I recently shot a video for a company that asked for my Top 5 Tips for Women and I want to share some of that content with you today. I have many suggestions when it comes to helping women protect themselves and ensure a financially secure future. Today I’m going to share the #1 Tip that I think will make a big difference in your life. This is the single most important thing that I have learned through the process of becoming a widow, surviving a financial crisis and rebuilding my life.
Let me begin with a question: Who pays for every aspect of your current lifestyle? How about the car expenses? Kids’ activities? Holidays? Medical expenses? What about the credit card payments – do you cover those? Think about every dollar that is spent to pay for your family’s expenditures and then ask where that money is coming from. Make a list and beside every type of expense write down who pays for it. If, like many families, your money goes into a joint account, then calculate what percentage of the expenses is covered by your contribution.
Does your spouse or partner’s income figure in any way on that list? If you’re like most women, it likely plays a fairly significant role. Now ask yourself this: What if your spouse disappeared from your life tomorrow? I know that many of you will argue that the likelihood of that happening is slim to none, but for the time being just disregard all objections and play along. If your spouse no longer contributed to your household income for whatever reason starting tomorrow, what impact would that have on your lifestyle?
Would you still be able to maintain the same standard of living? If not, is the change in lifestyle one that is acceptable to you? Would you nonetheless be in a good, stable position financially or would you be left scrambling?
To date I have interviewed a few dozen women for this blog and in all but two cases money was at the top of the list of significant issues women faced after divorce or the loss of their spouse. Whether we like it or not, money is a big deal for us mostly because we don’t have enough of it or we don’t control its flow into our lives.
Why does the source of your family’s money matter? If your family income is good and you’re enjoying a fulfilling lifestyle, why should you care?
Well for one thing, life has a way of being unpredictable. Look back through my blog posts at all of the stories of sudden loss or deception leading to divorce and you will have a good argument for being prepared. My most recent post What do you say and do when someone dies? was written after a 39 year old friend of mine died suddenly. These things happen and sadly they happen all too often. It’s worth repeating that not one of the women I have interviewed expected to become a widow or a divorcee.
The ostrich syndrome
We all have varying degrees of head-in-sand disease. You know what I’m talking about here – the unwillingness to entertain unpleasant possibilities because you’re convinced that such things will never happen to you. You’re healthy and you will always be healthy. Your marriage is strong and will always remain strong. You come from a long line of people who died in their 90s while chopping wood so you’re good to go. Your husband is Mr. Health and Fitness therefore no worries there. Good, and may that be true for you. But what if it’s not?
In a recent post I encouraged you to expect a positive outcome but to cover yourself. That’s what I’m after regarding your financial health: protection. That requires awareness and action.
So back to my original question: Where does your money trail lead? Does your income cover every aspect of your lifestyle and if not, do you have sufficient insurance to pick up the slack if your husband were to die? Here’s another thing: Insurance doesn’t kick in if you divorce. What then?
My intent is not to cause panic. Instead, I want you to pull back the curtain on your financial life and to develop a clear, full understanding of how much money is coming in, where it is coming from and how much you need to make to maintain your standard of living. If after taking a good look you determine that you are dependent on your spouse for a good chunk of your lifestyle then you need to ask yourself a key question: What would you do if his income stopped for some reason?
My big mistake
Twenty years ago I made a big mistake, one that cost me years of stress and financial difficulty. I made if for all the right emotional reasons but it was a mistake nonetheless. And if I had taken the time to think critically about what I was doing, I would likely have chosen a different path.
In 1992 two great things happened to me: I was promoted to a PhD program in Neurolinguistics and I learned that I had won a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council doctoral fellowship. The latter, along with my job as a Teaching Assistant, meant that my PhD would be fully funded. My first husband Malcolm had started a thriving business and his health was reasonably stable after a few years of cancer scares. Life seemed pretty bright at that moment.
Then came the blow: Malcolm’s cancer came back with a vengeance necessitating major surgery followed by radiation and chemotherapy. His recovery from the surgery alone took several weeks and it became clear that he could not continue to run the company alone.
