A new Nationwide Financial study shows three-quarters (74%) of women small business owners expect their business to be negatively impacted in 2012 by the economy. Just one in five (22%) think the state of the economy will improve and one third (34%) expect their sales and revenue to decline.

Based on this cautious outlook, it’s not surprising that about a third of women small business owners plan to cut back on hiring (37%) and eliminate or delay raises (31%) or bonuses (30%) within the next 12-24 months, according to the Harris Poll of 501 small business owners released last week. Nearly one in five (17%) fear they will be forced to lay off employees and only 11% plan to add or enhance benefits in the next two years.

The survey also found that only 14% of women-owned small businesses currently offer their employees a 401(k) or other employee-funded retirement plan, and only 5% offer a company-funded defined benefit plan. Of those who plan to enhance employee benefits, only 12% say they will add an employee-funded retirement plan.

It's not that women small business owners are unsympathetic to the needs of their employees. In fact, eight in 10 (81%) agree that the lack of preparation for retirement in America has reached crisis levels, and nearly half (45%) say offering retirement plans would help them attract qualified workers.

But 69% say their businesses are too small to offer retirement plans, and over half (53%) say doing so is too expensive.

“Women small business owners, like most of the small business owners we surveyed, may find it hard to invest in new benefits for their employees when they are unsure about the direction of the economy and how it will affect their business,” says Anne Arvia, president of Nationwide Retirement Plans. “It’s a tough position when you cannot predict or control many of the factors that affect your ability to grow your business and provide benefits to attract and retain employees.”

The survey may reveal one opportunity for small business owners concerned with cost. Nearly two in three women small business owners were unaware that some retirement plans do not require employers to match employee contributions.

“That's a common misperception,” says Arvia. “An employee-funded retirement plan that does not involve a company match may be worth considering for owners who are concerned about cost, but want to help their employees prepare for the future.”

The survey also found that women owners who currently offer a self-funded retirement plan are less likely to offer an employee funded 401(k) than the general sample of small business owners surveyed (46% vs. 59%), but more likely to offer a simplified employee pension plan, with 39% doing so compared to 34% of all owners.

 “Small business owners should develop a relationship with a good financial advisor who can help them understand the wide range of options available for supporting their employees with retirement and other benefits,” says Arvia.

Small business owners may also be interested in learning more about the SAVE Act, a piece of legislation currently before Congress that could make offering retirement plans more affordable for small business owners. The SAVE Act encourages small businesses to pool together to offer Multiple Small Employer Plans that are much less expensive than single employer plans and simplify an employer’s administrative requirements.

“The retirement savings crisis is one of the key issues facing our nation,” says Arvia. “These survey results are another reminder of how important it is for retirement plan providers, plan sponsors, and legislators to work together to develop practical solutions to increase access to employer-sponsored retirement plans.”

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