Rethinking retirement: 3 women share their stories

We asked three CFPs to check in on three women in different stages of their lives and suggest personal finance and retirement best practices for growing their wealth.

By: Katerina Ang

Millie, a content program about women and money, is licensed from Dotdash Meredith, publisher of Real Simple, InStyle, Investopedia, The Balance and more.

The COVID-19 pandemic sent shockwaves through the workforce—and women were among the most heavily affected, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Despite the fact that numbers are almost back to pre-pandemic levels, many women-dominated sectors have yet to recover.

Unsurprisingly, this turmoil has led more people to seek financial advice than ever before. In fact, between 2022 and 2032, the financial advisory industry is expected to grow 13%—much more than that of other sectors. And experts say, with all of the recent changes in our jobs, the market and more, now is an excellent time to do a money checkup.

So we had three certified financial planners evaluate the financial situations of three women in different stages of their lives—a Gen Z college student, an older millennial professional and a baby boomer on the verge of retirement—and suggest personal finance and retirement best practices for growing their wealth.

Sylvana Jajou
Age: 20
City: Indianapolis, Ind.
Occupation: Student and server
Income: $2,000 a month before tax

Sylvana Jajou didn’t learn a lot about money growing up. “My parents didn’t have much of a financial standing and I never learned proper spending habits,” says the 20-year-old daughter of Iraqi immigrants. “But I’ve always wanted to be more financially literate.”

The philanthropic studies major at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis also had a challenging year. Jajou quit her part-time server job at a downtown Indianapolis restaurant with the belief that she would quickly get a new gig…but it took her more than six months to find employment at another restaurant, where she makes about $2,000 a month working a 40-hour week.

Unlike many of her peers, Jajou doesn’t have any student debt to contend with yet. While in high school and living with her parents rent free, she accumulated a year’s worth of inexpensive university credits through an early college program in Michigan. She was subsequently awarded a full scholarship that also covered some living expenses for her sophomore year.

Jajou’s main outgoing expense is $1,200 for monthly rent and utilities, a sum that she hopes will be significantly reduced in the fall when her boyfriend moves in with her. She spends about another $500 on miscellaneous expenses like internet, groceries and dog food, and expects to shell out $600 for textbooks, which she plans to source from both new and secondhand bookstores. Because most of her classes are online-only, she plans on saving about $500 by not buying a university parking pass.

While Jajou has some money stashed away from her scholarship, she depleted her savings to pay for rent during her period of unemployment. Since she quit her previous job, she isn’t eligible for unemployment financial assistance. Her parents also loaned her about $2,000, which she says they don’t expect her to repay.

What Jajou is doing right:She’s 20 and paying for a lot on her own,” says Marguerita Cheng, an independent certified financial planner based in Gaithersburg, Md. “And at the same time, she’s being proactive about her finances, so kudos to her.”

Room for improvement: Jajou should start by putting away $100 a month in a savings account and then double the sum when she feels comfortable, Cheng says. “Every time you get paid, make sure you pay yourself,” she adds. “It doesn’t matter what the amount is. What matters is that you did it.”

Jajou, who hopes to work with community organizations in Flint, Mich., after graduation, had previously attempted to save as much as $400 from her paychecks. But she quickly found that it was cutting into her expenses and stressing her out. “She had no work for six months, so she needs to catch up,” Cheng says. “And while it’s important for her to build up cash, she’s also young. I don’t want her to have ‘fear of missing out,’ since she’s already supporting herself. She should balance short-term needs and priorities with opportunities for long-term growth.”

Cheng also suggests that Jajou open a Roth IRA account later in the year and start by investing $50 each month into a low-cost target retirement fund. Even if $50 monthly is all Jajou invests going forward, that could be worth over $450,000 by the time she’s 65, assuming that the return on U.S. stocks continues to match the S&P 500’s historic average. The caveat: She shouldn’t feel guilty about skipping a turn if she feels financially tight.

“When you’re young, you have time on your side and the compounded value of money working for you, so invest in your future,” Cheng says. “But I also want her to be able to control her cash flow and not have money control her decisions.”

Kate Brett
Age: 37
City: Southern Pines, N.C.
Occupation: Event planner
Income: $4,500 a month before tax

Kate Brett works in events for the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity that supports injured service members and veterans. The 37-year-old, who is divorced and doesn’t plan to have children, earns about $54,000 and her employer covers her life and medical insurance premiums.

Brett has paid off her student and auto loans, so her largest recurring expense is the monthly $1,390 she puts toward her mortgage. She owes $208,000 on a 30-year mortgage, with a 3.625% interest rate, that she took out to buy a home. She plans to relocate with Wounded Warriors to Tampa, Fla., and, at least initially, rent out that home. While her employer won’t pay for the move, Brett expects a small salary bump.

