2019-08-20 12.30.50

One woman’s “what if” crisis and message: Get out of the cave where money is concerned

When I’m in the middle of a family holiday, I try not to check my emails. I’m pretty good about ignoring social media and electronics, but on this particular day, after a long hike, I reached for my phone to review some of the pics I had taken during the day. (The photo I’ve shared is from Sunshine Meadows, outside of Banff, Alberta. This view is actually atop a mountain. The sun was hot, the water crystal clear. Gorgeous.)

For whatever reason, I took a quick peek at my emails. I’m glad I did. I had received an email from a member of my Women’s Money Group, whom we’ll call Lisa, about a crisis that struck her family. She wanted to share a message with me.

If you’ve read my book, Protect Your Purse, you know that one of the big lessons I learned after becoming a widow and inheriting $400,000 of debt, is to ask “what if” questions on an ongoing basis.

– What if I develop a serious illness? Would I be able to survive financially?

– What if my partner becomes ill? Or we divorce?

– If I lost my job, what would that do to my ability to pay the bills?

And so on. The idea is to poke through the comfortable illusion that life will never happen to you and to put a plan in place for scenarios that could potentially derail your life.

Most of us never take the time to do this because a) it’s not fun; b) it can be downright scary; and c) it can uncover uncomfortable facts about where we are in life. So, we avoid and defer.

We can think about our debt levels later.

We can address the fact that we don’t earn enough to cover our lifestyle costs on our own, at some other moment. It’s not relevant right now. Our relationship is in great shape.

We’re perfectly healthy and so is the rest of our family. It’s all good.

Wait – what just happened?

Then, when you least expect it, you encounter a “what if” moment, just like Lisa.

After some pleasantries, here’s what she wrote (anonymized and shared with permission):

I am writing to tell you that my “what if” scenario is here today. My husband had a [medical test] on Monday. We were convinced that only a [small intervention] would be necessary [for his condition] and that we would carry on. As it turns out, he will need [major surgery]. Many members of his family have experienced this condition and several have died from it.

I am now facing that situation where we will have to live on one salary. It’s going to be a challenge, but I think we can do it. Every penny we spend now will have to be evaluated. None of this matters; I just want him to make it to our wedding anniversary in October….and beyond. To say that I’m scared is an understatement.

We feel very fortunate to be living in Ottawa (Ontario) and so close to [a major hospital that specializes in this condition]. We look forward to putting all of this behind us.

Thank goodness I have been able to become more aware and active, proactive, in regards to my finances. I’m not where I would like to be, but I’m further ahead than I was.

Thanks for your continued efforts to bring the likes of me out of the cave where our money is concerned. I look forward to seeing you in the fall.

Wake up call

Eighteen months ago, Lisa bought a copy of my book after attending her first Women’s Money Group meeting. When she didn’t show up for the next meeting, I assumed she had decided the group wasn’t for her. Later, she told me she had taken the time to read the book and had the first of what she labels as a wake-up call. She confessed, “I realized just how much I don’t know about money and how awful it would be if something happened, like the “what if” scenarios you discuss in the book.”

Lisa couldn’t join the group at that time, or even think about her finances, because she was dealing with her own health scare – a cancer diagnosis. She underwent medical intervention and worked her way back to health. That’s when she joined our group and she began to share more details about her situation.

The downside of taking control

Here’s the thing about starting to take control of your money when you’ve been living on financial autopilot and deferring to your partner: it can be difficult. When you pull up the rug, you find dirt you didn’t know existed.

Lisa experienced a range of emotions, as do many women when they first start to take charge of their finances. The more she learned, the more she exposed the gaps in her financial literacy. It was a lot like taking one step forward, only to realize you’re actually two steps back.

For example, you start looking at debt and creating a debt repayment plan. In the process, you realize it’s going to take you a lot longer than you thought to pay it off. The task feels daunting.

You consider the amount you’ll need to have saved by the time you retire and you realize that you don’t have enough time left to reach your target. (At the end of a Women’s Money Group meet-up on calculating what you’ll need to retire, I asked if any of the attendees had comments or questions. Lisa looked up and said, “I’m screwed!” My response? “No you’re not. You can course-correct now that you have a clear target. And you’ll be better off than if you had maintained the status quo.”)

