If you’re privately wringing your hands wondering how you’re going to survive without continuing to work, don’t think you’re alone; you’re not. The story of the woman who was once comfortably middle class but is now nearing traditional retirement age and struggling to make ends meet is common.
Take the case of Elizabeth White, author of Fifty-Five, Unemployed and Faking Normal, who is 63 years old and has been unemployed for three years. Or Deborah Burkholder, who hasn’t had a full-time job since 2009. Says Deborah, “It’s hard to predict what will happen the next month, you know, and calculating how many times do I have to go through this until I’m buried?”
“There is a low-level stress that you — you know, that is wearing,” says Elizabeth.
If the stories of Elizabeth and Deborah hit close to home, how can you cope?
One Way To Cope: Join A Resilience Circle
One way, says economist Teresa Ghilarducci, author of How to Retire with Enough Money, is to become part of what she calls a resilience circle – a group of financially fragile friends, all formerly middle class, who are well past 50. Having a place to speak frankly about your situation without feeling judged or pitied helps center your sense of self, for one thing. And when you share your day-to-day challenges as well as your deeper concerns with others who are living with the same pressures as yours, often you will find helpful advice and learn some coping mechanisms from them.
Research shows that uncertainty about your income post-50 causes more depression and anxiety, which could contribute to health conditions such as chronic heart failure and heart disease. Joining a resilience circle may stave off some of those physical manifestations of your stress by giving you a supportive environment and, perhaps even more important, a place where you feel you’re not a failure but a normal person who’s worked hard yet fallen into financial fragility through circumstances beyond your control.
Writer Neal Gabler wrote a “coming out” article in Atlantic Magazine about his own financial failures. “It struck me that talking about our financial situation is very much like men not wanting to talk about sexual impotence… It’s a shame. It’s a humiliation,” he says.
More Proof That You’re Not Alone If Your Finances Are Fragile
Over half of people over 50 who are working now have no retirement savings. Their only source of income for retirement is social security. The average family in America has enough money – somewhere – to keep afloat for about three weeks in the event of job loss. That is clearly not enough time to find another job and get back on your feet again.
The idea that you will simply continue working and earning an income for “as long as possible” is just not likely to pan out, say the experts. Chances are, you will stop earning long before the time when you would define yourself as being unable to earn an income. A layoff that comes earlier than you would like, or a business setback, or health issues that prevent you from working, even if only temporarily, can drastically reduce your income before you were ready for that to happen.
More Ways To Cope
If your earnings have contracted before you were ready to live with less, there are some ways to cope. One, of course, is to “small up;” sell off artwork, cars, and other assets you no longer need. Sell your house and move to a smaller, less expensive abode.
Rather than go to a smaller living situation and continuing to live alone, consider sharing housing with a roommate. Not only will you cut your living expenses in half because you’ll be sharing rent, electricity, gas, water, and other household bills, but you may be able to actually move to a larger or more attractive home than the one you now occupy. That alone can be a huge boost to your sense of well being.
Another less direct coping mechanism is to place new emphasis on your health and fitness. After all, if you are healthier, you will, presumably, have fewer doctor visits, medical bills, and prescription drugs to pay for.
Share your plight with a resilience circle and gain as much support as you can, both practical and emotional, from your friends there.
Finally, try to help those who are still financially secure – what Elizabeth refers to as the “smugtocracy” – that your situation is not a result of your failures or inadequacies. Try to make them understand that “there but for the grace of God.” Of course you can do your best to avoid members of the smugtocracy, but some of your own family members may fall into this group. Stand up for yourself and don’t let them shame you.
Watch Elizabeth White in “55, unemployed and faking normal: One woman’s story of barely scraping by” on NPR.