I’ve never heard this discussed by men, but some women carry the worry that they will end up old and alone, with no money and no home. It’s not generally ever-present, but rears up as reports on foreclosures, unemployment, plant closings, and law-firm and hospital layoffs proliferate in the press. It’s often termed “bag-lady syndrome”.

Ever hear of it? You’ll see a reference to it every year or so. It’s a fear that the financial rug will be pulled out from under you suddenly, leaving you with limited—if any—resources. I have certainly heard at least half-joking references to this in the last two years by women who have been saving diligently for retirement.

Why should this worry lurk for women? It’s not hard to understand.

While the margin may be dropping, women still live longer than men. At age 65, they are expected to live another 19.7 years on average, versus 17 years for men. Analysis by Vanguard’s Center for Retirement Research, headed by my fellow blogger Steve Utkus, of 3 million participants in retirement plans serviced at Vanguard indicates that men have average and median balances that are about two-thirds higher than those of women. There may be any number of reasons for the gap, including age and time in the workforce, but this is a significant difference. Things may be changing, however: That same research shows that women are saving slightly more than men at the same income levels.

I’m not sure a little worry is such a bad thing, because it can spur action. But how can you keep the bag-lady specter at bay?

When it comes to your financial health, make sure you have a good plan that you put together yourself or with the help of an advisor. Understand your objectives, and make sure your savings and investment strategies relate directly to those objectives.

It’s important to clearly understand your current financial picture and to get a realistic assessment of the assets you’ll need to accumulate to support yourself in retirement. Then put the plan into action and start saving, making sure that your investment strategy reflects your own risk tolerances—not someone else’s. Taking on too much risk to try to make up for that last recession or for a lack of savings can backfire tragically, so be sure you are comfortable with your direction.

While such a plan won’t stop the “aging” part, it certainly can help make the next stage of life more comfortable. And don’t forget to develop friends and activities to help deal with the “alone” part! As time goes on, try layering on some additional activities that will help keep you in control. That includes getting information about options for long-term care, medical choices and challenges in retirement, the possible timing of collecting Social Security. Education can be a powerful tool to combat the fear that bag-lady syndrome represents.

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