When It Rains

Catherine Horiuchi

TWO WEEKS AFTER my husband’s death, we held a memorial service for local friends and family. Days later, after a reasonable amount of online research, I visited a car dealer.

It’s my experience that bringing at least one youngster along speeds up dealmaking, plus a parent can get unvarnished opinions about life in the backseat. So I brought along my 13-year-old. The two of us test drove two used cars and bought one of them.

The next day, I drove to work in the city, instead of taking a train from the park-and-ride lot, as I’d done for the prior decade. My goal was to shorten my commute and reduce my hours away from home. This ended badly when I slipped on wet pavement in a parking garage, resulting in an injury that required surgery and time off work.

Having never endured such an injury before, it was a shock to realize that—for the first time in my adult life—I was neither earning nor saving money, especially during a period of such high expenditures. Further, we’d lost all my husband’s future cash flow and his sharing of family responsibilities. Would that I had a partner and decades of earnings to recover the lost cash. But instead, I was on my own, launching three young adults.

I had read about the “widowhood effect.” I was at elevated risk of illness, injury or death. I had been careful. But I’d already exceeded the three-to-five days off work allotted for a death in the immediate family. On top of that, we grieving people are often told to stay busy and try to get back to normal routines.

While anyone can lose their footing on a rain-soaked walkway, possibly nothing bad would have happened if I’d kept to my familiar commute or, even better, stayed home from work another week or two. But all this was futile what-ifs. I set aside such thoughts, and focused on my work as executor of the estate and on helping the children in their grief.

The financial work was made simpler by our prior planning, with a straightforward will, clear beneficiaries named on financial accounts (with one exception) and a family revocable trust, meaning my husband’s estate didn’t need to go through probate. An ongoing relationship with the lawyer who’d done this work also came in handy for this and other matters.

The confluence of the loss of my spouse and a temporarily disabling injury became the ultimate test of our rainy-day fund. Cash to cover three-to-six months of expenses is a sizable chunk of money. Some experts advise holding less, if you’re willing to use loans or credit cards in a pinch. But the fact is, that “pinch” could involve a lot more than typical spending.

As it turned out, our funds proved sufficient to weather the early problems caused by losing my credit cards, debit cards and license, followed by the cost of the funeral, a down payment on a newer car, daily living expenses and medical costs. Nevertheless, it was alarming to watch my emergency money shrink. I am now rebuilding our family’s rainy-day fund, as well as restructuring our financial accounts to make the whole of it simpler and easier to manage.

Here are four key lessons from this period:

  1. The moment of loss is too late to begin saving money. You must begin sooner and have some confidence you’re targeting the right amount. It’s easier emotionally to plan for a flood or hurricane than to plan for your own death or the loss of a loved one. Whatever your strategy, the goal is a resilient financial environment for your family. Include legal planning in this.
  2. Having one bit of bad luck doesn’t preclude having more of the same. Keep a calm demeanor throughout and stick with your financial strategy. It will pay off in the long run.
  3. Many post-death tasks have specific timelines. For instance, there’s 60 days to roll over an IRA if you’re the spouse and you receive a distribution. Call the customer service numbers on statements. Read any paperwork that firms send you. Return it promptly. Keep moving forward with one eye on the calendar.
  4. Along with your financial plan, invest in friends, family and community. If you run out of money or the ability to handle matters, it’s good to know that others will show up for you. The support of friends and family in our community saved us thousands in direct expenses, as well as buoying our spirits at life’s lowest moments.

Catherine Horiuchi is an associate professor in the University of San Francisco’s School of Management, where she teaches graduate courses in public policy, public finance and government technology. This is the third article in a series. Catherine’s two earlier articles were At the End and The Aftermath.

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