Arlene Cheston met her husband when they were both in the Peace Corps. They were happily married for nearly 30 years, during which she primarily took care of her two children and their home.
Though Cheston, 62, paid household bills, she had never invested a penny or thought twice about her financial security. Her husband always took care of those things. So when he died of cancer unexpectedly, Cheston had to struggle with financial concerns along with all the emotional grief.
"I didn't understand investments," Cheston said. "I didn't understand what it would require in the long run in order to retire some day."
Cheston's plight is not unusual. Seven out of 10 baby boomer wives are expected to outlive their husbands, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging. Although women have taken great strides in the financial world, many still leave it up to their husbands to take care of their family investments.
"I see a lot of widows in my office," said Alexandra Armstrong, a financial planner in Washington, D.C., and co-author of the book, "On Your Own: A Widow's Passage to Emotional & Financial Well-Being." "They come in [and] they're emotionally upset. But they're really upset they don't understand the financial side. It's a very prevalent problem.
"The problem is that often women are not involved in finances, whether they work or don't work, and they delegate it to their husbands," Armstrong added. "And then their husband dies, suddenly or not so suddenly. They are completely at a loss, because they don't know anything about their investments. They don't know where their financial papers are, and they don't know where to start."
This can have serious repercussions. According to a study by the National Center for Women and Retirement Research, nearly 80 percent of widows who now live in poverty weren't considered poor when their husbands were alive.
Divorcées Often Struggle
It's an issue for women who get divorced too. Mary Beth McNally was overwhelmed when she and her husband separated.
"I was afraid," McNally said. "I really didn't know how much money we had. So I was really fearful about what my future was going to be, because I spent a lot of time in the marriage raising my children."
A stay-at-home mom for nearly 20 years, McNally was forced back into the workplace to generate an income and gain health insurance.
Both Cheston and McNally sold their homes in order to help make ends meet more comfortably. Financial planners say they could have possibly avoided that if they had thought ahead and created budgets and investment plans.
Cheston is not ignorant about finances anymore, having dutifully studied up. And she feels optimistic about her golden years for the first time in a while.
Now Cheston advises younger women to not make the same mistakes she made.
"The grieving process, or the loss itself, affects absolutely every cell of your body, " she tells them. "And if you at least have one piece of that under control, and you know the financial picture, and you know what needs to be done financially, and you've been a part of those decisions, and you can simply carry on without having to feel that you are starting something totally from scratch, then … it would ease the pressure."