Financial Fears in the Age of COVID-19: Help Yourself Just by Starting

New research numbers are sad enough to rattle anyone close to retirement age. They show one out of every four women are even less confident than they were before COVID-19 hit that they’ll have financial security after leaving the workforce. And a third report that they’re currently “just getting by to cover expenses.”

It has been a brutal year for everyone. But for many women it brings unique financial stressors, on top of obstacles they’ve faced all along. After all, women historically earn less than men— plus, they take a hit if they’ve stayed out of the paid workforce (for an average of nine years) raising children and/or taking care of a spouse or older parents.

That’s nine years of not saving in a work-based retirement plan, and it’s rare to find caregiving women saving in an IRA, either. These bleak numbers mirror what many of us witness in our work: we’ve met the older women who are just hanging on, waiting for their Social Security increase at the end of every year, dependent upon that program for 50 to 80 percent of their monthly income.

But as demoralized as women may be about their financial situation, they don’t have the luxury of ignoring it. I’ve heard women say, “It will all take care of itself”—but obviously it won’t. Because retirement lasts about 20-plus years, women need a real plan to provide for what may be a long life with expensive healthcare costs.

And because women live longer than men, they also must plan for what may be a life alone. Yet when asked, “What type of retirement plan do you have?”—many women just shrug their shoulders. Professionals in the aging sector need to convey, no matter their age, that women must take charge of their finances, even if they have little confidence about what steps to take. There’s no perfect blue-sky day on which to begin this process. Instead they should jump in now—bit by bit, to feel more in control.

What we at WISER (Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement) tell women:

Know what one has or find out:

To learn about claiming Social Security benefits, sign up for an online my Social Security account. Social Security is the foundation of retirement for most American women. But many don’t realize they have choices about how and when to claim benefits. For instance, if they begin collecting early before full retirement age, (currently age 66, for those born between 1943 and 1954), their benefits will be permanently reduced by as much as 25 to 30 percent.

Or women may be eligible to collect a larger benefit based on an ex-spouse’s work record rather than on their own, assuming they were married for 10 or more years and that the ex-spouse is age 62 or older and they were divorced at least two years prior to beginning to collect Social Security benefits. The importance of these decisions may loom larger after using the Social Security Life Expectancy Calculator to get an estimate of how long one might live.

Every woman needs an understanding of all the assets she could rely upon—especially if they are counting on sharing a partner’s or spouse’s benefits. This could include an emergency fund, retirement savings accounts and other investment accounts, life insurance and disability coverage.

Knowing what one has is an important first-step in successful planning. Many women don’t have that critical information. Learning about voluntary benefits might also help—or learning the costs and value of guaranteed income from an annuity may prove invaluable.

There’s great benefit in knowing the financial goals of others in similar situations, too. The Latina Savings Project, conducted by WISER and MANA (a National Latina Organization) with funding from AARP, showed that low- and moderate-income Latina women were more motivated to save money when they shared their savings goal with peers.

Taking a financial workshop—no matter one’s age—and discussing finances with friends: these steps can lead to concrete goals and results.

No amount is too small to save:

Many women need to start both a savings account for emergencies and a retirement fund—while they pay down debt. The crucial message is: Any contribution matters. They can only manage twenty dollars a month? They should do that, and congratulate themselves. By the end of the Latina Savings Project, those who had saved for six months were confident they would be able to maintain their newfound savings habit.

Put oneself first. It’s not selfish.

Women should know: never use savings to help pay off a family member’s debt. And if someone left their job to be the designated caregiver for their 85-year-old father with dementia, then they should ask siblings—who are not giving up their jobs—for a personal family care agreement designating the caregiver as an independent contractor. The agreement can include funds to start an individual retirement account (IRA) such as a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP).

Know that revising the plan as one ages may become necessary due to financial challenges:

Some women may not be able to retire at age 66 as they had planned; they may need to work part-time, downsize or even find a roommate. Sometimes it’s necessary to choose the less attractive Option B in order to not run out of money.

All of this is what women need to hear. I started WISER after my former company froze my pension, and I realized how easy it is to become part of the poverty statistics. The more I learned, the more I wanted all women to be knowledgeable about their finances.

Two things we hear over and over from retired women: “I wish I had saved more and I wish I had paid more attention.”

Note their words and take action where possible. We all need to protect and learn as much as we can about Social Security and Medicare—the two most important programs women rely upon.
For more motivation, contact us at We promise—no lectures—we all have stories.

Cindy Hounsell is president of the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER), a nonprofit founded in 1996 and based in Washington, DC.