September 9, 2016

Retirement and Being Single

Being single and retired brings some special issues that face folks attempting to navigate a satisfying retirement journey. As someone who has been married for 40 years I barely remember what it was like to be single, so I can only pass along some general thoughts gleaned from Internet research and life experiences. But, I am sure there is helpful insight and feedback from readers who are in this position. So, I will be asking for your participation in the comments section.

For purposes of this post, I am defining a single person as someone who is living alone and has never been married, or if divorced or widowed, did not receive enough financial support to eliminate most worries. That all goes to say the single person is on his or her own to make retirement work.

Single Person Disadvantages

single retired man
Research shows that a single retired person tends to save less for retirement than a married couple. That makes common sense. With the majority of married couples today being two income households, a single person is at a disadvantage. With only one income, all expenses and investments must be funded from that one source. Since the amount invested tends to be lower there is less ability for investments to use the power of compounding  to grow over time.

If there is a financial setback, either through something like the 2008 recession, an investment that goes bad, or an unexpected emergency, there is only one person to cover the costs.

What if a single person becomes seriously ill, disabled, or needs help during the recovery period after an injury or sickness? This could trigger an expensive problem. If family members or friends can't provide the assistance, then in-home nursing care may be required. Even something as simple as transportation to doctor appointments or hospital checkups could mean expensive taxi or medical transport services. To protect from a devastating blow to one's savings, expensive long term care insurance may become necessary.

The tax laws favor married couples. Even if living together two single people will pay substantially more in taxes than two people living together who are married.

Some Positives of Singleness

single retired femaleOn the flip side, a single person can invest, budget, and spend as he or she sees fit. There is no need to compromise or accept another person's approach to money management, an approach with which you may disagree.

As a single retiree, you don't have to worry about a partner who is a spendthrift. and believes money (real or borrowed) is meant to  simply enjoy. Retirement planning for that person might mean "it will all work out." You know it won't.

The world is actually becoming much more "single." 126 million Americans are single, and 35 million of them live alone. For the first time in our country's history, there are more single adults than married ones.

Four years ago the PBS website, Next Avenue  published an excellent overview of the subject of being retired and alone. Click on the link to learn more. 

Your Turn

So, now I would like turn this post over to you. If you are single and moving toward retirement, or are already retired, we need you input:

1) What are your biggest worries and concerns ?
2) What do you plan and budget for that your married friends don't?
3) What do you do about housing..own? rent? roommates?
4) How have you planned for major medical problems as you age?

If you are married but have single friends, what fears do they share with you?

This is an important subject that I can only start the ball rolling. I'm looking forward to your thoughts and feedback.

Want to learn more?

How to Survive and Thrive as a Single Person

How To Retire Single Without Being Isolated


  1. Having been single for 12 years between marriages, I understand the financial concerns (and freedom!) of the single person. But marriage does provide a safety net of sorts as you describe.

    A good friend who was widowed quite some time ago has shared her concerns on this front with me, especially since neither of her adult children live nearby. She assumes she might have to move near her daughter if she becomes ill or needs more help. She is still working and doing well at this point...very independent in fact. And she still owns the family home in an upscale suburb. For now, I'm a backup person and can usually drive her to medical appointments and such if she needs help (driver for colonoscopy, etc.). But having taken care of her husband through dementia for years, she is concerned about the medical side of things.

    1. I would guess the safety net function would be the one that requires the most preplanning. While there are services and equipment available, realizing that declining health lies ahead with no family close by must be a little daunting. Your help is a blessing, but can't be in place forever.

  2. I have always been single, a woman working in male dominated fields. A recent visit to my only relative (uncle) revealed that he has some dementia and won't be able to help in the short term.

    I have moved to senior community with many clubs and activities. The HOA provides a bus for grocery shopping, etc for the time when it will be needed. I purchased a larger floorplan that will allow for roommate or live-in caregiver should that be desired or necessary.

    Get all your documents in order - trust, will, POA, health care directives. Really think about who will be executor - do they have the financial expertise? Friend of friend was clueless as executor and was going to 'give away' the 700k house to a contractor. My friend knew everything was wrong about what was happening but didn't know how to do it right. I coached my friend + provided realtor contacts - she passed them on to executor. It did get done right after some tense times.

    Is it more expensive to pay a professional or have things really screwed up by inexperience?

