Broken face of a woman

Over 50 Broke and in Debt: Starting from Ground Zero

Getting Woke

I’m sure there are more people out there like me, people who woke up one day and realized that they were fucked. Over 50, broke and in debt, I’d been living month to month for years. When I read about how to invest for retirement and see those little graphs that show how much you would have saved if you’d started socking money away years ago, I feel completely defeated. 

I’m going financially backward, and I’m getting older.

Trying to stretch each paycheck to cover childcare, your kid’s needs, the bills – you really don’t think about what you will be up against when you’re older. I used to have a three-month whiteboard on my kitchen wall. I would faithfully update it with my son’s soccer, football and Taekwondo practices. Fees. Where he was going after school when I was at work. More fees. I remember having to start saving in February to pay for his summer camps, aka “childcare,” because adults don’t get summers off from work. (Why are we and our kids on different time schedules anyway?)

Then they go to college. I tried to get him through without a student loan. I failed. That last year I cosigned a loan. It’s a huge burden for him now as he applies to law school. We chat online about how large of a loan he would need for the schools he’s interested in. We discuss how to come up with all of the application fees without him incurring more debt. I wish I could help him, but I’m tapped out, broke and in debt. 

Save for retirement?

When you become vividly aware of your financial vulnerability, it’s like waking up to a bad dream. Wtf were you thinking? That you would never be old?” We all truly have but two choices: get old or die. I certainly didn’t imagine that I would be dead, so how did I fail to imagine that I would still be alive, only older … broke and in debt?

The fear. The overwhelm. You want to run away from it. To do the exact opposite of what you need to do. I froze for a long time. Deer in headlights. I had no idea where to begin. At first, it took me a while to fully accept where I was. Then it took me even longer to learn to let go of how I got there. And when I finally started researching, I found out that I wasn’t alone.

The hardest part isn’t starting, it’s getting out of your own way so that you can.

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Our Relationship with Money

Money is loaded with emotional baggage. Fear, regret, greed, angst, sensuality, illusion. Behavioral economists have been studying this for years. Apparently, when you are experiencing scarcity of any form – time, money, love – it can affect you cognitively to the extent that you can make poor decisions, decisions that increase scarcity. Scarcity mindset. It decreases your ability to plan while increasing your impulsiveness.

I have friends whose debt is greater than half their home’s value. When they get a windfall, they buy season passes to something. Or a new toy. In that same breath, they might mention how they wished they hadn’t taken that 2nd or 3rd mortgage. “The things we could have done with that money!These are good people, smart people! It became apparent to me that when you are used to living month-to-month, you are used to spending all of your money every month. And this got me asking some deep questions about my relationship with money.

What is money anyway?

Digits in a ledger, with the power to dictate how we spend our waking hours. So, really important digits in a ledger. But the financial world can be intimidating. Take compound interest, for example. That thing that will definitely bleed us out if we’re broke and in debt, or could possibly multiply our money if we’re invested. While the theory itself may be simple to understand, the actual calculation is a far cry from balancing a checkbook.

The more you learn about money, the more you wake up to how crazy debt is. Yet it’s up to me, and only me, to rid myself of any ignorance of something that has such immense control over my life, how I spend my time, where I can go, and what I can do. I know I have baggage around money. But at this stage in the game, I also know that I don’t have time to uber-analyze why. Because the other thing that goes with saving money is time. You need them both. And I’m running out of time.

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Reining It In, a Bit at a Time

So, I decided it was time to learn how to crawl out of this mess. And to do this, I had to first stop freaking out about it. My odds of facing this challenge with a self-deprecating mindset were low. I tried to treat myself with compassion and forgive myself. I had to start, somewhere. And when you’ve been using your credit cards as a source of income, looking at your credit card statements isn’t fun. It brings up a flood of negative feelings. I tried my best to do it with the cold eye of a surgeon’s scalpel. Void of emotion.

I approached it like a puzzle. Like a game. Something separate from me.

