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Senior Correspondent

We’ve all heard the admonition that on airplanes, we need to put our own oxygen masks on first. That way we’ll be able to put them on small children and others who need help.

Your finances are no different.

I was working with a 54-year-old woman this week. We were developing a spending plan that made sense for her real financial situation: her real income and her real expenditures.

She said she wanted to downsize from her large family home because she’s eating into her IRAs to keep it going. She’s widowed and her sons are out of college. She said it was tough to give the house up, because it’s where the children grew up and there were so many memories.

But the higher and higher property taxes and maintenance were killing her budget. With the bad economy, she didn’t think she could get a raise at work; her last request had been denied. She was already working 45 to 50 hours a week just to hold onto the job, so the company wouldn’t give it to someone cheaper … and younger. So finding a second job to supplement her income was out of the question.

When I asked what the obstacle was to downsizing, she said, “Well, my boys can’t find anywhere else they want to live because rents in those places are so high.” I asked how old they were. “They’re 28 and 31.” Do they have jobs? “Yes.”  Do they know you’re struggling financially to hold on to the house? “Yes.” Have they offered to help with expenses or mortgage payments or something? “Well, you see, they’ve got car payments and credit card debt.” Do you have equity in your house so you could actually sell it? “Yes.” And is your credit still good enough to qualify for a mortgage “Yes, so far …”

My recommendation was to sell the house. To get into what she could afford on her income and still put money into her retirement, not take it out. Someplace where she would still feel comfortable and safe. It was time for her adult children to stand on their own feet and stop jeopardizing her financial future.

What would you have her do? Do you think that would be selfish of her, to sell the house?

How I Feel About Selfishness

You see, I believe in being selfish.

I feel there is a time when your children need your assistance. And even after that time, when that assistance can be monetary without it affecting the mother’s finances adversely, so be it. (Within reason.)

But I believe women all over the world have been ingrained with the expectation of selflessness, putting all others (especially their offspring) before themselves. And this has resulted in many women living their later years in poverty … unnecessarily.

We can see the implications in the statistics:

Forget the 2011 U.S. Census that says that more than 17 million women were living in poverty that year, compared with 12.6 million men. Or that single mothers are having the hardest time of all, with more than 40 percent of those who head families now living in poverty. And let’s ignore the income gap, where women earn 77 cents for every dollar paid for similar work done by a man. [By the way, this means average lost wages for a woman of more than $10,000 each year … and a lifetime of lower Social Security contributions which will affect what she’ll collect after retirement.]

Instead let’s focus on those long-term results: on the older population. For those over 65, 10.7 percent of women live in poverty compared to 6.2 percent of men. For the record, in 2011 the official poverty guidelines were $10,890 per year for an individual, $14,710 for a family of two and $18,530 for a family of three. How does anyone live on $10,890?

So Why Be Selfish?

  • Because selflessness that means your children don’t learn personal responsibility – but instead rely on someone else to bail them out – is setting them up for a lifetime of failure, or at least unhealthy dependence. They are being denied the opportunity to be responsible for themselves.
  • Because selflessness that leads to financial distress means you may well become a burden on your children as you age, precisely when they are in their 40s and 50s and are feeling the heavy load of educating their own children. Ask those in midlife today, who are part of the sandwich generation, taking care of their Boomer parents …
  • Because selflessness that means putting yourself last results in poorer health and a depleted ability to love and show real compassion when it’s appropriate … and truly needed.
  • Because, conversely, responsible selfishness means empowering future generations of women through role modeling, showing them they have the right to factor themselves into financial decisions.  That will help break the generational cycle
  • Because selfishness is about being loving, kind and caring towards yourself … in body, mind and spirit … so you can be of use to yourself and to others when it’s called for. By serving your own needs and requirements first, you’re actually in a better position to help others.

By selfish, I don’t mean living at the expense of others. I’m talking about others not living at the expense of your well-being. I see it as making commitments to yourself that you honor, just as you would honor a commitment made to someone else.

It means that when someone accuses you of being selfish, you recognize that they’re just upset because you’re failing to do whatever it is they selfishly want you to do.

Most of all, being selfish is the precursor to being responsible for yourself and for your life, while holding others responsible for their own outcomes. In short, it’s a win-win.

And what’s the cherry on the cake? I believe that “selfishly” taking care of oneself financially is the greatest proof of self love. And we all deserve that.

So where do you disagree with me? Where do you think I “just don’t get it?”

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