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Money & Career

What One Author Learned from Her Financial Crisis

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At 55, Elizabeth White found herself in a position she could never have imagined: unemployed and running low on savings.

A lifetime high achiever, White had a Harvard MBA, a master’s degree in international studies from Johns Hopkins University, and a resume that included a decade as an executive with the World Bank.

But a retail business she’d started with her mother had failed, and, a few years later, the 2008 recession hit.

By the time she was pushing 60, even the few consulting gigs she had managed to land were drying up. But now, through frank talks with friends and others, White had discovered that she was far from the only one struggling to make ends meet and panicked about the future in late midlife.

One report by economists at the New School for Social Research in New York suggests that 40 percent of older workers and their spouses will experience downward mobility (movement from one social level to a lower one) in retirement.

“We’re not talking about a few who were perhaps spendthrifts and financially irresponsible,” says White, speaking by phone from her home in Washington, D.C. “Nor are we talking about people who have been poor all their lives and then in old age are having an even tougher time. It’s middle class baby boomers who are facing these economic challenges in huge numbers.”

There is no magic wand, White says. But there is what White calls “smalling up” – asking yourself what it means to live a life not defined by things – and “figuring out what you need to feel contented and grounded.” 

White, now 65, explores these themes in a TED Talk that has received well over a million views and in her new book 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Life.

She shared some highlights in her chat with Get Old:

Recognize you’re not alone. I wrote the book I wish I’d had when I was going through the worst of my own financial crisis. Shame keeps us silenced and alone. That’s why my first tip is to create what I call a “resilience circle.” These are small groups of people—four or six or eight—coming together to discuss what’s happened to them, and sharing resources and information to begin to figure out a way forward to live a good life on a limited income.

Acknowledge that belt tightening won’t be enough. You’re going to be making changes you don’t want to make.  Begin by establishing what matters most to you. For example, I like good eating. Other people won’t care about that. But eating good food with good friends nurtures and nourishes me. While I don’t eat out as much as I used to, I’ll meet friends for happy hours where drinks are half price and we can make a meal out of appetizers.

On the other hand, I need to go up to New York for a meeting next week, and, while I’d prefer to take the train, I’m going to take the bus to save money.

Ask yourself what actions you’re resisting that you should consider. That might be moving out of your 2,500-square-foot home into a one-bedroom apartment. Taking in boarders or taking a job that pays much less than you’re used to making.  It might mean relocating to another more affordable city for your third act. Or maybe it means applying for food stamps or moving in with your sister temporarily. You don’t necessarily want to do any of these things, but, depending on the financial pressure you’re facing, you may need to. Think of these actions as strategic choices, not failure, doing what you need to do to go another round.

Let go of magical thinking.  Are you holding onto beliefs that aren’t supported by your current life? If so, you might be missing opportunities. For example, if you’ve been looking for a job for over a year and you’re about to turn one down that pays 40 percent less than you’re used to making because you don’t want to damage your salary history, is that optimism about realistic job prospects or magical thinking?

There were years I took a lot of ad-hoc teaching jobs that barely paid anything so I could cobble together a living. I call that getting off your throne. A part of this is seeing possibility where you saw none before and moving through a world a more curious person, willing to consider options you would have rejected outright not long ago.

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