The Good News for Solo Women
By Mary Young
The poor widow. The penniless maiden aunt. The old maid subsisting on cat food. These stereotypes of older, unmarried women are no longer true, according to recent research from the
Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College. A new report from the Center shows that, overall, women who spend more of their adult years single are as financially prepared for retirement as women who are mostly married.
In this article, we discuss these surprising findings and their encouraging implications for Solo women. Equally important are the issues addressed in next month’s article. While long-time singles may have about the same financial resources for retirement as married women, there’s a second half to this story.
First, the Good News
It seems obvious that married women are better off in retirement than those who are not married. After all, they have their husband’s income (traditionally higher than the wife’s) and, in many cases, his retirement benefits (Social Security, pension, 401 (k), IRA, etc.). And if both spouses have worked, their combined retirement resources are even greater.
But that “marriage advantage” has been eroding, according to CRR. The researchers analyzed 2020 data from the Health and Retirement Survey (HRS), a longitudinal survey that, since 1992, has interviewed people over age 50 every two years. They compared the retirement preparedness of “mostly married” women (those who’d spent more than half of their adult years married) to that of “mostly single” women (divorced, separated, widowed, or never married for the majority of their adulthood). The unexpected conclusion: there was little difference based on marital status. Women who, by choice or chance, have been mostly single aren’t penalized, in terms of their financial resources for retirement, even without a second person contributing to their household wealth.
That’s good news for Solos. And what makes it even better news is that adult women now spend most of their adult years unmarried. The downward trend is striking. The “HRS cohort” was first interviewed in 1992 (the inaugural wave of the HRS). At the time of the 2020 survey, they were 79-89 years old. These women had spent 71 percent of their adult years married.
By contrast, Late Boomer women (born 1960-1965) will spend just an estimated 44 percent of their adult lives married. It's not just the youngest who are living single. Mid-Boomer women (born 1954-1959) will be married for only about half of their adulthood. Even Early Boomers (born 1948-1953) will spend significantly less time married than the preceding generations.
What This Means for Solo Women
Since women can expect to be single for much of their adult lives, it’s good to learn that single-ness won’t necessarily suppress their retirement resources. The old stereotype of impoverished widows, divorcees, and spinsters is now, for many women, is now laughable.
But that's only part of the picture. The CRR analysis just considered the financial resources that women can draw upon in retirement. It did not, however, look at the expenses that can consume those resources or compare the financial risks facing Solo versus non-Solo women.
In our next article, we’ll address the other side of the balance sheet. The only way to evaluate an individual (or couple’s) financial prospects in retirement is to consider both their assets and the liabilities that might lie ahead. These are different for Solos and non-Solos and may require different strategies to ensure your secure retirement.
1The research measured women’s retirement preparedness in two ways: The first was household wealth (reflecting two people, in the case of married couples). The second was the replacement ratio, or the relationship between the household’s post-retirement and pre-retirement incomes. For both measures, the gap between mostly married and mostly single women narrowed significantly from 1992 to 2020. In the case or replacement ratio, mostly single women are better off than those who are mostly married.
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