Being single is so expensive that women’s financial confidence plummets if they’re unmarried, survey says

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Women in the U.S. have been making strides when it comes to finances, investing and earning more, and saving for retirement earlier than older generations, among other promising behaviors. Still, their confidence in money management lags men—and is highly dependent on their relationship status, a new report finds.

The survey, from financial services company Equitable, of over 1,200 U.S. women aged 18 to 77 and 500 men explores how personal relationship status can change women's relationship with and management of her finances.

Overall, the survey found that women are less confident in their ability to manage their finances and reach their long-term goals than men are, regardless of age, income, or asset level. A greater share of women say they actively worry about money at least once a day compared to men, and women are also much more likely to feel stressed about their finances.

That's not new insight. But Equitable also finds that that confidence changes dramatically based on a woman's relationship status: 42% of married women report believing in their ability to reach their financial goals, compared to 37% of singles, 35% of divorced women, and 29% of widows.

In fact, married women (in Equitable's survey, this included women in a long-term partnership) report being better able to focus on long-term financial goals, like retirement, than single, divorced, or widowed women. They are the only group to name long-term goals like a comfortable retirement and travel among their top three financial goals.

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There are any number of reasons for this. But a big one is that it's generally harder to be a single person in today's economy, no matter your gender, than it is with a potential dual income.

And divorcées and widows may not have needed to work, or stayed home with children, limiting their earning power. They also were less likely, generally, to be involved with long-term financial strategy in heterosexual relationships, leaving them unsure of their futures. Almost half (46%) of divorced women and 61% of widows feel less likely to achieve their financial goals because of the change in their relationship status.

Of course, there are exceptions. Some women are better off financially when they are unpartnered, and many women revel in their financial freedom. And just because single women may report lower confidence than men, that doesn't mean they are actually worse at managing their finances. In fact, research has found that women outperform male investors.

Get involved sooner

While married women report the most confidence, Equitable notes that the circumstances can quickly change. Widowed and divorced women, for example, report much lower confidence than never-partnered single women.

One reason? Many divorced and widowed women took a step back from managing the larger picture when they were in partnerships. While most women are intimately involved in day-to-day activities like budgeting, more than half say they regret not being more involved in their finances during their marriages, especially when it comes to investing and retirement planning.

Connie Weaver, Equitable’s chief marketing officer, knows the feeling well. After her husband died, Weaver was left feeling vulnerable and embarrassed with her knowledge of her finances, despite "knowing better," she says. Now engaged to be married again, she doesn't plan to take the back seat again.

"I’m very financially sophisticated, but yet there was so much I didn’t know. What I was thrown into and what I had to cope with was pretty daunting," Weaver says. "Shame on me, I had not been as engaged as I should have been."

In fact, major life changes—including job switches, raises, divorce, and, yes, the death of the spouse—often serve as catalysts for women to get more involved in their finances, the report finds. But Weaver and Jody D’Agostini, a certified financial planner who works with Equitable Advisors, encourage everyone to be more proactive. The women encourage other women not to delegate planning to their partner or spouse, or wait to build a long-term plan.

Much of Equitable's report focuses on encouraging women to get involved sooner and seek out professional help from an advisor. But don't settle for just any advisor, says D'Agostini. If you don't understand something, don't be afraid to ask for more clarification. If the advisor isn't prepared to help you or won't meet you where you are, find a new one.

"I’m encouraged when I see statistics where young people are paying more attention," says Weaver. "The earlier we can get people to learn the basics, the better of they will be."

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