Retirement planning for single women

Women are increasingly approaching retirement on their own. Here’s how to ensure you’re financially prepared.

By: Emily Guy Birken

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

Christie, a divorced 64-year-old dental hygienist from Colorado, couldn’t be more excited about retiring solo. “For a long time, I felt like I missed out since I didn’t have a terrific spouse,” she says. “But these days, it’s like: Somebody pinch me! I’ve got a long bucket list and there’s a whole world out there.”

As a single woman preparing for retirement, Christie is in excellent company. In fact, 29% of American women between the ages of 50 and 64 are single, according to Pew Research. Despite the significant number of single retirees, standard retirement advice assumes that people retire in pairs.

Unfortunately, tailoring retirement advice to a solo second act requires more than just cutting retirement planning advice in half. There are specific considerations, challenges and benefits to solo retirement planning that single women aren’t necessarily hearing about.

Here are some important strategies for planning a sensational solo retirement.

Ways to save for retirement: Early and often

Early in her career, Christie received some smart retirement advice from a family friend: Try to set aside at least 15% of your income each year for retirement. She took the advice to heart and set up an automatic transfer. “Over the years, I never changed a thing,” she says. “I just kept saving. It was out of sight, out of mind.”

When you consider what a single woman preparing for retirement is up against, it’s clear why committing to saving as much as you can—and as early as you can—is so important. Women tend to live longer than men, with a life expectancy at age 65 of 85.2 years compared to 82.5 for men, so women should plan for more years in retirement. Add to that the fact that women earn 84 cents for every dollar men earn, leaving them with less income to save. Another barrier to saving: Women are also more likely to take career breaks. In fact, women are more likely than men to have no retirement savings at all, according the U.S. Census Bureau.

Disability insurance is a must

If the most strenuous work you do is sending 500 emails, you might assume disability insurance is unnecessary. But the Social Security Administration estimates that one out of every four current 20-year-olds will be out of work for at least a year because of a disabling condition before reaching age 67.

Single women who lack a partner’s income as a backup must protect themselves with adequate disability insurance. Losing income because of a disability not only jeopardizes your immediate financial needs, but it also threatens your ability to save for retirement. Speak to your employer about your options, as many workplaces offer some form of disability insurance.

Health care costs in retirement: Make a plan

Women’s longer lifespans also mean higher average health care costs in retirement. A healthy 65-year-old woman retiring today is projected to spend $315,000 on health care over the rest of her life, according to the Milliman Health Cost Index; for a healthy 65-year-old man, it’s $277,000. So it’s extremely important to have a plan in place ahead of time.

If you have access to a health savings account—an option only if you have a high-deductible health insurance plan—your contributions are tax-deductible, the money grows tax-free and withdrawals for qualified medical expenses are not taxed. This can be a great way to maximize your health care savings.

Additionally, without a spouse or partner at home to help with long-term care if you need that later in life, you may face more care expenses than a married couple would. So you may want to look into the potential costs and benefits of long-term care insurance, although premiums for this kind of coverage tend to be higher for women. This insurance will pay for certain non-medical care that Medicare does not cover, such as in-home help with eating, bathing, dressing and more, and even a long-term stay in a nursing home or assisted living.

Delay Social Security as long as you can

Your Social Security benefits are not only guaranteed, they are also adjusted each year to keep up with inflation, which means your benefit maintains the same buying power throughout your retirement. This is why it’s important to maximize your benefit by delaying Social Security as long as you can. Between your full retirement age (between 66 and 67, depending on your birth year) and 70 (when they stop growing), your benefits increase by 8% per year.

Keep in mind that if you are divorced but your marriage lasted for at least 10 years, you are entitled to spousal benefits based on your ex’s work history if it’s of a higher amount than your own benefits.

Plan to stay active in retirement

Christie has not yet decided when to retire, in part because she will miss the dental practice where she’s worked since 1998. “I’m going to have to make new friends when I retire,” she says. “I don’t want to be twiddling my thumbs. I want to stay active!”

Committing to social activity in retirement is especially important for single retirees. Senior isolation is associated with a host of health problems, including depression, cognitive decline and heart disease, and studies have suggested that a strong social network helps protect against dementia.

Travel, which is Christie’s current and ongoing method of staying connected with friends, can be a great way to do this. “I’m going on a Danube River cruise with a friend I’ve known since college,” she says. “Another friend asked if I wanted to go to Portugal—and I said ‘Sure!’ I want to go to places I haven’t been before.”

Enjoy the retirement ride

Typical retirement advice can make single retirees feel left out. But there are many benefits to solo retirement, including the satisfaction of building your own fulfilling retirement plan.

“I know that if I’d stayed married to my husband, we wouldn’t have saved like I saved by myself,” Christie says. “It’s like a little blessing hidden in there.”

Emily Guy Birken is a former educator, lifelong money nerd and Plutus Award–winning freelance writer. She is the author of five books including The 5 Years Before You Retire. Emily lives in Milwaukee with her spouse, two sons, a dog and a cat.

Three things to do:

  1. Read about more ways women can improve their retirement security.
  2. Check out other ways to plan ahead for health care expenses in retirement.
  3. A good retirement plan will include an estate plan. Here are 5 estate planning tips for women.