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Party of One: A Single Faces Retirement

Dec 09, 2020 4 min read Daphne Foreman

Key takeaways

  • Single people face special challenges when it comes to saving for retirement.
  • Couples aren’t the only ones who may need to designate a financial power of attorney and healthcare proxy.
  • Thriving in retirement as a party of one takes planning, perseverance and $.


When I was in my 20s, what little visualizing I did of my future retirement—and it was, not surprisingly, very little—involved a scenario in which I strolled off into that glowing sunset, at a minimum, hand in hand with my husband and, usually, two adult children.

Flash forward 30 years and the picture’s slightly different. I find myself in a category I lovingly refer to as the “accidentally single”: We meant to marry and create our own families—I came very close to doing so myself—yet somehow we’re career single.

And, while I consider my singleton status to be more of an accident than an intention, others will actively choose the single life for a variety of reasons personal to them. In whichever case, whether accidentally or on purpose, we’ve made a choice that affects how we plan for retirement in some major ways.



Retirement is often a couples narrative

Those who provide financial services and planning, and specifically the life insurance industry, traditionally have focused on the couple as the primary unit of interest.

A couple—ideally with several children—is naturally attractive: Couples buy homes, procreate, save for college and seek to protect those they love. Couples need help in managing the challenges of dual- or single-income families and investing for the future.

And yet, consider these “singles” facts. According to U.S. Census data Opens in new window:

  • 45.1 percent of all U.S. residents age 18 and older in 2019 were unmarried, which equals 112.8 million people.
  • 64.3 percent of those residents, or 72.6 million, had never been married; 22.5% were divorced and 13.2% were widowed.
  • 36.5 million people lived alone in 2019, making up 28.3% of all U.S. households, up from 17.1% in 1970.

So, if you’re single, you have plenty of company.


Singles’ needs are different

While there are some obvious similarities between couples and singles when it comes to retirement planning—fundamentally, the need to not outlive your income—a single person faces several challenges that relate specifically to their single status.

And, while my story is one of a person who has not been married, the issues raised here also apply to those who are single by virtue of being widowed or divorced.

In general, singles may have a greater need for:

  • Disability insurance.

    In the event that you’re unable to work, whether in a short-term situation or longer term, how will you handle the gap in income as the sole wage earner in your home? If you work as an employee, see what group disability coverage(s)—both short-term and long-term—you already have through your employer; you may need to supplement it. If you don’t have access to group disability insurance, then it’s time to investigate individual disability coverage.
  • Retirement savings.

    Without having the built-in responsibilities that accompany living as a couple, or if you’re holding on to the expectation that your singleness is only temporary, you may fall behind when it comes to saving for retirement. Lower savings also can result from not being able to split the rent or mortgage, and not having the safety net of a second income. It’s important to take seriously the future needs of your family of one. If you’re not already participating in a retirement savings plan, why not start today?
  • Long-term care (LTC) insurance.

    According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 70% of people age 65 and older Opens in new window will need long-term care at some point, and most LTC is provided at home Opens in new window, primarily by family members. Further, the majority of these family caregivers are daughters or daughters-in-law, a resource a childless single person may not have. You also may find that it takes significantly more planning (and/or funding) to “age in place” or move into a facility as a solo act.


A single person may lack the presence of a “built-in”:

  • Obvious next-of-kin/responsible party.

    One of the benefits of being part of a couple is having someone who’s got your back, and knows your preferences, in the event of a physical or mental change in status. Without a spouse, who is your emergency contact? Whom will you name as your financial power of attorney or health-care proxy—a critical task that many singles put off doing? And, returning to the family caregiver topic, who’s driving you home from that procedure for which they won’t release you without an escort, or helping change your dressing?
  • Strong community outside work.

    Without the presence of a spouse and/or children to help create a social community for you, it’s important to cultivate your relationships outside of work. The time for expanding your sphere of influence is now, before you find yourself needing to call on someone outside your immediate circle for help. Plus, as Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study on Adult Development Opens in new window, writes, “relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health.”
  • Backup income or health insurance.

    To those who may feel tied down by being part of a larger family, it can appear that singles have nearly limitless choices. Yet this supposed freedom comes at a cost: As a family of one, singles can’t rely on a spouse or partner’s employment to help get through a rough patch financially. And, if you’re a single member of the freelancer gig economy, you don’t have the option of “staying on” your partner’s health insurance. You’re on your own.


Thriving as a single in retirement

What’s clear is that you’ve got some decisions to make as a single person facing retirement—whether that day is right around the corner or several decades away.


Things to consider now

  • Build a larger-than-usual emergency savings fund. Depending on your source(s) of income, you may need to help account for your lack of financial backup.
  • Identify trustworthy people to serve as your financial and health care proxies. Ideally, they’re local to you and will be able to access critical financial and medical information, including bank accounts, insurance and passwords.
  • Make peace with your singlehood. No, you don’t have access to joint and survivor pensions, 401(k) or IRA beneficiary rights, or Social Security spousal benefits. (Your only option for increasing your Social Security payments is to wait later to start receiving them.) Nor do you enjoy the potential income tax advantages of married filing jointly status. So be it.


Things to consider soon

  • Clarify your vision of retirement. While many married people focus on their families, single people may have other priorities, such as a desire to travel, start a business, or contribute as a volunteer in their community. Get clear on what retirement means to you: Where do you see yourself living? What will you be doing, and with whom? How are you funding it?
  • Make new—and younger—friends. Given that you don’t have a built-in next generation of kin, you may just want to create your own. Also, start paying attention to new options for co-housing and other creative shared living arrangements. Can you age in place well where you are? If not, then it’s time to begin imagining a different living situation.
  • Do. The. Math. The Federal Reserve reports Opens in new window that in 2019, more than 60% of married couples had retirement savings accounts, versus less than 40% of singles who did. With those facts, it’s pretty clear that you and I have some serious catching up to do.


What you can do next

If you’re single and in a financially stable situation, begin building a bigger emergency fund than you might have thought you needed. Get your financial paperwork in order, and ID people to be your financial and health care proxies. Finally, start to assess (or reassess) your retirement goals—and do what you can, as soon as you can, to fund them.


Daphne Foreman is an editor, writer and content strategist based in New York City.


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