wise financial decisions.

This apparent gap confidence gap also reflects a knowledge and experience gap. That may be due in part to the  the economic crisis, which has heightened women's recognition of the need to develop a financial plan that will meet long-term financial goals. It's also long been the case that women typically lag men in accumulating retirement savings. 

One reason that's a concern -- women live longer in retirement. For example, if a man and women were each targeting retirement income of $5,000 per month, and the woman was expected to live five years longer in retirement, then she would need to have saved about $120,000 more by the beginning of her retirement. For the average woman, this can translate to an additional savings requirement of two to three percentage points per year over an entire working life, compared to what men must sock away.

Clearly, then, it is important to for women to run the numbers and estimate how much they need to save for their retirement. But what can they do to boost their confidence about being prepared for the future? There are several strategies that, if taken collectively, can help.

Go for retirement benefits

When seeking employment, look for companies that offer benefits tailored to women, such as paid-parental leave and retirement savings programs. This combination of benefits can help reduce the impact on retirement savings when taking extended leave. Also look for employers who offer retirement plans that include generous employer-matching contributions.

Contribute to a spousal IRA

A common challenge for women who leave a career is that they do not have earnings and therefore do not participate in an employer-provided retirement program, such as a 401(k) plan. As long as their working spouse is earning an income, the non-earning spouse should consider opening and contributing to a Spousal IRA, where their income earning spouses can contribute up to $5,000 per year ($6,000 if 50 or older). Spousal IRAs allow non-earning spouses to continue to accumulate retirement savings in their own retirement accounts, which provides additional individual retirement security in the event of divorce.

Inventory your retirement benefits

Women need to know the sources of their retirement income. They also need to how much income they will have if their spouse passes away before them. As a result, they should take an inventory of all retirement accounts and sources of income, such as pensions and Social Security. Also verify that you are the beneficiary of all retirement accounts and life insurance policies. Mistakes in this area can unintentionally include children and reduce the amounts left to the spouse.

It's also important to know the impact on your sources of retirement income when you become the surviving spouse. Depending on the payout options selected at retirement, current monthly pension payments when both spouses are alive can be reduced by one-third or one-half upon the death of the spouse who owns the pension. When it comes to Social Security, surviving spouses will generally receive the greater of the survivor's benefit, or the benefit based on their own earnings history, but not both.

Monitor and manage investments

Women should always take an active role in their own financial planning. This includes monitoring cash flow and keeping track of where and how retirement accounts are invested. Even if one spouse takes the lead in this process, it's important for both to be involved.

One way to become more a more knowledgeable and confident manager of your money is to start or join an investment club where there are regular meetings to review and discuss investments.