Do I Have to Work Forever After My Ex-Wife Bankrupted Me?

Dear Penny,

I’m almost 68. My ex-wife has a spending “disease” and racked up well over $100,000 on credit cards. She refused to file for bankruptcy and would only agree if I took the money out of my 401(k) savings. Then she charged all the cards up again until they were at another $85,000 and there was no money to pay bills. We claimed bankruptcy. 

Bottom line, after my divorce and having to turn over 50% of my remaining retirement savings, I’ve got nothing. I had $1,800 per month in child support for years.

Apartment rents are through the roof, and with one income I’m having a difficult time putting any money in for savings.

Do I have any options other than working until I’m buried?

BTW, I’ve worked hard to get my credit score to around 820 and no debt other than my $220 monthly car payment, while my ex-wife, who also started with a clean slate after bankruptcy, is completely underwater again. Call me happy to be divorced.

-D.

Dear D.,

I don’t think your only choices are retiring in poverty vs. working until you’re buried. But retirement is probably going to look different from what you once envisioned. You may be able to retire from full-time work, but that doesn’t mean you never work again until the day you die.

Side hustles are exploding in popularity among people of all ages, including retirees. Try thinking about what retirement might look like if you were working, say, 10 or 15 hours a week to bring in extra cash as a supplement to your Social Security.


It’s also essential to set clear expectations with others here. I’m assuming your kids are grown since it sounds like you’re no longer paying child support. If your adult children have come to you for help in the past, you need to have an honest conversation with them about your own finances and tell them you can’t afford to do so moving forward.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any magic solutions up my sleeve to combat the soaring costs of everything, particularly housing. I’d suggest trying to start a side hustle now, while you’re still working, so you can put every additional cent toward making your retirement as comfortable as possible.

Since you have a car, you could try driving for Uber or Lyft or delivering food or groceries. But if you have skills that lend themselves to a more lucrative side hustle, by all means, pursue that.

If you were a decade or two away from retirement, I’d tell you to invest your extra money. But you can’t afford to take on the level of risk that could generate substantial returns due to the high likelihood that you’ll need your money sooner, rather than later. Focus instead on getting your expenses as low as possible.

Paying off your car loan is the obvious first step. From there, you may want to save for a down payment on a modest home. Granted, you’re not going to get any bargains buying a house or condo right now. But rental costs have spiked 20% or more year over year in some regions of the country. Buying a small home has the advantage of more predictable costs, and since you have an 800-plus credit score, it may be an option.

Should you go that route, you may be able to generate extra income from owning your home. You could try house hacking, which is where you buy a multifamily property, like a duplex or triplex. You live in one unit, but the goal is to generate enough money by renting out the additional unit(s) to cover your mortgage. If you bought a single-family home with more than one bedroom, you could try renting a room through a platform like Airbnb.

I get that taking on a side hustle now and continuing it into retirement may sound exhausting. But every extra dollar you can earn is a win. You may have to adjust your expectations for your golden years. It sounds like the sacrifice is worth it, given that you’re happily divorced.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to  or chat with her in The Penny Hoarder Community.


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