Until 1974, married women could not apply for credit cards on their own. Until 1978, women could be fired for being pregnant. Until 1980, sexual harassment was not recognized by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Now, women control nearly 60 percent of the wealth in the United States and women-owned businesses are growing at five times the rate of men-owned businesses.

A lot has changed, but there is still a gender gap in finances, with women on the short end of the equation, said Merrill Lynch and Age Wave in a study released Wednesday called "Women & Financial Wellness: Beyond the Bottom Line." Age Wave is a research and educational organization that deals with issues of aging.

“In a period of remarkable advances for women in society, a remaining frontier is financial well-being,” said Andy Sieg, head of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.

Women report that when it comes to money, family is their priority, along with causes they believe in. Seventy-seven percent of women said they see money in terms of what it can do for their families, and 65 percent said they want to invest in causes that matter to them. The survey included 2,638 women and 1,069 men.

Women are as confident as men when it comes to paying bills and budgeting, but when it comes to investing, their confidence falls. Only about half (52 percent) of women say they are confident in managing investments, compared to 68 percent of men. When asked what they wish they had done in the past to be in better financial shape today, 41 percent said they wish they had invested more and 35 percent said they wish they had chosen a higher paying job.

Sixty-four percent of women said they would like to live to be 100, and yet 60 percent said they fear they will run out of money if they do live that long. In fact, 42 percent are afraid they will run out of money by age 80. These fears are not unwarranted, Merrell Lynch said. Only 9 percent of American women have $300,000 or more saved.

Women face a retirement paradox, Merrell Lynch said. Women live longer and have longer retirements, but they have less saved, in part because their working years are more likely to have been interrupted by child care and their later years are more likely to be taken up with caring for an elderly relative or friend.

Women also have higher health care costs in retirement than men because they retire earlier and live longer.

There are steps women can take to help their retirement finances, the study said. First they should consult a professional, discuss life priorities and goals with that person, create a plan that matches any unique circumstances and revisit that plan often and make course corrections along the way.

Women also need to start a retirement plan early, use tax-efficient retirement plan options such as 401(k)s, work longer, if possible, and maximize Social Security and pension benefits. They should include longevity in their financial plans.

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