Midlife crises are expensive.
From flashy cars to trendy clothes and accessories to artificially trying to look younger with Botox or surgeries, midlife crises cost you both money and stress.
It’s not easy parting with the vigor, fitness, and attractiveness of youth. Nor is it easy to accept our own mortality on a visceral rather than conceptual level. As you navigate the middle years of your adulthood, try the strategies below to stop the emotional and financial bleeding, and inject some fresh vitality into your life.
What Is a Midlife Crisis?
The idea of a “midlife crisis” was first popularized by Freudian psychologists like Carl Jung in the early and mid-20th century. Because there’s no official diagnosis or definition for a midlife crisis, and it expresses itself in many different ways, it’s difficult to study scientifically.
Consider two different models for midlife crises. In the classic model, it takes the form of an acute emotional crisis, often triggered by a single event during adulthood such as a death, divorce, or job loss.
The American Psychological Association explains that emotional crises are usually marked by a “clear and abrupt change in behavior” and can manifest through depression, trauma, eating disorders, alcohol or substance abuse, self-injury, and suicidal thoughts. Sadly, the suicide rate among middle-aged adults is distinctly higher than other age groups, per the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Middle-aged white men see particularly high suicide rates, with men nearly four times as likely to die by suicide than women.
The other model for midlife crises is more protracted, expressed as a period of lower happiness or slow-burning depression. Studies such as a 2020 paper by Dartmouth’s David G. Blanchflower demonstrate a “happiness U-curve” over the course of adulthood, with happiness declining through our young adult and early middle years before bottoming out in middle age. Happiness levels then start to rise again, with older adults reporting greater satisfaction and well-being.
During midlife crises, adults tend to contrast the goals and dreams of their youth against their current life — and find it wanting. That can lead to thoughts like “I’ve wasted my youth,” or “What have I done with my life?”
It’s hard to imagine a worse feeling.
Signs and Symptoms of a Midlife Crisis
In response to these feelings, adults often start flailing for a lifeline — anything to make them feel young, successful, attractive, energized, or in control of their lives and destinies again.
Although a midlife crisis feels immensely personal while you’re experiencing it, you’re not alone. Over one-quarter of adults admit to experiencing a midlife crisis, according to the Midlife in the United States studies. Just imagine how many more people experience one and don’t talk about it.
The common signs that you or a loved one may be experiencing a midlife crisis can take a variety of forms. Some are physiological and psychological, including depression, changes in sleep patterns, and an uptick in substance use. This can produce effects ranging from trouble getting out of bed in the morning to maddening insomnia to abusing drugs or alcohol. (If you notice any of these symptoms, consider seeking the counsel of a doctor or therapist.)
A midlife crisis can also lead to changes in one’s attitudes and behaviors, such as a sudden obsession with physical appearance, an increased interest in status symbols, or infidelity. It often accompanies feelings of resentment or blame that can wreak havoc on personal and professional relationships, and may be characterized by feeling restless, apathetic, or unfulfilled.
Financial Impact of a Midlife Crisis
Midlife crises can ruin you financially.
Before letting yourself drift into a midlife crisis, think twice about the destruction you could sow. You can literally lose everything you own and hold dear.
Therapists are cheap by comparison.
Risk of Divorce
Few events in life are as traumatic — or expensive — as divorce. The divorce process itself can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars between attorney fees, home sale costs, and other expenses from separating all your legal assets. Which says nothing of ongoing costs like alimony or child support.
Everything you own goes under the microscope to be parsed and parceled. Anyone who tells you they came out ahead in a divorce clearly didn’t fight fair, because divorces inherently drain assets rather than build them. Only lawyers get rich off divorces.
As painful as life may feel in a midlife crisis, it can get worse. And often, “worse” looks like divorce.
Risk of Job Loss and Career Derailment
Those feelings of apathy and restlessness could cost you your job in addition to your marriage.
It’s common sense: depressed people who feel unfulfilled by their job simply won’t produce quality work. That means they won’t earn promotions, won’t secure glowing references to help them get a new job, and won’t be first on any friends’ or colleagues’ list to recommend when new opportunities arise.
That’s assuming they don’t get fired, of course. Or worse, flamboyantly quit and “go out in a blaze of glory.”
All of these outcomes can make it extremely hard to find a new job, especially a better job.
The Direct Cost of Splurges
Even people who don’t lose their jobs or spouses can still end up blowing absurd amounts of money on midlife crisis splurges.
Take your pick: sports and luxury cars, boats and yachts, motorcycles, flashy and expensive hobbies, outrageous vacations, vacation homes, cosmetic surgeries, overpriced designer clothes and accessories. The staples of midlife crises cost money, and a lot of it.
