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Should women save more for retirement than men?

The statistics, if taken alone, can be a little depressing -- for both men and women. In the United States, on average, women live to the age of 80 years and men live to the age of 74. Women earn 73 cents for every dollar earned by men. In addition, during the course of their lives, men will be out of the work force for about 16 months, but women will be on hiatus for 11-plus years on average, because of responsibilities for child rearing and caregiving for elderly parents.

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And here's another sinister statistic: According to the Social Security Administration, the average age of widowhood for women is 56.

"We've got quite a few years of living to finance," says Stacy Francis, certified financial planner with Francis Financial in New York.

Take charge
Gender issues and roles are complicated, and it's tricky to make across-the-board generalizations about behavior, but there is still a tendency for women to let men take care of the money. It's imperative that women -- and men -- be involved in their financial planning.

"Here's a real call to action," says Francis. "Start now. We have a knight-in-shining-armor syndrome, where we expect men to come along and take care of things for us. And I'm not blaming our parents or society, it's just something that's still there. But women really need to take responsibility for their finances because nobody else will."

Lauren Gadkowski, a certified financial planner with Compass Planning Associates in Boston, agrees. "It tends to be women who are kind of happy to give up the reins financially. I definitely think it's changing, and I'm seeing a lot more couples working together, as opposed to an either/or scenario, but people in retirement or working up to retirement right now I still see with that mind-set."

Start saving early
With retirement planning, there are two basic stages: accumulation and spending. The accumulation phase takes a long time and ideally should begin when you're young. The longer your money has to grow, the better.

"I think it's important to make savings important from day one," says Gadkowski. "Everybody, as soon as you get your first job, 10 percent should be automatically invested at the beginning of the month. Pay yourself first rather than waiting to see if you have enough money at the end of the month."

Mark Joseph, a certified financial planner at Sentinel Wealth Investment Inc., in Reston, Va., advocates the same approach to both men and women: Get rich slowly. "If you're working, maximize your employer plans. Take advantage of matching funds from your employer."

If one or both spouses are lucky enough to have an old-fashioned pension plan (the kind that is fully funded by the employer), be aware that most such plans provide benefits for surviving spouses. In some plans, the employee can elect to take a straight-life annuity, which would provide for the largest monthly payout for the duration of only his or her life, but the spouse would have to agree to this option, signing a waiver before witnesses.

 
 
Next: Saving for retirement shouldn't be considered a luxury.
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