It took the collapse of her marriage to jolt Luanne Schmidt into action.
After years of taking a hands-off approach toward money, the 50-year-old nurse from Lannon, Wis., only recently took charge of her finances. Her savings and retirement security, she knew, were at stake.
"Do I know enough about finances and the market yet? No," says Schmidt, the mother of three children. "But I'm at least headed in the right direction."
Women's prospects are improving as they gain economically and begin to close the gender gap, but many are struggling in retirement or face heightened financial challenges because of their gender.
The fear of ending up poor or even running out of money in retirement still gnaws at many women in particular.
It's hardly irrational. Women find it significantly harder than men to achieve a comfortable retirement. They live longer, earn less, and typically lag in savings and financial awareness.
"The fear is real," says Cindy Hounsell, president of the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER), a nonprofit education and advocacy group. "People see the hardship and expense of old age, particularly among women, all around them."
A worrisome new concern is the millions of baby boomer women who will be swelling the ranks of divorced, widowed and never-married women living on their own in retirement. Single retirees are at greater risk of poverty.
"There has been progress, but not enough," Hounsell says. "Women are really unprepared for what lies ahead."
Schmidt's experience embodies some of the challenges. She gave up full-time work for 17 years while she raised her children. Her husband managed the family finances.
Her divorce last year meant she had to suddenly become her own money manager and make sure her retirement savings were invested properly while still putting the youngest two kids through college. It's been a scramble, and an education.
"It can be a scary situation for women who didn't work full-time for years and don't have pensions," she says. "It's challenging. I'm watching my pennies now."
Schmidt sees women who have outlived their resources every day at the nursing home where she works. Thus she's more determined than ever to not end up worrying about money. She hired a financial adviser who helped calculate how much she needs to save in order to retire at 65, and Schmidt plans to stick to it.
The statistics tell a sobering story:
Longer lives: Women still outlive men by an average of five to seven years, depending on what year they were born. At age 65, a woman typically has another 20 years of life expectancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
By age 85, women make up 68 percent of that age group. Many live in poverty or near-poverty, the result of high out-of-pocket medical costs and having had to stretch too few dollars over too many years.
Lower earnings: Women make about 77 percent of what men make, based on U.S. Census Bureau data for 2009. Three of five working women earn less than $30,000 a year, according to AARP.
Living solo: 40 percent of women over 65 live alone, compared with 19 percent of men. This is not just because they live longer but they also remarry at far lower rates than men of the same age, according to the National Institute on Aging.
Leaving work: The average woman spends about 12 years out of the work force, according to the Social Security Administration — generally for family purposes. Besides limiting Social Security benefits, that results in less savings during those years and reduces the opportunity for savings to grow over time.
Some more hopeful signs are emerging.
The female-to-male earnings ratio is trending upward gradually. Women also are attending and graduating from college at a higher rate than men, which bodes well for future earnings.
Surveys by AARP and others suggest that more women, too, are handling household finances, perhaps because of the rising number who are single. An increasingly popular theme among the 100,000 monthly users of VibrantNation.com, an online discussion site for baby boomer women, is the need to take charge of retirement savings by hiring financial advisers and retirement coaches or seeking help via financial websites, according to CEO Stephen Reilly.
Still, the overall disadvantage women face with regard to retirement remains deeply entrenched.
"The issue that women have got to understand is that the twin forces of family obligations and lower average salaries have a geometric effect on their nest egg," says Manisha Thakor, a personal finance adviser in Santa Fe, N.M., who runs the Women's Financial Literacy Initiative. "One of the two might be manageable, but the two together kill your finances."
'My Social Security would not have been enough'
Jerri Schipae, 66, admits she was never a good saver. It wasn't just that she didn't know how to proceed with her finances. As a waitress, she never made enough to sock away any substantial amount.
When her fiance died recently, the Cudahy, Wis., retiree figured she'd have to sell her house and go live with one of her two daughters. Instead, she learned he had left her a six-figure sum. That saved her from having to scrape by month to month for years.
"My Social Security would not have been enough to pay the bills," she says. "I wish every woman could be as fortunate as I was, getting an inheritance."
Now she's on a mission to do all the right things with her extra money. Working with her financial adviser from Thrivent Financial, she has been able to provide for her grandson's college education while taking care of her own future needs. And she makes sure to advise both daughters to keep saving and do the planning that she didn't.
"Younger women today are pretty up on everything (financially), because they all have careers and stuff," she says. "But older women, even in their 40s and 50s, I think they definitely need to learn more and plan for the future better."