Women can thrive, not just survive. RETIREMENT PLANNING

PEOPLE just naturally don't like to think about being alone and growing old. But the possibility should be considered, especially by women. ``You're probably going to be living alone at least two times in your lifetime,'' Susan Stonestreet, an IDS financial planner, tells her female clients. ``And you'd better have your own retirement plan.''

``Women, more so than men, need to be pragmatic about what kinds of benefits they get at work,'' and if they are married, what kinds of benefits they will have if they lose their husbands, says Kate Rand-Lloyd, editor of Working Woman Magazine in New York.

She is one of many professional women on the advisory board of a federally funded new program to educate women on the importance of retirement planning. The program's director, Dr. Christopher Hayes, says he started PREP (Pre-Retirement Education Planning for Midlife Women), to enable women ``to thrive rather than survive.''

Don't say ``it won't happen to me,'' is PREP's urgent message. (The organization's number is 800-426-7386.)

Given the rising divorce rate, and the fact that women live about 10 years longer than men, they are far more likely to be alone when they get older. According to the most recent United States Bureau of the Census survey, more than 17 percent of women 55 to 64 years old were living by themselves, compared with a much lower 9 percent of their male counterparts. At 75 and older, 45 percent of the women were alone, as were 19 percent of the men.

Add to that the statistical fact that women make up the fastest-growing group of poor people, says Ms. Stonestreet, and you see why planners are urging even married women, not just those widowed or divorced, to start planning for retirement early on. The average income for women over 65 is $6,300, the American Council of Life Insurance reports.

Because women move in and out of the work force to accommodate their families more frequently than men, or fill jobs that have no retirement benefits, a majority do not earn pensions either. According to the Census Bureau, in 1986, a scant 10 percent of all widows inherited benefits from their husbands, and only about one fourth of all women - less than half the number of men - received pension incomes themselves.

A large number of men, on the other hand, historically have either had their planning done for them, by falling automatically into corporate benefit programs or having been conditioned to do so early on, says Ms. Rand-Lloyd at Working Woman.

As a result, ``women tend to get thrust into the role of being financial managers without any preparation,'' says Edward McCarthy, president at McManus, Auger & McCarthy Ltd., a financial planning firm in Cranston, R.I. Mr. McCarthy says a lot of his clients arrive in such circumstances.

To start, planners recommend a systematic and automatic savings program for as many as can afford to set aside some of their income.

``Out of each paycheck, the first check you write should be to that end,'' says Stonestreet. ``It doesn't matter if you are 20 or 60.'' If you can have your employer take some out and put it in a retirement or savings account before you even get paid, that's even more convenient.

The younger you are when you start, the less painful it will be, adds Malcolm Gissen, a financial planner in San Francisco.

Investors using only one retirement vehicle, like an individual retirement account, should make sure the WOMEN money set aside for retirement is not going to be needed in an emergency beforehand, says Maria Crawford Scott, editor of the Journal of the American Association of Individual Investors (AAII).

For those considering early retirement or early withdrawal, McCarthy suggests some of the penalty-free alternatives, like tax-exempt bonds, tax-deferred cash-value life insurance, and stock or stock-owning mutual funds.

Financial gurus also stress that future retirees can no longer depend on either social security or company pension plans as a staple of future income.

Not only is it hard to project realistic social security payments when you are still years away from age 65, most older people do not even receive pensions, says Ms. Scott at AAII.

Put the money in a safe place for starters, such as certificates of deposit, money market funds, and insurance policies, says Mr. McCarthy.

McCarthy notes that in cases where a woman's husband dies and leaves her with a large insurance policy or an estate, he has seen a lot of pressure put on her by family members for loans or from salespeople who suspect there's money.

For a more concrete goal, Mr. Gissen asks his clients at what age and with what income they would like to retire. Looking at current assets, projecting their growth to the desired retirement age, and figuring in other sources of income such as social security, pension, and retirement funds and benefits, Gissen will determine how much more an individual needs to save each month to reach the goal.

``A good number of people want to retire early, but the older they get, the more they anticipate working past 65,'' Gissen notes. ``A grave concern is that the more people make, the more they spend, at a rate that increases about 5 percent faster than their income,'' he says.

Which is why he and others favor IRAs and employer-sponsored savings plans, such as 401(k) plans or 403(b) tax-deferred annuities.

``They help foster a retirement planning mentality,'' says Connie Chen, president of Chen Planning Consultants Inc., a New York financial planner. The 10 percent penalty for withdrawing money before age 59 is a good motivation to keep that money in there, she says.

Covering your insurance needs - health care, disability, car, and home ownership, for example - is a good way to protect your assets from depleting and minimize your cash reserve needs, says Stonestreet.

The Older Women's League (OWL), an advocacy group, cautions private insurance buyers to watch out for the numerous exclusions and restrictions within the growing number of long-term care policies.

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