First I looked for any recurring payments that I might have set up and forgotten about. Book club websites, Skype, Amazon Prime, Netflix, memberships… I canceled them all. It felt cleansing. Did I notice? At first, a little bit. Then I stopped using credit cards completely. This took a huge change in mindset. I’d always looked at credit cards as that go-to when something came up.

No longer could I visit my family on holidays. You search for hours to get a good price on a ticket and end up paying in interest what it would have cost you to fly first class. No longer could I buy that new thing because it was on sale“I had to charge it but it was 20% off!” Five years later, you’ve paid double for the thing that you’d already gotten rid of two years prior. Crazy!

How I Hacked Peace Of Mind

The first rift between my emotions and money occurred when I began to see that money had nothing to do with spending. Spending was something I did. Money is just a tool. And I had some problems that only that tool could fix. If I truly wanted to get out of debt forever, I had to create a platform where going back into debt at the slightest mishap or desire was off the table. I had zero savings. Everything always went somewhere. Why couldn’t I just leave it alone? Just let it sit there and ignore it?

I started to ignore the money in my account in the same way I had been ignoring my debt. I pretended that it just wasn’t there, and continued living as if I just didn’t have any to spend. So far I’ve saved a couple months’ worth of monthly expenses. Ten years ago that much money would be vacation fodder. Today, I want to be alright with myself more than I want a couple weeks of hotels and airplanes and souvenirs. A vacation would be lovely but it would also set me back in time. And I’m terrified that I won’t have enough time. Who is going to take care of me if I get sick? The government? Ha!

My biggest fear is that I will die broke and alone in some shit apartment, and no one will know until they smell the body.

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Recreating My Relationship With Money

Just recently, I’ve begun to learn a bit about how to make money grow. Not by reading expensive and complicated financial books or hiring a financial advisor, but by actually doing it on a tiny scale. Nothing I can’t afford to lose. Like 25-100 bucks a month. I’ve lost nothing yet. I’m diversified (don’t put all your eggs in one basket). Microbalances. (Tiny amounts.) You can see what it’s doing and learn without hurting yourself. I started picking up part-time gigs. I stopped buying coffee and other little crap throughout the day. I bought a cheap unlocked smartphone and a budget sim to get out from underneath my ridiculous cell phone contract.

The internet can open doors for you if you use it.

The internet gives us access to free financial information. I started reading Investopedia, watching Youtube videos, investment for beginners blogs, anything. I discovered that I didn’t need some professional financial person to introduce me to the world of finance and investing, and I also learned that you don’t have to be rich to invest.

Today there are services for people just like me to learn about investing by doing it on a small scale. I started learning about roboadvisors, fintech sites, cryptocurrency. And then another weird thing happened. I actually became interested. The financial world was no longer a necessary evil, it was fun. Bit by bit the little pieces of financial jargon were no longer as mysterious as Chinese characters. They began to have some context.

It’s easier to play the game when you are interested in it.

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As I became aware of my feelings around money, angst, excitement, stress, fear, greed, desire, depression, sensuality, I tried to be mindful of them and acknowledge them without getting involved. I also began to challenge my thoughts, to get used to the discomfort of these emotions, and just sort of check them out rather than let them dictate my behavior.

I’ll be honest, it isn’t very pleasant at first. Perhaps this is why so many people pay high fees for brokers to make decisions for them so that they don’t have to get involved. But it’s getting easier. I’m learning. And the more I learn, the more I realize that I’m not alone in the struggle to extricate emotions from money issues.

I found out that even Wall Street and emotions are not mutually exclusive. I laughed out loud when I discovered that you can check the emotions of today’s market on CCN’s Fear and Greed index.  Nobel Prize Winner Robert Shiller, professor of economics at Yale, talks about the relationships of the stock market and human emotions. He says that bubbles and crashes involve the human psyche on a mass scale. And it all makes sense. We can separate nothing from our humanness.

Money is a human creation.

