A Portrait of Childfree Strength

Jay Zigmont, PhD, CFP®

This portrait is one of 26 presented in my new book, Portraits of Childfree Wealth, available for order now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and everywhere books are sold.


47-year old, Female, Widowed, Washington, DC

Masters in Political Science


 Maggie is a portrait of strength.  She was raised by a single mom and grew up poor.  The result of growing up poor is that as she says,

“I’m terrified of poverty.  …I have a fear of being poor… I had a mother who made $30,000 a year raising two children and lived check to check. Like, you know mac and cheese was our dinner….”

Maggie is not alone.  The way you were raised often shapes your relationship with money.  For Maggie, it has created a set of bookends.  Not only did growing up poor shape her relationships with money, but it shaped her picture of Childfree Wealth.  When asked what Childfree Wealth means to her, her answer was simple: “I’m not living the adult life my mother led.”

It isn’t that Maggie has something against her mother.  As we talked, it became apparent how much she loves and cares for her mother.  She plans to take care of both her mother and step-father as they age (currently 75 and 73).  Maggie bought a house bigger than she needed with a plan that they could both move in with her if needed.  The reality is that she has been caring for her mother since she was ten or so.  Even as a child, Maggie helped her mom find a balance with her emotions around finances and relationships.  Maggie wants stability in her life that she did not have as a child, and her mom didn’t have until much later in life when she met Maggie’s stepdad.

The challenge of growing up poor and supporting her mother from a young age has shaped Maggie.  Maggie freely admits, “I have control issues.”  When reflecting on her childhood and her mom, Maggie shared:

“I saw her as having very little control over her life, whether it was financially, emotionally, or with what she did with her time. Her emotions almost ran out of control because she was pulled in so many different directions. I just saw that. And I went, that can’t be me.”

 Control was a large part of why Maggie chose to be Childfree:

“You just lose a lot of control when you have a child. It’s your time, or in some ways, it’s your autonomy. I enjoy being me.  I see a lot of people first identify themselves as a parent, as opposed to an individual. I think it’s a benefit that I can actually say who I am as a person before I’m anything else.”

Maggie did not make this decision alone.

“I was married for about 18 years, and my husband passed away about five years ago…  We made the decision fairly early on not to have kids…  When I met my spouse, we were both very much on the fence about it. I always felt like if one of us felt super strongly about it, then we might’ve, we might’ve changed our minds. But since we were both kinda like ehhh … It’s an important thing.  It’s one of those decisions that needs to be two yeses, or it’s a no.”

Maggie and her spouse were together for 18 years before he passed at 50.  Like many childfree couples, they were never married (32.1% of childless individuals in the US over 55 were never married).  Maggie explains:

“I call him my husband, but we never got married. We were together for 18 years. We owned a home together. We had shared finances. We never got married for a number of reasons. Not wanting kids was a big factor.  We said well, if we wanted kids, then we would have gotten married.”

Losing her husband has given Maggie a different perspective.  Beyond the personal loss and impact, it has shaped how she looks at her past and future.  In explaining why she sometimes holds herself back from her dreams, Maggie shared that healthcare costs were one piece and that:

“…the other piece is knowing that all the pressure is on me, right? There’s no fallback income. I didn’t realize how much that shaped my thinking until we did go through a rough patch. My husband had his own real estate company, still based our home town.  And, he almost had no money for a year or two after a hurricane. The hurricane wiped out everything. I was supporting us. I wasn’t very senior in my job, and I was like, oh God, this is really hard with one income. Now my income has probably doubled since that time, but the flip side is that it’s also just my income. And so those two things kind of make me nervous.”

Maggie has achieved great things in life, has a great income now, but still struggles for control.  Maggie has overcome significant challenges and is a great planner, but admits that she is still a control freak.  Being Childfree helped her to have control over her life yet allows for flexibility that can be paralyzing at times.

Does Maggie have any regrets about being childfree?

