As one financial expert has told her clients for the past 16 years, a man is not a retirement plan.

Rhonda Sherwood, a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) with ScotiaMcLeod, in Vancouver, started giving this advice when she realized most of her clients were women over 40 who were either widows or divorcees and who had relied on their husbands to take care of their retirement plans. "The wife wouldn't know where her finances were and unfortunately, I've seen women have a really hard time financially," she says.

Not only were many of her clients forced to think about retirement in the wake of a divorce or the loss of a husband, some were surprised to discover their spouses' pension plans didn't even include them.

When you consider that women typically earn less than men do — 84 cents for every dollar, according to Statistics Canada — and that women are expected to live longer than men — 83 years compared with 79 — it becomes clear why women need to plan for their own retirement: Because they have different needs than men do.

Start saving now
Because women tend to earn less money, live longer and take more time off work to devote to child rearing than men do, planners say women need to start thinking about saving for retirement earlier than men do.

"As caregivers, [women] provide for everyone else," says Sherwood. "But make planning your own retirement a priority." She says women need their own investments and plans, separate from their husbands or partners.

Starting work on that plan means taking an interest in money matters, which some women are reluctant to do. But Sherwood says it's essential to understand the basics of your finances. She says it's a lot like owning a car: "I don't have any interest in understanding how my car works, but I have a little knowledge," which is necessary to know when something is wrong and it needs a tune-up.

Sherwood suggests women start saving for retirement using forced savings plans, in which a set amount of money is automatically withdrawn from your bank account or your paycheque on a regular basis and transferred to a savings account that doesn't allow immediate withdrawals.