(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed
are his own.)
By Chris Taylor
NEW YORK, April 3 For years, Joanne Condon
tossed and turned at night with the same thoughts running
through her head.
What if her retirement savings just were not enough? What if
that day finally came, when her bank accounts ran dry?
A familiar fear for virtually every American, of course. One
key difference about Condon's situation: She is single, never
married. And that made the fear of outliving her money seem all
the more urgent and stark.
"The biggest challenge is the fact that it is just you,"
says the 56-year-old from East Rutherford, New Jersey. "You
don't have anyone else to rely on, and no one else is
contributing to your retirement."
Condon's fears are being felt by more and more Americans. In
1960, 68 percent of those 15 and older were married, according
to a recent report on marriage trends by the U.S. Government
Accountability Office (GAO). By 2010, that figure had plummeted
to 54 percent.
Meanwhile, the ranks of the divorced, widowed, and
never-married has exploded to 46 percent of the over-15
The demographic shift has been so major that it could
significantly alter the retirement landscape in the years ahead.
Never-married Americans, in particular, may lack such safety
nets as relying on a spouse's income, inheriting his or her
assets, or receiving survivor benefits from a spouse's pension
or Social Security.
"It is such a dramatic increase, compared to the way the
world used to be," says Charlie Jeszeck, director of GAO's
education, workforce and income security team. "It is an
illustration of just how much things have changed, since the
days of Ozzie and Harriet and The Donna Reed Show."
In many ways, this trend can be seen as liberating. People
are marrying much later than in previous decades, not feeling
pressured to get hitched right out of high school or college.
Others simply decide that marriage is not the right choice for
But it cranks up their potential vulnerability in
retirement, to the point that the GAO issued its warning about
what the growing cohort of single, divorced or widowed Americans
is going to mean for our collective golden years.
Indeed, poverty rates for older, single Americans are not
encouraging. Among married folks 65-plus, men are experiencing
an estimated poverty rate of 4.7 percent, and women 4.9 percent.
In contrast, poverty rates for single, widowed and divorced
Americans are all far higher. Among the never-married over 65,
for instance, 15.7 percent of men and 23.2 percent of women are
NO BACK UP
There are a number of unique financial challenges behind
that number. "There is no back-up of a second source of income"
says Jan Cullinane, the Palm Coast, Florida-based author of "The
Single Woman's Guide to Retirement". "Living alone can be more
expensive than living with another person.
"There is also no possibility of a 'built-in' caregiver, if
you ever need one," Cullinane says. "And if traveling without a
roommate, singles often have to pay the dreaded 'single
Still, there are savings strategies singles can pursue.
Cullinane suggests a platonic roommate to keep costs down,
an option that can be explored through the National Shared
Housing Resource Center (www.nationalsharedhousing.org). There
are also a growing number of senior-oriented communities,
offering different levels of assisted living that could be
helpful for a single retiree.
GAO's Jeszeck suggests that Americans in this situation get
particularly aggressive in saving for retirement to mitigate the
challenges and avoid those looming poverty rates.
Without a lot of margin for error, though, you have to run
the table and "do everything right," he says, recommending
single people work longer than they might have expected, save
diligently, and invest wisely.
As for Joanne Condon, her constant worry actually helped set
her up nicely for retirement, since it translated into a
powerful savings plan.
"You wonder what unforeseen circumstance might present
itself, and upset the applecart," Condon says. "I was always
thinking, 'It's all up to you, Joanne. There's no one else
Condon became so diligent, since she knew she had to rely
solely on herself, that she is now retired at the relatively
young age of 56, after a lengthy career in sales for business
insights firm Dun & Bradstreet.
She owns her home outright, and has outlined a three-pronged
retirement plan that includes her corporate pension, her
retirement savings such as an Individual Retirement Account and
Social Security. With the help of planner Kevin Lanahan, she has
got her financial house in order - and is no longer terrified of
"I finally realized I was okay," she says. "Now I can sleep
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Editing by Lauren Young and David Gregorio)