Starting Over Financially After Bankruptcy, Divorce, or Unemployment

Bankrupt man holding out empty pants pocket.

artursfoto / Getty images

It's never easy starting over at any age, and feelings of frustration can take over. But many have done remarkable things when forced to start from scratch. You just never know—it could be the best thing that ever happened to you.

Bankruptcy, divorce, and unemployment are the biggest reasons those age 55 plus must start over. Regardless of the reason, here’s how to forge ahead.

Find Work, Then Find Work You Love

Your first priority will be finding work; your next priority will be finding work you love. This is far more important than you might think. Starting over means working longer, but when you find work you love, you never work a day in your life. Think about what you are doing when you get so caught up that you lose track of time. Find work that uses those same skills. If you love what you do, it means you can work longer without feeling drained.

Tighten Up Expenses

Learn how to live happily on less and keep your required expenses down. You need to save as much as you can as quickly as possible. Get the economy car, locate low-cost living options, and find other areas of your finances that can be reduced, such as cutting down on underutilized subscription services and choosing to cook at home instead of eating out.

Your Emergency Fund

Don’t rush to invest. Build up a savings account that has at least six months worth of living expenses in it. Establishing a savings account is one of the most important things you can do when starting over, and it shouldn't be treated as optional. Skip the extras, and instead find joy in watching that account balance grow.

Use Your Employer Match

If your employer offers a retirement plan and matching contributions, take advantage of it. For example, some employers tell you that if you put in 3% of your pay, they will match that, bringing the total contributed to 6%. This means you have instantly doubled your money, so be sure to contribute enough to get the match. Not contributing the most your employer will match is leaving free money on the table.

Consider a Roth IRA

One type of account that can double as a retirement account and an emergency fund is a Roth IRA. Unlike retirement accounts such as a 401(k), you can always withdraw your original contributions from a Roth IRA without taxes or a penalty. Funds you leave in the Roth IRA grow tax-free, but withdrawing your earnings (not contributions) can result in taxes owed and a 10% penalty on the withdrawn amount. If you are using your Roth IRA as an emergency fund, put at least six months of living expenses into safe investment choices, such as a money market fund.

Avoid Big Investment Risks

It can be tempting to take risks with your investment decisions in the hopes that higher returns will make up for lost time, but this is not smart. Slow and steady is the way to go. Learn how to measure investment risk, then choose investments accordingly. Also, be sure to stay far away from so-called get-rich-quick schemes or investments that seem risky.

Consider Buying a House

Buying a house can protect you from rising rents, but it also comes with maintenance and upkeep costs. If you buy, keep your mortgage payment affordable, leaving you enough money left over to continue saving and cover ongoing upkeep costs.

Use a home warranty policy to protect against expensive repairs. It is also beneficial to look for a place that is energy-efficient and has little lawn maintenance requirements. If you look for a patio home or condo, be aware of association fees that could go up and assessments for public shared areas.

Don't Take Social Security Early

Social Security provides inflation-adjusted lifelong income. If you wait until you are 70 to begin your benefits, you'll get far more income than if you collect earlier. This is part of the reason why finding work you love is so important. When starting over at 55, you need to plan on waiting until 70 to begin your benefits. If you're married (or were married for at least 10 years), you may be able to collect on an ex-spouse's benefit record. Be sure to look into all your options before you start benefits.

Article Sources

  1. IRS. "Topic No. 557 Additional Tax on Early Distributions From Traditional and Roth IRAs." Accessed Sept. 22, 2020.

  2. Social Security Administration. "Benefits for Your Divorced Spouse." Accessed Sept. 22, 2020.