That’s money you could put toward building real wealth, toward your long-term financial goals that you’ve actually thought through rationally with your partner or financial advisor. Goals like, say, saving a down payment for your dream home, saving for retirement, or helping your children with their college costs.
Strategies for Preventing or Escaping a Midlife Crisis
Yes, every midlife crisis looks different. One person might take up with their much-younger secretary, while another goes down the rabbit hole of serial cosmetic surgeries.
But they all cost you, and usually in more ways than one.
The following strategies can all help you retain (or regain) control over your life, your happiness, and your personal finances. You’re not alone, no matter how it feels in the moment. Bring your life back into alignment with intentionality, and a focus on improving your personal relationships and progress toward long-term goals.
1. Talk Through It With Loved Ones and Professionals
Your spouse, family, friends, and other loved ones don’t know what you’re going through if you don’t tell them. Even if they suspect you’re falling into a midlife crisis, they don’t understand your perspective without you explaining it.
Try them. Be patient with them, just as you want them to be patient with you. They probably won’t fully understand it the first time you broach the topic, but that doesn’t mean you should never discuss it with them.
To meaningfully change your life, you need to bring the people who share that life with you on board with any changes. But it also helps to simply unload, to unburden yourself to a disinterested third party.
Talk to a counselor or other professional, not for advice per se — although they may offer sound ideas — but simply to get your grief and anxiety off your chest and out into the open. Left swirling inside of you, these emotions can build up pressure until they burst.
2. Retake Control With Lifestyle Design
Far too many people drift with the tides of life, falling into their jobs, their relationships, even the city where they live. It’s no wonder so many wake up one day and realize they’re living a life they don’t actually like.
Sit down and write out a description of your ideal life, starting with where you live, the kind of work you do, your family life, your social life, your hobbies, and every other detail you can put to paper. No holds barred, nothing off-limits — simply outline your perfect life.
Once you’ve written out the what, you can then start brainstorming the how. The process is called lifestyle design. It doesn’t happen overnight, but by steadily working toward a life you actually want to live, you’ll find fresh meaning and purpose.
3. Reevaluate Your Long-Term Goals
Similarly, your life should align with your long-term goals. When they no longer align, you start drifting in a direction you don’t truly want to go.
For example, my top financial goal is to reach financial independence within the next few years by building enough passive income to cover my living expenses. At that point, working becomes optional. I pursue passive income by budgeting a high savings rate (more on that momentarily) and funneling as much money as possible into investments. And despite feeling the occasional midlife pang, I can still sleep each night knowing that I ended the day closer to my goal than when I woke up that morning.
Whether you aim to buy a new home, retire early, help your kids with college, take dream vacations, or maybe even buy that dream sports car, take a second look at your long-term goals — then form a financial plan to reach them faster. And if you need some expert advice, don’t be afraid to reach out to a financial advisor or other financial professional.
4. Increase Your Savings Rate
Money can’t solve every problem — but it can solve many. And even when it can’t solve a problem entirely, it can usually help. For example, anyone can get sick or injured, but the more money you have, the better your health insurance and medical outcomes tend to be.
To paraphrase author Robert Kiyosaki: I’ve been happy and rich, I’ve been happy and broke, I’ve been unhappy and rich, and I’ve been unhappy and broke; and I can assure you that being unhappy and rich is still a lot better than being unhappy and broke.
So how do you build wealth faster? By growing the gap between what you earn and what you spend: your savings rate.
I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I do know that more wealth will better prepare me and my family for it. And I can also tell you firsthand that when I feel those midlife pangs, such as thoughts like “My old college roommates earn more than I do,” I find some comfort in my frugal but high-savings lifestyle.
5. Become Debt-Free
While you don’t necessarily have to pay off your home loan or even your car loan in full, you should definitely not carry any unsecured debts by the time you reach middle age.
First and foremost, that includes paying off your credit cards in full every month. But beyond credit card debt, it also includes student loans, personal loans, and any other unsecured loans.
Stop paying high interest rates on consumer debt. It’s awfully hard to achieve financial stability and build an emergency fund — much less build retirement savings in your IRA or 401(k) — when you have high-interest debt repayments hanging around your neck each month.
When you become debt-free, you suddenly start thinking offensively instead of defensively. It frees you to focus on building wealth, passive income streams, and perhaps even replacing your full-time salary with investment income. You gain a welcome feeling of control over your finances and your future, which does wonders in fending off midlife crises.
6. Consider a Career Change (Carefully)
Quitting in a blaze of glory might look great in movies, but it won’t do your career any favors. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should stay in that unfulfilling job either.
