My Husband Died at Age 34. Here are 13 Money Lessons I learned From It.
Life is unpredictable. Financial resilience is key to overcoming setbacks
Financial resilience — the speed and strength with which you bounce back from tragedy— is very important. After my husband died at 34, I realized that my 20's were critical in forming the building blocks of financial freedom and resilience. Luckily, my husband was a minimalist and a frugalist, with a deep financial background (he was a CPA with an MSc in Accounting). Money was always front and center for me as a trained economist. I took a double course load in University just to graduate earlier, and used the savings from the final year’s tuition fees as a down-payment on our first home.
We did not spend our 20's gathering debt, even while taking on expenses like a wedding and buying a home. This critical period between ages 25–35, that “expansionary period” where we are most at risk of amassing significant debt — is critical to financial longevity, and setting up your future for success. If we had taken on more debt in our 20's, I would have been left to pay it off myself, setting back my future for years, probably several decades.
Here are 13 money lessons I learned after my husband died:
1. Life Insurance Is Non-Negotiable
Purchasing life insurance was the single most important financial decision we have ever made. However, according to a 2016 report published by the Life Insurance Marketing & Research Association, 30 percent of U.S. households (approximately 37.5 million) remain uninsured. A further 50 million households are not adequately insured.
For those that have a life insurance policy through their banks, it is woefully insufficient. A life insurance policy taken out with your mortgage will only pay off the remaining balance on the mortgage. So, if you have a $40,000 balance, the bank will pay only that amount. These life insurance policies do not cover funeral expenses, education costs, or other important expenses. Statistics also show that there’s over a 50 percent chance that one member of a couple will need long-term care. So you need to build that into your planning process.
Some insurance policies, like whole life insurance, are structured to act as an investment plan where you save funds which earn interest over a period of time and gets paid out in lump sums. Depending on the insurance company, you could use this as a retirement benefit or even a personal loan.
In this article on Vintage Value Investing, Warren Buffet used insurance to become the second richest person in the world. According to the article, at the end of 2016, Berkshire Hathaway’s insurance float totaled $91.6 billion.
2. Live Below Your Means
“I’m not interested in cars and my goal is not to make people envious. Don’t confuse the cost of living with the standard of living.” — Warren Buffet.
Living below your means is a core pillar of financial resilience. No matter how much money you earn, you won’t be financially independent unless you’re disciplined enough to keep what you make.
Warren Buffett has a net worth of $77 billion, but he still lives in the same house he bought in 1958 for only $31,500. Compared to his income and net worth, Warren Buffett lives frugally.
On my sabbatical after my husband’s death, I learned to live on $10 a day, in premium priced, tropical Jamaica. For 12 months, I did the $10 a day challenge. Like Cait Flanders in the Year of Less, for twelve months, I bought only consumables: groceries, toiletries and gas for my car. I ate mostly local and organic from our garden and made home-made recipes.
3. Debt Is The Enemy Of Financial Freedom
“You will never have financial freedom if you are in debt” - Suze Orman.
High-interest credit card debt is the enemy of financial freedom. The last thing you want to have happen is that the “bottom falls out” because of death or divorce, and you’re saddled with large amounts of debt. Some may think that delaying debt repayments is a good idea, but this is a no-win strategy. Because as you make more money, your expenses usually increase.
“I’ve seen more people fail because of liquor and leverage — leverage being borrowed money”. ..You really don’t need leverage in this world much. If you’re smart, you’re going to make a lot of money without borrowing.” — Warren Buffet.
Warren Buffet is especially wary of credit cards:
“Interest rates are very high on credit cards, sometimes they are 18%. Sometimes they are 20%. If I borrowed money at 18% or 20%, I’d be broke.” — Warren Buffet.
4. Develop Your Own Financial Identity
“Rich people are rich because they are simply more literate in more financial areas than others”- Rich Dad Poor Dad.
Developing your financial identity starts with financial literacy. Improving your financial literacy is also the greatest stimulant of wealth.
Many of us make our first large purchase with a spouse. The first house, the first car, the wedding and honeymoon — these are all expenses tied to those expansionary years. We therefore transition into adulthood not having gained a full sense of our own personal financial identity.
