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Ten Ways to Deal with Bag Lady Syndrome

A comment from reader KML on my recent “bag lady syndrome” piece moved me to think more about this subject. I was going to enter a response as a comment to that post, but by the time I finished typing realized the result was itself a post. And so, more on women’s fear of a destitute old age:

Says KML: Thank goodness! I thought I was the only one who has this “syndrome” I seriously worry about being out on the streets simply bc I am single and have no one to fall back on.  I have a comfortable house, good job and a few dollars in the bank, but I still have this irrational fear.  Thanks for your post, I feel better just knowing that I’m the only one who wories about this. . . .

@ KML: It’s unclear whether a real psychological condition fitting the description of “bag lady syndrome” exists. It’s a pop-psych/pop-soc term. When you try to track down a little science on the subject, the best you come up with is that some psychologists think it’s a type of anxiety disorder.

Well, to my mind it’s perfectly rational to be concerned about whether your resources—savings, Social Security, kids who can help support you, whatever—will cover you until the end of your life, especially in a time when many people now in their 50s and 60s can expect to live into their 90s…and maybe beyond. It becomes a “disorder” when worrying about your financial security begins to inflict damage on your quality of life. Fear of destitution seems to have been observed among Americans as early as 1985, when psychologists Aaron Beck, Gary Emery, and Ruth Greenberg noted that one man anxious about the future was much helped simply by setting up arrangements to care for his family: talking with financial advisers, writing a will, taking out insurance policies.

A father’s concern about the well-being of his wife and children should he die, of course, is different from a single woman’s concern about her own future. To take advantage of a life insurance policy, you have to die…and that seems counterproductive.

However, whether you’re a man or a woman wondering about the future, I do think you can take a number of steps that help to alleviate that nagging worry:

Plan your retirement income with the help of a financial counselor.
Budget intelligently.
Try to get yourself into a paid-off dwelling, if at all possible.
If that’s not possible, seek comfortable, safe lodging at a reasonable rental.
Try to get a reliable, paid-off vehicle that will last for a long time.
As long as you’re physically able, arrange an ancillary income stream with a part-time job or by monetizing a hobby.
If you can afford it, buy long-term care insurance.
If you have a partner or a family member who will require care after you’re gone, buy life insurance.
Schedule time once a month to reconcile bank accounts and pay bills; avoid thinking about finances at other times.
Get out of the house frequently, so you don’t sit around stewing.

Most of us can do many or all of these things. And really, maybe the best thing we all can do for ourselves is to recognize when we’re worrying to much and decline to continue with it. As Scarlett O’Hara reminded us, “Tomorrow is another day.”