    I am currently interviewing care managers to designate for emergencies as they would be able to arrange for in-home help quickly.
    I am also interviewing fiduciary companies (might be called something else in other states) to take over the financial aspects of life if I need help there and hopefully help prevent fraud or elder abuse. Be sure they are licensed, bonded, government oversight etc. I have long term care insurance. Trust, POA and healthcare documents are in process of being updated.

    I am putting together my team (attorney, care manager, fiduciary). None of them are family or friends at this point. I will designate a friend for healthcare decisions in addition to the care manager so they can consult.

    I don't want to put any additional stress on people - what if it's a bad time in their lives (new diagnosis, family problems, traveling, etc)? Friends can visit or bring soup, spend time visiting. But I don't want to stress them out. I want them to be a friend and a set of eyes, not a substitute for a professional xxx that I need at the moment.

    Uber can now provides rides but also research what the transit system, hospital + medical buildings provide. Know before you need help.
    Check out the Area Agency on Aging - I found help for my uncle there as he lives in another state.

    For now, this seems to be a full time job, although I am also researching things for my uncle as something will be needed in future for him. (He is also less than cooperative/stubborn.) I know when I am done, what I have set up will be in place for a long time. As long as I don't need help, I'll check in annually with the care manager + fiduciary with a quick update.

    1. What an excellent example of thinking through all the needs that lie before you (and your uncle). I hope if anyone who reads this post wonders what to do they will use your comment as a game plan.

      The financial abuse of the elderly is a real shame and threat. After you accept the fact that someone would destroy someone else's future to make money, taking steps to prevent it are so critical. Getting this setup before it is needed is probably one of top two or three needs for anyone.

      Thanks again for such a helpful comment.

  3. Health is my biggest concern. To the same extent, I guess, as it's ever been throughout my life. That being - that, even if I'm too ill to look after myself, I have to basically. I've still got to do the cooking/shopping/housework - whether I'm well enough to do so or no. It's that or wonder where the money is going to come from to pay someone else to do it - and how I'd set about finding that person anyway. The plus side is that I've certainly seen married people have financial problems that arent to do with them - but courtesy of a feckless spouse. At least I know no-one else can land up blowing my money for me. The other plus side is that I don't have to worry about a spouse ending up with a chronic health condition - that impacts back on me one way or another (dementia probably being the worst one I can think of). It's swings and roundabouts basically.

    However, I do appreciate you realising that life is so much more expensive for single people than it is for married people. I have lost count of the number of times that married people refuse to take account of the fact that, as a single person, I have to pay all bills on my own/fund housebuying on my own/etc and I've not had the freedom to go part-time or stop working ever - as I've noticed many married women doing. As a single person - I've always had no choice but to carry on working full-time constantly until retirement - as I didnt have enough money coming in even when doing that. I tell myself the plus side to that is I've not had to do someone else's 50% share of the housework - as well as my own 50% share (ie from the fact most men don't seem to pull their weight re the housework). I've had to do 100% of the housework - but at least it's all been my house work and no-one else has been supposed to share it with me iyswim.

    Socially - as a single retired person - there is the fact that a higher proportion of men than women have already died from ill health. So, one way and another, my social circle is predominantly female and I would like more specifically male company. So it is a disadvantage of being female and single retired - ie not much chance of conversation with the opposite sex. I expect that's not a problem for men - but it is for women.

    1. You have highlighted some of the key problems (and pluses) that I assume apply to the single retiree. I would add that you have your eyes wide open abut what you are facing and what you must do. It may not be fair or easy, but that is reality.

      The social aspect is important. I am glad you raised that issue. In the small groups that Betty and I have joined at three different churches over the last 10 years, the makeup is 80% single women. I think I am welcomed into the groups because I have a deeper voice!

  4. You asked that four specific questions be addressed. I'll try to be brief, and I don't think my answers will provide much new to what is commonly known.

    1) Possibly my biggest ongoing concern is how long can I expect to stay relatively healthy, mobile, and especially able to drive, not just short distances around town, but also on trips that might take a half day or day of driving, or several connected days of such. Right now (age 68) I'm fine, although I do try to avoid night driving if possible. I've also had two knee replacements, which are also doing "fine." I can do stairs, hills, hiking, all just fine. I also still mow my own grass, etc. Tied in with this physical concern is a fear or dread perhaps of mental decline, as there is some history in my family. These two lead to a composite concern which might be "how long can I satisfactorily maintain my life as I know it." I saw how terrible my life got before knee surgery--not able to walk to my car into the grocery store. Are these concerns unique to singlehood, probably not, and in fact if married I might have concerns for myself and my partner.