Each of us should have a financial identity — that is distinct and separate from our spouses or parents. If you find yourself always thinking, what would my friends or parents think about the way I spend or invest then its an indication that you haven’t fully figured out your financial identity.
Smart About Money has a financial identity quiz that is easy and free. Your financial identity (Pathfinder, Trooper, Nomad or Tenderfoot) is determined by your answers to 12 questions about your behavior and beliefs when it comes to money.
If you develop your own financial identity — you will be potentially avoiding the biggest money mistake almost everyone makes, according to Suze Orman — Not taking an active role in handling your own money.
5. Make “Budgeting” Your Middle Name (Get Creative).
Budget for everything. Consider creating a budget and tracking your expenses — then test it out for several months to make sure it’s realistic for you, adjusting it as needed.
Even small seemingly meaningless expenses can whittle away your paycheck. Entertainment costs can add up too, a 2016 survey from American Express found that millennials spend an average of $893 per wedding they attend as a guest. When they’re in the wedding party, that spending rises to $928.
Get Creative with large expenses like a wedding. If you’re getting married, then its time to get creative. Mentor at Aspire-Canada, Dave Kerpen, and his wife Carrie Kerpen, turned their wedding in a baseball stadium into an Ad firm, and got married with the help of sponsors.
After all the sponsors chipped in, they ended up with Cake by Entenmann’s. Roses by 1–800-Flowers. The wedding: home plate of Coney Island’s MCU Park, and more than 7,000 Brooklyn Cyclones fans as wedding guests.
Get Creative to pay off student loan debt. This is where good planning comes in, plan to reduce the debt as much as possible by getting additional sources of funding like scholarships. Kristina Ellis, amassed $500,000 in scholarships and graduated debt free, she’s known as the scholarship Ninja. I spoke to Essence Magazine about managing student loans before, during and after College.
6. Automate Your Savings — And Then Hide It
Nearly 60 percent of Americans say they saved less than $99 per month or $1,188 for the year in 2017. One in four respondents say they saved nothing at all. Data from Bankrate’s latest financial security index survey backs up these statistics. Only 39 percent of survey respondents said they would be able to cover a $1,000 setback using their savings and 19 percent would have to turn to credit cards.
Automating your savings is a good way of ensuring the money is socked away. However, for most of us, we know its there so we go back for it the next month. If you’re in the “save it and then spend it club”, try experimenting with more creative ways to hide money from yourself.
One such tool is Digit, an app released in 2015. Once you connect it to your bank account, its algorithm tracks your cash flow and removes small amounts of money when you won’t notice. You can withdraw whenever and whatever you want, but you’re much less likely to pull a Pirates of the Caribbean on your bank account. Out of sight, out of mind.
If you can’t remember your bank balances, sign up for “text banking” and receive a message with your account balances every single morning (many banks including Bank of America offer this service).
7. Take Measured Risks
Measured risks are important to achieve certain goals. Assess the risks, consult with a professional and decide whether its worth it or not. Every risk is an opportunity to waiting to happen (if executed well).
8. Aim For Financial Independence
“Ordinary people work very hard for little money, clinging to the illusion of job security and looking forward to a three-week vacation each year and maybe a skimpy pension after 45 years of service” — Robert Kiyosaki
It goes without saying that if you need to take a break from work (whether forced or by choice), that you still need to have an income coming in. This is where passive income plays a huge role.
Passive income is the great “enabler”. You don’t need to be tied to a cubicle wall to earn it. If you opt to take a break or sabbatical after a tragedy or loss — it is your passive income that can largely fuel that.
As Anthony Moore puts it: “The man who earns $2,000/month entirely from passive income is more enviable than the man who makes $10,000/month in job income”.
The quickest way to gain financial independence is to generate multiple revenue streams through investments, side projects etc. While you want to focus on earning, keep the big picture in mind, too.
9. Build A Solid Retirement Fund
According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, the median retirement savings of all working-age families, which the EPI defines as those between 32 and 61 years old, is just $5,000.
In an article by Emmie Martin, CNBC estimates that the №1 American retirement saving mistake is not taking full advantage of an employer’s 401(k) match. In 2018, you can save up to $18,500 in a 401(k) plan, and $5,500 in an IRA. In certain instances, you can use both.
