The retirement system wants us to save early and stick to a steady job. But these women were able to create new opportunities and generate wealth for retirement—even though they started saving late.

By Erik Sherman
May 28, 2021
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The signposts to retirement can feel scary as you start to approach them—and wonder, perhaps, whether you'll ever really be able to stop working. The retirement system is clear: Save early, have a job that contributes to your retirement savings, and be lucky enough to avoid economic downturns and personal emergencies alike. 

But some women have found that they can create new opportunities, generate cash for savings, and otherwise thrive—even if they start saving for retirement late, and with next to nothing. 

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Donna Chambers
Credit: Donna Chambers

The business of comfort

In her 40s, Donna Chambers had never held a job with retirement benefits. In her youth, she split time between waitressing and factory work. Later, her career was a series of administrative positions with poor benefits. 

"The highest I ever made was $15 an hour," Chambers says. She started looking for a way out to a more secure future. 

In 2008, when Chambers turned 40 and the economy crashed, her grandson was not sleeping well. Someone advised Chambers to try using a weighted blanket to calm him. "I got my friend to help me make one," she remembers. "We made it fluffy instead of flat like most people were doing. He really liked it and I went, Huh, I wonder if we could sell these."  

Chambers started the weighted blanket company SensaCalm. It wasn't easy.  

"I was still married when I originally started the business, but my husband was an alcoholic and it was becoming impossible to live with him," she said. She forged ahead anyway and was able to leave, get a divorce, and eventually buy a house. 

The money from the business made some financial security possible. It started with only $100 for capital and running out to a Walmart for fabric as each order arrived. For some years they doubled their sales annually, working with up to 30 employees at one point. 

Things have slowed some with growing competition, but Chambers now has significant savings and a house that quadrupled since she bought it, with only $15,000 left on the mortgage. 

Kerry, Merrily and Wendy Mellin
Credit: Kerry, Merrily and Wendy Mellin

Enterprising sisters

Kerry Mellin also co-started a new business six years ago. "My two sisters and I found ourselves looking at our impending retirements and realized we were not in the financial positions we had hoped to be," she says. "Every few months, I'd google 'how much do I need to retire' and every few months it would go up. I was struggling with a job where you could only make more money if you put in more hours." 

Mellin had been a costumer in television and movies (most recently for the children's network Nickelodeon) for 35 years, a highly physical job that she says wore her down. Then there was her hobby of raising animals. "As I approached my 60s, my hands were getting tired. I knew I needed to come up with something else—and necessity is the mother of invention." 

She was cleaning her newly-bought house for a pool party, and her hands ached. "I made a duct tape loop on the broom to I could finish sweeping." And realized that if she needed something like that, many others might as well. 

Mellin got together with her sisters—a chef and a director of early education—and put together a plan. They would make assistance devices that helped people and could be easily cleaned, unlike the models made of plastic and straps. It took, at the start, a lot of experimenting—and a thousand prototypes they made in one of their kitchens. 

"I was still working my job at Nickelodeon for three and a half years," Mellin explains. "I worked during the day. I did EazyHold at night and during the weekends. We have about 25 distributors now. We were finalists with the Make It With Lowe's contest a few months ago."

Mellin and one of her sisters now work full-time for their company. They have patents and their retirement savings are taking off.

Bonnie Marcus
Credit: Bonnie Marcus

A CEO leaves the corner office

"There's something really empowering... about being your own boss," says Bonnie Marcus, a career coach, book author, and public speaker who, after more than 20 years in corporations, started her own national company. 

What was her motivation for switching to self-employment? "Having additional income for retirement is probably way up there," Marcus says. "In some cases, it starts as a side hustle and ends up being a full-fledged business. It gives you a balance to the corporate culture, which isn't always friendly to women." 

Marcus started her own business in 2007. Then, the economy crashed, and with it, her savings. But she was able to eventually work her savings back up as she developed her business and made well over a six-figure income.

Another of her goals in becoming her own boss was having an outlet for  creativity—and the boost in retirement funds was a significant side benefit. 

Katie Botkin
Credit: Katie Botkin

Backyard solution

Sometimes, the retirement solution may be surprisingly close at hand. "I've known for a long time that I haven't really been saving much for retirement, mostly because I haven't been able to afford to," says Katie Botkin, a freelance writer who, at 40, is single and pregnant with her first child. 

"At this point, I'd certainly be the primary breadwinner for the child," Botkin says. "She's a daughter and I'm naming her after my grandmother. It's inspiring me to get everything sorted out." 

"Sometimes, retirement gets pushed to the back burner," Botkin explains. "I tried to squirrel away some, but it was $15 here, $100 there, which doesn't add up that quickly. I'm definitely doing the math now and realizing that I need to make some changes to make sure that I can retire and support myself." 

Her solution isn't another job. Instead, she'll make use of extra space on the property she bought in 2008. "I'm thinking of this real estate project as what I can do to potentially retire at 50, despite the fact I have almost no retirement at this point," Botkin says. "Because of the mortgage rates, I was able to refinance, pull some equity out, and not have a huge jump in the monthly payment. If I'm living on the property and essentially able to live rent-free and be able to make some on top of that, that frees up money to save for retirement." 

As these women show, even if your retirement plans are starting at a disadvantage, it's possible to push through and make the extra you need—and find fulfillment while you're at it.