When Deborah Owens was 18, she had what she calls her "Scarlett O'Hara moment" in which she vowed to never go hungry again.
Ms. Owens, author of A Purse of Your Own, says the pivotal moment came when, to her surprise, her parents separated after 33 years of marriage, and she watched her mother's standard of living suddenly decline.
Although Ms. Owens is happily married, she knows the statistics are grim for women, which is why she advises her readers that "a man is not a financial plan."
"My mother was the rule and not the exception: Nine out of 10 women are going to be responsible for their own finances. They will either never marry, they will marry and divorce, or their husbands will predecease them. And so with those kinds of odds, it's the worst thing you could do to think that you're going to find someone and you're going to be financially secure because they're going to take care of you."
For female seniors, the likelihood of being single at some point during retirement is higher because women tend to marry older men and live an average of five years longer than men. The average age of widowhood for women in Canada is just 56. Census Canada data show that 43 per cent of Canadian seniors are single. In 2005, the divorce rate for women aged 55-64 was nearly 8 per cent.
"That's pretty high for that age group, and think about getting divorced when you're at that stage of life and assets have to get split," says Lee Anne Davies, head of retirement strategies at RBC. "And women may not have as solid a career because they have done this caregiving component. So they may not have built up the pension benefits; they may not have a full-time career. That's a huge risk for women and something that we really want people to think about who are at the earlier stage of their career - to protect themselves should that situation arise."
According to a study by the UN Platform for Action Committee Manitoba, after a divorce, a woman's income drops an average of 45 per cent. The study's statistics show half of single women over the age of 65 live in poverty, and half of married women would live in poverty without their husband's income.
Wealthy women are not immune either: According to Statistics Canada, senior women at all income levels see a decline in income after widowhood. A Statscan report states that five years after widowhood, the 25 per cent of senior women with the highest family incomes experienced a 7.5-per-cent decline.
"Widows accounted for 45 per cent of all women aged 65 and over," the report states. "With increased longevity, women will most likely live longer and live alone for considerable portions of their lives since women now live an average of 81.3 years, contrasted with 75.3 years for men. In addition, the pattern of population aging is projected to grow, for these seniors, from 13 per cent in 2003 to 18 per cent in 2021, with women predominating."
Dr. Amy D'Aprix, retirement transition expert at the Bank of Montreal, says women need to accept that they will likely spend some of their retirement years alone and think about how to prepare themselves financially.
"Women often rely on the men in their lives for these sorts of things. Even highly professional women often don't think about this. One of the stats that blew me away is that 58 per cent of baby boomer women have less than $10,000 set aside for retirement."
In her book The Woman's Guide to Money, Kelley Keehn talks about the types of women she met during her decade in the banking industry, notably the recent widows who would come to her office, "stunned and distraught over the finances," because they had let their husbands take care of all of the money matters. Some of them did not even know how to write a cheque.
"It wasn't uncommon for us to see these women who did not know where the bank accounts were, if there were any investments," Ms. Keehn says. "My viewpoint is when it comes to health and money, these are two things in your life you cannot fully trust to anybody."
Women's attitudes toward money are changing, Ms. Keehn says, but financial planning needs to become one of their top priorities.
"In today's society, we have snow blindness: The women are taking the kids to soccer and this and that, and there are so many things they have to look after, but we as women can't truly be free until we're financially free. And that might not mean that you're ever a bread-winner, but you at least have a basic understanding of finance. That, I think, really elevates a woman to have a different self-esteem."