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It’s Taken a Lifetime

Edmund Marsh

I’M TOO EMBARRASSED to reveal how long it took my wife and me to prepare our wills. We knew this important task was near the top of almost every financial “to do” list—a list that, it seems, we’ve spent our adult lives slowly working our way through.

We’d discussed the details of our wills, including the crucial decision of who would care for our minor child in the event both of us died. Despite this, we procrastinated. When we finally met with an attorney and signed the papers, it was a relief to mark it off the list.

While we were at it, we drew up advance directives to allow others to make legal and medical decisions for us if we became incapacitated. These documents let us have a hand in those decisions by making our wishes known beforehand. I’d learned from my father’s final illness how advance directives can ease a family’s burden during an already-stressful time.

I also added letters of instruction to help my family settle my affairs. Included in these are legacy letters with the words of love that I want my family to remember me by. The reality is, most of us aren’t thinking or speaking clearly at the time we leave this world. I’ve put my thoughts on paper now, before dementia or serious illness renders me unable to.

What else has been on our to-do list? One of our running family jokes is that it’s okay to die, just don’t get sick or sustain a serious injury. As a precaution, I’ve always had some disability insurance through my employer, though probably not enough. A severe medical problem can be a double whammy to a family’s finances. Earlier in our adult lives, a loss of one income, plus a boatload of medical expenses, could have sunk us. Now, we can fall back on our investments, but we probably weren’t smart about the amount of risk we took earlier on.

On the other hand, we made a good decision when our daughter was born. My wife and I each bought term life insurance. Our goal was to cover the loss of income if one of us died. At the time, my wife and I worked side by side at the same physical therapy clinic. Because we drew essentially the same salary, we purchased policies with equivalent death benefits.

My wife went part-time after the birth of our daughter, and then to one day a month a few years later. Even so, we’ve kept the original policies. Her current income is just a fraction of the previous amount, but her value to our family is huge. I want sufficient coverage to replace part of the contribution she now provides. The policy premiums have bought us both peace of mind.

We’ve made some other wise moves—which perhaps balance out some of our earlier negligence. Most important, we’re in the habit of spending less than our income. Among other things, that provides us cash for unexpected expenses. Our emergency fund keeps us from having to reach for a credit card to pay for a new water heater or major auto repair.

Controlling our spending also lets us save money for retirement. Even so, we could have done a better job if we’d started earlier. We delayed investing until our mid-30s. By showing up late to the starting line, we potentially missed out on a decade or more of compounding. A timelier start might have given us a more comfortable retirement and perhaps even the option to retire early.

At this juncture, we’ve paid off all debt. We wanted to lower our fixed costs, especially as we look ahead to retirement. Some argue you’ll make more if you invest any extra cash. That may be true. But for us, there’s no debate. Even if it’s not always the optimal choice, we’d rather be debt-free. We think that eliminating debt lowers our overall risk.

In addition, we strive to give away part of our income. We try to be thankful for what we have, and to show it by giving to our church and to those in need.

Our family’s plan for managing our finances and the risks we face has been a work in progress, but it feels like we’ve finally made it through the to-do list. The pieces are now in place, but they didn’t get there all at once. We’re just glad a calamity didn’t befall us when one of the pieces was missing.

Ed Marsh is a physical therapist who lives and works in a small community near Atlanta. He likes to spend time with his church, with his family and in his garden thinking about retirement. His favorite question to ask a young person is, “Are you saving for retirement?” Check out Ed’s earlier articles.

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