Brett has about $46,000 in savings, most of which is in a 401(k) account that has partial employer matching, as well as $2,000 in a certificate of deposit (CD), a savings account that holds a fixed amount of money for a predetermined amount of time. She puts away roughly 10% of her salary and aims to retire when she’s 67 to Mexico, where her parents spend their golden years and where a luxury condominium in an elegant beach town could be rented for around $1,000 a month. “Their retirement is amazing, and I want to live that way,” she says.

What Brett is doing right: Zaneilia Harris, a certified financial planner in the Washington, D.C., area, says that it helps that Brett plans to retire in a country with a lower cost of living than the United States, and that 67 is a good age to do it—because that’s currently when retirees get 100% of the monthly benefit paid out by Social Security.

Room for improvement: Brett’s path to retirement would be smoother if she used her move to a larger city as a gateway to better-paying opportunities that still align with her values, Harris says. This would allow her to better work toward a nest egg of about $1.5 million, which Harris estimates would be required to sustain a long and comfortable retirement in Mexico.

“That she’s saving 10% is great, but the goal is to max out the amount you can save in your 401(k),” Harris says. As of 2024, Americans under 50 can contribute up to $23,000 each year to their employer-sponsored retirement plan, and Harris suggests that clients develop the habit of increasing the percentage they put aside for retirement with each raise. She also advises Brett to create a ladder for emergency savings by dividing her savings into equal chunks and then reinvesting the money in CDs with different maturity dates, which can boost returns.

The move to Florida complicates Brett’s housing situation. Tampa has a marginally higher cost of living than Southern Pines and being an absentee landlord of her rented house in North Carolina adds expenses like hiring a property manager. Brett should use potential savings from refinancing to pad her savings, Harris says. “People who rent don’t always take care of your property as if it’s theirs, so she’s going to need a cash cushion in case something major happens.”

As a single woman, Brett should also plan for incapacity by drawing up a living will and health care directive. And she should give power of attorney to a trusted friend or family member who is close geographically and isn’t one of her parents.

Catherine Kilty
Age: 68
City: Leavenworth, Wash.
Occupation: Director at a nonprofit
Income: $7,533 monthly before tax (including her former spouse’s Social Security benefit)

Catherine Kilty spent 27 years raising four children as a single mother, and her finances have taken a hit for it. “Ex-husbands seem to retire with plenty of money and financial security, while ex-wives have nothing,” she says.

Kilty is the executive director at Tierra Village, a nonprofit in the Cascade mountains that supports adults with developmental disabilities. At the time of interview, she made $76,000 and expected a $10,000 salary increase the following year. She also draws an additional $1,200 a month from a half-share of her ex-husband’s Social Security benefit—though Kilty loses that entitlement once she starts claiming on her own accord.

Kilty pays $2,000 a month in rent, which she says is par for the course in Leavenworth, a quaint but expensive town in Washington state. Kilty’s health care needs are covered by Medicare and her employer pays for her dental and vision insurance. She has $5,200 in credit card debt, which she is paying off at a rate of a few hundred dollars each month.

Kilty aims to retire at age 70, which would allow her to receive 132% of her Social Security entitlement, totaling about $1,800 per month. She also has an IRA worth $20,000 and plans to start contributing 4% of her salary to an employer matched retirement account.

She is considering a few affordable spots for retirement, including Mazatlán, a quiet Mexican beach town where she expects to be able to rent for around $400 a month, as well as Nicaragua and Guatemala.

What Kilty is doing right: Delaying retirement to maximize her Social Security benefit is a smart thing to do, says Brittney Castro, a CFP based in Los Angeles. “She’s in a tricky situation, but we suggest that even people who have money saved delay retirement, if they can.”

Room for improvement: Though she has a few more years of full-time work left, Kilty should start thinking about alternative sources of income in retirement, Castro says. “It can be part-time work, virtual work or doing some sort of consulting. People are living longer, and most don’t just stop working entirely when they’re 70.”

Castro also encourages women who’ve spent substantial time out of the workforce not to limit themselves when exploring post-retirement work. This can mean generating relatively passive income (selling unwanted goods online) to more hands-on work like private tutoring. “Leverage your life skills and find ways to get paid for them,” she says.

While Kilty has some credit card debt, Castro thinks she should focus on growing her income rather than obsess about cutting costs and reducing her credit card debt. “While you should still work on it, $5,000 is not going to make or break you,” she says. “It’s better to build up cash and savings at this point.”

“The economy is evolving and even people who have retired still need to look at their strategy,” Castro says. “It is not static and never stops.”

Katerina Ang is an assignment editor on the foreign desk at The Washington Post’s hub in Seoul, where she works on breaking news.

Three things to do

  1. Read about more ways women can improve their retirement security.
  2. Discover ways to address the retirement pay gap.
  3. Learn how to steer clear of common financial pitfalls.