    2) I'm not sure that I plan or budget much differently than a married couple would, and a perk is that I only shop and provide for one, not two. I don't much buy into "two can live as cheaply as one," as I've had college roommates who wrecked my budget by running the AC on 65 and the heat on 85! A husband might do the same (although I might also have his income!). Yes, if I cook something time consuming, two could just as easily eat it as one, but then I can freeze part and eat it twice! My biggest gripe about being single budgeting is the exhorbitant SINGLE tack-on's for group trips, often several hundred or more dollars for a group trip. Lots of travel prices are "double occupancy" prices, which means I would pay much more.

    3) I own my own small home, with now no mortgage, and have no room mates. I deliberately bought a cottage size fixer-upper I could pay off by age 65/66. Even though my neighbors are raising a family in homes the size of mine, I use every room for myself, and have no room for anyone else. Truthfully though, I did not think completely through the ongoing expenses of owing a home, even one that is paid for. A new roof was 6000 a few years back. A downed big tree cost me close to a 1000 to get removed. Appliances these days have a 15 year lifespan, and my water heater is overdue a replacement (800 probably with installation). I knew enough to got get a two story place. Still, whether to try and age in place here is a BIG concern, but there are many facets to that, as in no public transportation, having to pay for yard upkeep at some point, etc.

    4) I think there is very little way for me to plan for major medical expenses, other than try to prevent them as much as possible. I certainly don't have the financial resources, or they would soon be depleted, for any catastrophic type event. I only have Medicare, and I subscribe to a Direct Care primary care plan for routine care. I don't even have a Medicare Advantage plan!

    Odds and ends--I don't miss having someone "around" in the house. I'm not lonely, although I am alone. I love how fluid my life can be, over things both simple and more complex. Last night, possibly because of a larger lunch than usual, I simply made a blender shake with milk and frozen banana for dinner! I can't imagine having to have a breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner "on the table" for a partner (unless he did all the cooking). When I travel, I can go where I like, and not balance it out with accommodating what someone else wants to do instead. I Know that caring married partners can amiably work all this out, but I never have to give a thought to it.

    1. Beverly, I did have to shorted your comment. Google has a length requirement, so I did a little cut and paste. Thank you for all the thought and effort you put into this comment.

      I agree completely with the single fee complaint for trips and tours. I understand the rational from the company's standpoint, but as our society ages and single becomes the new norm, I expect companies to begin eliminating the double occupancy surcharge. It is unfair.

      Home maintenance is often overlooked by those who advocate home purchase. Having a single story home that you own is very important for you, but the expenses and taxes don't stop. You get 15 years from an appliance? That is better than I usually do.

      AS you note there is a real freedom in being single, in meal prep, cleaning, and doing things. For many those benefits seem to balance out the negatives that you and others have noted.

  5. I am not only a long-term single (divorced after a relatively brief marriage when I was in my early thirties), but I have no children. This means that my biggest concern is my health and my ability to continue living alone (which I love) and caring for my home.
    I need to plan for a housing transition as I age that will allow me to continue living alone and independently, but with less upkeep (maybe some kind of co-housing or an independent living senior complex).
    I think I budget more carefully than my married friends, and I try to live well below my means. If anything, budgeting gives me permission to spend on things (like vacations) that I might not spend on otherwise.
    I can live very frugally right now because I live in a house that I own outright; my only housing expenses are insurance and property taxes, utilities, snow removal in winter, and a budget line for maintenance. My planning includes the assumption that when I can no longer manage this rural lifestyle (which includes being able to drive), I will need to increase my housing budget considerably.
    It may surprise many that I don't have long-term care insurance. Part of the reason is that at the point when I might have bought it (in my fifties), I was ineligible because of a recent cancer diagnosis. Since then, the issues with long term care insurance have become more pronounced so that I don't trust that this product would actually be there for me when I needed it. I have a realistic idea of what long term care costs (having handled finances for both of my parents, who each spent the last year of their life in a nursing home).
    Right now, I am living on a combination of post-tax savings and some IRA distributions. I am delaying taking Social Security until I am 70. At that point, my monthly benefit will be more than my current monthly budget, with required minimum distributions from my 403(b) providing an additional cushion. All of my retirement funds beyond the minimum distributions will be available to cover costs of long term care if and when needed.

