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Related topics: retirement, Liz Weston, retirement savings, pension, financial planning

Single people have one big advantage when saving for retirement: They don't have to argue with their spouse about it.

Singles needn't cajole reluctant partners into boosting their 401k savings or worry that their spouse's spending or bad investments will upend their retirement plans.

"It is easier because I am in control and don't have to worry about someone taking my savings," Jean Maxon, a single mother from Twentynine Palms, Calif., wrote on my Facebook fan page when I asked about this issue. "Most couples I know don't plan well together."

But the advantage of autonomy can seem pretty small against the considerable headwinds that singles face in trying to save for a comfortable retirement.

Consider:

Married people accumulate significantly more wealth. Married people in general save more and amass more wealth than singles. In the critical 55-to-64 age bracket, when household wealth typically builds to its peak before being drawn down in retirement, the median net worth for married couples is about four times higher than that of singles, according to the latest Census Bureau wealth study.

Median net worth by marital status
 All householdsAges 55-64
Married couples $144,580 $268,835
Single men $28,100 $69,350
Single women $30,026 $62,140
Source: Census Bureau, 2004

Economists will tell you that while two people can't live more cheaply than one, a couple can live the same lifestyle for less than two comparable households run by single people. Sharing housing payments, utilities and other household expenses frees up more money for other purposes, including saving and investments.

Married people also often have significant advantages when it comes to Social Security benefits. Spouses can opt to take checks based on their own work records or that of their partner, and they can switch from one to the other. One strategy that can boost benefits by tens of thousands of dollars over a couple's joint lifetime is to have the lower-earning spouse claim a benefit at 62 based on the partner's work record, then switch to benefits based on her own record at full retirement age. Singles typically don't have that option, unless they were married for at least 10 years to someone who qualifies for a Social Security benefit.

"I think a single person with an average, middle-class income has to do a lot more planning to make retirement happen, and they have to choose a pared-down lifestyle, compared to their dual-income friends, to meet all of their financial goals," said Delia Fernandez, a fee-only financial planner in Los Alamitos, Calif., who is also single. "There's little room for error."

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

Singles are at more risk of not having enough saved to get through retirement. Fifty-one percent of U.S. households aren't on track to maintain their living standards at retirement, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, but married couples aren't as far behind as singles.

To show the size of the gap between what people are likely to need and what they have already saved, researchers at the Employee Benefit Research Institute estimated the "net present value" of the retirement deficit -- the extra amount needed to maintain the household's standard of living, discounted to reflect what that future amount is worth today. Another way to think of it is the lump sum you'd need to deposit into your retirement funds right now to catch up.

For couples, the retirement deficit varies from $29,467 for early baby boomers (for the purposes of the EBRI study, those born between 1948 and 1954) to $32,048 for Generation X couples (those born between 1965 and 1974).

The deficit is 19% to 34% bigger for single men. That's bad, but the numbers for single women are much worse: Their retirement deficits are at least twice as big as those of couples. For single Gen X women, the average deficit is more than $75,000. Not only do single women earn less and save less than single men, on average, but they live longer, so they have more years of expenses to cover.

Add in nursing home and health care expenses, and the picture grows even gloomier. Those costs increase the average retirement savings shortfall by $25,317 for married couples, $32,433 for single men and $46,425 for single women. Perhaps now it's becoming clearer why elderly women are nearly twice as likely to live below the poverty line as elderly men.

Singles are more at risk of losing what they have. Most adults face setbacks as they approach retirement. A 2006 Center for Retirement Research study said about seven in 10 adults who were 51 to 61 in 1992 had developed major health problems, lost their jobs or lost partners to death or divorce in the next decade.

Singles may be spared those latter two events, but they're more likely to face health problems in late midlife and to lose more as a result. Unmarried adults in the study were more likely to:

  • Develop a major medical condition than married adults (44.3% compared with 40.2%).
  • Become severely disabled (10.5% compared with 5.6%).
  • Enter a nursing home (5.7% compared with 2.7%).

Disability reduced wealth by 16% for married people but by 42% for single people. Even medical conditions that didn't necessarily limit the ability to work took more away from singles, reducing their household wealth by 23% compared with 17% for married couples.

Layoffs were only somewhat more common for singles (20%) than married couples (18.2%), but again singles paid a higher price: They lost 33% of their net worth, compared with 21% for married couples.