Despite severe odds, these women are exceptional savers.
One third of U.S. workers say they haven't saved for retirement. Most say they spend more time each year planning for a two-week vacation than for retirement.
A majority say they can't afford to save for retirement because they are barely making ends meet, saving for a house or college, according to the 1998 Retirement Confidence Survey, recently released by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a policy-research group.
For women and minorities, the statistics are bleak.
Three-quarters of women earn less than $25,000 a year because they move in and out of the job market and work in low-wage, service-sector jobs. Women need to save more than men because they tend to live at least five years longer.
Just 32 percent of female retirees are covered by pension plans compared with 46 percent of men.
Only 38 percent of African Americans and 26 percent of Hispanic Americans have pension plans.
But there is hope. For the first time, the needs of women and minorities are getting special attention from the government and investment experts.
In June, the challenges of savers, especially women and minorities, were the focus of a national summit President Clinton convened in Washington.
The purpose of the summit and a new national campaign on retirement savings is to cajole Americans into saving more. The government wants to make sure Americans don't count solely on Social Security, which will be in the red by 2032 if Congress doesn't take actions to shore it up.
Even if Congress bails out the system, new rules probably would require Americans to work longer and would provide future retirees fewer benefits than their predecessors.
Clinton urged employers who don't provide pension or retirement savings plans to start offering them or to allow workers to contribute to individual retirement accounts through payroll deductions.
To get more employees enrolled in plans, he asked employers to automatically enroll workers in 401(k) plans instead of waiting for workers to sign up.
Traditional pension plans and 401(k) plans work best for those who stay in one job for a long time. If women move out of the job market to care for children or parents, work part time or change jobs often, they might not become vested in pension plans or eligible for other retirement savings plans.
Clinton's budget proposal would cut the vesting period for 401(k)s from five years to three.
Others say there should be no waiting period. ``Immediate vesting is a plus. Unfortunately, not enough companies do it,'' said Ted Benna, who created the first 401(k) and is president of the 401(k) Association in Chadds Ford, Pa.
There are some signs that Americans are getting the message about retirement planning. More than half of U.S. workers indicate they could save $20 more per week - or $1,040 more per year - than they are saving now, according to the Retirement Confidence Survey. Most said they would give up dining out or some other entertainment to save more.
Some say women invest less aggressively than men, but that, too, might be changing, according to a recent survey by Phoenix Home Life Mutual Insurance Co., based in East Greenbush, N.Y. The survey found that 60 percent of women own stocks and bonds, up from 53 percent last year; 52 percent own mutual funds, up from 50 percent, and 37 percent own certificates of deposits, up from 32 percent. The numbers are almost in line with investments by men.
The survey found that women expect to retire with an average nest egg of $439,000 - 9 percent above last year's estimate but a third less than the $641,000 men expect to have.
While women are less likely than men to participate in a pension - 46 percent vs. 51 percent - the gap is closing, according to Ann Combs, a Washington, D.C., attorney for William M. Mercer, a consulting firm that deals with retirement issues. New data also show that, when given the chance to participate in a pension plan, women are now more likely than men to sign up.
Increasingly, women, if not minorities, are being targeted as a group that needs or wants education on saving and investing. More investment companies are focusing on women.
Recently, Vanguard Group, the Malvern mutual fund company, published a booklet, ``Women and Investing: A Step-by-Step Guide to Your Personal Finances. Information is available by telephone at 1-800-662-7447 or at Vanguard's Web site, www.vanguard.com Other financial services companies offer similar guides.
Women, more often than men, are willing to seek help in finding ways to save more, experts said.
Curtis, 43, set up her own marketing-support consulting business more than two years ago. Before that, she worked as a freelance consultant. As with many women, she has no corporate pension or savings plan.
When she was married, her husband handled their household spending and savings. In 1993, she turned to Bert Whitehead, a financial adviser, to help her run her business and increase her savings, because, she said, ``I am organizationally challenged.''
With his help, she started putting money into an IRA and a self-employed retirement fund. ``I had to learn to pay myself first before paying the bills,'' she said.
Whitehead, head of Franklin, Mich.-based Cambridge Advisors, said, ``Men learn about money at their father's knee, but once women get the basics and get hooked on savings, they're often better at it.''