    1. You have a well-thought out plan. I can't think of anything important you may have overlooked. Since you own your home, at some point the sale of that property will provide funds for long term care in a facility, and an extra cushion.

      Long term care insurance is a minefield right now. Companies are leaving the market. Others are raising premiums to unaffordable levels or adding layers of conditions and exclusions. Because they are sold by private companies, buying such a policy leaves you vulnerable to the whims of the economy and that company's viability. All the money "invested' in a policy can disappear overnight.

      After doing my research, I determined that such a policy would not be part of our future. There are lots of people who have benefited from such a policy, but the risks seem too high for me.

  6. Bob, this post and readers' comments should be considered by all. Those of us who have partners, may not always have them. Hub and I still own a small farm with lots of responsibilities. However, we're considering buying property near our daughter and her husband. We've always preferred privacy and a rural setting, but this post has me thinking we should face the facts of aging, and consider renting a small retirement home, possibly located in the town nearest our girl. That way, if/when we need to be closer to her, or if we can no longer handle our farm, we'd already have a place to go. Once we're acclimated, we could go ahead and buy or build a home for the long term. Careful planning can help to make life flow a bit easier, and a person doesn't want to wait until it's too late.

    Surrounding oneself with trusted friends might be one of the most valuable tips I could offer. Years ago, when I was part of a small women's group, there was an elderly widow, whom we all adored. She didn't have many assets, but her circle of friends continued to help her through her life. When her old car bit the dust, the girls put their heads together and replaced it. When she could no longer handle her home, the girls helped her find a lovely apartment to rent. We also loaned her our husbands when she needed their help. Life is certainly meant to be shared.

    I'm facing the future uncertainties with faith, family, and friends (oh, and I have to add my hubby's financial expertise,thank God!).

    1. I have been impressed with the quality and completeness of the comments to this post. It is a subject that is important to lots of folks. The fact that it has prompted you to think about your housing situation is a perfect example.

      The single women who make up most of my small group at church are very supportive of each other. They will help with driving, shopping, and simple companionship when needef.

  7. My biggest concern is being healthy, and that really has absolutely nothing to do with being single, either mental and physically. I don't see any real concerns that have anything different than those of couples.

    I don't believe that singles budget differently, as such. We all budget according to our income and priorities. A single person is cognizant of the single retirement income instead of the two that some couples have (many couples do not, especially those boomers from the mom stayed at home era). Like Bev, having been single and having been married and having shared a house, I am not sure two do live more cheaply as such. Yes, you may have two people paying for a two bedroom condo while I have one, but many other areas of spending can actually be less as a single. Also, I dont have to think about any one elses spending needs (or desires for that matter).

    I have done all of the above in widowhood....lived alone, lived with my kids (while owning) and shared a home (while renting).All had their advantages and all worked at the time. I can absolutely see myself downsizing again to a two bedroom condo or apartment and living there happily alone. I do think that people in general have more difficulty meeting new friends and so on as we age and so I would probably not move to a new area as such unless it were a snowbird situation.

    Unlike a couple of the other responders, I do have children. I could forsee living with them, and in our family it would work, should I become ill or have other issues. But I also have a circle of non family type family that would be there should I need to have surgery, or be in rehab for awhile. Family comes in all forms.

    1. Family comes in all forms is a great phrase (maybe a blog post for you, Barb?) Facing the challenges of aging without some sort of support system would be quite scary. But, as you note, those people around you don't have to be relatives.

  8. Have been single for 12 years. No children. My biggest concern is staying in good health and making sure that my resources last as long as I do. My married friends have the same concerns. They know that eventually either they or their spouse will be single. It is very important for married couples to prepare for this. Also, there is the possibility of both of them needing medical assistance at the same time. I strongly urge them to enjoy their time together while they can.

