How To Talk Retirement With Women

5 minute read

Here’s a breath of fresh air: There’s one place the wage gap seems to be slowly evaporating – marriages in the U.S. According to an April 2023 study from the Pew Research Center, the percentage of women who earn as much if not more than their husbands has just about tripled over the last half-century. In nearly 30% of marriages, women earn a similar amount to their husbands, and in 16%, a woman is the primary breadwinner.  Educational trends point to the fact that these numbers will likely be higher in the future. In 24% of marriages today, according to Pew, the woman has more education than her husband, yet the ratio of students on college campuses is running at about 60% women to 40% men.

Frankly, when it comes to the retirement security of women, this is great progress. The gender pay gap has, for years, been a huge contributor to the retirement income gap between men and women. A woman’s lifetime of earning less, combined with breaks from work to care for kids and older parents (and a tendency among some to avoid risk in the markets), means a significantly smaller balance in the retirement accounts of women when compared with men. On average, women have $70,000 less in retirement savings than men, according to a study by Bank of America. Women are also more likely than men to report that they have no retirement savings at all, according to the Census Bureau. And the topper? Women go on to experience lifespans that are, on average, almost six years longer than men – meaning this smaller amount of money has to last a longer period of time.

It’s no wonder then that three out of five of women worry about their finances several times a month, according to a 2022 HerMoney and Alliance for Lifetime Income study. That research also shows that while 73% of women know what steps to take to build a nest egg, less than half know how to make that money last throughout retirement.

WATCH Your Money Map: How To Talk Retirement With Women

Alliance Education Fellow and HerMoney CEO Jean Chatzky sat down with two experts for Your Money Map to come up with a solid blueprint for how to level the playing field. Melissa Kivett is the Head of Enterprise Strategic Relationship Management at Prudential Financial and an executive board member of the Insured Retirement Institute. Kathleen Burns Kingsbury is a financial therapist, internationally recognized speaker, and the author of four books on money. Here are some edited highlights of the conversation.


Q: What’s most worrisome to you about how women are approaching retirement right now?

A: There has been ongoing pressure on women, Kivett notes, first from COVID-19, which made things worse and forced a lot of women out of the workforce, but then from “the broader kind of economic challenges” that have swept the landscape, including inflation, market volatility, and the potential of a recession.

“I worry too, that when we talk to women about the gap, the message itself is demoralizing,” Kingsbury adds. “Of course, that’s not our intent. But how do we address it in a way to give women [a way forward]?”

Q: That’s an important point. How do we have these conversations so that we’re not getting mired in negativity?

A: Focus on solutions, Kingsbury suggests. “I’ve noticed women, particularly the younger generation, really saying, ‘We have to take action.’ There’s a greater commitment to learn negotiation skills, to talk about money, [and to use that conversation] to motivate themselves.” Changes in salary transparency laws have been an important impetus, she adds, but succeeding also takes rallying your community, like by amassing a women’s group in your firm or among friends willing to talk about getting educated together.

And make men a part of the conversation, notes Kivett who recently penned a blog on the topic for the Insured Retirement Institute. “Men can help women, but they need to be a part of the conversation in order to understand why the challenges are so great,” she says.

Q: That’s particularly true because, although we know the industry has been working to shift the equation, right now the lion’s share of financial advisors are still men.

A: “There is a huge responsibility for the financial advising industry to really educate advisors about how the experience is different for women,” Kingsbury says.  “Even the word ‘retirement’ no longer feels like it applies to how people are actually thinking about it.  [We need to be asking ourselves,] how do we talk about it in a way that is women-centric, even human-centric, as opposed to financial-advising-centric?”

Kivett agrees, noting how important it is to emphasize the message that financial planning conversations about retirement should be as focused on women as they are on men. That’s not happening right now. “Mostly, they’re talking to the men…and if the man dies, and the woman takes over the account, women are over 70% likely to fire the advisor because they’re not talking to them about their retirement,” she says.

Q: Do women think about retirement differently than men?

A: “I was talking with one client who said whenever she goes to meet with a financial advisor, they’re always telling her to save for retirement – and that’s a turn-off,” Kingsbury says. “I asked her why, and she said she just doesn’t identify with the word [or the concept]. So I asked what she wanted to be doing in her 70s and 80s, and she said she wanted to be skydiving. Literally jumping out of planes [which, by the way, is something she enjoys today]. And I said, ‘Well, what would it be like to have a skydiving fund where you fund your skydiving, but also your medical care, so you’re healthy enough in your 70s and 80s to skydive? And that you think about the fact that you need to eat and keep up your nutrition, so you’d need basic living expenses for your skydiving account?’ And she thought about it and said, ‘That would motivate me.”

Q: That’s a pretty extreme example.

A: It is, Kingsbury acknowledges. But she also recalls interviewing a variety of women around the word retirement. Many came up with words or phrases they’d prefer to use instead – for example, “my time,” “inspiring time,” or “independent time.”

“I think it’s about coming up with some sort of language that speaks to the modern essence,” she says. “I don’t think men think about retirement this way either anymore.  It’s no longer old-school, sitting on my porch with my watch and enough funds to make it work.”

Q: I agree with the sitting on the porch part – but I think the question of enough funds is still a big sticking point.  We all know that the thought of running out of money is the biggest retirement fear for women.  In part, that’s why women are often leading the purchase of an annuity that they can count on to provide protected lifetime income.

A: “My sense,” Kivett notes, “is that women are more attuned to the question of how much income they’re actually going to need for retirement. They’re more tapped into the question of how do we translate savings into income, perhaps because our research shows that they’re still the CFOs of their households. They’re the ones focused on the budgets.”

Q: So in this way, is the influence women have on financial decision-making growing?

A: There’s no question, Kivett says. “Women may not always be in the decision-making seat with advisors, but their influence is growing. They’re becoming more often the breadwinners. They’ve making more of the consumer-related decisions. That’s why, even though women continue to have all of these challenges, we need to focus on how we can empower women to do more financially. Because we’re still keeping too much cash in our mattresses. We’re missing out on the opportunities men make because they generally tend to be more confident in taking risks.  We don’t have enough sky jumpers.”


For more strategies to help women (and men) prepare for retirement and make sure that their income lasts a lifetime, visit the Tools and Guide section of The Alliance website.

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