Flipping The Script

  • We needn’t be ashamed to discover that our emotions around money may have been causing us to make long-term financial mistakes. Many of us inherited weird stuff from our parents and culture around money.
  • We shouldn’t be afraid of not knowing enough about the financial world to start learning. Many of us have zero financial education. I remember having a one-off class on balancing a checkbook in Middle School. That’s about it.
  • Couple this lack of financial education with the aggressive marketing and consumerism we have been subject to from impressionable ages thereon, and you have an interesting mix of bullshit running malware through your head when it comes to managing money. My senior year in college I received countless pre-approved credit card offers after starving to death to work my way through school for years as a single mom. It was like a feast. My new consumer debt slipped right in next to my student loan. I was a good little American.
Our culture literally screams “spend!” everywhere.

We are programmed to comply on a daily basis. A new phone. A new car. New, new, new. We need the latest iteration of everything. We have a twisted and erroneous idea of a success. It is empty. Short-lived.

We are leveraging our future for the appearance of success.

We get into debt, get out of debt, get into debt, get out of debt. The cycle is insane. And a lot of us have been doing it for a long time.

I’m intent on shattering this financial pathology. A few more months of saving and I will be able to attack those credit card balances so I can stop the bleeding once and for all. I imagine the joy I will feel when they are gone. I know it won’t be easy. And I now know it’s going to take some time. But I can use that time to learn about how to grow the money I will get to keep after I’ve finished. And I can use that time to heal from the twisted mentality that has kept me swimming in this financial toilet bowl for years. 

I’m over 50. I’m broke and in debt. I’m at Ground Zero.

So fucking what. It’s a mathematical puzzle game. And I’m going to learn how to play it.


The stories in Life are real. Sometimes the names are changed at the author’s request.

Send us your story if you’ve been duped, on the road to financial recovery, conquered your finances, or want to give feedback. feedback@wellwallet.com

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21 Comments. Leave new

I am in a similar boat as the author yet feel some of the blame should be shared by excessive bank and credit card fees/interest and the backwardness of a country that has no provision to educate children beyond the 12 grade unless their families are wealthy or they are willing to go into debt peonage to banks.

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    Thanks for the comment Earlean! I knew I wasn’t alone! 😉 I often wonder what is going to happen to our country as fewer and fewer people can afford to become educated without spiraling into debt. How can we compete on the global plane? In addition, I also question the education young people receive up to grade 12. How are they being prepared to survive in the current financial climate? Economics and personal finance should be a required subject for all American students. I wish you the best of luck in our common goal to turn it around for ourselves!

    Reply

Good article, you’ve got your feet on the ground. I know what it feels like to be in this situation, debt is a pit with slippery sides and borrowing money costs money. The way out is precisely what you’re doing, eliminating all unnecessary expenses, concentrating on making money, and eliminating the debts, starting with the most expensive ones.
You can do it, believe in yourself. Also I believe that if you want to achieve something try to find ways to hang out with people who are already succeeding the way you want to.

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    Thank you, Spud. You make an excellent point about “hanging out” with people who are focused on what you are focused on. I think a lot of people have feelings of shame around this issue that keeps them from doing that. One of the reasons I absolutely love this website is that it speaks to all of us regardless of income level, and brings us ideas about how we can begin saving, investing, and changing our financial circumstances without shame or intimidation. When I learned that there were options for people like me that I could feel good about, it made a huge difference in my mindset. I really appreciate your comment.

    Reply

This is a terrific post. I especially appreciate your comments about paying attention to the emotions around money. Also totally agree about the banks’ involvement. So evil. Keep it up Pono! Good luck to you.

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A seriously thought-provoking article. I am reassessing how I view money and the outsized roles it plays. A great read, I look forward to more from this writer.

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Excellent and well written article.

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Great article. Encouraging for those who are in the same situation and an eye-opener for those who don’t know how easy it is for anyone to fall into the same predicaments.
Look forward to reading more from this writer.

