TOPICS > Economy

Are you hanging off a financial cliff? Here’s how to cope

January 26, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
Elizabeth White was once comfortably middle class, but recently she has been severely underemployed. Now as she approaches the traditional age for retirement, she is struggling to make ends meet, and her story is not uncommon. Economics correspondent Paul Solman brings us part two of their conversation with advice for the financially fragile.

WATCH: 55, unemployed and faking normal: One woman’s story of barely scraping by

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: aging and living on the edge of a financial cliff.

Last week economics, correspondent Paul Solman brought you the story of Elizabeth White, who was once comfortably middle class but is now nearing traditional retirement age and struggling to make ends meet.

Tonight, Paul looks at just how common her story has become.

It’s part of our weekly series Making Sense, which airs Thursdays on the NewsHour.

ELIZABETH WHITE, Author, “Fifty-Five, Unemployed and Faking Normal”: I would say I feel optimistic, generally.

PAUL SOLMAN: Sixty-three-year-old Elizabeth White has been severely underemployed for three years.

ELIZABETH WHITE: I had $750 left to kind of make it through the end of the month. I have done it on less.

PAUL SOLMAN: Deborah Burkholder hasn’t had a full-time job since 2009.

DEBORAH BURKHOLDER, Job Seeker: I don’t have enough to cover January bills if nothing changes. 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?

ELIZABETH WHITE: There is a low-level stress that you — you know, that is wearing.

PAUL SOLMAN: One way to manage, airing out anxiety in what White calls a resilience circle of financially fragile friends, all formerly middle class, all well past 50, and all too common these days, says economist Teresa Ghilarducci.

TERESA GHILARDUCCI, Author, “How to Retire with Enough Money”: We’re finding that very well-educated people, people who have done everything right, are behind, really behind. And they are hoping they can stay in the labor market, but a word that’s used in other countries that isn’t used here is very apt here.

The word is superannuated, That You have kept yourself going, but the labor market employers don’t put the same value on your experience and your know-how and your wisdom as you might’ve hoped, or they have done in the past.

PAUL SOLMAN: And the experience can be a killer. A Yale study found that just one layoff in a lifetime increases the odds of a stroke or heart attack by 40 percent. But what if you’re just worried about maintaining your standard of living?

TERESA GHILARDUCCI: My research shows that uncertainty about your income at older ages causes more depression, causes more anxiety, which could lead to more chronic heart failure, heart disease, does actually mean shorter lifespans.

PAUL SOLMAN: Thus, the resilience circle, as a way of reasserting some measure of control.

ELIZABETH WHITE: There’s a lot around us to make us feel bad. There’s a lot around us that would say, oh, this is all your fault, you landed here, you’re a loser, you landed here. So people can start self-medicating. They can start — I mean, just a lot of sort of negative places that it can take them.

MAN: If we take everything as personal, that that very thinking is going to prevent us from taking effective action and from being creative.

WOMAN: Coming and having these conversations always anchors me in a different way, so that I can tell myself a better story.

PAUL SOLMAN: Though, of course, emotional support doesn’t pay the bills.

ELIZABETH WHITE: I think a lot of people who’ve gotten pushed out of the work force and are in late 50s, early 60s are never going to have a traditional 9:00-5:00 W-2 job. We’re not going to be able to have the lives that we thought that we were going to have, and there’s some mourning of that.

PAUL SOLMAN: White hopes her new self-published book, “Fifty-Five, Unemployed and Faking Normal,” will prompt people to stop faking and open up. She herself was inspired to go public after reading the “Atlantic” magazine article “The Secret Shame of the Middle Class” about writer Neal Gabler’s financial failures.

NEAL GABLER, Author/Journalist: There are so many people in trouble.

PAUL SOLMAN: Judy Woodruff interviewed Gabler when he came out about his finances last summer.

NEAL GABLER: And it struck me that talking about our financial situation is very much like men not wanting to talk about sexual impotence. It’s just not something you do. It’s an embarrassment. It’s a shame. It’s a humiliation.

And financial problems are exactly the same thing. You’re humiliated. You’re ashamed. You’re embarrassed about telling anyone that you are suffering financial difficulties.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now Gabler, like Elizabeth White, readily admits he could have saved more, been more frugal, but so could a lot of us. In 2015, fully 46 percent of adults said they’d have to borrow or pawn to come up with $400 in an emergency.

Ed Wolff has studied the growing rainy day fund gap for years.

MAN: Today, the average family has enough financial reserves to keep going for about three weeks. That’s it.

PAUL SOLMAN: And reserves for older age?

TERESA GHILARDUCCI: Over half of people who are working now and over 50 have nothing for retirement savings. They will only have Social Security to rely on.

And our conception that the way we can mitigate the fact that people don’t have retirement savings can be more work, or working longer, or just sort of staying in the game for longer is really a false hope. And it’s a false promise.

PAUL SOLMAN: Though seven in 10 Americans say they plan to work as long as possible, who’s going to hire them? Elizabeth White doubts she will ever have the resources she once did, so she’s smalling up.

ELIZABETH WHITE: So, smalling up is really, what do I value, and getting really clear on what that personally means for you, and then trying to figure out, how can I have pieces and elements of that?

PAUL SOLMAN: Like displaying African-inspired art left over from her failed retail venture.

Tom McDonough’s focus, keeping fit and healthy. It’s cheap to do, he says, but:

MAN: That doesn’t make medical insurance any cheaper. If anything, the financial burden, it continues to grow and there’s nothing that I can do to prevent that from happening.

PAUL SOLMAN: Indeed, the longer he hangs in there, the further his resources have to stretch.

Florie Liser is OK for now, but her sister and niece had to move in with her two years ago.

FLORIE LISER, Job Seeker: My sister hasn’t worked in a number of years and lost her home. She’s an aerospace engineer, for goodness sake. She’s the brilliant one in the family.

And, so, for me to see her in that place is very tough. What if things don’t change for her or for my niece? Then, does that mean that I’m going to be sort of responsible for putting a roof over their heads and all of this kind of things?

WOMAN: Forever.

WOMAN: For forever.

FLORIE LISER: I mean, I just don’t know. I don’t want to think about that.

PAUL SOLMAN: Elizabeth White’s bottom line? Share your plight, pare back to the basics, and try to help those of us still comfortable to understand that there but for the grace of God.

ELIZABETH WHITE: We live in a culture where it’s just delicious to shame and blame. We have what I call sometimes a “smugtocracy.”

PAUL SOLMAN: The “smugtocracy.”

ELIZABETH WHITE: “Smugtocracy.” You can decide that, you know, you have done very well, and you don’t want anything to do with these people. Well, I’m telling you, some of them are in your family. You know them. What I’m saying is, the numbers are so big here, that it’s going to affect everybody.

PAUL SOLMAN: This is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting from Washington, D.C.