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While many Americans are ill-prepared for a financial disaster, women are far worse off than men, according to a new study by BMO Harris Premier Services. The financial services firm says that men with any emergency savings have an average of $58,061 put away to deal with the situation, compared with only $33,558 for women.

In other words, women have roughly half the emergency savings of men. Let that sink in for a moment.

The “rainy day” fund story is a broken record. Depending on how you count, something like one-third to one-half of all Americans have no savings, and are one paycheck away from piling up credit card bills and heading toward the financial abyss. But the gender gap in savings puts a new face on problem, and hopefully rings some new alarm bells.

I’ve written nearly 100 stories as part of The Restless Project so far, and read thousands of emails from readers. Perhaps the most poignant came from an older, single woman who took me to school about the real problems that keep people up at night.

“How do single people, people who do not have access to another paycheck, survive at all? Half the country is divorced. Millions are older and alone. Tons of people are childless on purpose because they couldn’t afford to have any,” she wrote to me. “If you don’t work for a major company, benefits depend upon the kindness of strangers. It is an unpleasant poverty-stricken future that I face. I will NEVER be able to retire. I will have to work until the day I die in order to survive…. just survive….   and women of age cannot get other high-paying employment because of their age. Double bind, no exit…. Just the ultimate one, and doing so on the job.”

Gender-based income and savings stories are fraught with statistical peril, which I’ll try to tiptoe through here. But when looking through other available data I could find about women and savings, this seems undeniable: The financial position of many women in America is shamefully fragile.

What Research Shows

First, back to the BMO Harris “rainy day fund” study. The firm conducted an online survey of 3,000 Americans and asked how much money consumers had available in an emergency. The amounts that consumers self-reported — which is always a hazard — could have included retirement accounts, though the way the question was asked, it’s possible some consumers didn’t include 401(k) balances, etc., when answering the question. Also, the figure is an average, which means the amounts could be skewed by very large or very small entries. So I went looking for other data to round out the picture.

Neighbor Works America released an emergency fund survey on March 31, and it found that 34% of adults in America — more than 72 million people — said that they don’t have any emergency savings. The figure had grown in the past year, despite the improving economy. And 47% said they’d burn through their emergency savings fund in 90 days or less.

The report broke out data showing that low-income and minority Americans were less likely to have savings, but was silent on gender. Neighbor Works was kind enough to dig up gender data from its study for me, but it was inconclusive. Women and men reported having any emergency fund at about the same rate, and women were only slightly more likely to say they have little confidence they could withstand a financial emergency (35% to 31%).

That doesn’t contradict the BMO Harris findings, however, because it makes no mention of dollar amounts.

And Neighbor Works’ Douglas Robinson offered a logical explanation for the dollar gap.

“While a great many women have been in the workforce since they became adults, their workforce participation rate still lags men, and is often interrupted,” he said. “That would mean that their matched 401(k) would be reduced.”

Other research suggests that’s true. CNBC.com, in an excellent story on women’s readiness for retirement, hit this point on the head: “American women age 55 to 64 with retirement savings have accumulated an average of $81,300 compared with $118,400 for their male counterparts,” according to a Black Rock survey. The story cites similar reserch on “retirement readiness” by the Employee Benefit Research Institute that claims single baby boomer women have a savings shortfall of nearly $63,000, compared to single males, who have a deficit of $34,000.

… And Women Appear to Be Better Savers

What makes this savings gap more painful is that there is some data to suggest women are actually better savers than men. Fidelity looked at its 401(k) accounts last year and found that women in lower-income tiers put considerably more into their retirement funds than men.

“Women earning between $20,000 and $40,000, for example, have saved an average of $17,300 in their 401(k), as of the year ended Sept. 30, 2014. Men in that income range have an average of $15,200 in their account,” reports Bloomberg, in its story about the study.

Critically, retirement savings and emergency savings are not the same thing, though they can end up smashed together in surveys and in consumers’ minds. For younger people, having an emergency fund can be much more important, despite the reality that our our tax code heavily favors retirement savings (actually, our tax code does NOTHING for emergency savings, which is a travesty).

For young adults, there can be understandable reasons to postpone retirement savings — after all, it’s hard to worry about the future when the present is challenging (though it’s unwise, mathematically). But failing to have a personal safety net is a much greater menace. You can’t stand up to an unfair boss when you fear losing your home. You might even be afraid to job hunt. You don’t go to the doctor when you are afraid one medical bill could send you to ruin. Most important, you don’t sleep very well at night when you can’t see even two or three months into the future.

Back once more to the Harris report. The average emergency savings for all Americans, male or female, was $46,000. That’s barely enough to handle a single medical emergency, so there is no gender war over these results. Many Americans’ live far too close to the edge right now, and have been for some time.

But my Restless Project correspondent called my attention to a group she felt wasn’t getting enough attention: “the working poor who cannot get a fair deal….. single women and single women of age.” And she’s right. The numbers, rough as they might be, tell a story that can’t be ignored — women have about half the emergency savings that men do, and that’s an emergency we must deal with now.

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