How Single Women Can Thrive in Retirement

A Single Women's Guide To Thriving During Retirement
Mother and children kayaking Northeast Creek.
Mother and children kayaking Northeast Creek.

Author gives tips on managing finances, dealing with divorce, and looking for love

While delivering talks to a variety of companies and organizations, retirement expert Jan Cullinane was approached by single women who told her they needed help. Some said they were "happily never married" and looking for a place to relocate. Others, who were widowed and looking for companionship, wanted tips on how to start dating again. Some were divorced but said their ex-husbands had done all of the financial planning, so they wanted advice on how to manage their money.

After hearing these concerns echoed across the country, Cullinane decided to write AARP's "The Single Woman's Guide to Retirement." She spoke with U.S. News about how women can make smart decisions on the path to financial stability, love, and self-fulfillment. Excerpts:

You wove anecdotes from single women throughout the book to illustrate certain concepts. Which stories resonated with you the most?

The ones about the "gray divorce," meaning they were married for 20 years or more and then got divorced. Some took a very humorous approach, while one woman was floored by her divorce. Another woman initiated it but was still very sad.

The tips for women who had become widowed and how they dealt with their grief also resonated with me. From the woman who said she got a rescue dog because she didn't want to come home to an empty house at night, to the woman who said yes to everything for the first six months and found that even though that was difficult, it was a way to get her engaged with the world, their stories were moving.

Do you think single women have a harder time navigating retirement than single men?

I can't say that I'm an expert on the single men, but I would have to say yes because of the fact that women live longer, so they're going to have that longer horizon. And if they're doing the same jobs as men, they're paid less. They also tend to be more risk-adverse in investing, which sometimes works in their favor but sometimes works against them.

Negotiation skills are another thing. Research shows women aren't as good at negotiating as men. So because they're not as good at negotiating their first salary, and you roll that down for 40 years, that can make a huge difference in their nest egg.

What tips do you have for single women who want to continue working in retirement but want to pursue a different line of work?

Single women who want to work part-time should look at companies that also provide healthcare benefits, such as many school systems, for example, if you're a crossing guard or a classroom aid. You can also get benefits by working for a Starbucks or a Trader Joe's.

Some women create their own jobs. One woman was a makeup artist, but she just created a tool belt to carry around the makeup. Another woman loved animals, so she started her own dog-walking and dog-sitting business.

One woman started a baby-proofing business. She lives in an affluent area and she goes into people's homes and crawls around like she's a baby and looks to see, from the baby's perspective, what first-time parents need to baby-proof a home.

So it's almost like your imagination is the only thing that can limit you in creating your own job.

What are some factors single women overlook when trying to decide where they want to retire?

I always say everybody -- not only single women but men as well -- should look for universal design in a home. Universal design is where a home is built so that you can age in place longer. It's incorporating things like wider hallways in case you end up in a wheelchair, a first-floor entry that's at the same level without any steps, a first-floor master bedroom.

A lot of single women also don't consider co-housing communities. They are loosely a throwback to the old communes, where there's one common building where people share meals but you also have your own residence. These communities have tremendous social support, which is so important for single women. If they don't have children or they're not very close to their children, they need that extra support.

Your book points out that many single women are concerned they'll run out of money in retirement. What steps can they take to try to ensure that doesn't happen?

First, instead of retirement savings, I like to change the thinking to lifetime savings. People may not work for so many years and then retire. They may be in and out of the workforce. When you think of lifetime savings, it means start now. Start as early as you can. Start putting money away. Live beneath your means. I like the idea of "put yourself first." If you have kids or grandkids and you want to pay for their college education, they've got a much longer time to recover than you do. So even though it seems sort of selfish, you're actually doing them a favor by thinking of yourself first.

Single women should think about having a roommate. An AARP survey found that 57 percent of women are open to a non-romantic roommate -- and two can live more cheaply than one.

You cite that about a quarter of a million women over 50 get divorced each year, and that two-thirds of divorces are initiated by women. Do you think that's a sign that a large number of women prefer to be single in retirement?

I don't know if they prefer to be single in retirement, but I think now women are getting to the point where they may not feel they have to have a man -- good or bad -- in retirement. I think they feel, in some cases, even if they're going to struggle more financially because they don't have a second income, it's worth the tradeoff. I think they feel more independent than women did in the past.

What overarching message do you hope readers of your book come away with?

I'd like them to think that the book is like a bunch of smart women sitting around and having a discussion with them -- giving examples, sharing their experiences, providing resources, and doing it a non-threatening, helpful, supportive way. And for them to know that there is a lot of help out there.

Read more on U.S. News

Before You Go

Sunny Climes: Santa Fe, New Mexico

Fortune Magazine's "Best Places To Retire Now"

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