Women’s growing career and financial power doesn’t necessarily translate to long-term financial wellness. That’s the takeaway from a new Merrill Lynch/Age Wave study released Thursday, April 19, “Women & Financial Wellness: Beyond the Bottom Line”.

“Women are driving big changes in the labor force, in their communities and workplaces, and in their homes,” said Sheri Bronstein, global human resources executive at Bank of America at a panel announcing the study on Wednesday evening. But while much has changed, women are still at a disadvantage when it comes to financial wellbeing.

The study is based on a nationally representative sample of 2,638 women and 1,069 men in the U.S. over the age of 18, surveyed between October 25 and November 22, 2017.

Women's Biggest Financial Regret

Women are less likely than their male peers to invest, though 84% of survey respondents link career flexibility and understanding their finances. The survey participants’ biggest financial regret is “not investing more.”

That doesn't mean women are leaving it all to chance. Only one in four women 18 and older has not planned at all for her future. What's holding them back from doing more: The study cites women “not having the knowledge to invest” and “not having the confidence” as the major reasons they do not invest.

While women tend to be as confident as men in completing most financial tasks, they are notably less so when it comes to investing their money (52% compared to 68% of men). Adding to the lack of confidence is social taboo: 61% of women surveyed would prefer to talk about their own death than about money.

“Millennial women had the least confidence in investing,” said Maddy Dychtwald, Age Wave co-founder, while older women were more likely to be confident. “This presents a significant opportunity for cross-generational mentorship.”

1:21

How Women In Transition Should Mind Their Finances

Lack of Role Models

It doesn't help that media targeted to women is notably thin on financial information. Of 1,594 pages of editorial content from leading women’s magazines surveyed in March 2018, fewer than 1% of pages covered personal finance.

That problem is compounded by the financial services industry which, according to Megan Driscoll, founder and CEO of EvolveMKD, a public relations firm, “doesn’t advertise in women’s magazines.” While half of the financial services industry’s customer base is female, 70% of women report that the financial industry has traditionally catered to men. For example, financial planning models don't allow for the kind of breaks from work that many women take to raise children or care for aging family members.

Part of the problem is that much financial media is written in a male-focused voice, said Diane Harris, former editor-in-chief of Money magazine. Diane found that, while she was editor, 30% of her print subscribers were female. Once they shifted their web voice to focus more on women, female readership “jumped to 50%.” Part of it is “speaking to women in a way they want to be spoken to.”

Beyond the Pay Gap

Much has been written about the gender pay gap and the numbers bear repeating: Women earn 82 cents for every dollar that a man in a similar position makes. But these present-value figures “fail to demonstrate how the pay gap accumulates and compounds over the course of a woman’s life,” according to Merrill Lynch. (For more, see One Big Factor Driving the Gender Pay Gap)

While the average women spends 44% of her adult life outside of the workforce, the average man is only removed for 28%. The effects of those career interruptions – to care for children, an ailing parent or an ill spouse – tend to accumulate over time to the tune of a $1,055,000 gap in lifetime earnings between men and women. And that, of course, affects how much money women have to invest.

Planning to Age 100

With one in four 65-year-olds  today living past age 90 and one in 10 living past 95, everyone needs to plan for a longer lifespan. The most prudent number: age 100. That's especially true for women, whose average life expectancy is five years longer than that for men.

The problem of having financial security for that longer lifespan is compounded by the fact that women tend to retire earlier (perhaps to care for an ailing spouse) and with less saved. Only 9% of American women have $300,000 or more put aside. What they need for a typical retirement, according to the Merrill Age Wave study: $738,000. In addition, women's longer lives mean they accrue nearly $200,000 more in medical expenses in their later years. The sobering out-of-pocket healthcare costs through retirement (including long-term care): $494,000 for men, but $688,000 for women.

"The foundation of saving for retirement hasn't changed to support the 100-year life," said Victoria Mazur, head of compensation and benefits at Lord Abbett. "People aren't thinking about this."  

Moving on From Here

“Women’s life journeys are not only different than men’s, they’re different than the life journeys of our mothers and grandmothers,” said Maddy Dychtwald.

As Megan Driscoll told the panel on Wednesday evening, “Laws may change, but attitudes in society take much longer.” Boomers grew up with limitations it took federal legislation to remove. Lenders frequently required that women applying for a mortgage loan present a spouse's or male relative's signature until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act banned the practice in 1974. And until 1988, women in many states still needed a man’s signature in order to apply for a business loan. Thank the Women's Business Ownership Act for ending that inequity. 

“Women have come a long way both personally and professionally, but when it comes to their finances, there is still a trail left to blaze,” said Lorna Sabbia, head of Retirement and Personal Wealth Solutions for Bank of America Merrill Lynch in a statement. 

What can help women achieve financial wellness? The study has four major recommendations:

  • Break the taboo around money talk. 
  • Turn longevity into an asset.
  • Acknowledge financial challenges that impact women.
  • Plan early and often.

In other words, women can take control of their financial futures by talking with friends, mentors and professionals about money; starting early so their money has time to grow; saving and planning for career interruptions or more expensive healthcare costs; and planning and doing course corrections along the way as needed. (For more, see Overcome the Retirement "Gender Gap")