Fewer pensions

Had boomers like Lee been thriftier, they would have still been hurt by a shift to 401k accounts from pensions in the 1980s. Thirty-seven percent of the elderly in the U.S. collect pensions, which provide some guaranteed income until they die. Fewer than 10 percent of boomers collect pensions, and that number is quickly shrinking.

Lee thought her finances were improving in 2008 when she was recruited as the business development manager at Parking Co. of America for $70,000 a year, a 25 percent jump over her previous salary. Then the economy tanked. After one year she was laid off, just a few months before her employer filed for bankruptcy.

During the next two years Lee took whatever part-time jobs she could find, including telemarketing from home. She was remarried by then and her spouse's modest income helped cover living expenses. She resisted dipping into her depleted retirement account.

"I sold my silver, but didn't touch my savings, even when the value fell to $35,000, from $80,000, at one point," she said.

Mounting costs

Although she found a new job in 2010 as manager of the customer service department at Holo-Krome, a manufacturer of metal fasteners, with an annual salary of $52,000, it lasted only two years. She was laid off again just as her second marriage ended. Lee could no longer afford to cover the costs of her four-bedroom house, which she purchased for $225,000 at the height of the housing bubble. Her health insurance costs rose to more than $400 a month.

She asked her father for a loan to cover the legal costs for her divorce last year. He sent her a check within days.

"She has never complained to me about not having enough money," he said. "But if she needs it, I'll advance it."

Lee, who has repaid the money she borrowed, avoids dwelling on her difficulties during her weekly calls to her dad.

"I know he'll help me if I fall off the ledge, but he taught me to be self-sufficient," she said.

When she told him she'd have to either sell or rent her house in West Hartford, he suggested she move close to his assisted living residence in Sonoma, Calif., where she could rent an apartment for about $1,300 a month.

"That was more than I was earning," said Lee.

Housing plan

Instead, she came up with a plan she thought would help both her and her former real estate partner and friend. Brita Tate, 70, had spent summers at Lee's house while renting her one-bedroom cottage in Wellfleet, Mass., an artsy coastal enclave near the tip of Cape Cod much coveted by summer vacationers.

"I asked, 'How do you feel about me coming to you now?'" said Lee, who offered to pay $400 a month to rent Brita's basement. That would be enough to cover her friend's real estate taxes and other costs so she would no longer need summer renters.

"She's a very caring woman who has helped me so many times," said Tate. "I said, 'Move in as soon as you're ready.'"

'Breathing room'

The arrangement, Lee figured, would also allow her to hold on to her house in Hartford by renting it for $1,600 a month, enough to cover her mortgage and taxes. Though the house is still worth less than she paid for it, Lee is hoping that if she holds on to it long enough, she'll be able to one day recoup her investment.

Her father was relieved.

"She would have a place with an old friend and some breathing room before she found another job," he said.

Lee moved to Wellfleet last February when the town's population, which quintuples in the summer, was less than 3,000 and most stores and restaurants were shuttered. Before leaving Hartford, she sold jewelry she'd inherited from her mother and grandmothers, gave her best furniture and household items to her sons, now 33 and 31, and donated or discarded the rest.

She arrived with a bed, a dresser, a hope chest, a small desk, a small amount of clothing, photos and artwork, and her two cats. That was plenty for the 250-square-foot finished basement space adjacent to the laundry room.

Less stuff

"It's liberating finally getting to a point in my life where I don't need a lot of stuff," she said. "I felt like I was getting rid of the baggage of life that I'd kept dragging behind me and which was just weighing me down."

Within a month, she found a job managing the spa at Crowne Pointe Historic Inn in nearby Provincetown. It's a year-round position, hard to find on Cape Cod. She earns $13.50 an hour, working as a combination hostess, receptionist, fixer of gym equipment and laundress.

"Everyone here is on vacation, so no one is ever complaining," said Lee.

After work, she fixes a salad for dinner and chats with Brita. Before heading to the basement, she makes sure to use the bathroom. There's only one in the house and getting to it from her bedroom requires going outside and climbing the patio steps.

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