A recent report from Merrill Lynch shows that 42% of U.S. adult women say they will run out of money by the time they reach age 80.

No doubt, women have made remarkable strides as a demographic in recent decades. For example, women couldn’t even individually apply for a credit card until 1974 and in 2017, women widened the gap over men when it comes to college enrollment, by a ratio of 44% to 37%.

Additionally, women in critical C-suite management roles grew to 25% — that’s up from 23% in 2018, and up substantially over the past decade. Female professional incomes have also grown by 75% from 1970 to 2015, compared to 5% for men, according to Merrill Lynch.

Aging, demographics a factor in women’s retirement savings shortfall

Even so, the Merrill Lynch numbers on women and retirement income are alarming, especially given that women are doing better economically.

That’s primarily because women live longer than men, by an average of five additional years, with women outnumbering men by a two-to-one ratio at age 85. As the Merrill Lynch study notes, fear of outliving their retirement savings is a legitimate issue for U.S. women.

“These fears are not unwarranted,” the report states. “The typical retirement costs $738,000, yet only 9% of American women have $300,000 or more saved.”

Demographics also come into play.

“Longevity is a critical issue for women, (and that’s) probably one of the biggest reasons why women’s needs are so different than men’s in terms of financial saving and investing.,” says Annamarie Lusardi, academic director at the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center, at George Washington University.

Yes, age is one issue, but why the lackluster retirement savings efforts among women?

Tradition and confidence are two big explanations.

“Traditionally married women may not have been involved with their household’s finances outside of the expenses needed to run their household,” says Steffa Mantilla, an investment expert and founder of the blog Plantsonify. “Stemming from this mindset, women may not feel as confident in their understanding of retirement planning. They also may not have ever been taught the ins and outs of retirement planning.”

Some women are getting the message and taking direct action.

“I personally am behind on retirement goals,’ says Marissa Sanders, a personal money coach and founder of Simple Money Mom, a personal finance site for women. “As of today, I have just $35,000 saved for retirement. As a 30-year-old woman, I should have at least $65,000 if I am going by the general rule of having one years’ worth of income by age 30.”

Eliminating debt and living below her means has helped allow Sanders to re-engage with her retirement savings and now she’s aiming for a $4 million fund when she retires. “If I do that, I won’t run out of money by age 75,” she says.”

Take these action steps to make up lost time on retirement savings

Women who have lagged, or not even started, their retirement savings program do have some actionable tools at their disposal to play “catch up” on their retirement savings.

Specifically, these tools should be put into good use first, with minimal, or better yet, no delay:

1. Equate savings with lifestyle and act accordingly.

A great way to play catch-up is to not allow lifestyle creep, says Mantilla. “Any yearly pay raises or bonuses should be directly allocated towards retirement savings,” she says. “If it doesn’t enter your checking account then the temptation to use it on consumer items is lessened.”

Do so by having all of your paycheck deposited into a separate bank account that then automatically transfers the money you need for your monthly budget into your checking account, Mantilla adds. “The extra money that isn’t eligible to go into a retirement account is fine to stay in a savings or money market account to build up a savings buffer,” she says.

2. If possible, run your family/household finances.

Holly Wolf, a former bank chief marketing officer runs the finances in her home, and that’s a valuable financial experience for any retirement saver. “I manage the finances of our family,” she says. “It’s just two of us, my husband, and no kids. That’s a financial advantage over women with families, as is being married.”

Getting educated enough to properly manage the household finances wasn’t problematic – you just have to make the time to do so, Wolf says.

“I read books, listened to radio programs and subscribed to magazines like Kiplinger,” says Wolf. “Today you have access to countless podcasts, online resources and your public library to get the information for free.”

Commit to investing two hours a week to your personal finance education campaign. “Turn off the television, step away from the computer games and invest in yourself,” she advises. “Get to know the good money management gurus like Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman and follow their lead.”

saving for retirement
Getty/Weekend Images

3. Get a professional on your side.

Use a full-service financial planner, Wolf strongly advises. “Would you attempt to repair your engine if you knew nothing about it?” she asks. “Yes, you’ll pay a fee just like you do to the mechanic. But avoiding financial planning mistakes is well worth it.

4. Have your own retirement account.

“One piece of advice I offer to women is to have your very own retirement account,” says Alicia Rose Hudnett, a financial planner at The Business of Your Life, LLC.

“Unlike other types of accounts, a retirement account cannot be jointly held,” Hudnett says. “Therefore, many women say their spouses are saving for retirement, but I always make it clear that that money is in a retirement account that the women do not have access to.”

How can you get your own retirement account? It’s easy, Hudnett says.

“First, everyone should have their own retirement account in their own name,” she says. “Second, even if a woman is not in the workforce, she can open and/or continue to contribute to an IRA under the spousal IRA rules if applicable. These are two important points for women to understand when investing for retirement.”

5. Pay yourself first – always.

To properly save an adequate amount of money for retirement, it pays to prioritize number one – and that means you.

“As a personal finance coach, my number one piece of advice to women is to pay themselves first,” says Amy White, a family finances specialist and founder of the web site Daily Successful Living. “Starting today, every woman needs to set aside 10% of their income for retirement planning.”

White acknowledges that, for many people, 10% seems like a huge amount of money. “Yet after years of working with people, I’ve come to realize that virtually everyone has a few things they can cut from their budget to make this goal possible. The important thing is to start saving today.”

6. Be more aggressive with your retirement investment portfolio.

“Women tend to be more conservative investors than men,” says Robert R. Johnson,  professor of finance, Heider College of Business, Creighton University. “That is, women are more likely to seek security and take fewer risks than men do and thus tend to be less aggressive investors.”

While that strategy sounds good, on the surface having a more conservative asset allocation over the long run leads women investors to accumulate less wealth.

“Specifically, women are more likely to have a larger asset allocation to bonds versus stocks,” Johnson says. “According to data compiled by Ibbotson Associates, large capitalization stocks (think S&P 500) returned 10.0% compounded annually from 1926-2018. Over that same time period long-term government bonds returned 5.5% annually, long-term corporate bonds returned 5.9% annually, and Treasury-bills returned 3.3% annually.”

Consequently, the surest way to build wealth over long time horizons is to invest in a diversified portfolio of more income-producing common stocks. “Being conservative may allow you to sleep well in the short run, but often prevents you from eating well in the long run.”

Taking control over your retirement savings starts now.

All of the experts interviewed for this story agreed that there is no room for procrastination in getting your retirement savings program back on track.

With longer lives, typically shorter careers, and more family demands, women do have an uphill climb in achieving real retirement financial security.

In that regard, starting sooner rather than later to generate more money for retirement isn’t a luxury.

It’s a necessity.