    I rent a small inexpensive apt in NYC. I like city living and think it is a good place for retirees - good public transportation, parks, gardens,museums, excellent medical care, senior centers and lots of discounts for seniors.
    There is a lovely senior residence in my neighborhood- my father lived there - I would be happy to live there when I get older. I am 66 and it seems that people move in @85. You have your own apt, continental breakfast and two hot meals and snacks. They clean your apt once a week and change your sheets and towels. They also have activities and social events so you quickly make friends.
    If major medical problems come, I will pay for what isn't covered myself until I run out of money. Most people I know do not have long term care insurance because we don't believe it will be there for us if we need it. Medicaid would be available if it comes to that.
    I appreciate the prior comments. It gives me a lot to think about.
    I would also like to mention that I live in an immigrant neighborhood. They are kind and helpful. When my 98 yr old neighbor needed assistance she was able to stay in her apt with a little help from her neighbors -stores, checking up on her etc. Sometimes that is enough.

    1. You gave me an idea for another post: retiring in an urban setting vs suburbia or small town/rural living. I would think there all sorts of pros and cons to each.

      My parents moved into a three level community when my dad was 80 and mom 77. Within 3 years her health took a real dip. Thank goodness they moved when they did since lots of communities won't accept someone who is too ill.

      Thanks, Donna, for your excellent recap.

    2. When you get to the "rural"settings part I surely have some opinions! Even though Pine was not all that remote, it WAS far far away from DECENT hospitals, and 20 miles from the regional hospital (which mostly air evacs people to Phoenix.. if you live that long.) Neighbors to call on were few and far between.Many rural living people also like to be left alone, loners. Depending on where you locate, churches, clubs,social activities can be in short supply or non existent.I could not find a faith community that fit, up there. Grocer y store was 15 miles away. Costco,Michael's,trader Joe was in Prescott or Scottsdale.. a 90 minute drive one way.Weather,ice/snow,slippery steps.. uh oh.. who asked me!!?? Anyway,I highly advise against rural living as one ages. I feel like I almost lost my soul,but luckily we regrouped and got back to civilization!!

    3. So, I guess Donna's comment and your followup, Madeline, means a post about retirement locations is in order. I will put it into my future file!

  9. My first thought is we will all be single at some point in our senior years, so pay attention! Next, the issues facing singles.. health, finance...are probably the same facing couples, especially if family is not nearby. Last, I think you missed the mark by starting out with how long you've been married, then listing the disadvantages of being single, and leaving advantages to the end. I don't put a lot of value on single v married, but rather being grateful for the life you have

    1. You could be right. Mentioning how long I have been married is to make it clear this is a subject in which I have no personal experience (yet).

  10. I am single and have been for many years. I can't say that I have many big worries. Sure, something could happen that might be very challenging, in terms of health or finances. But you have said so many times that all we can do is make the best plans we can and then let it go. I have followed your advice, and because of it, I live with great contentment and gratitude. I've done what I can, and worrying about various scenarios won't change what happens and will rob me of my current happiness.

    Your four questions are very interesting. I'm thinking about what I hear from single friends. I think a big issue that I hear voiced is loneliness, not only in case of health needs, but also in a social sense. I am enough of a solitary person that that is not an issue for me, but I do understand how it affects the lives of those who long for companionship.

    What interesting and moving comments on this post. And very revealing not only about us as individuals, but also about us as a society.

    1. I was quite encouraged by the foresight and openness many commenters show about the future. Also, as you note, it is clear we are willing to share and help as needed.

      Loneliness is different from being alone. Not having another human's direct interaction can, over time, lead to serious mental and physical health issues for many. We all crave the touch and concern of another. How to solve that dilemma? I wish I knew.

  11. I was widowed in my late thirties and remained single for twelve years while I raised my children. I was fortunate to have a profession that enabled me to provide financially for my family and pay off my mortgage. We did live quite frugally, and I invested my savings to provide for retirement. At that time, and also looking ahead to future retirement as a single, my greatest concern was loneliness. I was lucky to have many dear friends as well as socially welcoming professional colleagues. Nevertheless, major holidays and long weekends were difficult as most of my friends went away or spent these times with family. Many long weekends I made the long drive of five hours each way to the community where my parents and brothers lived. When I had an opportunity to take a position in a city nearer to my family, I moved, and then was only two and half hours away. The new location was a very welcoming community and I made many friends there. I also met and married my second husband. Living in a place with a strong network of friends and family, whether or not one is single, seems to me to be a very important factor in choosing a retirement location.


    1. You have summarized the importance of ties to family and friends well, Jude. Being alone is usually not the thing that causes problems as we age. Being lonely is.