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The triple-whammy facing women in retirement

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If you’re a woman looking forward to a comfortable retirement, well, good luck to you.

Women deal with three issues that don’t affect the majority of their male counterparts, according to financial education company Financial Finesse, which on Tuesday released its annual report on the gender gap in financial wellness. Women not only earn less than men during the careers -- making it tougher to save as much for their retirements -- but they need to make those dollars last longer because of greater longevity. Lastly, women are more likely than men to take a career break to care for family members, which can also hinder their retirement planning. 

How women experience retirement -- and the societal and workplace issues they face in building a nest egg -- is gaining attention from both lawmakers and economists. In old age, women are more likely than men to live in poverty owing to a lifetime of accumulated disadvantages such as the gender pay gap, or when women are paid less than men for doing the same job. 

Although the financial gap between men and women is narrowing, there’s still a lot of distance to close, said Liz Davidson, the CEO and founder of Financial Finesse.

“Women have challenges that men don’t have,”she said. “Women should actually be ahead to overcome the structural challenges of life expenses, health challenges and career breaks.”

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Davidson added, “You used to hear, ‘The numbers are the numbers’,” meaning that certain retirement goalposts, such as an investment’s rate of return, won’t vary depending on the demographics of who’s investing. Yet that ignores the fact that “variables are different” for women, she said.

Aside from the gender wage gap, career breaks also impact women more than men, since the former are more likely than the latter to take time out of the work force to care for children or elderly relatives. While more men are increasingly taking on the role of caregiver, it remains predominantly a role taken on by women.

A career break can seriously set back a woman’s retirement preparedness. For instance, a woman who chooses a mid-career break -- meaning a break from her career between the ages of 45 to 55 years old -- may end up with a retirement savings shortfall of $1.1 million, the study found.

Even more harmful is taking an early career break between the ages of 35 to 45, which is when many college-educated women are starting families and also hitting their highest annual earnings. Taking a break at that age leads to a retirement shortfall of $1.3 million, the study found. The financial hit is larger for younger woman because they end up missing out on compounding interest over the course of their lives. Putting away more money earlier in a woman’s career can help close the gap.  

“The vast majority of women don’t contemplate” the impact that career breaks will have on their retirement income, Davidson said.

Women (and men) who take time off from their careers to raise children or care for elderly relatives may be more concerned with whether they’ll be able to cover daily expenses, rather than their comfort in retirement. But financial planning for the future should be part of the discussion when a worker is considering taking a career break, she recommends.

It’s clear that women are ending up in a more dire situation than men when they hit retirement age. A 2014 report issued by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) found that women older than 65 have annual median retirement income that’s $11,000 below that of men in the same demographic group. Women not only need to make that income stretch longer, due to longer life spans than men, but have higher medical spending, as well. 

Aside from losing out on income, career breaks can also prove financially harmful because workers miss out on years of salary gains or promotions. A survey from financial firm Ellevest in 2015 found that one in five women suffered a pay cut of at least 20 percent after taking a career break, for instance. Women need to be aware of these issues and, if possible, plan ahead, Davidson noted.

“The optimal scenario is that women look at it say, ‘Here’s the reality: We are more vulnerable, and career breaks need to be funded,” she said. “Let’s plan ahead and be conservative in our planning, so they have all the choices on the table because they have taken steps to protect their wealth.”

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