In order to build a solid retirement fund start by getting a very accurate idea of your current expenses. What expenses will be eliminated by age 65 (or your retirement age)? What is that net number?
Experts recommend using 3% for inflation, number of years in retirement, monthly expenses at beginning of retirement. This will help you determine the lump sum amount you need in retirement investments. From that amount, subtract what you have today.
Get a financial professional to also help stress-test your savings (i.e. if you live to 80, 85, 95 or longer). As I discussed in this article in the New York Times, if your asset allocation is too conservative, and you’re not even beating inflation, I suggest you look at revising it to have more growth.
10. Maximize Your 20's — These Are Your Best Growth Years.
According to Dr. Meg Jay, author of “The defining decade: Why Your 20's matter and how to make the best of it”, how you spend your twenties will define you, as 70 percent of wage growth happens in the first 10 years or so of your career.
I’m a firm believer that your twenties are your most important decade financially. According to a PayScale study, both men and women see salary growth of about 60% by age 30. After that, however, the rate of growth slows for women. By age 39, the typical woman’s income has grown by less than 20 percent, compared to her 30-year-old self. Sure, you’ll probably get cost-of-living raises along the way, but the days of the double-digit raise are over. Investing in your 20s can go a far way to financial freedom, and being financially resilient. Liz Weston at MSN Money has done the math:
“Someone who puts $4,000 a year into retirement accounts starting at 22 can have $1 million by age 62, assuming 8% average annual returns. Wait 10 years to start contributing, and you’d have to put in more than twice as much — $8,800 a year — to reach the same goal.”
11. Embrace Estate Planning — Make A Will
“I rewrite my will every five or six years …” — Warren Buffet
According to a recent survey by Caring.com, a whopping 78 percent of people under the age of 36 do not have a will or trust in place. Regardless of age or wealth, spelling out what happens if you pass away (in a will) ensures your money goes to the people or causes you care about most.
A full estate plan can include health care directives that cover your preferences for how you want doctors to administer your care if you become incapacitated.
Estate plans also include appointing a durable power of attorney to oversee your finances and personal affairs if you’re unable to do so. For assets not held jointly by spouses, a power of attorney can also enable your spouse to act on your behalf when it comes to basic financial decisions.
12. Make Concrete Financial Goals
“Savings without a mission is garbage. Your money needs to work for you, not lie around you”. — Dave Ramsey
Several behavioural psychologists — notably Brad Klontz, the co-founder of the Financial Psychology Institute — have established that saving up for a concrete goal one that you genuinely look forward to is a great way to prevent mindless spending on random stuff in the interim, and they couldn’t be more right.
Warren Buffett’s strategy for success includes concrete financial goals. Here is his process for pursuing success:
- Write down the top 25 things you want to accomplish in the next few years or your lifetime.
- Choose the five that are most important to you. This is not supposed to be easy.
- Make a list of concrete steps to reach your top five goals.
- Make a new list with the remaining 20 items from your top 25. This list is your “avoid at all cost list.” No matter what, you must completely ignore these 20 goals until you have accomplished your top five.
13. Have An Emergency Fund
“Cash … is to a business as oxygen is to an individual: never thought about when it is present, the only thing in mind when it is absent” — Warren Buffet
One of the reasons Berkshire Hathaway not only survives recessions and crashes, is that Warren Buffett understands the value of keeping an “emergency fund.”
It is said that when the market crashed in 2008, Berkshire had enough cash on hand to make several lucrative investments, such the purchase of Goldman Sachs. Buffett insists on keeping a minimum of $20 billion in cash at all times, and the current total is around $85 billion.
Even if you follow the advice in step 1 above (Get a life insurance policy) you also need to have an emergency fund. If the unthinkable happens, while you’re waiting on the proceeds of a life insurance policy you will need to be financing various expenses. It can take up to 9 months to access the funds from a life insurance policy. During this time, you don’t want to be using your credit cards for everyday expenses. A life insurance policy cannot take the place of an emergency fund.
Suze Orman, financial expert and former CNBC host, recommends putting away between eight and 12 months worth of living expenses to feel truly secure.
“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago”.- Warren Buffet
Life is unpredictable in so many ways. Financial resilience is key to overcoming setbacks. Proper planning and foresight can prevent additional fallout in the event of disruption or crisis.