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How Gail Sheehy Navigated Her Financial Passages

Kimberly Palmer

Journalist Gail Sheehy might be best known for her 1976 bestselling book, "Passages," on the predictable phases of adult development, but her new memoir, "Daring: My Passages," delves into the highs and lows of her own life. She describes coming of age in the 1950s, sneaking out of her college dorm room for a relationship that almost seriously derailed her young life and meeting the influential editor Clay Felker, who would become her mentor and later husband.

During those early years of her journalism career, she experienced the same kind of low pay and unpredictable ebbs and flows of income that are familiar to today's young creative types in large cities. Sheehy had an additional challenge in that she was a single mom to a young child from an early first marriage. In her mid-30s, her financial security improved greatly with the success of "Passages," and her career took off from there. Still, she notes other financial challenges, most notably when she cared for the ailing Felker as he fought cancer toward the end of his life.

U.S. News spoke with Sheehy about how she navigated those financial hardships, her biggest financial mistake and the lessons others can learn from her experiences. Her responses have been edited:

In your 20s, as you were building your career and also a single mom, were you worried about money?

All the time. I had to assume the breadwinner role for my daughter and myself, and my biggest goal at the time was to be able to give my daughter an education. Before I wrote "Passages," my rent was $139 a month. That's dirt cheap, and I didn't have a car. My biggest expense was to pay a housekeeper who was also a surrogate mother because I would have to travel for writing and researching. We would eat meatless spaghetti every night of the week, and my daughter would chop up veggies for salad. I ran out of money.

What was your biggest financial mistake?

I was in the second half of writing "Passages" when a psychologist sued me for plagiarism. He won because I had no money to defend myself; I couldn't hire a lawyer. I didn't think the book would be a success so I agreed to give him 10 percent of royalties. He still makes 10 percent to this day. Of course I regret it, but I don't know what else I could have done. It was a classic backed-into-a-corner situation.

After "Passages" came out, your financial situation improved -- how did you handle that success?

Sudden success from relative obscurity brought on a period of vertigo. I was very aware that I didn't know anything about how to manage money. A friend called and said, "I found your house." I said, "I'm not looking for a house," but I loved it. It was an old farmhouse on two acres of land in East Hampton [in New York]. All I could imagine was burying the money in the sand, and I wouldn't touch it for years. It was the best investment I ever made.

If I was going to give advice to a young person who might suddenly have success in their mid-30s, it's that it is the ideal time to put your money into a house, and take it out 30 years later when you're 65. It's the best financial decision I ever made.

Later, during your caregiving years for your husband, that put a financial strain on you. How did you handle that?

That was the worst of all. That's why I wrote "Passages in Caregiving." It's one of the biggest crises we face, and it has to do with the longevity revolution. Parents and spouses are living so much longer that so many families and women are called into a role for which no one is prepared. I cared for him for 17 years, and over those 17 years, although he was working, I was the breadwinner again, like in my late 20s and early 30s. Since I couldn't work full-time, it was a struggle to keep up with the lifestyle. Even though we pared back, we didn't pare back enough.

It was foolish on my part. You become accustomed to a lifestyle. We had a rented house in Berkeley, and I needed a place in New York City. The money kept dwindling year by year, even though I was working and earning and wrote five books in those 10 years. The drain of hiring household aids so that I could go to work, and eventually 24/7 household aids, was astronomical. I paid people $20 to $25 an hour and a geriatric care manager $150 an hour. Without her, I wouldn't have known what to do.

Basically, I came out just a little more than even. Many people are put in that situation. Men and women give up their jobs because it's just too much, but I knew that was a dead end, because you're not going to go where your loved one goes, that's the raw truth. If you give up your identity, once the role of caregiver ends as it inevitably does, who are you? It's very difficult to get back into the game, not just as a writer but in any field. I always advise people to keep your hand in no matter what you do, even if you have to support people to help you so you can continue to do some work. It keeps you going so when the caregiving vigil is over, you have a life you can pick back up.

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