January 20, 2010

Finance for Women

Robert Brokamp of The Motley Fool contributed a new post to Get Rich Slowly about women and retirement this morning.

This should be a compelling topic not only for women but for couples. We need to understand how our earnings differ and how that can impact retirement, and how divorce can impact our retirement plans.

I’ve probably spent too much time worrying about divorce and retirement because my own parents split up when I was 27. I can’t really comment about the divorce itself — I think there’s probably a lot in that relationship that I will never know or understand. However, my parents’ financial situation was a disaster when they divorced and I can’t imagine that that didn’t contribute to the split. When their house finally sold, my mother paid off over $60,000 in credit card debt for both of them. She got the rest of the proceeds from the house and he got whatever was in his retirement account. Because my father didn’t cooperate with any of the divorce proceedings, my mother basically had to go on an old copy of his retirement benefits statement. I know she tried to be as fair as possible given the information she had.

My mother paid off every debt she was aware of and put the rest of the money into a retirement account. That money doesn’t begin to make up for what she lost in social security contributions and any possible retirement contributions she could have made if she’d worked full time instead of taking care of her children and home. (She wasn’t exclusively a homemaker like the woman in this NY Times article, but part time work in spite of getting a Masters in Social Work doesn’t add up to much).

My father, meanwhile, has pretty much spent all of his retirement income and lives on social security. I do not know what it’s been spent on, but I know he has nothing left.

I don’t even consider social security when I look at our retirement — I assume it won’t be there (so I hear — if it materializes, it’s a bonus). But my husband does have a lot more in his retirement fund than I do. I hope that we will continue to share our lives, and I hope that we fully fund our retirement accounts and pay off all our debts. It’s going to take work, but it’s work we’re willing to do, and we’re doing it together. I hope that journey will make us that much stronger as a couple.

Still I sleep easier knowing that I’m contributing to my own 401(k) and that I will have put money into social security if it turns out to still be there in 25-30 years, and I won’t be left with no clue how to handle finances. I’m in the workforce already, so I don’t need to worry about how to get a job after years at home. I have plenty of friends who stay home with their kids. I don’t know what the right path is for them, but the costs of childcare and dealing with commuting and job stress certainly can make both parents working a stressful balance. I believe for my family this is the right choice.

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