EBRI Issue Brief

Retirement Confidence Survey: Attitudes Toward Retirement by Women of Different Marital Statuses

Jun 8, 2020 40  pages


The Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS) was conducted for its 30th year in 2020 to measure attitudes toward, preparations for, and understanding of the various issues/products for retirement by American workers and retirees. The RCS found that Americans as of January 2020 had near-record-high levels of confidence in having enough money to live comfortably throughout retirement. These levels held as late as the end of March 2020.

Women were found to have lower levels of retirement confidence than men. Women were also more likely to have fewer resources and prepare differently for retirement. Consequently, this study more closely examines the RCS results for women, since they face particular challenges in preparing for retirement — from lower average earnings to higher likelihoods of taking time out of the labor force for raising children. Furthermore, in retirement, women have longer life expectancies and often are younger than their spouses, potentially leaving them with more years in retirement.

Women of different marital statuses also face different challenges. Having a significant other can help with providing more resources and sharing of expenses, women who have never married are going it on their own, and divorced women are going it alone but also had a major life event that was likely to have had a significant financial impact. In retirement, women are also more likely to become widows, leaving them again on their own at a later time in their life potentially without knowing the full details of their finances. Thus, the results of the RCS are examined across the possible marital statuses of workers and retirees and their perceived and actual retirement prospects.

  • The study finds 76 percent of married women expressed being very or somewhat confident they will have enough money to live comfortably throughout their retirement years, with only 43 percent of divorced women workers and 51 percent of never-married women workers sharing this confidence. Divorced and never-married women workers also have lower confidence in other aspects related to retirement. In particular, 43 percent of never-married women workers were very or somewhat confident in knowing how much money they need to save by retirement to live comfortably in retirement compared with 47 percent of divorced women workers and 69 percent of married women workers.
  • Given the disparities in retirement confidence among women of differing marital statuses, it isn’t surprising that the level of assets held by them is substantially different. The divorced women workers were markedly more likely to have smaller levels of assets, as 72 percent had less than $25,000 in assets vs. 54 percent for never-married women workers and 31 percent for married women workers. Furthermore, debt was more likely to be a problem for divorced and never-married women workers, where 74 percent and 67 percent, respectively, considered debt a problem compared with 56 percent of married women.
  • Unmarried women were also less likely to have tried to figure out how much money they will need to live comfortably throughout retirement: 48 percent of married women vs. 30 percent of divorced women and 25 percent of never-married women. Yet, divorced women were far less likely to say that various education or financial well-being programs would be very helpful in planning for retirement. In addition, divorced and never-married women workers ranked none of these the highest of among common sources of information for retirement planning.

While divorced women workers stand out as having the lowest retirement confidence, never-married women workers also have lower levels of confidence. There are many supporting factors for this lower confidence, as both divorced and never-married women are less likely to have done a retirement needs calculation or use a professional financial advisor. Common information sources are more likely not to be used by unmarried women workers. These women also are less satisfied with their workplace retirement savings plan. Consequently, unmarried women workers are not finding the information from work as helpful or appealing as married workers.

Unmarried retirees also are facing challenges in retirement. They are more likely to have debt that is impacting their ability to live comfortably in retirement. Their expenses are more likely to be higher than expected, and they are more likely to have retired earlier than planned. Furthermore, they are more likely to have low levels of savings. In contrast, the one bright spot for divorced women and widowed women retirees is that they are more likely than married women retirees to have a plan for their expenses to be paid if they are not able to do so anymore.

The survey results clearly show that women in differing situations could benefit from receiving more specialized information and assistance with retirement preparations and everyday financial issues. The approaches currently being used do not appear to be as effective for many unmarried women workers, likely due to the resulting financial and life-circumstance upheaval of a divorce or death of a spouse. Employers may want to develop new targeted messages, methods, or materials to better reach these groups in order to increase the chances of unmarried women having a financially successful retirement. Help from the financial sector in general could also be beneficial, as many of the unmarried women need help outside of employment.