Women, Marriage, and the National Retirement Risk Index

Publication Date: June 2019

Publisher: Center for Retirement Research at Boston College

Author(s): Alicia H. Munnell; Wenliang Hou; Geoffrey Sanzenbacher

Research Area:

Keywords: Retirement security; Retirement saving; Marriage; Household finances

Type: Report

Coverage: United States


In the past, it made sense to think of women’s retirement risk mainly in the context of households, as women spent the vast majority of their lives married. Today, though, women spend more time single than they used to – for example, women approaching retirement will spend just about half their adult lives married. Therefore, thinking about the differential risk that women face based on their marital histories is more important than ever.

This brief uses the National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI) to assess the retirement security of women in their 50s. The NRRI is calculated by comparing households’ projected replacement rates – retirement income as a percentage of pre-retirement income – with target replacement rates that would allow them to maintain their standard of living. These calculations are based on the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, a triennial survey of a nationally representative sample of U.S. households. As of 2016, the NRRI showed that half of households were at risk of falling short in retirement, even if they worked to age 65 and annuitized all their financial assets (including the receipts from reverse mortgages on their homes).

The discussion proceeds as follows. The first section briefly summarizes the construction of the NRRI. The second section describes the increasing independence of women and how this trend would be expected to impact their financial security in retirement. The third section reports the NRRI for women with different marital histories, showing the surprising result that two-earner married couples are most at risk and then explaining this counter-intuitive finding. The final section concludes that two-earner married couples could benefit from more education and broader access to workplace retirement plans. For single women, the findings highlight the value of Social Security in boosting the retirement resources of those with lower incomes.