“I’ve never really, I’ve never regretted the choice of being Childfree.  There were times, particularly right after my husband died, when having a kid would have been a really nice anchor because it would have been something you could focus on. And it gave you like routine, right? Cause you know, you have to get up every day, and you have to feed, you have to clothe.  You have to do whatever it is you have to do depending on the age of the child. Right. And so after he passed, there were moments where I was like, man, if we had a kid, at least I would have [that routine]…  But then after I kind of got over that hill, and I realized, oh wait, then I would be doing this all by myself. I’d be a single parent. That’s not something I ever wanted in my life.  …[being Childfree] is something that constantly changes that flexibility versus freedom kind of, depending on where you’re at in the moment. It is freeing, but it’s also scary. Freeing [for Maggie] is when you don’t have kids. And then also like when you find yourself suddenly single, decision-making can become very difficult because you don’t [have anyone else]. You’re the only calculus, and it’s sometimes you feel like your decisions are very selfish because it’s based on what you just want as a person.  … And it can be a little overwhelming. That being said, I’m still okay with that.”

Maggie is at a point in her life where she needs to make some decisions.  She is coming up on 20 years of service with the government and needs to choose when to retire (with a government pension).  She’s done great financially and could probably retire just off her net worth of over $1.5 million.  While she says she has a dream to open a great wine bar on a beach, her retirement plans are more subdued and reflect finding a balance and the fear of being poor.  I asked her what number she would have to have in the bank to get over this fear, and Maggie shared:

“I don’t know, frankly. …My cousin [who is also Childfree] and I actually talked about this a lot.  I’m probably a little bit better off [as a whole] than she is, but we’re in the same place in life, and we were talking about this, and we’re not sure if there’s ever the right number that takes away that fear.”

As with all my interviews, I asked Maggie the 3 Kinder Questions.  As we went through the questions, Maggie had a physical reaction to the second question, which encouraged her to think about if she only had 5-10 years to live.  Her face lit up. She perked up as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders.  It was then that she seemed to get over the fear of being poor and became able to dream about a life that was truly hers:

“I would cash everything out. I would buy myself a nice little house, probably not little, a nice house on a beach or near a beach. Um, and I would just do whatever the ‘F’ I wanted. If I wanted to get on a plane and go to Bali, I’d go. I’d probably, you know, help my best friend’s daughter. Who’s very young. She’s my beneficiary of everything. I’d probably go ahead and give some money to her to make sure, you know, she’s got what she needs, but for the most part, I would just make it all ‘F-you’ money.”

The change was remarkable to me.  It shows the power of our past and existing mental models on our decisions every day.  Maggie has done a great job saving, planning, and counting the dollars.  She has an excel sheet she regularly checks, has worked with a financial advisor, and done much of the ‘right’ things towards FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early).  Retirement is a real option for her.  Yet she struggles.

“I did a lot of therapy [after her husband passed], and I know all this goes back to the two sides of your brain. You have the rational side and the more emotional side. And I, for the most part, let the rational side dictate. And then there are certain things that just like emotionally, just override.”

Maggie is not unique here.  So much of our success and happiness with finances are tied to our behaviors and emotions.  Many of us believe that if we hit a certain number that everything will magically be perfect, but that just isn’t the case.  The numbers don’t drive things, our emotions do.  The result for Maggie is a dichotomy in her decision-making process:

 “I either overthink, and I am slow and steady, or I just go all in, and I don’t think about it. I have ideas, and that’s it. When I bought my house in my home town, I walked in the house and said, I love this house. I’m buying it. This is my investment. I’m doing this. I bought it. I didn’t even think about it overnight. Right.   Yet, I mulled over a $10,000 fix to my deck. Right. And it’s just, and I know, I know this is my behavior.”

Yet now Maggie has to decide if she will make the leap to retirement. She has done very well. She started as a middle range (GS-8) employee in the government and now is at the highest rank of the government pay schedule (GS-15).  She has a job she seems to enjoy.  Maggie has done things in her career that some people can only dream of.

