WTF Friday: How can an aging single mom without a career retire?


In this weekly feature I answer your personal finance questions.

Dear Emma, WTF?!

In my divorce , I got the house and my ex-husband got the retirement account. The house is paid off, and I am so glad that it can continue to be a central gathering spot for the kids now that they’re grown and starting their own families. Dollar-for-dollar the deal is fair, but since I never had much of a career – only low-paying positions as a teacher’s aide – I am terrified that at age 55 I will never be able to afford retirement. Help!

–Panicked in Peoria


Dear Panicked,

First, let allow me to mention that every time I think of Peoria, Ill., I think of Richard Pryor who (as a native, I’m sure you know) grew up in a whorehouse there. Why mention this on WealthySingleMommy? Well, because I think of little Richard in that whorehouse when my son Lucas is surrounded by women, which is often. Like the time some months ago when I was getting ready to go out and the babysitter Sabine and the kids were piled into my bedroom, helping me to decide which dress to wear while I stripped down to my bra and panties. As little Lucas ran around under the flying flowered frocks, my mind was stuck on the image of Richard in that brothel, and any connection to later in his life when he lit himself on fire with a crack pipe.

Now, to you and your problem …

Yes, you will have a hard time retiring. No doubt about it. A few things I advise:

Sell the house and rent something smaller. You don’t have to sell it today, but you will want to sell it. Even if it’s paid off, it is no doubt expensive. Do you pay heavy property taxes? That is probably because they go towards an excellent school district – which you no longer use.

Yes, we all have fantasies about that big, rambling house where our children and grandchildren will enjoy holidays for generations to come. That is fantasy. The reality is that houses take lots of time and money and your alcoholic son-in-law will make Thanksgiving a source of family contention. Family always finds a way to connect. Don’t try to do so at your own financial expense.

Also: if you have decent genes and excellent luck, you will likely outlive any proceeds from your home. It’s time to get a career – one that you enjoy. After all, wealth is not only about money. Wealth is about living a rich, full, happy life. Especially after you no longer have kids to nurture, you need somewhere to put you passion and intellect and skills. A career can provide this – as well as much-needed income.

The other reason you need to build a career – you will be working well beyond the full retirement age set by Social Security. Accept this fact. Make the best of it by reconfiguring your ideas about how the later part of your life should look like. After all, your Plan A probably included your now ex-husband.


Have a WTF question? Email it to me at emma at emma-johnson dot NET.

Emma Johnson is a veteran money writer, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, REAL SIMPLE, Parenting, USA Today and others.

The Kickass Single Mom: Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children (Penguin, 2017), was a #1 bestseller and was featured in hundreds of media, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, and the New York Post, which named it to its ‘Must Read” list.

Her popular blog, and podcast Like a Mother, explore issues facing professional single moms: business and career, money, sex, relationships and parenting. Emma regularly comments on these topics for outlets such as CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine, Woman’s Day, The Doctors, and many more. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” one of “20 Personal Finance Influencers to Follow on Twitter” by AOL DailyFinance, “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and “Most Eligible New Yorkers” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker on gender equality, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality.

Emma grew up in Sycamore, Ill., and lives in New York City with her children.

8 thoughts on “WTF Friday: How can an aging single mom without a career retire?

  1. Hi there – could you explain a bit more about why you recommend she sell her place? The average property tax bill is WAY less than she’d pay in rent. (The average property-tax bill in New York state, one of the highest places in the country, is just about $4,000.)

  2. In the near-term she may prefer to continue staying in the home, but in the long term when she chooses to wind down working or is otherwise strapped for cash, she will have to turn to her only assets for day-to-day expenses: her home. This will mean that she spends down her assets, which will hopefully last her until she dies. But that is what money is for — not to keep locked up in a house that is bigger than she needs.

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