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Work & Money

How I Overcame Financial Shame

She went from passport stamps to food stamps. To rebuild her net worth, she had to claw back her self-worth.

I wrote the book on bouncing back from financial rock bottom. Literally. I am meeting people who are going to food banks and living in their cars after having lost their homes. That’s financial rock bottom. I was at risk, careening dangerously close to the edge, but I did not go over thanks, in good part, to my mother who was not going to let me lose my house.

I am not out of the woods. Money is still lumpy and unpredictable, a feast-or-famine situation. What’s changed is I don’t fear anymore that the light I see at the end of the tunnel is a train barreling down on me.

It’s been about 10 years since my life changed from zigging and zagging around the world — Volvo, nice clothes, nice crib in a trendy neighborhood — to qualifying for food stamps, being at risk of losing my home and weighing every single decision against its affordability.

It started for me the way it starts for so many of us. Something unexpected — a job loss, illness, divorce — upends life as you know it. Suddenly your journey is split into the time before catastrophe happened and after.

My disruption was losing two long-term consulting contracts during the Great Recession. In my mid-fifties, I was an older worker in a “don’t want you” job market. I had no husband, no backup.

I fell into denial. I had an MBA from Harvard and other credentials. The story they tell you is that a good education and work history guarantees you a good job. But that’s not the truth anymore.

I didn’t immediately cut back. For months, I faked normal. I thought things would soon turn around if I just sent out more resumes, went to more networking events, wrote more letters to potential employers and doubled up on coffee meetings.

Nothing worked.

My plummeting resources forced me off my throne and into the food stamp line and checking my eligibility for Medicaid. The best advice I got was “think strategy, not failure.” I willed myself to put one foot in front of the other, but I felt lost. I cried at the drop of a hat.

I remember three friends going to see jazz trumpeter Chris Botti and not inviting me, perhaps because my pockets were turned out. It just broke me down. The truth is I couldn’t afford it, but it stung.

With time I began to confront my situation. I had one friend who walked every step with me. She, too, was a former high-earner and unemployed. I remember the time she called at 6 a.m. sobbing. Nothing was working. She’d already given up her house and car. We stayed on the phone for seven hours, both crying. I can usually go numb to avoid pain. My friend’s raw emotion forced me to deal with my own. It was the catharsis that shifted me.

Ultimately, I made the hard choices to survive. I took in a roommate, stopped making needed home repairs and got my mortgage lender to add current payments to the back of the loan. I took a part-time job paying a tenth of what I was used to earning.

It was during this time that I published an essay online called “You Know Her,” a composite piece describing what it felt like to be out of money and unemployed, a member of the used-to-be club.

When I learned thousands of people liked and commented on it, I hid. People told me how courageous I was to tell my story. But I refused to respond to comments or have a photo on social media. I was still embarrassed and hadn’t given up hope yet of finding a job in my old field.

Still, I was curious why my essay struck a chord. I began doing some research and was astonished to learn so many middle-class Americans are facing poverty or near-poverty conditions in their so-called golden years. Millions of people did not land there because they’re slackers and spendthrifts. It’s not because of all that bottled water we drank or our hair appointments. Thirty years of stagnating wages, the gender pay gap, disappearing pensions and the escalating costs of health care, education and housing have fueled our retirement crisis.

So while we need to own our mistakes, I came to see that we should ditch the embarrassment. While in its grip, we can’t advocate for ourselves or clearly see opportunities.

That first essay fueled another and then another. People found my email address and began to reach out to me. I corresponded. Acquaintances turned into friends. I felt the stirrings of a calling.

A little over a year later, I started writing the book I wanted to read — one that dealt honestly with the emotional aspects of being out of money and offered concrete steps on how to move forward. My self-published book sold well, and the second edition, 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal was picked up by Simon and Schuster.

To help reframe the conversation on aging, work and retirement, I began to give talks. One, for a small, independently produced TEDx event, was elevated to the main TED stage last July, where it has garnered over 1.3 million views.

Overcoming financial shame is a process. I’m a private person. So laying bare what happened to me has not been easy in a culture that prizes self-reliance.

But knowing that there are millions of us has empowered me. As I have had the opportunity to speak all over the country, I’ve grown more comfortable in my skin, more confident that I can support myself – not the old life I had, but one that fits who I am now.

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