personal finance

For Widows: 3 Life-Changing Financial Resolutions

Build your confidence along with your balance sheet by following these three financial resolutions just for widows.

Widowhood is one of the highest financial risk factors women face, and as such, you might consider making at least one New Year’s resolution for 2022 about improving your finances. This could be the year that you take charge of your finances and put good money habits into place. These kinds of financial resolutions can bring you peace of mind, comfort and, most of all, put you on the path to long-term financial security.

Why is money management more critical for widows?

Widows have a much higher risk of falling into poverty, because their income drops significantly after their spouse dies. The monthly Social Security benefits cut for widows ranges from 33% to 50%, compared to the couple’s combined benefit, according to EveryCRSReport.com. The income drop is even greater if the spouse’s pension plan through work is reduced or eliminated upon their death.

The Congressional Research Service pegs the current poverty rate for widowed women in America ages 65 and above at nearly 15%. This is almost 40% higher than the poverty rate for widowers. 

What resolutions work?

Despite good intentions, most resolution makers fail. Nearly two-thirds of people abandon their New Year’s resolution within just one month, according to a recent UK study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The No. 1 factor that caused resolution makers to give up was choosing a resolution that was not specific enough.

With that in mind, if you want your financial resolutions to stick, stay away from vague pledges, such as:

  • “Paying off debt.”
  • “Saving more.”
  • “Spending less.”
  • “Making more money.”

Instead, do what Alexandra Shepis, CFP®, CDFA® and Associate Financial Advisor with Francis Financial recommends: Be specific. During her career as a financial expert specializing in supporting widows, she advises clients to set specific goals that include a precise number of dollars saved over a particular time to assist people in sticking to their goals. She has also witnessed the support and care women need, first-hand, with her mother after her father passed.  Shepis backs up her recommendations by creating a holistic financial plan that models out her clients’ financial needs until age 95 and gives them a recipe to follow for financial success. 

Shepis believes that financial resolutions can work, and has shared the following suggested resolutions for widows, which give them substantially more “stickiness.”

Resolution #1: Get a team that’s a good fit

Put together a financial team that includes a fee-only, fiduciary financial adviser. According to Shepis: "Many of our widowed clients have never managed finances on their own, before. Their husbands handled most of the long-term investments, and sometimes the accountants and financial advisers only had a relationship with him. As a result, widows tell us that they want their own financial team that they can trust." 

If you decide that your financial adviser is not the right fit for you, you are not alone. Up to 70% of widows leave their husband's financial adviser within a year of their death, according to Vanguard research. Some women leave because they were not fully involved in financial planning and investment decision-making. The adviser's relationship was with their deceased husband and not them. They are looking for an adviser who will treat them as an equal and be a sounding board for the avalanche of financial decisions they must now make on their own. "We regularly remind all widows that they are not alone during this transition, and should hire an adviser who understands their needs," Shepis shares. 

Before you hire a financial adviser, be sure to do a little homework. Company websites give a lot of information, such as the financial advisers' bios and more, but also be sure to review the firm's ADV at www.SEC.gov, and dig into the section on compensation and services. Ask friends and family for recommendations, but remember that just because they love their financial adviser, they might not have the expertise of working with widows like you.

An excellent resource to find a financial adviser is to visit NAPFA.org. The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors is a professional association for fee-only, fiduciary financial advisers. These 3,800 practitioners all over the country are committed to working in the best interests of their clients and are required to meet strict continuing education requirements. 

These financial advisers differentiate themselves by meeting the highest fiduciary and competency standards in the financial planning profession. Every adviser also operates on a fee-only basis. This means they do not accept commissions, which create a conflict of interest. Their only purpose is to look out for their clients’ overall financial well-being.

Resolution #2: To relieve your fears, put pen to paper

Write down your most significant financial fears and explain how you plan to address them. 

For most widows, the greatest fear is running out of money, even when it is not a realistic concern. The most crucial step to protect against outliving your income and savings is to create a detailed inventory of your assets and debts. Next, add all income you receive from Social Security, employment and any pensions or real estate rental income. Once you have your total monthly income, compare this with the amount you spend each month. If there is a deficit, devise a plan to make up the shortfall. This boost could be from cutting expenses or earning more through employment or other creative means.

You will know that you have enough saved in your investment portfolio when you have accumulated ample money to supplement your income to maintain your lifestyle in retirement. One rule that is widely used to determine if you have saved enough for retirement is the 4% safe withdrawal rate rule. According to this formula, if you withdraw 4% of your investment portfolio in the first year of your retirement and ongoing each year thereafter, you will have a low risk of running out of money for the next 30 years.

Resolution #3: Reposition your investments for your new needs as a widow 

The mixture of stocks and bonds you had during your marriage is often not appropriate for you now that you are on your own. Avani Ramnani, CFP®, CDFA®, CPWA®, is the Director of Financial Planning and Wealth Management at Francis Financial. She shares a cautionary tale for widows: "A recent client came to us with questions about the way that her money was invested. We reviewed the portfolio she inherited from her late spouse and discovered that nearly 40% of her money was invested in risky emerging-market stocks. These were not appropriate for a widow in her mid-60s who wasn't interested in playing the market. So, we created a new investment strategy that was more appropriate for her, with lower-risk stocks and bonds. Now, she has the income and growth she needs to live, and peace of mind in knowing that she is invested safely."

For many women, the investment portfolio when they were married is not the best fit now that they are single, as was the case for Ramnani's client. In addition to changes in income, tax rates and tax-filing status, for many women, the amount of risk they are willing to take in their investment portfolio also changes after losing a spouse. For some, their investments need to work even harder while producing more growth and income to make up for their deceased spouse.

Ramnani shares some wise advice for widowed investors: "You most likely did not fit into your husband's pants, and the same may now be true of his investment portfolio. What was a good fit for you as part of a married couple is not right as a single woman." 

About the Author

Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA®, CES™

President & CEO, Francis Financial Inc.

Stacy is a nationally recognized financial expert and the President and CEO of Francis Financial Inc., which she founded 15 years ago. She is a Certified Financial Planner® (CFP®) and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® (CDFA®) who provides advice to women going through transitions, such as divorce, widowhood and sudden wealth. She is also the founder of Savvy Ladies™, a nonprofit that has provided free personal finance education and resources to over 15,000 women.

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