Despite the fact that it felt overwhelming at moments, she persisted.

She kept showing up, learning, asking questions, and digging into her finances to figure out how to move forward. She made progress.

Then, this crisis.

The upside of change

I wanted to share Lisa’s story with you for two reasons. First, this is one more data point in favour of the argument that we simply don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Perhaps it will offer up adventure and opportunity, or it may instead bring challenge and stress. Since no one can predict the future, wise people intend for the former to happen, but they plan for the latter.

Second, every step you take toward deepening your financial literacy will serve you beyond measure. It is a huge step for Lisa to be able to say that she feels they’ll be OK despite the shocking turn of events. Recall her words: “Thank goodness I have been able to become more aware and active, proactive, in regards to my finances. I’m not where I would like to be, but I’m further ahead than I was.”

In other words, her situation is not ideal, but it’s far better than it could have been if she hadn’t taken the time to face her fears, peel back the onion on her financial situation, and learn how to improve it.

You know what financial literacy education is all about? Peace of mind. When a crisis hits, you know you can handle it because you have developed, or are developing, the financial skills needed to cope.

How do you measure peace of mind? You don’t; it’s priceless. It’s worth every bit of effort it takes to get you there.

Where to start

If you’d like to grow your financial literacy, here are a few ideas on where to start:

1. Create an inventory of your financial skills and weaknesses.

What are you good at? Which areas cause you stress? Where do you feel you need/want to know more? Always start by identifying your strengths.

By the way, if you’re tempted to say, “I’m just not good with money; I don’t have any strengths,” I can guarantee you that isn’t true. Everyone has areas of strength.

No one comes into this world being awesome with money. There is no money gene that I’m aware of. Money skills are learned, not inherited.

Identify what you do well. It’s important to acknowledge the progress you’ve made and the things you’ve learned. Then, get really clear on the areas you’d like to improve.

Now, let’s say you write down a mighty list of weaknesses that you’d like to address. Where do you start in the face of so many potential weak spots? You start with the one that is causing you the most stress and/or doing the most damage.

Is your tendency to spend more than you earn keeping you mired in debt? Start there.

If, instead, it’s your perceived inability to save money that has you perplexed, make that your starting point. This is true for people who don’t have debt, but who nonetheless feel that they just can’t get ahead. Money comes in, money disappears.

What about those of you who earn great money, live within your means, and you have some investments, but you’re not sure what they are, why you have them – mostly because someone else selected them for you – and you feel that you should have more of a nest egg than you actually have given the number of years you’ve been putting money aside. In other words, you don’t know much about investing and it intimidates you. Tackle that.

The answer to the question “What’s your most pressing financial issue right now?” can act as a guide.

2. Track your money – all the inflows and outflows – for a couple of months.

Create a list or spreadsheet to write out the totals and the areas where you spend your money. You can’t solve a financial situation unless you know what it is.

Financial improvement starts with awareness. Our goal is to get to a point where we make conscious, deliberate financial choices that are congruent with our most cherished values. Once you know where you money is going, month in and month out, you’ll be better able to pinpoint an area that needs attention.

3. Answer the question – What do I want my money to do for me?

Allow me to bastardize Thomas Carlyle’s quote: Money without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder.

Consider this: If a perfect stranger were to look at a year’s worth of your finances, what conclusions would they form about what you value?

After ten years of working with families to help them sort out financial problems, I can tell you that a lot of files might leave you with the impression that people really value debt. I know – that’s absurd. Nobody wants to be in debt. There isn’t a single person on the planet who says, “You know what? I love debt. In fact, I’m accumulating it.” But one look at their finances might make you believe that.

In the absence of clear values and values-based goals for your money, it will behave like a rudderless ship and end up heaven knows where. Give it a direction and a purpose.

To recap:

– Identify the gaps you want to fill and start looking for resources to build your skills.
– Create awareness about where your money is going.
– Use deliberate decision-making, based on your values, to make the highest, best use of your money.

These three steps alone will help you move the needle forward on your finances and improve your financial literacy. Remember that aside from making you feel better, you’ll be better protected in case a “what if” situation happens to you.

If you’re still stuck, reach out. I’m here for you. I can point you to books and other resources that can help.

Whatever you do, if you find yourself in a financial cave, don’t stay there. It’s so much nicer on the outside.

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