Single, female, retired, broke: Many baby boomer women face dire straits

RALEIGH, N.C. — Female baby boomers shattered glass ceilings and enrolled in colleges that had shut out their mothers. They took pills to control how many babies they would bear. Some chose to forgo motherhood and stay single; some married and stayed home to tend their families.

And all this unprecedented freedom got many women to a dead end, wondering how they'll afford to live decades longer.

Single female baby boomers are the least prepared of this more than 75-million-strong generation to financially navigate their senior years. Their moms weren't prepared either, but most braved those years with a husband.

About 40 percent of female baby boomers are single now — up from 30 percent in 1989 — and most never meant to be. Nationally, there are about 17 million single women ages 46 to 64. About two-thirds of them separated from, divorced or buried their husbands.

Although many baby boomer women stayed home, at least for a time, to raise their children, the generation brought the first sizable number of women to the workforce. Many thrived, leading experts to hope this generation of women would be better prepared financially for their senior years.

"I think everyone expected these women to be different. They lived differently and we hoped they could retire differently, too," said Donna Watkins, a Raleigh-based financial specialist for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions, a nonprofit that has worked with many female baby boomers struggling to prepare for retirement.

Working wasn't the silver bullet. Those who joined the workforce earned less than their male counterparts, nationally about 77 cents to the man's dollar. And many who devoted their prime to motherhood find themselves divorced and returning to a workforce that doesn't have space or patience for them. Those women had less time to build up their Social Security savings or 401(k) plans.

Experts began predicting this landmine for single females nearing retirement years ago. The Federal Reserve Board found in 2001 that only a third of single women had any sort of retirement savings account; at the same time, less than 10 percent of single women had a pension. About two-thirds of married couples and 42 percent of single men had retirement accounts.

Now, the turbulent economy has turned those early warnings into full-scale alarms. Even the women who prepared have had their plans derailed. Some eye their retirement savings warily and wonder whether they will outlive the money they set aside for these years, a real possibility as their life expectancy stretched to age 85. Others are heading back to work.

Nearly all of them are kicking themselves for not doing better. "I never thought about retirement. No one ever talked about it and what I needed to do," said Katrina Philips, 62, of Clayton, N.C. "I guess I was stupid about it."

Like Philips, Bette Lee Drake didn't waste much time thinking about saving for her senior years.

Her father was an affluent cattle rancher in Texas, and her mother's side of the family had money, too.

"I never thought I'd have to work," said Drake, 62, of Raleigh. "I thought I'd be at home as a wife and a mother. I had no ambition. I figured I'd be a princess for the rest of my life."

Drake's prince didn't stick around, however, leaving her as a single mother of three children. Drake's mother urged her to go to college to earn a teaching degree.

Drake said she tried to be savvy. She moved to a school district that compensated teachers well and offered a pension. She bought a house. She saved for her children's education. After those expenses, she had little left in her paycheck.

It wasn't until 15 years ago that she saved her first dime for retirement.

"Retirement? How was I supposed to pay for that, too?" Drake asked. "I wish someone had sat me down and told me I had to figure this out."

Watkins, the financial counselor, said the older baby boomer women didn't get the financial lessons their children have, even though they were entering the workforce and earning their own money.

"There was this old mythology that women weren't good with numbers and they shouldn't fuss over them," Watkins said.

Philips said her retirement plan was her husband. She figured they would rely on his military pension. But he became an ex two years ago, and she said she got none of that.

Once upon a time, Philips had a retirement account. The bank where she worked even matched her contributions. But the bank eventually closed. She cashed in her retirement to keep from losing her house. Last month she applied for food stamps.

Financial planners say single women often save for big-ticket items other than retirement. The biggest: a child's education. "All of a sudden, they wake up one day and realize they are 55 and have only $100,000 in their 401(k) and they make $70,000 a year," says Jim Trull, a planner with Keystone Financial Partners.

Single, female, retired, broke: Many baby boomer women face dire straits 06/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 17, 2011 7:31pm]

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