How To Talk to Your Mom About Retiring Alone

There are steps to take that could improve her quality of life

Person consoling worried parent
•••

Kiyoshi Hijiki / Getty Images

Catherine Kalina was 54 years old when her husband passed away, leaving her with a 16-year-old son. Aware that the next few years would be emotionally difficult for her child, Kalina took early retirement from her job as a high-school principal.

While she received a pension for her years of work, money was tight. Early retirement meant a reduced pension and paying for her own health care insurance coverage. For the next decade, she stitched together a series of consulting and part-time jobs in education to help boost her monthly income.

Kalina acknowledges that she's lucky to draw on her pension. Many women who retire with less and without a partner often move in with a child.

Learn more about why your divorced, widowed, or single mom may have a harder time saving for retirement, steps she can take right before retirement, and what to do after retirement if she has no financial savings or income.

Key Takeaways

  • Women face unique barriers to saving for retirement.
  • Before retirement, lay out the post-retirement scenario for your mom, then consider options to increase savings and cut debt.
  • Discuss long-term care and estate planning before retirement, as women may face more long-term expenses.
  • After retirement, look into government and other resources for seniors.

Why Your Mom May Not Have Saved

According to the Census Bureau, more women have no retirement savings at all, or less than $100,000 saved. By age 75, women are 40% more likely to be living in poverty in the U.S., compared to men, and women live longer than men worldwide—in the U.S., around five years longer—according to the nonprofit World Economic Forum. As a result, women are more likely to be widowed by age 75.

"Women outlive men, so a big concern is not outliving your assets as well," said Katy Ufferman, an Ohio-based financial planner at Maxwell Financial Management, in an email to The Balance. "We stress the importance of long-term planning to help prepare for this."

Research by the nonprofit Center for American Progress (CAP) shows that women’s economic insecurity stems from many factors. Women are more likely to live in poverty if they are:

  • Women of color
  • Unmarried mothers
  • Living with a disability
  • LGBTQ

For example, if your mom was single while raising you, she likely dealt with conflicting demands on her money, said Kimberlee Davis in an email to The Balance. Davis is managing director and partner at The Bahnsen Group, a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst and author of “The Fiscal Feminist: A Financial Wake-Up Call for Women.”

Depending on the situation, single moms may be caring for children and paying for education, medical, food and clothing costs, and family living expenses. There may not be much left for retirement, Davis said.

CAP attributes lifetime income inequities to:

  • Gender- and racial-based wage and wealth gaps
  • Segregation into low-paying jobs
  • Lack of work-life policies offered by employers
  • Domestic violence
  • Public-support programs that fall short

Together, these factors can make it hard to contribute to retirement. Not to mention that many women avoid the subject. According to a 2020 U.S. Bank survey, only 41% of women ages 55 and older reported feeling confident in their personal finance management abilities (compared to 56% of women under age 35). That study and another from the Federal Reserve showed that women also tend to:

  • Associate financial planning with stress and anxiety
  • Feel less comfortable making investment and retirement decisions
  • Show lower levels of financial literacy

“Generally, women don’t like to engage on the topic of retirement planning, which is unfortunate, because it is especially important for single women, whether they are single by choice, divorce, or death,” Davis said.

Steps To Take Before Retirement

Lack of prior discussion poses problems when unexpected living, medical, or care expenses arise later on, Davis said. This is particularly important where mothers are concerned, she said, because they are likely to live longer. Families need to candidly discuss their mom’s ability to cover retirement and long-term care expenses, and discuss contributions for any gap.

“Even though it can be very difficult to speak to a parent about money and financial realities, do so before a financial or medical crisis forces you to act without the appropriate planning in place, or the time and flexibility you desire in dealing with the situation,” Davis said.

Here’s how to get in front of the stress before it begins.

Get a Big-Picture Outlook

Davis noted that your mom’s financial situation could become crystal clear to both of you if you review her:

  • Liquid savings (such as bank accounts)
  • Investments (retirement accounts)
  • Life insurance
  • Fixed living expenses
  • Health insurance coverage
  • Long-term care coverage

Together, evaluate her essential living and discretionary costs (those that are optional) using a budget. Then compare these costs with her upcoming sources of income, such as Social Security, pensions, annuity income, IRAs, or investment income from taxable investments.