At the time I told my thesis supervisor that I would take a one-year leave of absence to help out with the business while Malcolm got back on his feet. I never went back. During that critical year I became increasingly involved in the day-to-day running of the company and within six months I had become CEO and chief marketer. At the one-year mark Malcolm still wasn’t well enough to take over by himself so I put off my studies another year and stayed on. I couldn’t leave him when he wasn’t well enough to run the business could I?
The next thing I knew years had gone by and the opportunity to resume my studies had passed. I had been caught in the well-known trap of daily to-do lists and immediate concerns without ever taking the time to step back to think about the big picture. Frankly, I didn’t want to think about the possibility that Malcolm would never be well enough to run the business alone. I put my head in the sand and became entrenched in the here-and-now. Big mistake.
Malcolm died in 1998 and it was only then that I realized that I had allowed myself to become entirely dependent on him for my living. Yes, I was generating a lot of the income in the business with my marketing choices but the bottom line is that the products we sold depended almost entirely on Malcolm. When he died, so did the future of the product line and therefore so did the future of my business.
Just start over right? It’s not fun but it’s not the end of the world either. True, except that the business also had hundreds of thousands of dollars of liabilities that needed to be addressed at the time of Malcolm’s death. That was my inheritance, and climbing out of that hole took nearly four years of constant work and stress. Once the financial mess was cleaned up, I had to completely reinvent myself. At that point my previous academic research was virtually irrelevant since so much time had passed. The only choice left was to start over from scratch in my 30s.
The lesson for women
Why am I telling you this? Very simply, I want you to ask yourself some important questions about the way your life is set up to see if you have unwittingly created areas of vulnerability that may hurt you some day. The idea here is to bring consciousness into your daily life to ensure that the path you’ve chosen is the product of both attention and intention.
You know what it’s like: You wake up one day, look around and wonder how on earth you got ‘here’. ‘Here’ for each of us represents a state or a destination that is not one of our conscious choosing.
Everything in your life at the moment is there because on some level you made a choice. Once we look closely at the many aspects of our lives, we realize that many choices were made unconsciously. We keep our heads down running from to-do lists to kids’ emergencies to work deadlines to social obligations often without stopping, stepping back and asking, “Is this really where I want to go? Is this really what I want to be doing? Is this the best path for me?” We lose sight of the forest because we’re so busy crawling through the trees.
If, in 1992, I had taken the time to think about all the possible consequences of walking away from my PhD and following Malcolm into his business, I would doubtless have made another choice. The obvious objection is that Malcolm’s business would likely have failed. Yes, it might have and you know, looking back, that would not have been the end of the world for him. It might have forced him to choose a different line of work that allowed him more time to focus on his health. My mistake was focussing exclusively on Malcolm’s well-being while completely ignoring my own needs. Malcolm was sick; I wanted to help him. His business was in jeopardy; I wanted to rescue it and to protect Malcolm’s future. What I did instead was damage my own.
What I have learned through this whole process is that we cannot sacrifice our well-being for someone else’s. That isn’t in anyone’s highest, best interests. It also leaves us terribly vulnerable when things go sideways.
We all have to make sacrifices for the good of our families, particularly our children, but in doing so we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we have an obligation to ourselves to remain healthy, vibrant and protected.
My #1 Tip for you and for all women: If, once you’ve asked yourself what you’d do without your spouse’s income, the answer is that you would be in trouble, then it’s time to put on your thinking cap, turn on the engine of creativity and figure out what options you have to become financially protected and strong. Don’t ever count on the Happily Ever After. Expect it, but don’t count on it.
There’s a huge upside to doing this that goes beyond simply protecting yourself from future difficulties, and it has everything to do with securing a stronger financial position for yourself today.
I will end my #1 Tip with a parallel to sports: I coach a girls’ basketball team and one of the key lessons I impart to them is that to win a game you must have a strong defense or else the other team will walk all over you. Defense is essential, but it’s not sufficient. You do need to prevent the other team from scoring but in order to win you also need to score. Hence the need for a good offensive plan.
My suggestion for you is to strengthen your financial defense (i.e. your weaknesses) and then create a strategy for your offense: How can you make yourself financially strong and stable? By doing that you will set yourself up for a win. And a win for you is a win for the family.