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Both men and women suck at saving for retirement. More than 60% of working Americans say they have less than $25,000 put aside, according to the latest Retirement Confidence Survey from the Employee Benefits Research Institute. Thirty percent have less than $1,000.

Among those who do save, however, men have piled up more -- a lot more -- than women. The median balance for men in 2010 was $33,547, according to a Vanguard study of 3.5 million participants in 2,000 workplace retirement plans it administers. That's 56% more than the $21,499 accumulated by women.

A lot of what's written about this gap amounts to finger wagging about how women don't "get" how important it is that they save for retirement:

  • Don't we know we live longer than men and thus need to save more to sustain us?
  • Don't we realize that we're more likely to end our lives on our own because of widowhood, divorce or never marrying?
  • Aren't we afraid of ending up poor, since three times as many women over 75 as men the same age live in poverty?

Get under the hood of some of these statistics, though, and you'll find that a lot of the conventional wisdom about women's retirement savings habits is faulty, if not flat wrong.

For example:

1. Conventional wisdom: Women are less likely to take advantage of workplace retirement programs. The reality: When women have access to workplace plans, they often participate at higher rates than men. In fact, those with incomes between $30,000 and $100,000 participate at substantially higher rates than men.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

  Men Women
Overall participation rate    
By income:    
Less than $30,000 51% 49%
$30,000 to $49,999 61% 69%
$50,000 to $74,999 68% 78%
$75,000 to $99,999 78% 84%
$100,000 or more 88% 86%
Source: Vanguard, 2010 data    


A lot more women than men don't have access to workplace plans, however. Although women make up about half of the labor force, nearly 25% of working women 20 and older worked only part time in 2011, compared with about 12% of men.

2. Conventional wisdom: Women contribute less to retirement plans. The reality: Overall and at every income level, women contribute more to their workplace plans.

  Men Women
Overall contribution rate 6.7% 6.9%
By income:    
Less than $30,000 4.6% 5.1%
$30,000 to $49,999 5.6% 5.9%
$50,000 to $74,999 6.8% 7.4%
$75,000 to $99,999 8.0% 8.8%
$100,000 or more 8.0% 8.7%
Source: Vanguard, 2010 data    

The mitigating factor here is that women tend to earn less:

  • The median weekly earnings of women who worked full time in 2010 were $669, or 81% of men's $824, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • For all workers, part time and full time, nearly 31% of women earned $26,000 or less, compared with 21.5% of men, the bureau reported (.pdf file).

3. Conventional wisdom: Women are more risk-averse. The reality: There's little difference between the sexes in exposure to stocks. Women are slightly less likely to drink the company Kool-Aid by loading up on their employers' stock. Overall, though, women have 67% of their plan assets invested in stocks, compared with 69% for men.

Asset allocation Men Women
Company stock 10% 7%
Diversified equity fund 43% 42%
Target-date fund 12% 13%
Other balanced fund 10% 12%
Total equity fund 69% 67%
Bonds 9% 10%
Cash 16% 16%
Source: Vanguard, 2010 data    

The idea that women are stuffing their money in low-risk -- and thus low-growth -- options doesn't seem to conform to reality.

So it all comes back to earnings. Men are more likely to work in higher-paying jobs, more likely to work full time and less likely to have gaps in their work histories (to care for children or elderly parents or in-laws, for example).

The difference in accumulated earnings reflects "the economic realities of a woman's working career," said Amy Cribbs, a principal in Vanguard's Institutional Investor Group. "Women's earning power is still less."


Here's what women (and the men who care about them) can do to make sure they aren't impoverished in their old age:

  • Don't put off saving for retirement. You may want to pay down debt, save for a home or put aside money for a child's education. Those are all worthy goals, but they shouldn't take precedence over retirement savings. If you don't have a good start on saving for retirement by age 35, it's tough to catch up, according to analyses by leading financial researcher Roger Ibbotson, a Yale University finance professor who has studied market returns. (For more, read "Your magic number for retirement.") You should be putting something aside, even if you can't contribute much right now.
  • No 401k? Open an individual retirement account. Anyone who has earned income (wages, salary or self-employment income) can open and fund an IRA up to $5,000 a year. If you're 50 or older, you can contribute up to $6,000. You can contribute to an IRA even if you have access to a workplace retirement plan, and people who don't have such access can deduct their IRA contributions from their taxable income. You also can deduct your contribution if your income is below certain limits.
  • No job? Your spouse can fund your contribution. A working spouse can make an IRA contribution for a nonworking spouse. Doing so can help the couple to be more diversified. Here's why: A husband who contributes only to a 401k plan is limited to the investment options his plan offers. With an IRA, you can pick from a much broader buffet. If your household makes too much to be able to deduct an IRA contribution, then the husband can open a Roth IRA for his wife instead. There's no tax deduction for contribution, but withdrawals in retirement are tax-free. That gives the couple more flexibility, since they'll have two buckets of money to draw from: 401k money, which is taxable, and Roth IRA money, which is not.

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  • Don't abandon the workforce entirely. Caring for children or parents is worthy work, but long stretches without paid employment can make it tough for you to earn a decent wage if death, divorce, layoff or any other unforeseen event forces you back into the job market. Part-time work or self-employment may offer you the flexibility to care for your family without disconnecting entirely from the working world.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.