How to Start Over When You've Lost Everything

by Dana George | Updated July 25, 2021 - First published on May 10, 2021

Many or all of the products here are from our partners that pay us a commission. It’s how we make money. But our editorial integrity ensures our experts’ opinions aren’t influenced by compensation. Terms may apply to offers listed on this page.
Upset women laying on the wood floor of her living room and petting her dog.

Image source: Getty Images

When you're down to nothing, you have everything to gain.

People start over for many reasons, including job loss, divorce, illness, and business failure. Whatever the reason, if you're starting anew, here are some steps to take in rebuilding.

Acknowledge the twist

Remember that you're not starting from scratch. The fact that you've lost assets means that you had assets to lose. Whether that's a retirement account, home, or business doesn't matter. You know what it's like to work for -- and achieve -- something. You did it once; you can do it again.

Establish credit in your name

If you don't have much credit in your name, establish your own healthy credit file by taking out small amounts of credit and paying them off like clockwork each month. If your credit score has taken a hit, apply for a credit card for people with bad credit, use it to make small purchases, and pay it off each month before the bill comes due. Or you might ask someone you're close to to add you as a user on their credit card. Your credit score gets a boost each time they make a payment, even if you never touch the card yourself.

Invest right away

The sooner you begin, the faster you can recoup losses. Maybe you can't invest as much as you once did. That's okay. Something is better than nothing, and you can add to your investment pot over time. The more time compound interest works its magic, the better. Every dollar helps, whether you plan to retire in 10 years or 30.

If you're employed by a company that matches a percentage of 401(k) contributions, do whatever you can to contribute at least that much. The matching funds are basically free money.

Let's say you earn $60,000 annually, plan to work 15 more years, and your employer matches up to 5% of your contributions. Here's how much you'll have put away with just your 5% on its own:

Annual Income Percent Contributed Amount Contributed Average Annual Rate of Return Time Until Retirement Value At Retirement
$60,000 5% $250/month, before taxes 7% 15 years $75,387

Since your employer also matches that 5% of your income, you'll have $150,774 instead.

If you were to raise your pre-tax contributions to 10%, here's how it would look instead:

Annual Income Percent Contributed Amount Contributed Average Annual Rate of Return Time Until Retirement Value At Retirement
$60,000 10% $500/month, before taxes 7% 15 years $150,774

Including the additional 5% contributed by your employer, you would have $226,161 at 15 years. It's not a fortune, but could be very helpful. By the way, if you don't touch it for 20 years, that nest egg would be worth nearly $369,000. If you don't plan to retire for 30 years, it will be worth more than $850,000.

If you're not with a company that matches contributions, find a brokerage firm that supplies the level of education and direction you're looking for and get started.

Get professional help

After financial trauma of any sort, it's tempting to invest aggressively. While in some circumstances it could be an effective way to make up for losses, it may not be the best move if you're closing in on retirement. Consider working with a financial advisor, even if it's on an hourly basis and you pay only for their time helping you come up with a smart investment strategy.

Postpone Social Security

One thing my husband and I (and many of our friends) have done is raise the age at which we expect to retire. We don't see it as a sad thing. I never want to stop working, and now that my husband is in a job that tickles him, he's not in a hurry either. The minimum age to retire is 62, but if you can wait until you're 70, you max out your monthly Social Security payments.

Find support

Millions of people have made money, lost money, and started over. Chances are you already know a few people who've redesigned their lives from the bottom up. Talk to them. Ask them what they learned from the experience. If they had it to do over again, is there anything they would change?

People who experience hardship often have the best stories to tell and are often an excellent source of inspiration. It may not be easy now, but with luck, you can look back one day and say, "Hey, I did okay -- despite the unexpected setbacks."

Alert: highest cash back card we've seen now has 0% intro APR until nearly 2024

If you're using the wrong credit or debit card, it could be costing you serious money. Our expert loves this top pick, which features a 0% intro APR until nearly 2024, an insane cash back rate of up to 5%, and all somehow for no annual fee. 

In fact, this card is so good that our expert even uses it personally. Click here to read our full review for free and apply in just 2 minutes. 

Read our free review

About the Author