Play with potential spending strategies in retirement—fixed or variable. Compare the monthly costs to retire in different metro areas, counties, or states with the University of Massachusetts’ Elder Index.  Also review your mom’s debt; 61% of older households (those headed by individuals ages 65 and older) had debt, according to a 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances published by the Congressional Research Service. Debt payoff strategies may help.

Look at your mom’s bank accounts to determine how many she has. Multiple accounts “can make things confusing, and it might be a good idea to consider consolidating accounts," said Ufferman.

Continue Working, Make Catch-Up Contributions

If your mom is in good health, she might consider postponing retirement, continuing to work, and contributing to her retirement savings in a 401(k) or IRA for as long as possible, Davis said.

In some cases, a monthly budget review may determine your mom has more money coming in than she needs, Ufferman said. You could meet with a financial advisor to invest this money to fit in with your mom’s overall goals.

After age 50, working people can contribute extra, or “catch-up,” amounts to their retirement accounts. For example, instead of being limited to contributing $5,000 to an IRA, your mom could contribute an extra $1,000, for a total of $6,000 in 2022.

Talk Now About Long-Term Care

According to a 2022 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a little over two-thirds of nursing-home residents are women—and nursing-home care came with a hefty bill of more than $93,075 per year. Women are also more likely to need long-term care because of living longer, and experience disability and chronic illness than men, the report notes.

Your mom may not be able to discuss long-term care issues when the time arises, Davis said. Will she be OK with living in an assisted-living facility, or would she prefer to be cared for in her own home? The answer will inform how to plan now for future expenses.

Consider buying a long-term care insurance policy to help fund the expenses before it’s too late, Davis suggested. She noted that premiums increase with age, but also depend on the length of time and the benefits you want. “You need to have this discussion as early as possible so you and your parents can weigh the options,” she said.

If your mom has assets worth more than $15,000, Medicaid won’t help offset any costs of care, said Sabine Franco in an email to The Balance. Franco works in elder-care law and estate planning at The Ambitious Legacy Firm. “She should consider long-term care insurance, especially at age 55 to 65 while it is more affordable. Long-term care insurance can be used to pay for health care costs instead of draining her assets to do so,” Franco said.

Undertake Estate Planning

Speak with your mom about creating a complete estate plan, Franco said. A plan should include:

  • A list of all accounts and assets
  • Beneficiaries of accounts and assets
  • Health care proxy
  • Power of attorney
  • A trust for property

Franco recommended updating estate documents at least once every two to three years. 

“These updates are crucial because there may be changes made to the language or signature requirements for these designations according to a state’s estates, powers, and trust laws,” she said. If mom didn’t update her will to conform to a change in the law, her will and other planning documents could be questioned in court.

Some employers may offer a benefit that covers employee trusts and estate planning with their legal services, Franco said. Or a parent may belong to a union that covers some or all of those costs.

If you want to help, children pay for or gift their parent’s estate planning all the time, Franco said. However, she added a caveat. “The children must understand and honor that the relationship with the attorney is with their parent, and that should be clearly documented somewhere,” she said. “The children should not be forcing their parent to begin trust and estate planning. It should be something the parent genuinely wants to do.”

If your mom is single or widowed, be sure you and/or the will’s executor knows where documents for the will and/or trust are kept.

Post-Retirement Options

If your mom has just entered retirement and realized she’s short on funds, there are other avenues to explore.

Social Security Income

Although more women than men over age 65 receive Social Security income, women also receive lower amounts, according to Social Security Administration statistics released in 2021. Retired women received an average of $1,378 per month in Social Security income, compared to $1,714 for retired men.

However, women received higher benefits when looking at those who could claim using a spouse’s work record—up to 24% of women could claim under what’s known as “dual entitlement.” If your mom is single due to divorce or her spouse’s death, she may be able to claim benefits using her deceased or ex-spouse’s record, even if that spouse remarried.  Read up on what could qualify your mom for a boost in payments.

