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Welcome to the first article in our three-part series on women and super. This article focuses on issues and strategies for women in the first few decades of their long super journey.
When retirement is still decades away and your immediate financial priorities may be your home, family and enjoying life in the little spare time you have, super can easily end up as a problem for later. But where super is concerned, small changes starting now can make an enormous difference to your future wellbeing.
We know that women tend to retire with lower super balances than men and are expected to live longer on average, a combination that can lead to disappointing retirement income.
These tips can help women in their 20s through to their early 50s make the most of opportunities to close the gap.
1. Start early
One of the most powerful forces in investing is compounding returns – reinvesting investment earnings that then earn even more.
The earlier you start saving in super, the higher your final balance is likely to be. Even small amounts saved early have a significant impact at retirement because of the time available to continue earning and reinvesting returns.
These early savings can also help give you a ‘buffer zone’ if you later take time away from work or move to part-time employment, two of the factors that frequently reduce women’s super balances in comparison to those of men.
You can make voluntary contributions to super either after tax (non-concessional) or before tax (concessional). Concessional contributions can increase the amount you can afford to save thanks to income tax savings while non-concessional contributions may attract a co-contribution from the government.
2. Get your co-contribution
An important housekeeping tip is to assess your income for the financial year and check if you’re eligible for a government co-contribution. If your income tends to vary, you can do this in late May or early June each year when you should be able to accurately estimate your total annual income.
The co-contribution can add up to $500 to your super in return for a $1,000 personal contribution from you. A risk-free 50% return on your investment is hard to go past!
If you usually earn too much to be eligible, the co-contribution can be part of your toolkit in years when your income is lower for any reason.
3. Take control of your investment strategy
If you don’t make a choice, your super fund will invest your money in their default strategy. This is most often a ‘balanced’ investment with 60–80% exposed to growth assets or a ‘lifecycle’ option that begins allocated heavily to growth assets when you are younger and moves towards more stable assets as you age.
One of the easiest and most painless ways to improve your final super balance is to choose an investment strategy that maximises your returns. Options with a higher allocation to growth assets such as shares, property and alternatives can be expected to have higher long-term average returns and fluctuate more in value, including experiencing losses, in the short term.
If you’re comfortable with volatility and have the time to recover from any short-term losses, selecting a growth-oriented strategy for your super can make sense. Your balance should grow more in the long term, without the need to make any additional contributions.
4. Advocate for employer benefits
Employers are required to make superannuation guarantee (SG) contributions for all their eligible employees, but some choose to provide more super than the law requires.
When you’re looking for a new job opportunity, pay attention to advertisements and note if they mention additional super benefits. If you’re happy where you’re working and are only receiving SG, consider mechanisms to provide feedback to your employer about your desire for a higher rate.
Paid parental leave is a significant gap in the super system. Regulations do not require your employer to pay super contributions while you’re receiving paid parental leave, but some employers do so voluntarily. The government also doesn’t provide super on their parental leave scheme. It’s worth checking your employer’s policies on this and bringing up the issue if it has not already been addressed.
5. Leverage your spouse or partner
For couples, the super system permits you to contribute (after tax) to each other’s accounts and to transfer concessional contributions made to one person’s account into their partner’s.
This can be of benefit if your super balance is lagging that of your spouse.
If you earn less than $37,000 in a financial year, your spouse can receive a tax offset of $540 in return for contributing $3,000 to your account. When you earn between $37,000 and $40,000 a lower tax offset is available. You don’t need to be employed to take advantage of this scheme, so it’s an excellent strategy for times you’re away from work raising children or for any other reason.
Spouse contribution splitting allows one spouse to transfer concessional contributions made into their super in the previous financial year into their partner’s account. This can be a valuable tool, not only to redistribute your balances in the interest of fairness, but also to ensure you both make the most of the transfer balance cap on super transferred into a super pension account or pending introduction of additional tax on balances above $3 million.
Separating can be an emotionally difficult time and involve personal conflict but it is critical to get your financial affairs in order. Ideally, you don’t want to compromise on your financial settlement just to keep the peace.
Make sure you have experienced legal representation and don’t overlook super during negotiations – it is likely to be among the largest assets you shared. If you were married or in a de-facto relationship, super can be split after permanent separation or divorce.
7. Consider catching up if you spend some time out of the workforce
Women remain more likely than men to take on caring roles that require time away from work, whether that be raising children or looking after elderly parents.
If you do spend some time away, it’s likely to put a significant dent in the amount of super you accumulate due to the lack of employer super contributions.
As well as considering contributions while you’re off work – from yourself or your spouse – you can think about options to catch up when you’re earning again.
Calculate how much employer super you missed out on and work out if it’s affordable to replace that amount with your own contributions, perhaps over a number of years. This will minimise the impact of your time away from employment. You may even want to contribute a larger amount to help account for the investment returns you would have earned if the contributions were added to your super while you were not working.
You may also be able to take advantage of carry-forward concessional contributions to contribute more than the usual concessional cap in one financial year and receive a larger tax deduction into the bargain.
For more useful tips see:
- Part 2 of this series for strategies to boost your super in the lead up to retirement
- Part 3 on making the most of your super and other assets after retirement