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The Moneyist: ‘I don’t just want to survive — I want to thrive’: I’m 29, work part-time, and left a 15-year abusive relationship. How do I get back on my feet financially?

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Dear Quentin,

I’m 29 and I have just left a 15-plus-year abusive situation with zero dollars to my name and no meaningful resumé. My mother and I have no support network. What do I do to ensure we can succeed in life? I don’t just want to survive — I want to thrive.

I hope you might be able to help. When I read your advice column and saw that you had answered a question from someone my age living with their mother in a mobile home and working on their future, I saw someone like myself, albeit someone much, much closer to their goals, and I felt heartened. 

Our family abused and betrayed us in various ways, and my mother and I have no family or support network outside of each other. I have felt fearful over our prospects for a while, without an idea of where to go next. Neither of us has any money at all (it was stolen and, at one point, my mother was defrauded in an all-too-common scam).

“‘I want to have the ability to retire, something my generation has often given up on.’”

Illness has made it hard for my mother to work (she is undergoing chemotherapy). I am working part-time at minimum wage. I’m also ill, with a possible autoimmune disease, and I’m trying to see doctors to beat it. I’m about to enter a GED program and then I plan to go to university to drastically change my situation in life.

I want to be able to do more than just “recover.” I want to exceed the point to which I would have gotten to by this age had we not experienced all this. I want to have the ability to retire, something my generation has often given up on. I want financial wisdom and skill, but I have no idea whom to ask. I also want to leave something for my future children.

I’ll likely be close to 40 by the time I arrive anywhere near to where I should have been in life by now. If there’s any way you can help us, it would be deeply appreciated. Writing to someone like this and baring my soul is difficult and is more or less a last resort. 

Thank you for reading this, and I hope that you have a beautiful holiday season and New Year.

Survivor & Thriver

Dear Thriver,

Thank you for writing in. There is nothing more courageous than asking for help. I’ll tell you a secret: In the years I have been writing this column, the letters have helped me more than you could possibly imagine. It’s a two-way street, and by sharing your story you will also help many others out there in situations similar to yours.

I take my many hats off to you for surviving. You have your whole life ahead of you, and you are the one writing the script. My biggest pieces of advice are to do one thing at a time, and to look forward rather than back. Your family are who they are, and all of this adversity has put you in a place where you are now ready to build a healthy, happy life.

Focus on building your new safe and emotionally stable home, and finding a job that will help you become financially secure. The National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health is one organization that can provide support and resources. You have decided to leave the past behind, and you and your mother may need a community to help you do that.

Sarah Gonzalez Bocinski, the associate director for workplace and economic justice at Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit focused on ending domestic and sexual violence, says building social networks is important for breaking isolation and for sharing resources such as transportation. And nonprofits like Goodwill can help with professional training. she says.

“This next chapter of your life should be all about your own personal, professional and financial empowerment. ”

As the Financial Freedom: Women, Money and Domestic Abuse study shows, women are often targeted and entrapped by an abuser who then takes control of their social resources, exploits their trust and seeks to destroy their social capital. Abusers aim to make their partner emotionally, psychologically and financially dependent on them.

“Financial impediments in particular play a major role in restricting the freedoms enjoyed by women who are abused by their intimate partners,” writes the author Dana Harrington Conner, who is a professor at  Delaware Law School. Financial instability, she adds, is one of the biggest reasons women return to an abusive partner.

So take one day at a time, and keep making plans. Starting a GED program is a great idea. This next chapter of your life should be all about your own personal, professional and financial empowerment. At 40, you’ll be at a good age to re-enter the workplace in a manner that suits you. And your peak earning years will still be ahead of you. 

Set yourself a monthly budget, and when you finish your studies and find a full-time job — which you will do — make sure you automate a percentage of your income every month to go to a savings account. Even 10% would help over time. Small medium-term goals can be just as satisfying as big-picture, long-term goals. Each step will help you get where you want to go.

Health insurance is a priority

I enlisted some financial advisers to weigh in on your situation. David K. Golbahar, a director at J.S. Held, a consulting firm in Los Angeles, Calif., suggests that you think about attending a four-year technical school. “They are less expensive than a traditional four-year university and can lead to a solid change sooner … than the traditional college route,” he says.

Health insurance is also a priority. “If you cannot get health coverage through your employer, go to your state’s healthcare exchange,” says Larry Pon, a financial planner based in Redwood City, Calif. “It sounds like you will qualify for the subsidies, so the cost should be minor,” he says. If all else fails, you can apply for Medicaid.

Your local community college should have programs to help you find employment. “Go to the counseling center and take some tests to see which career fields interest you. [Community college] will certainly be quicker and more practical than a university program. There are programs that will lead to six-figure jobs in one or two years,” he says.

“Once you are enrolled in your local community college, they have counseling resources,” he adds. “They may also have a food bank to provide free food for you so you can save some money. You would be amazed by the array of resources your community college and community can offer.”

Your local chapter of the Financial Planning Association should also have information on pro bono services that you can take advantage of. Workplace Fairness is an organization that has information on workplace rights. Your local credit union may offer free seminars or podcasts on financial literacy. And contact your local CPA group (like this one in California) and ask if they have any classes for members of the public.

MarketWatch has an entertaining and informative podcast, Best New Ideas in Money, that’s co-hosted by my colleague Charles Passy. In a recent episode titled “Buy Now, Pay Forever?” the hosts talked about “buy now, pay later” loans. To learn about investing, check out Barron’s Live (where I am also one of the contributors). 

Golbahar recommends Seth Godin, the Money With Katie podcast, the Tim Ferriss Show and Gary Vaynerchuk. Tiffany Aliche, also known as the Budgetnista, has an informative YouTube channel. He also suggests The Greatest Salesman in the World by Og Mandino, a classic book from 1983 about salesmanship and achieving success.

I hope all this helps you on your way. You have already managed to leave a manipulative, abusive relationship, which means you’re more than halfway there. You are still young, you are safe now and you have shown great strength to be both a survivor and a thriver. Good luck and Godspeed!

And please get in touch again to let us know how things are going. 

If you or someone you know has experienced domestic violence, call the free, confidential National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE (7233).

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

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