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The bottom line by Pat Regnier Column archive

Meet my future widow

We all assume our wives will outlive us, yet we forget: It's her retirement we're saving for.

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By Pat Regnier, Money Magazine editor-at-large

Pat Regnier's column "The Bottom line," appears monthly in Money Magazine. Email him at

(Money Magazine) -- I'm worried about my wife. Not that she really has any problems. She's educated, professionally savvy and, thank goodness, perfectly healthy. In fact, according to the Social Security Administration, she can expect to live to 2050. Trouble is, I'm scheduled to kick it in 2047. And that's if we're both average. She's in better shape than I am, so she could be on her own for a lot longer.

I think married men typically assume, in the back of their minds, that they're living with their future widow. (There are four widows for every widower in the U.S.) But we don't always make the obvious connection to our retirement planning: It's mostly her retirement that we're saving for. About 12% of older women are poor compared with 7% of men, in part because more of us guys expire before our money does.

The stay-at-home dilemma

Recently my wife and I made three decisions that put her retirement at risk. The first two are short and blond and like to sing the ABCs at the top of their lungs before sunrise. The third was for her to stay home until decisions one and two are in school. My wife is going years without a paycheck and, crucially, without participating in a pension or 401(k) plan.

Many moms who keep working also take a hit. They may scale back to part time. Or they may step off the fast track; others get knocked off it. All told, having two children may reduce a woman's total earnings by age 45 nearly 20%, says Columbia University's Jane Waldfogel.

Rising divorce rates add to the risk for many women. Social Security payments are based on your earnings, but as long as a woman is married for 10 years, she's entitled to a benefit that's worth at least 50% of her husband's - and at least 100% of his benefit after he dies. But if she divorces earlier, she's on her own.

"What shocks me is how no one knows this," says Madonna Harrington Meyer, co-author of "Market Friendly or Family Friendly?," a book about gender inequality in old age. "If you and your wife got divorced today" - we're at nine years - "there aren't many lawyers who would say, 'Oh, honey, hang on until 10.' "

A new set of rules

We're not getting divorced. The point is, my wife has gone out on a limb for our family. Couldn't the rules work better to help ensure women's (or stay-at-home dads') financial security? Perhaps, as Market Friendly proposes, Social Security should also be tied to the kids you raise, not just the person you marry.

Liberal wish-list items like strong family-leave rights and good public preschools could help balance work and family life. But there are ideas from conservative quarters too, such as extra tuition help for parents who have had a spell out of the work force.

Stepping up to the plate

Politics aside, husbands still have to step up. And since this isn't 1958, that means ceding some control. I'll start by giving my wife the online log-in and password to my 401(k) account.

See what I just did there? I called it "my" account. Better to think of it as ours. If my wife can easily check on it, we'll talk about it more and pay better attention to whether we're on track. And she ought to have a say in how it's managed. Her time horizon is longer, so maybe she'll want us to invest more aggressively.

We can also put more retirement money in her name (if we can find some, that is). Since we file our taxes jointly, we can put up to $5,000 of my earnings into a tax-deductible or Roth IRA for her this year. (Eligibility phases out for some higher-income couples.)

We will need to pare back spending to make that happen. I suspect I'm the weak link here: She's too busy with the kids to spend much on herself. I'm out of the house 10 hours a day, and it's awfully easy to blow $15 at lunchtime in midtown Manhattan.

Finally, we have to invest in her future earnings. My wife is talking about returning to school. Selfishly, I kind of wish she'd get straight back to work so we'd have more money sooner. But she's right. Globalization and technology are making jobs obsolete more quickly, and that's especially bad for anyone who's stepped out for a few years. She wants to hit "reset" on her career so she doesn't have to count on me to get everything right. Good idea. Because I'm sure I won't. To top of page

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