“My cousin is in the same boat.  We are the first women in our family that went to college. We’re the first women that made over a hundred thousand dollars a year. We’re both pushing close to 200 a year, which is a major success. And you don’t want to tie your success to money, but it’s hard thinking about walking away from that kind of money.  I know if I stayed with the government for my full 30 years, I would be making more in retirement than I do right now. And it is hard to wrap my mind around walking away from something like that.  After seeing a mother that made 30 grand a year, right? Or just seeing how many other women struggle to break these glass ceilings. And here I am, you know, a woman. I became a GS-15 in the government at 38. I did it in less than ten years.  It is a pretty amazing timeframe to have done that in… I just look at myself, and I’m like, you know, I worked hard to get here. Is it okay to walk away from that for less and just live on a lot less money?”

It becomes a debate about what you want your life to look like.  Maggie is at a crossroads and is doing all of this while planning to care for her elderly parents.  She bought a house with room for them, and in Washington DC, where there are excellent eldercare options.

 “I was like, well, if I’m going to be on potentially on the hook [to care for her parents], I might as well live somewhere where I can get the social services. I’m okay with it. I, you know, I, sometimes I bitch about it, but, you know, I wouldn’t have agreed to it if I wasn’t okay with it.“

 Unsurprisingly, Maggie set conditions on this care plan:

“I have to have full medical and financial control if you want me to do this.  All the siblings need to know about it in advance. I’m not dealing with them when push comes to shove, and we have to make hard decisions. I’m comfortable making hard decisions. I don’t want to deal with the bullshit doing it.”

This isn’t the first time Maggie set down the law with her family.  She worked hard to set up the proper paperwork for her parents but reflects upon how she should have done the same for her and her husband before he passed:

“The irony in our situation was that we [Maggie and her husband] had just had an extensive family discussion with my parents on them having living wills and medical directives, making me the executor of both my mother and my stepfather. We had just had that conversation, and my husband had just turned 50, and we always had a joke that, you know, he was going to, you know, not live past 50. It was a running joke. And he actually dropped dead of a heart attack a month after he turned 50. And we had actually talked about that we need to do this for ourselves. I traveled to really dangerous places for work. Because I was at the time 42, and he had just turned 50, and we’re like, oh, we got a little bit of time. Um, but my parents didn’t. So we really had to focus all of our energy on my parents. And they’re both still alive and kicking, and here I am by myself.”

Maggie and her husband were not weird in this case.  Childfree individuals all too often put off things like wills, living wills, and the like.  In cases such as Maggie’s, this becomes even more important to address early when you are not legally married.  Governmental and healthcare organizations often look for a next of kin and are expecting children.  Maggie now had to deal with a lot of paperwork and hassle she was grieving.

Maggie is amazing.  She has been through a lot and was strong throughout.  She encouraged me to look at the differences of being a single woman (who is childfree).  Her other idea is buying a castle or some land and having a great place for single women to live.  I’d love to see that.  Maggie has found a way to balance being childfree with work, and some of that may be a reflection of an understanding boss.  She recalls a story about her first day on a new job:

“My boss came by on my first day.  He recruited me to come and work for him.  He had two or three kids at home. He had previously done a stint at the national security council in the white house when his kids were pretty little, so, you know, and he sacrificed time with his kids at that. We were talking, and he knew who I was as a colleague, but I didn’t know if he knew anything about my home life. And somehow it came up that, you know, I said something like, “Oh, it’s just, just my spouse and my dog.” And he’s like, Nope, it’s not just, and I was like, well, what do you mean? And he goes: I don’t care what you go home to. It can be a dog. It could be a cat. It can be a plant. It can be the newspaper, that’s your business. And you go home at five o’clock or whatever that time is. But the flip side is, if you answer emails after that time, then that tells me you’re on.  Then you’re responsible.” And so, his whole thing was, I don’t care what you go home to. It’s not my job to judge what you go home to. I tell that to every single person that reports to me, not my business, what you go home to it’s your business on managing your work-life balance.”

In the end, being Childfree works for Maggie:

“I love having a life where I have discretionary income, and I can kind of go do what I want. The only thing I gotta plan for is like my parents and my dog. And, you know, that’s, that’s kind of, you know, where, where I’m at. I have a pretty cool job.  I travel to places most people can’t find on a map, nor do they want to find on a map.”