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I’m 57 And Broke. How Did I Get Here?

It all started with my career choice.

It all started with my career choice. As a newly divorced mom of a 2-year-old, I knew that I needed a job that would allow me to have a similar schedule to hers (summers off, etc.), so I went back to school for my master’s degree in teaching. At first it was a great choice — when she began kindergarten full time I started my first job — which meant no daycare, a priority for me both philosophically and financially. I earned a starting teacher’s salary at a local suburban public school. 

The pay wasn’t outstanding, but it was enough to support us. After the first year, I was offered an opportunity to be an administrator and teacher at a local private school. My daughter would be able to go to an outstanding school tuition free starting in fifth grade, it was closer to her current school, her dad was an alumnus — all the boxes were checked. 

My starting salary was commensurate with my previous year’s salary. Private schools are known to pay less, so even as an administrator, I was making about the same amount. Nonetheless, it still proved to be a great situation for both my daughter and me. Teaching at a school your child attends is a decadent luxury that is, simply put, priceless. 

After a few years at that school, I decided to leave the administrative portion of my job and become a full-time teacher — my first love. Along with that choice came a salary cut. I was  making less than I did in my first year of teaching.  

At that point I let my public teaching certification expire. I was enmeshed in the private-school world and, with that, a perpetually lower salary in my future. While I don’t regret my career choice — it afforded my daughter with myriad opportunities and has great job satisfaction for me — the low salary was the price I had to pay for the many other benefits. 

Fast forward 25 years. I am still a teacher in a private school, and still not making as much as my public-school colleagues or as most people with a master’s degree. As time had moved on, as had my age, it became more difficult to imagine a career change. Make no mistake: Ageism is alive and well. So, I find myself educated and experienced, but for all intents and purposes “stuck” in a career path in which I earn $45,000 a year.

As a single parent and a sole breadwinner, that is not a lot of money to survive on, or at least thrive on.  Over the years I was forced to amass a small amount of credit card debt, acquire personal loans and deal with a sagging economy and retirement fund. I am proverbially living paycheck to paycheck with a very small retirement account (I had to borrow from that, too) and virtually no savings or assets. If there is any good news to this saga, it’s that I’m not alone. Others are struggling to make ends meet.  

A Pew Charitable Trusts survey of American family finances found that “the median household does not have enough in liquid savings — money held in checking and savings accounts, unused balances on prepaid cards, and cash saved at home — to replace one month of income.” And there are many more grim statistics out there that further support this dire financial scenario.

Another positive outcome is that it has taught me strong lessons in humility, from picking up loose change from the floor of the car to buy dinner from a value menu to working extra jobs like tutoring, house/dog sitting, teaching summer school, monitoring after-school programs, and freelance writing. Although there is a certain amount of shame, worry and envy toward those who don’t have to worry about their finances, for now I find that practicing gratitude is a great help. My basic needs are being met. I am grateful for a job, a roof over my head and a full stomach. The money will work itself out — as it always does. Having one’s health, family and friends as well as a career that I love are the priceless things that money can’t buy.

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