While at Home

Kristine Hayes

WHEN THE COLLEGE where I work switched to a remote learning platform for the remainder of the academic year, I suddenly found myself out of work. The majority of my job responsibilities revolve around preparing laboratory classes for students—students who are no longer on campus.

Thankfully, I’m still receiving a paycheck, but only time will tell whether I’ll be furloughed or have my hours cut back like so many other employees at colleges and universities. In the meantime, spending most of my time at home has given me the chance to tackle several personal finance projects—including these four:

1. Preparing legal documents. Getting my will updated had been on my to-do list since I remarried in 2018. By subscribing to an online legal service, my husband and I were able to create several legal forms quickly and easily. Our goal was simple: create a set of documents allowing us to avoid costly probate proceedings upon our death.

During the first night of our estate-planning project, we created three transfer-on-death deeds, one for each of the homes we own. For less than $400, we were able to create the deeds, have them notarized and file them with the county recorder’s offices in each of the states where we have a residence.

Next up were wills. Our finances are relatively straightforward, so we were able to create simple wills specifying how our assets should be dealt with upon our death. We also made sure the beneficiaries on our retirement accounts and life insurance were up to date, as well as making a list of personal property and specifying how it should be divided up among family members.

2. Organizing financial papers. Using a high-speed scanner, I digitized the tax returns, retirement account statements and mortgage documents we’d accumulated over the past decade. Purging huge piles of paper from our filing cabinet felt good and made me feel productive at a time when productivity feels like it’s at an all-time low.

I also took photos of the credit and debit cards in my wallet. In the event my wallet is stolen, I’ll know exactly who to contact about cancelling my accounts. And after finding out I’d been part of a financial website’s security breach, I enrolled in an identity-theft monitoring program so I’ll be alerted if my personal information is compromised again.

3. Coping with financial uncertainty. Three weeks before our state’s mandatory stay-at-home order was issued, my personal net worth hit a record high. My financial anxiety was low and I felt good about my prospects for retiring early. As I watched my net worth plummet in the month that followed, I spent several nights awake worrying about my job and overall financial health.

Amid all my nervousness, I sat down and started to write out a worst-case scenario. A scenario that found me unemployed. A scenario where my husband and I had no income from our rental house. And when I looked at our accounts, our assets and our lifestyle, I realized we’d likely be fine even if that worst-case scenario came to pass. There’s no doubt our lifestyle would need to be adjusted, but we wouldn’t find ourselves bankrupt overnight, either.

I was able to pause and reflect that, as bad as the economy was just over a decade ago, it bounced back. I made the decision to increase the amount of money I contribute toward retirement, something I didn’t do during the Great Recession.

4. Getting a puppy. Adding a German shepherd to our family certainly wasn’t a planned financial move—and I know it’ll add to our expenses at a difficult time. It has, however, been a decision we haven’t regretted. Having a new puppy to train has helped make the pandemic stay-at-home orders more bearable. Most important, it’s provided me with a much-needed distraction from checking the news and the stock market’s performance throughout the day.

Kristine Hayes is a departmental manager at a small, liberal arts college. Her previous articles include Attitude AdjustmentFew Absolutes and Why FI. Kristine enjoys competitive pistol shooting and hanging out with her husband and their dogs.

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