It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of no fortune must be in want of a retirement plan. As a 40something person, I find myself thinking about my future from time to time, and worrying a bit about what exactly will happen to me. Now, none of us have the answer to this but God, so that concern isn’t relegated only to singles and only to women. However, singles, and especially single women, do seem to have more cause for concern.
According to this 2021 Retirement Confidence Survey, single women tend to be in the worst financial position going into retirement by quite a large percent. Single men also fall behind their married counterparts. It is a genuine concern. The survey doesn’t go into the causes of this, just the reality of its existence.
Now I realize that I have lived my life in a rather nontraditional way, and my finances have reflected that. I paid my own way through college and graduate school and am still paying off the loans of the latter. I traveled quite a bit, though much of that was done incredibly cheaply or even for free as a chaperone for school trips. I changed jobs in the wrong financial direction (going from higher to lower paying ones) in order to find better life balance, physical and mental health, and be near my family (I still do not regret this trade off).
On top of these individual decisions, however, are factors that have impacted my finances merely from being a single woman all these years.
Let’s start with the woman part – as confident as I am, I fall victim to one of the problems with self-perspective that often preys upon women. That is, I haven’t always valued my time, skills, and experience. I tend not to ask for raises. I don’t try to bargain about salaries when starting a position, but just accept the offer on the table. Some combination of my evangelical culture which often requires everything of a woman with nothing in return (metaphorical martyrdom for ministry and family and service and assisting men and taking care of everyone other than yourself is big for women in the church), a bit of Imposter Syndrome, fear of reprisal from the almost-all male bosses, and just never having been told I even could negotiate salaries or ask for raises played into this. Which is common for women. We are way less likely to do any of these things, and it’s not because we don’t deserve them as much as the men in our workplaces, it’s purely a systemic part of our culture and a difference in the way we raise women to approach work versus men. Women are also more likely to be seen as demanding, shrill, uppity, or even bitchy when asking for these things when a man would come across as confident leadership material. The professional backlash can be strong. And sadly, even though women are getting better at asking for raises using the exact same techniques as men, we are still less likely to get them.
The second part of this is that I was one of the many many women who got paid less than the men in my same position, even though I had more responsibilities than some of them and better student outcomes. I did not know this for several years, of course, because our society frowns upon sharing salaries which means that women and minorities are often paid less but never know it for sure. So as a woman, I have earned less and therefore have had much less to save for my future.
Now for the single part of why my future is more precarious than many of my married cohort. Most of my married friends are double income households for at least part of the marriage, which means rents/mortgages/utilities/etc. have been shared. Even friends who took time off work while their children were young were able to buy houses before that because they had a few years of dual income first. There is help in paying off loans and cars and everything. And yes, the bills are slightly higher for groceries and maybe 2 cars instead of 1, but the rent and utilities tend to be not much higher for marrieds than singles, and again is often split.
Married folks are also way more likely to buy a home than continue to rent, which gives them equity. Part of this again is the shared income – it is incredibly difficult to buy any place as a single person unless you get an inheritance or come from a well-off family who will assist you in that first mortgage. Singles are more likely to get higher interest rates on loans as well, and often need to find someone to cosign if their credit isn’t established. So we end up renting for much, if not all, of our lives and miss out on that equity. And, due to perceived and absolutely false stereotypes of single people (viewed as irresponsible flight risks) versus single families (viewed as more responsible and stable), landlords and realtors often discriminate against single renters and buyers, which makes the housing pool much more narrow and therefore more competitive for the types of homes a single person can afford. Unfortunately, most of us singles don’t have a glam group of Golden Girls just waiting to go in together on a fabulous retirement house for all.
Singles also tend to pay more in taxes. We end up paying more income taxes, get less out of Social Security than our married counterparts even though we pay the same amount into it, we pay more penalties for IRA related expenses than marrieds, we pay way more for our healthcare because we can’t have shared health insurance policies, and we often don’t have someone at home to help care for us when we are ill so we have to pay for more outside help if necessary.
All of these expenses don’t even begin to touch the extra financial burden placed on single parents, especially single mothers. They have to deal with all of the above, plus incredibly expensive childcare costs, healthcare for their kids, education costs for children, and so much more.
All this to say, singles worrying about our futures is a valid concern, especially for single women. And very few ever discuss this – especially in the church. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever talked about this in a church setting or heard about this. Churches talk about ministering to the singles in their community, but are they actually taking care of true needs? Can we focus only on “spiritual needs” when someone is struggling to have housing and healthcare as they get older? The churches I’ve been a part of in the past think they’re doing something about this by taking special collections, or giving people some small money here and there if a great need arises, but this is a systemic issue which requires systemic change. Donations and handouts are good and necessary, but they are Band-Aids on gaping wounds. The church needs to be on the forefront of trying to change how our society views and treats singles, especially single women, so we aren’t going into our later years at a clear disadvantage compared to all others.
We need to pressure our workplaces into paying men and women equally and being open about salaries from the beginning. We need to consider women for higher paying jobs and encourage them to apply, even when they may not have considered it for themselves at first because they lack self-confidence. We need to rent and sell homes to singles without prejudice. We need to vote for changes to our Social Security and healthcare systems. We need to put societal and legal pressure on our culture in order to help it grow and serve more of us. The church is not exempt from this just because it donates to good causes here and there. The church should be fighting for the vulnerable, oppressed, and underrepresented. For justice.
Sadly, I’ve found that the Christian organizations for which I worked were often the worst offenders. The way the white evangelical church raises its girls to worship marriage before all, to see ourselves as doormats for others, to feel immense guilt any time we think of ourselves and our needs, to berate ourselves for not being humble enough or servant-hearted enough sends us out into the world unprepared to stand up for ourselves when we need to, to fight for our worth in the workplace, and to take care of ourselves if we don’t happen to find a knight in shining armor to take care of us (or it turns out that knight is actually horrible, or the knight leaves us, or dies).
Christians, do better. Christian parents, do better. Christian organizations, do better. Churches, do better. America, do better. And singles, especially single women, it’s time to start taking some small but decisive steps to financially take care of ourselves just as our male and married counterparts are already doing. We’re not asking for more than anyone else is getting, we’re asking for the same.