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Here’s How to Close the Gender Gap in 401(k) Plans

Women of multiple generations
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Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on The Penny Hoarder.

Women, you already know life isn’t fair. It’s the same way with retirement savings, and we’re seeing newly published proof of that.

When it comes to how men and women save for their golden years, new research by retirement giant Vanguard discovered two conflicting trends:

  1. Women are more conscientious about joining their employer’s 401(k) plans. Fewer men than women join unless there’s automatic enrollment. The biggest difference is among workers in the $50,000 to $75,000 income range, where 81% of women keep 401(k) accounts compared with only 67% of men.
  2. Weirdly, however, men tend to have more retirement savings than women. The average man has $93,500 in his 401(k) account, the average woman has $70,000.

How can that be? It’s because men tend to earn more money and because men set aside more of their paychecks for retirement than women do.

So, how can women close the gap in retirement savings? We have seven strategies for you to follow.

What Women Are Up Against

Younger and older workers in an office
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Like we said, life isn’t fair. Here are three reasons why women’s retirement savings tend to lag behind men’s:

  1. Working women are more likely than men to interrupt their careers to take care of family members, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. They end up with a work gap, missing potentially years of employment when they could have been contributing toward their retirement.
  2. Women are more likely to work in part-time jobs that don’t qualify for a retirement plan, the Labor Department says.
  3. There’s a persistent wage gap. For every dollar a male full-time worker earns, a woman makes 83 cents, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (There are plenty of contributing factors to this phenomenon, but don’t let one be that you never asked for a raise.)

Here are some strategies women can use to save more for retirement.

1. Get Started, Pronto

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If you aren’t saving for retirement, start ASAP. The earlier you start, the better off you’ll be, with your money growing over time thanks to the magic of compound interest.

If you are saving (good for you!), take a few minutes to check your progress. Are you saving enough for your anticipated needs?

2. Save Enough to Get Your Company Match

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Financial advisers recommend that, at the very least, you save enough in your 401(k) to get the full employer match that’s being offered to you. If you’re not doing that, you’re basically passing up free money.

One of the best things about a 401(k) plan is that many employers will match your contribution up to a point. It’s part of your compensation package.

Say your employer offers to match 100% of your 401(k) contributions up to 6% of your income. If you make $50,000 per year and max out the employer match, you’d put in $3,000 and your employer would kick in another $3,000, doubling your savings.

3. Try Saving Even More

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Once you’ve done that, see if you can go beyond the employer match. Lots of people do.

The average company match is 4.5%, according to Vanguard’s annual report on investing behavior.

What percentage of their pay does the average person put into their 401(k)? For men, it’s 7.5%, and for women, it’s 7%, according to Vanguard’s new 2.5 million-person retirement study.

If you’re reading this and suddenly finding that you’re contributing a below-average amount to your retirement plan, you should strongly consider kicking it up a notch if you can.

4. What If You Don’t Have a 401(k) Plan?

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If you don’t have access to a 401(k) plan at work, there are ways to save for retirement on your own.

There are even investing apps that will give you free stocks to get started. Robinhood, for example, will give you free stock worth between $5 and $200 just for downloading its free app and funding your account.

5. Avoid Dipping Into Your Retirement Savings

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Experts strongly recommend that you not dip into your retirement savings before you retire. You’ll pay heavy financial penalties, and you could put a serious dent in your retirement plans down the line.

6. Prepare to Work as Long as You Can

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Another strategy for women: Prepare yourself for the likelihood that retirement may not happen until you’re well past 65.

Maintain your ability to continue working past age 65. Keep your job skills up to date or learn new ones. Many employers, community colleges and nonprofits offer classes in the latest technologies and careers.

By taking care of your career, you’ll have a better chance of staying comfortable and secure when it’s finally time to retire.

7. Wait to Take Social Security If You Can

Happy retiree
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When your 62nd birthday approaches, you’ll have a big decision to make: Should you take Social Security at 62 and accept lower montly benefits? Or should you delay Social Security to get a higher benefit amount?

The answer to whether taking Social Security at 62 is the right move for you depends on several factors: your life expectancy, whether you’re retiring early and your overall financial situation. By taking Social Security at 62 instead of at full retirement age, you’ll reduce your monthly benefit by 30% for life.

However, if you’re feeling relatively healthy and you wait until you’re 70 to start claiming your Social Security benefits, you’ll end up getting checks that are nearly 80% larger.

In Case of Divorce

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If you get divorced, are you entitled to a portion of your spouse’s retirement benefit?

Possibly. In most private-sector retirement plans, you would do this via a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) issued by the court, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. You or your attorney should consult your spouse’s plan administrator to determine what requirements that order would have to meet.

You may be able to get Social Security based on your ex-spouse’s benefits instead of your own work record, even if you divorced decades ago, as long as you haven’t remarried. However, people with a long employment record will typically qualify for a bigger benefit based on their own earnings instead of a spouse’s. Social Security will give you the bigger of the two benefits, but not both.

The maximum benefit you can get based on the record of a spouse — whether you’re currently married or divorced — is 50% of their full retirement age benefit. Full retirement age is the age at which you qualify for 100% of your benefit; it’s 66 or 67, depending on when you were born.

It’s important to know these things.

Life isn’t always fair, so you’ve got to look out for yourself.

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