When it comes to retirement security and retirement savings, women are often at a disadvantage. Retirement, as it turns out, is much more expensive for women than for men. Women live longer than men and so have higher healthcare costs in retirement. Plus, working women tend to earn less than men, with fewer dollars saved.

Often, women are not prepared with adequate financial planning or a retirement strategy for their retirement years, leaving them with less at a time when they need more. To help bridge the gender gap, women need to start socking away more savings now.

“Unfortunately there is no magic bullet,” says Jane Nowak, an Atlanta-based certified financial planner specializing in women’s retirement. “The only way to do it is to save money and spend less than you earn. This is something that Americans aren’t used to. We are used to having everything our way all the time.”

Women have higher healthcare expenses

“It’s the good old double-edged sword,” Nowak says. “We all want to live longer, but when we do, it costs us more.”

Because women live longer, their healthcare expenses are greater in retirement. Plus, women tend to have higher rates of disability and chronic health problems. The Employee Benefit Research Institute found that men retiring in 2009 at age 65 needed from $134,000 to $378,000 in savings to give them a 90 percent chance of covering their health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses in retirement. By contrast, women needed from $164,000 to $450,000.

To reduce future healthcare expenses, keep in shape now by eating right and exercising, says Jan Cullinane, author of “The New Retirement: The Ultimate Guide to the Rest of Your Life” and the upcoming “The Single Woman’s Guide to Retirement” (John Wiley & Sons, 2012). Lifestyle-related diseases like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are preventable. Acting now will reduce healthcare costs later.

Women earn less money

Not only do women earn less money than men, but they also have fewer years to earn it. In 2010, women earned 81 percent of what their male counterparts made. On average, women work 12 years less than men because of family caregiving responsibilities. Less time in the workforce translates to fewer years participating in employer-sponsored retirement plans and fewer years benefiting from an employer’s matching 401(k) funds.

To help counter this, Nowak advises women to take full advantage of company-matching funds in employer-sponsored 401(k) plans whenever possible. “It’s free money, a total no-brainer,” she says.

Women live longer and face retirement alone

Women live an average of five years longer than men, with women expected to live to age 80 and men to age 75. Also, women outlive their husbands by an average of 15 years because women have longer lifespans and because they often marry older husbands.

Here’s the rub: With a longer lifespan comes greater living and medical expenses. Also, Social Security payments and pension benefits are often reduced for widows, resulting in a need for greater savings.

Delay taking Social Security payouts if possible, Nowak says. If you take an early retirement at age 62, you will be faced with a 25 percent reduction in benefits. Also, instead of taking Social Security payments at your full retirement age (from age 65 to 67), wait and receive 8 percent more for each year up to age 70.

Women often have inadequate retirement plans

Unfortunately, women are not always prepared with appropriate retirement plans. In its 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey, the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that women were less confident than men that they will have saved enough money to live comfortably throughout their retirement. The study found that women (12 percent) are more likely than men (5 percent) to say they do not know how much money they will need to save for retirement. Women (35 percent) are more likely than men (26 percent) to think they will need to save less than $250,000 for retirement.

“Women, in general, want to bury their heads in the sand and always want someone else to take care of the money,” Nowak says. While women often take the lead for tactical short-term planning, long-term planning is often left to others. Because women usually outlive their spouses, or end up single due to divorce, they will have to face financial reality eventually, Nowak says. If women don’t want to take on the task, they should enlist the help of a trusted financial professional for impartial input.

“Women need to start taking this seriously,” Nowak says. “Save until it hurts, and the sooner the better.”

A Chicago-based writer and editor, Eve Becker writes about personal finance, health and other topics. She is a former managing editor of Tribune Media Services.