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Homemaker Debbie leaves the American dream behind her

USA, September 14, 2015

Last week, we visited Debbie in her new home. She looked like the famous 1930s actress, Marlene Dietrich, sitting on her front porch, her head tilted back dramatically...

Homemaker Debbie

Everything about her seemed calmer, happier. Even her trademark naughty smile couldn't camouflage her inner joy. "I may have lost everything" she told me, "but I've never been more content."

Debbie is 56 years old and single, an identity she has only recently come to embrace. For most of her adult life, she was a married homemaker.

Like the majority of the 1,600 homemakers polled globally for Aegon's 2015 study, Homemakers Are Not Off the Hook: How Should They Be Planning for Retirement? Debbie happily left the business of financial planning to her husband. She couldn't be bothered worrying about the future. She was too busy worrying about the present.

Three disasters in three years

The same year she met her future husband, Robert, in 1979, her family business burnt to the ground due to an accidental fire. Debbie and her mother watched the Avon Lodge, a prized resort in the Catskill Mountains, built by her grandparents, disintegrate before their eyes. Just two years earlier, her father had died of cancer. And one year after the fire, her young brother was killed in a car accident.

By the time she got married in 1984, she was a shell of her former, cheerful self.

"At that point in my life, all I wanted to do was lean on someone," she said.

The majority of homemakers polled by Aegon have far less education than Debbie, who holds a degree in history from New York State University

 

But Robert wasn't just physically strong. He held her up spiritually too, helping her mourn while tending to her distraught mother, assuring both of them that he would make everything right. His confidence was enough to restore and repair wounds. It was also very attractive to Debbie.

"He was exciting," she said. "And brilliant. I knew he would do well professionally."

The American dream

And well he did, investing in a hotel renovation company, a racetrack, and later, an insurance company. Whatever he touched seemed to turn to gold. By the early 1990's, he and Deb personified the American dream: They had two great-looking kids, heaps of money, and an estate they designed and built on her family's 300 + acre property, which included a pool, a private tennis court, and enough rooms to get lost in for days.

The majority of homemakers polled by Aegon have far less education than Debbie, who holds a degree in history from New York State University in New Paltz. She loves exploring ancient documents, like turn of the century maps, nautical charts from colonial days, and Victorian era diaries. But ask her if she ever generated her own written plan for her family's retirement and she'll tell you she didn't.

Like 65% of homemakers worldwide, Debbie expected her spouse to be a very or extremely important source of income in retirement

 

But Debbie takes full responsibility for her lack of engagement in family finances during her marriage. Like 65% of homemakers worldwide, Debbie expected her spouse to be a very or extremely important source of income in retirement

"Robert always convinced me that he knew what he was doing with our money," she says. "I believed him. And I totally trusted him."

Until she didn't.

She never expected for the marriage to end in such a surprising way, with Robert leaving her for her best friend. But almost more unnerving than the loss of her marriage was the loss of her money.

"I never thought the free spending would end. I thought I could continue buying a new car every year, all the clothes I wanted, all the indulgences my kids desired. I assumed it would always be there," she said.

Divorce settlement never materialized

But, as the economy changed for the worse in the early 2000's and Robert's businesses started to fail, Deb's promise of a hefty divorce settlement never materialized.

Overwhelmed and burdened by her only real asset, their enormous home, she had no choice but to sell it. No longer could she pay over $100,000 a year in annual upkeep. Nor did she want to live alone in such a big house, now that her kids were grown and living elsewhere.

Childlike dependence on a man

Debbie reawakened her survival skills and sprung into action, moving out of her sprawling, eight-bedroom house into one an eighth of its size, a few kilometers away. Shedding the weight of a large home was only the beginning; she was starting to lose something else too, her childlike dependence on a man for financial security.

Similar to an alarming 89% of homemakers, Debbie doesn't have a written retirement plan these days, but she does have a well-crafted financial strategy in her head. She knows that she, and only she, is responsible for her household bills, a fact that has forced her to cut down drastically on her spending. She leaves the money from the sale of her home untouched, living on the interest it accrues. As long as she is mindful, she feels confident she will have enough to live out her life.

Consumeritis

"I'm like a different person now, " she told me. "I squandered a ton of money in my life. There are names for my kind of spending. Retail therapy-spending just to make you happy. Whim shopping- just buying on a whim. Consumeritis - the disease that makes you consume large quantities of unnecessary luxury items. And you know what? It wasn't very satisfying.

I'm so much happier now. I think being totally free to make my own decisions and knowing I have a finite amount of money that I have to learn to manage, it's all been a blessing to me."

"I've learned that one can live a simple life and be thoroughly happy. It's the people you surround yourself with, not the things you have. I think I knew that once, a long time ago. I'm just beginning to re-learn it."


Further information

The Aegon Center for Retirement and Longevity carries out the largest annual global retirement readiness survey of its kind. The facts quoted in this article are taken from its recent report - Homemakers Are Not Off the Hook: How Should They Be Planning for Retirement?

Written by: Lisa Lipkin is a professional storyteller and CEO of storystrategies.net.