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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Surviving Retirement: How Shirley Martin Stays Afloat

Dane Walters
Shirley Martin, 72, works for AARP part-time and rents out rooms in her home to make ends meet.

Preparing for retirement is daunting for anybody. Without an inheritance, a hefty pension or a 401K, it can be tough to just get by.

Take Shirley Martin. She’s 72, she lives in Desoto and she’s struggling to make ends meet. One of every three North Texans is in the same boat. They don’t have enough money set aside to live for three months after a financial hit.

Shirley is one of the people featured in KERA's new series, One Crisis Away. Instead of getting discouraged, Shirley’s getting creative. [Watch the video of Shirley's story here.]

When you walk into Shirley Martin’s cozy Desoto home, one thing is clear. In the kitchen, she’s the master.

For this meal, her daughter Anita is playing the role of sous chef as Shirley bustles from sink to stove to oven. She’s making baked chicken over seasoned spinach, and she sets the whole dish off with fluffy saffron rice and colorful veggies.

Credit Dane Walters / KERA News
Shirley cooked professionally for decades. Now she delights family members (and visiting journalists) with elaborate meals.

Shirley has been cooking since she was a teenager. First because she enjoyed it, then, professionally.

“I started at Hockaday School in ’63 and I started as a line server. So it came up that we needed a cook, so I tackle anything and I said, ‘I want to take that head cook’s position.’  I did, and I just went by recipes, but I’m always one to do my own thing, if you kind of put your touch into anything, it makes it better,” Shirley says.

She left her job at the Dallas private school in her late 50s after suffering a brain aneurysm. Once she recovered, she took a few other cooking jobs, one at a church and another catering parties. Now 72, and a breast cancer survivor, she’s hung up her professional apron, but still loves the kitchen.

“So overall I’ve been cooking, oh my God, 50 years or longer. And still cooking honey!” she laughs.

Shirley, who’s divorced, gets a Social Security check every month and an annual retirement from her time at Hockaday. But with no savings, she doesn’t have enough to pay the mortgage and her bills.

It’s hard to save. You save it today, you spend it today,” says Shirley.

To stay above water, she turned to Shared Housing, a nonprofit that provides her with tenants.

She leases out two rooms in her four-bedroom ranch style house for $400 a month apiece. Her two boarders are as much a part of the household as Shirley’s family photos and antique cooking molds.

“If they weren’t here, I wouldn’t be able to make it, it’s just as simple as that,” Shirley says.

She has family nearby to make sure her tenants are on the up and up.

“I have a grandson and he’s going to come and give them the third degree, and Anita, my daughter, they check them out, they kind of feel them out. A lot of people ask me, how do you take strangers into your home? Well, I just have that kind of faith and I know they need the help,” says Shirley.

Even though a lot of people her age no longer work, Shirley puts in about 18 hours a week with AARP. Part job, part computer training program, it provides a little extra income she desperately needs. She worries about money every day.

“Not making my mortgage for number one, and then of course the plumbing. Things can happen, bills, your insurance, your car breaking down,” she says.

Shirley says while financial concerns are top of mind, she’d rather focus on what’s good in her life –a loving family and those kitchen skills. That’s a gift everyone’s grateful for at Thanksgiving.

Shirley’s dream is to one day start her own non-profit that helps people find affordable housing. She says her love for charity must be inherited.

“When I was a little girl, my mother used to take a red wagon and go around the neighborhood and take up canned goods and stuff. For whoever was not as fortunate as we were,” Shirley recalls. “And that’s the same feeling I have today when I take people in from Shared Housing, or anywhere. I feel that same way I just think, if I could do it, I would.”

And despite her own struggles, Shirley is.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.