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How money worries affect men and women as they age

Q. I am a 73-year-old divorced woman who recently retired. Having worked almost all my life, this is the first time I will be withdrawing from my retirement savings and adding nothing to it. I am reluctant and even fearful of spending too much. I think much of my anxiety about money stems from my childhood. Am I unusual in my attitude? Many thanks. E. R.

Money is a personal issue. Several years ago, I found myself sitting with couples in their living room asking for donations for a good cause. My sense was these couples would rather have discussed their sex lives than their finances. A quote from David Krueger’s “The Last Taboo” book supports my observation: “Money is probably the most emotionally meaningful object in contemporary life; only food and sex are its close competitors,” wrote Krueger.  The subject is not neutral; it reflects one’s values, emotions and beliefs and can be influenced by gender, culture, resources and experiences. 

According to a University of Michigan study, children as young as five already have emotional reactions to spending and saving money. 

Many women are economically vulnerable since on average they earn less than men and typically live longer. There is a notable contrast: In 2021, the poverty rate for women ages 65 to 74 was just over 10 percent; for men, it was 8 and a half percent. When you look at the numbers for people aged 75 and older, the poverty rate get worse for women, rising to 13 and  a half percent while rising only half a percentage for men to 9. 

I recently had a series of conversations with several groups of retired career women about their experiences, influences and attitudes about money. Each of the 30 women indicated their parents and childhood experiences were paramount in shaping their money attitudes, especially regarding saving and spending behaviors. Granted, this is a small, select sample. Yet, their stories were illuminating. Here are some of their concerns: 

  • “I was never taught about how to handle money. It was used as a punishment when growing up. To this day, I have difficulty managing money.”

  • “I was never given any direction about money; it always was a mystery. I never knew the questions to ask and never had an allowance. Today, I am uneasy about money.”

  • “My parents were immigrants and poor with the fear of becoming poor once again. I am still anxious when it comes to money.”

  • “My father was an electrician and taught us to only buy what you need, not what you want. It took me until my 60s to buy what I want within reason.”

  • “My parents grew up in the Depression. I still feel like I am poor, although I am not.”

  • “I was the middle of seven kids and put myself through college and was always fearful of spending. Today, I am afraid to withdraw money because of current family financial needs.” 

  • “My parents were comfortable and then lost half of what they had when relocating to the U.S. I also have had some marital partners who mismanaged significant amounts of our joint money. Although I am successful today, I still worry about money.”

Here are some other comments you might find illuminating: 

  • “I grew up poor and had nothing, but felt I had everything. I developed a course for my grandchildren called Money 101 with eight chapters; I am the teacher and it is not in a Chromebook.” 

  • “My mother handled all the finances; I grew up with a good sense of money. That was ‘Don’t buy what you cannot afford.’ However, I still am not sure when enough is enough.”

  • “My father was an entrepreneur and so am I. As a child, I hated babysitting, so I started an ironing service and sold jewelry. In sixth grade, I gave guitar lessons and visited nursing homes. My work has always followed my passion.”

  • “I was influenced by my father’s frugal behavior, except when he bought something nice for my mother. I am frugal but less today as I realize I have fewer years ahead of me. I now will buy a $10 muffin.”

Note: Conversations may differ among men. 

Thank you for E.R. for your important question. Family influences count. Stay well and know the smallest acts of kindness are never wasted. 


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