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[…] Related:  Over 50 Broke and in Debt:  Starting From Ground Zero […]

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I am 55, been a full time dad to two for last ten years, Im broke, $30k in debt, renting, no assets, although Ive been there for my kids I feel Ive let them down as cant pay for university or even help with anything, I’ve always worked full time, no holidays, I live in New Zealand, hard to get by here, no cares, I dont care about myself, trying everyday to think of a way out, to at least have secure shelter.

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    Hi Steve,
    So sorry for the late response. I just noticed this comment to my old article. I totally feel you, brother. I am in a similar boat though my son is now in his 20’s. I still feel guilty that my son had to take out a student loan his last year. But, you know what? We did the best we could under the circumstances. Don’t beat yourself up. You gave everything to your kids that you could. I think you should be commended. My dad wasn’t really around when I was a kid. I admire you greatly. I am still terrified of dying homeless and alone, too. Wondering if I will have a secure place to get old. The more I learn about finances, the more I realize how far behind I am from anything that resembles security. You’re not alone, Mate. Love, Pono

    Reply

Try being hit with bipolar disorder at 50. You think you have problems. Shit nothing…you got a job you family doesn’t hate you, your neighbors aren’t afraid of you, private investigators are following you. Did you lose a $900,000 (only owed $400,00 on it) dollar house, a $79,000 Mercedes, a $17,500 golf cart. I lost 50 years of work in a 3 year manic episode. Oh forgot about the $1.3 million dollar company and worst of all my reputation. No family is worst excuse me. Spent my 10 year olds sons $8,000 IRA in one night of shame. Coin collection, gone, stocks gone it’s all gone. Debt ads up to $280,000, so that’s around a $2 million dollar reversal of Fortune. No job on and reputation shot. It gets worse, now I am on a mood stabilizer and anti depressant. Statistics say I have a 50% chance of committing suicide…And a good chance of manic relapse, but first I get to deal with the depression, food stamp and welfare did I say my kids don’t trust me anymore. Did I say I have to hide in the supermarket from other parents. Did I mention my cancer is back and I get to look forward to 15 weeks of radiation , if I even chose to live. There is more. It gets worse. But I think you get the jest of it.

Dan

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    Dan,

    Thank you for reaching out. I can feel your suffering in this comment. It’s palpable.
    To be honest it struck me very deeply.

    What I want to say to you is don’t quit on yourself. Don’t give up. Stop shaming yourself for what happened to you. You are not alone. 25% of Americans are suffering from some type of depression and over 50% are broke and in debt. (Can you connect the dots?)

    This enigma is something that bothers me consistently. There is something gravely wrong with American society.

    Choose life Dan. Your death would mean nothing. Your life means everything. Please don’t judge yourself by your assets or deficits. Let them go. You can recreate yourself. You can. It may not feel like it now, but 50 is nothing. You can start over. You can find peace.

    Your 10 year old son isn’t going care about an IRA he doesn’t even understand, but he is going to care whether you are on the planet or not. Million dollar business or not. Fancy Mercedes or not. House or not. This “stuff” is replaceable. Reputations come and go. Parents that you have to hide from in supermarket? F*k ’em. Not worth knowing.

    Everything is change. But your life – this is something you cannot replace. Ever. Don’t give up, Brother. And the cancer…on top of it all. Now more than ever you need to be your own best friend.

    Love,

    Pono

    Reply

I find your journey amazing , and your thoughts on how positive you are. Which probably is a huge struggle, for the situation you are in. I suffer from anxiety and worry about financial issues every day. I search for inspiration from others to try get my mind in the right place. Your article is amazing and hit some key point to me. That no matter what happens I can make choices that will make things better. Great article hope to hear more from you

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Thank you for this article. I Googled 50 and broke and this appeared, and it was exactly what i needed to read. Because I’m 54, and I have $20K in credit card debt, another $60K in student loans, a half-ass job that pays nearly nothing, and zero in the bank. I feel like a total failure, but I know that emotions got me in this mess and I can’t live by them anymore. Thank you for some practical advice.

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    Thanks for reaching out Barb,

    I agree that we can’t let our emotions dictate our quality of life, debt or no debt.
    You are not alone!

    Love,
    Pono

    Reply

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