As news reports, surveys and even the president and Congress continually point out, all Americans should be saving and investing more money.

In its latest annual Retirement Confidence Survey, the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute found that even though 78% of full-time workers report having saved for retirement, 57% said that the total value of their household’s savings and investments (excluding the value of their primary home and any defined benefit plans) is less than $25,000. This includes 28% who say they have less than $1,000 in savings.

Clearly, saving for retirement is something that all of us should be taking seriously. But for women, in particular, the challenge can be somewhat greater.

The Gender Gap

Women, on average, earn $.78 for every dollar men earn, which is an even more pronounced difference over the course of a career and a lifetime.

Further, women are more likely than men to leave work to care for family members. While this trend doesn’t apply only to women (according to recent research, 40% of adult women and 37% of adult men provide unpaid care for a friend or family member) the average profile of a caregiver is a 49-year-old woman caring for her widowed mother.

Why is this significant? According to AARP, family caregivers who are at least 50 years old and leave the workforce to care for a parent forgo, on average, $304,000 in lost salary and benefits during their lifetime. These estimates range from $283,716 for men to $324,044 for women.

Making the financial challenge more complex, women live longer than men, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Therefore, they tend to have longer retirements. What does all this mean? Simply that all women — whether single, married or divorced — should make planning for retirement a lifelong endeavor.

No matter what your age or situation, it’s important to start planning for your future now.

Working Toward a Solution

While there is clearly a gender gap in earnings, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics has shown improvements in women’s income. Higher earnings for women could mean the potential for more investments. Nonetheless, the bottom line is that in order to make up for differences in earnings and benefits, and more retirement years due to longer life spans, women may have to invest more.

There are a number of steps women can follow when planning for a comfortable retirement.

Carefully consider how much risk you are willing to take in exchange for the potential to earn higher returns. Historically, equity investments have provided higher returns over the long term than less risky investments, like CDs and short-term bonds, although past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Obtain information about the retirement benefits that are available through your employer and actively participate in any plans offered.

Seek education about the investment vehicles that can help you reach your retirement goals. An investment professional is an excellent source of information and guidance to help you sort through the many choices available.

Contact local professional/trade associations, women’s groups, community colleges and adult education centers in your area for information on investment or personal finance seminars taking place.

Most important, women need to recognize the unique challenges they face and start saving and investing as early as possible to overcome them.

John E. Day is a financial consultant with LPL Financial Services, in Columbia. He can be reached at 410-290-1000, john.day@lpl.com or www.daywm.com.