Single women in financial turmoil


COLUMBUS — Single women — whether they never married, are divorced or separated, or are widowed — are in much worse financial condition than other Americans, according to an analysis of the Federal Reserve Board’s most recent Survey of Consumer Finances.

Big differences

“The financial differences are large ones,” said Catherine Montalto, associate professor of consumer sciences in the College of Education and Human Ecology at Ohio State University, who conducted the analysis in partnership with the Consumer Federation of America.

Montalto has worked on projects with the Consumer Federation of America since 2000. The complete report, “The Financial Condition of Women on Their Own,” is available on the association’s Web site,, under “What’s New.”

The analysis looked specifically at women who head households themselves and do not have a spouse or partner. These households number 31 million nationally, about one-quarter of all U.S. households.


Among the findings: The median income of the women was $22,592 — just 52 percent of the median income of all U.S. households, which was $43,130.

The median net worth of the women was $32,850 — just 35 percent of the median net worth of $93,001 for all households.

Widowed heads of households, who tended to be older (median age 72), have a lower household income than other women (median of $19,511), but a much higher net worth than other women (median of $100,800).

The never-married group was the worst off financially, with a median income of $23,619 and a median net worth of just $6,210.

Biggest surprises

Among the biggest revelations for Montalto was the low savings rate among these women, termed “women on their own” by the researchers.

“Women on their own are more likely to say they do not save regularly or save money at all,” Montalto said.

For example, just 47 percent of never-married women had a savings or money-market deposit account, and those who did typically held only $1,100 in those accounts, even though they estimated they should have $2,000 in savings for emergencies.

Divorced or separated women weren’t much better off: Only half (50 percent) had a savings or money market account, and those who did averaged $1,600 in savings. Their estimated need for emergency funds was $2,500.


Montalto believes these women, like most people, underestimate the amount they should have on hand for emergencies.

“To me, $2,000 in emergency savings seems really low. The typical guidance is to have enough money accessible to pay for three months of your household expenses — that’s to have enough on hand if you find yourself suddenly unemployed,” Montalto said.

But many people think of an emergency fund to help pay for a shorter-term situation, such as an unanticipated car repair or dental emergency. Montalto and Brobeck encourage regular, automated contributions as the best way to build up savings.

“If it’s automatically taken from your paycheck or your checking account, you don’t even have to think about it,” Montalto said. “It’s a shortcut to pay yourself first.”

Savings campaign

That’s one of the main messages of the Consumer Federation of America’s “America Saves” campaign (, a partnership between the nonprofit association and financial institutions designed to decrease barriers to saving and increase awareness of the importance of saving money, reducing debt and building wealth.

In Ohio, local “Saves” campaigns are active or being planned in several localities, including Cleveland; Columbus; Geauga, Hancock, Knox, Medina, Wayne and Holmes counties; and in the Miami Valley and West Central Ohio areas.

Ohio State University Extension is currently working with the Ohio Treasurer of State’s Office and the United Way to develop a campaign for a statewide Ohio Saves program.


Even in a tight economy, building up savings is an important tool for all households, but especially those with just one breadwinner, Montalto said.

“Women on their own — think about how vulnerable they are, economically,” she said. “There’s not a second earner in the home who can act as a cushion.”

A healthy savings or money market account should be a priority especially for single-earner households, she said.

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