As part of your foray into lifestyle design, spend some time brainstorming careers that better fit your passions, strengths, and long-term goals. Bear in mind that the jobs you grow up hearing about — teacher, cop, accountant, and so forth — make up a minority of the actual jobs available today. Many of the jobs in today’s workforce didn’t exist five years ago, and you may never have heard of them.
Consider meeting with a career counselor to take a career aptitude test and discuss options. Although often not cheap, you walk out with a slew of ideas that had never previously occurred to you — ideas that could well fit you better than your current job.
And, of course, they might also offer a higher salary or better benefits.
In my post-college life, I’ve been a mortgage loan officer, a real estate investor, an Internet marketer, an e-commerce executive, a founder of an online startup, and a freelance writer. Twenty years ago, I would have raised an eyebrow if you’d told me I’d end up doing any one of those jobs.
Just don’t lose your spouse in the process. Talk through major career or lifestyle changes with your partner before charging forward without their knowledge or support.
7. Consider a Side Hustle
Not everyone going through a midlife crisis is ready to change careers just yet. But they may still want something more from their working life, both financially and emotionally.
Starting a business doesn’t have to mean selling off all your assets and pouring it all into inventory and a commercial lease. To keep your startup costs low and build cash flow quickly, consider starting an online business.
All the while, you can keep working your day job while you decide what you want to do with the rest of your life.
8. Find a Mentor or Coach
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel on your own. Ask for guidance from people who have done what you want to do, and who can show you all the shortcuts.
Beyond helping you skip costly mistakes and detours, mentors and coaches can also help you ask the right questions. They have the benefit of both experience and outside perspective, and can see angles that you can’t while in the thick of your day-to-day struggles. “I know you think you want X, but from what you’ve told me, it sounds like Y would actually be a better fit for you.”
Mentors and coaches also help you feel less alone. They can take you by the hand and guide you back to the path you actually want to walk through this life.
9. Embrace Adventure — Constructively
My wife and I may not earn enormous salaries like some of our friends do, but we lead a life of adventure, travel, and endless opportunities.
We spend 10 months per year overseas. It took some work to move abroad, between my wife finding a job as an international school counselor and me establishing income streams I can earn from anywhere. But we did it because we didn’t want to follow the same trajectory of white picket fences and overpriced mortgages that we saw our friends following.
It was one of the best decisions we ever made. We live in a country with a low cost of living, enjoy free housing and outstanding health care, and get to visit an average of 10 countries each year.
But we did it together, and we planned it carefully. We put in the work, rather than one of us just running off one day in the throes of a full-blown personal crisis.
You don’t need to go as far as moving abroad to inject some adventure into your life. Start smaller if you like, and if you’re worried about money, explore these ways to travel the world for free.
10. Take Care of Yourself Physically
Once when I was going through a depressive period, my father told me to do three things: get eight hours of sleep every night, eat healthier, and work out every day. “Go through the motions of being healthy, and one of these days you’ll wake up and realize you feel better both physically and emotionally.” As usual, he was right.
Your body and mind form a feedback loop. One of the easiest ways to jumpstart an emotionally healthier loop is to force yourself into a physically healthier routine.
It doesn’t have to cost you more money. You can eat healthy on a budget, and work out at home with no expensive equipment or gym memberships. Neither do you need expensive or habit-forming sleep aids, with all the natural sleep remedies available.
Finally, consider quitting drinking. Alcohol is expensive, both in terms of your wallet and your health. Worst of all, it correlates strongly with depression: everything in your life looks worse after you’ve been drinking.
As a byproduct of living healthier, you might just find you feel younger, too.
11. Volunteer More
How many hours do you volunteer each month?
Countless studies show that volunteering improves personal happiness levels, lowers rates of depression, and generally boosts our sense of well-being — see this study from BMC Public Health for an example.
That says nothing of all the unselfish reasons to volunteer like, say, giving back to the world.
Less than a year ago, I was clinking giant steins at Oktoberfest. Today I have a baby and have crossed into my 40s. I’ve spent more than a few nights wondering what happened to the excitement of my younger days.
Middle-aged adults can find comfort in research from the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition demonstrating a silver lining to midlife crises. Most people who experience them come out the other side with a greater sense of curiosity about the world around them — and where they fit into it. Armed with a better understanding of themselves and their place in the world, middle-aged adults emerge more thoughtful, worldly, and compassionate than their younger selves.
As fun as it is to be young and fit and glamorous, growing wiser and wealthier with age comes with its own rewards. If the price you pay for them is letting go of the trappings of youth, just remember you’re going to lose them regardless. You might as well relinquish them gracefully, and embrace the perks of more mature adulthood.