Use the Social Security Administration’s site to estimate retirement benefits with your My Social Security Account.

Health Care Coverage

Check into your mom’s health care plans to determine what’s covered, which includes Medicare at age 65 and up. “Medicare does not cover all health care expenses in retirement, and women’s longer life spans mean they accrue nearly $200,000 more in additional medical expenses than men do in later years,” Davis said.

You may need to look into programs such as Medicaid, which can help cover gaps for lower-income retirees. Women 65 and older make up 40% of those enrolled in both Medicare and Medicaid. Medicaid can help cover expenses such as long-term care, and dental and vision care.

Additional Resources

If your mom is short on cash and/or can’t pay her bills, some resources may be available:

  • U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): Provides reverse mortgages to extract equity from a home, housing counseling and assistance, rural housing loans, and rental help.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture: Those ages 60 and up may qualify for ​​the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which provides extra food.
  • IRS: Offers tax breaks and credits for retirees and seniors
  • Nonprofit resources: Regional nonprofits may offer services for seniors or older adults, including free meals, transportation, fitness and health classes, home repair, and other assistance.

Use the National Council on Aging’s (NCOA) website to perform a BenefitsCheckUp to see what’s available in your mom’s zip code for health care and medication, income, housing, utilities, food, disability services, long-term care, and even discounts.

Other options for older mothers may also include moving in with a roommate or significant other to help share expenses. If your mom is resistant to financial help, offer an exchange "so that neither party loses out emotionally," Kalina said. For example, offer to pay your mother an hourly wage to watch the grandchildren every week, and point out the significant assistance that provides you.

Avoid Scams

Not losing precious dollars to scammers can be another way to help your mom, so discuss phone scams. Older women are uniquely vulnerable to these, according to a 2021 report from RBC Wealth Management. Among the tracked scams targeting seniors, 68% of victims were female. Risks stem from women living longer, and the likelihood of living alone or as a caregiver.

Talk to your mom about avoiding common scams, which target feelings of isolation and emotion, and may exploit grief or trauma. These include:

  • Romance scams: Scammers approach people on dating sites and eventually request large transfers of cash.
  • Grandma scams: A caller impersonates a beloved grandchild and pleads for financial help.
  • Government agency scams: A caller impersonating an IRS agent or other government employee threatens punishment if they do not receive money.

The Bottom Line

While your mother likely struggled to provide for others and herself, she may have an opportunity to relax in retirement. With equal parts empathy and research, you could assist your mom in planning for a more financially stable retirement.

Be prepared for the roles to reverse, not just financially, but emotionally as well. “Not only is a widow struggling with loss of a spouse or significant other, but also the loss of that income,” Kalina said. “What I've discovered is that the financial and the emotional are tied together."

Want to read more content like this? Sign up for The Balance’s newsletter for daily insights, analysis, and financial tips, all delivered straight to your inbox every morning!

Article Sources

  1.  Census Bureau. “Women More Likely Than Men to Have No Retirement Savings."

  2. Centers for Disease Control. “National Vital Statistics System,” Page 2. 

  3. Center for American Progress. “The Basic Facts About Women in Poverty.”

  4.  Center for Disease Control. “Love and Loss Among Older Adults."

  5. U.S. Bank. “3 Ways Women Can Take Charge of Their Financial Future.”

  6. Survey of Consumer Finances. “Household Debt Among Older Americans,” Page 2.

  7. IRS. “Retirement Topics - Catch-Up Contributions.”

  8. IRS. “COLA Increases for Dollar Limitations on Benefits and Contributions.”

  9. Kaiser Family Foundation. “Medical Coverage for Women.”

  10. Social Security Administration. “Average Benefit Amounts, 2020.”

  11. Social Security Administration. “Fast Facts and Figures About Social Security, 2021,” Page 28.

  12. Kaiser Family Foundation. “Medicaid Coverage for Women.”

  13. RBC Wealth Management. “Scams Targeting Older Adults Are on the Rise.”