Five Tips for Closing the Military Spouse Retirement Gap

Female military spouses face unique challenges when saving for retirement, says this advisor and military wife.

[Editor’s note: Although this article is about military spouses, the majority of whom are women, it offers good advice for any spouses seeking extra financial security.]

Stacy J. Miller
Stacy J. Miller

Some of the unique challenges women face every day can have a compounding negative effect on their ability to successfully achieve their future retirement goals. Often the caretakers in the family, women take time off from work to care for children and aging parents. This means fewer opportunities for contributing to workplace retirement plans and fewer opportunities for pay raises and promotions. Additionally, women statistically outlive men, so their retirement portfolios need to be larger than a man’s in order to last their lifetime.

Military spouses, 92% of whom are women, face these challenges — and more.

A Unique Set of Challenges

Jody and Stacy Miller celebrating their 23rd wedding anniversary 4 years ago

According to the Blue Star Families 2020 Family Lifestyle Survey Comprehensive Report, the challenges to military spouse employment are the top contributors to financial stress. This unique set of challenges often include the service member’s work schedule and deployments, licensing and credentialing from state to state, a resumé that has many moves and gaps, getting passed over for a raise or promotion because managers believe the military spouse will move soon, availability and affordability of childcare, and not having the local connections that can facilitate employment opportunities.

“Military spouses have an unemployment rate that is almost 12 times the national average (up to 35% versus 3% nationally, pre-pandemic).”

Stacy Miller, U.S. Army Colonel (Retired) Jody Miller and his mother, Dee Miller at 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team Change of Command ceremony (Joint Base Lewis McChord, Washington)

Military spouses have an unemployment rate that is almost 12 times the national average (up to 35% versus 3% nationally, pre-pandemic). Of the employed military spouses who were surveyed, 67% said they were underemployed. This means they work fewer hours than desired, are overqualified, and receive lower pay than in previous positions or lower pay than experience and/or education would suggest.

I am a military spouse to a now-retired U.S. Army veteran. We moved 14 times in 27 years. I was regularly unemployed or underemployed. My resume was filled with gaps, and my retirement portfolio is not nearly sufficient.

The Miller family, Jackson (now 22, a senior at Auburn University) Jody, Stacy and Jameson (now 20, a junior at Georgia Institute of Technology)

My story is like many others because my future financial security is directly tied to my husband’s, and that is not a comfortable place to be. We have been together for over 30 years and married for 27. I trust him completely, but death and divorce are real. According to the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, 80% of women die single. And the reality is military spouses are married to service members who risk their lives on a daily basis.

Extra Effort Required

The bottom line for military families and military spouses is that a comfortable retirement will take extra effort. If you have a military family as a client, please share my five tips for closing the military spouse retirement gap:

  1. Ask for a raise or a promotion. I can promise if you do not ask, you will not receive a raise or a promotion. Set yourself up for success and be prepared to explain why you deserve it. Overall, military spouses are problem-solvers, resilient, adaptable, creative, dependable, loyal and hardworking — all traits that deserve to be recognized.
  2. Have a candid money conversation with your spouse. You need to understand your service member’s (or retiree’s) financial security. Will their retirement savings be enough to support you both? Do you have an emergency fund to cover emergencies so that you never have to touch your retirement portfolio? Do you have life insurance that will cover your spouse after he gets out of the military? What happens in the event of death? I know this last questions is uncomfortable, but when you are grieving that is not the time to try to figure these things out.
  3. Contribute to your spousal IRA. The working spouse (service member) can contribute to a non-working spouse’s (military spouse’s) IRA (Roth or Traditional) up to $6,000 a year in 2021 or $7,000 if the spouse is over 50, taking advantage of catch-up contributions. These accounts are tax-advantaged and can be tax-deferred or tax-free, so don’t miss this opportunity to invest wisely.
  4. Don’t just save; invest. Right now, savings accounts are paying an average of 0.06%. (To be clear, that’s point zero six percent, not six percent.) If you have $10,000 saved for a year at this rate, you will only earn $6. In contrast, the S&P 500 has gained 19.27% so far this year. If you had $10,000 invested in an S&P 500 index fund or ETF, you may have gained $1,927 in eight months. Compounding interest and compounding returns are the keys to successful investing.
  5. Become an entrepreneur. When I was 45 years old, my kids were graduating high school, and my husband had 25-years in the military. I decided to become a partner with my current firm so that I could work remotely and build a business that would add to my future financial security. (Yes, I worked remotely before the pandemic made it cool and easy.) When you are your own boss, you control so much more.

Military spouses are just as concerned about their future financial security as any of your other clients. At times it can feel like they have no control, so assistance with planning and tips for success will add great value to your relationship.

For more information on helping retiring military clients through their transition to civilian life, please read the Rethinking65 companion article. I hope you will use what I have shared to serve military spouses with integrity, empathy and pride.

Stacy Miller is a CFP professional and partner with Bright Investments, LLC. She is a fee-only fiduciary wealth advisor and member of the Financial Planning Association (FPA) and the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (Napfa). Stacy is also a U.S. Army military spouse to her retiree husband of 27-years. She can be reached at smiller@brightinvestmentsllc.com or 334-226-8927.

 

 

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