‘I thought I would die in my 50s, so didn’t keep a pension… now I can’t afford to stop working’

Are your values around money shaped by the kind of family you come from? I think they are; I grew up in a relatively poor family with parents who never saved for pensions, and money was just never something we openly discussed. 

Then, when I was 13, my mother started to get ill. She had a cancerous lump on her thyroid and had an operation to remove it, but unfortunately the cancer spread to her breast, and then into her bones. She was ill for a decade, and eventually died just after her 50th birthday, when I was 23. 

It was obviously incredibly difficult to grieve my mother at such a young age, especially without siblings around me for comfort. Things became even more complicated because I panicked and became convinced that I would suffer the same fate as my mother, dying when I was around 50. 

When I started working in the business world, I therefore didn’t see any point in saving for a pension, since I thought I would never be around to enjoy it. I worked for a string of IT companies, including IBM, Xerox and Datapoint, and always made different financial decisions to my colleagues. 

The only time I did save for a pension was at Xerox when I worked in my late 20s and 30s, where for seven years I put money aside. But I pulled my investment out of the company’s pension and put it in a private one instead, on the advice of an accountant. All in all, I paid £47,000 into the pot over the years. 

Unfortunately, the fund that I paid it into went bust shortly afterwards. This was the time before there were as many legal protections on pensions, which meant that I lost it all. I was devastated to lose so much, but it never felt as bad for me as it might do for someone else. I was still convinced that I wouldn’t live to my retirement age. 

I was even more convinced that this would happen after I found a lump on my thyroid when I was 45, and had exactly the same operation that my mother had had to remove it. I was sure that I had the same fate ahead of me. 

Another financial mistake I made was with how I sorted out my affairs after getting divorced in my mid-20s. I wanted nothing more to do with my husband at all and, against the wishes of my lawyer, I decided to stand on my own two feet afterwards. I now realise what a mistake I made.

When I was in my late 40s, I left the corporate world and became a self-employed consultant on sales and body language behaviours, as well as training in homeopathy and reflexology. When you work for yourself, the money coming in can be quite erratic, so it is difficult to keep up with monthly payments into a pension. I thought it just wouldn’t work for me, so I never set one up. 

But luckily there were two places where I was continuously putting in money: into the mortgage on my north London house, which I now own outright and is worth around £1 million. I also started an ISA where I put in a large sum of money after a particularly big consulting job. 

I always looked after myself well, with a good diet and exercise and, as I went through my 50s, I realised I was in better health than I expected. But I was still pessimistic and thought that even if I hadn’t died at 50, I would get ill and die at 55 or 60.

I never remarried or had children, but I did have a few partners. The only person I ever had a frank conversation with about money was one of those partners when I was in my late 40s. I told him I wasn’t saving for a pension and he was aghast, and urged me to turn things around. I wish I had taken him more seriously, but I dismissed him and said that pensions just weren’t the sort of thing I do. 

Luckily, I’ve stayed in very good health for my age, and am still here now at the age of 70. But this means that I am now in an incredibly difficult situation with my finances. I am still working almost full-time as a consultant and I am writing a book, which is never what I expected to be doing at this age. I draw £137.60 a week in a state pension, which is nowhere near enough to live on: I don’t know how anyone is expected to survive on it. 

To top up my income, I have to open my house to take in a lodger, which again, is not something I ever expected to do in my 70s. I am also trying to sell my house, and move into a flat outside London, to free up a bit of money that I could live on.

I try to stay as positive as I can, and not feel jealous of people in more fortunate situations. The only time I feel bitter is when I see my friends from my days working in IT who are now living off large pensions and driving round in Jaguars. 

I have one friend who used to work for me part-time at Xerox. It breaks my heart when I see her, now enjoying her retirement with £1,000 a month coming in when she only worked half the hours I did. I regret that I never took it seriously enough. 

My life has been so full in many ways. I’ve travelled to 100 countries, had a fulfilling career and made wonderful friends. All my major mistakes have been about money, but when money is such a taboo subject it’s difficult to bring it up with anyone and ask for their advice. 

I just wish I had sorted things out sooner. 

As told to Helen Chandler-Wilde

Read More: ‘I thought I would die in my 50s, so didn’t keep a pension… now I can’t afford to stop working’

2021-09-13 14:18:00