How My Father’s Death Taught Me The Most Important Money Lesson I’ve Ever Learned
My father’s sudden death blew a hole in my family’s life. It hurt so much that I thought the pain would take me, too. When someone you love dies, you still have to limp onward, regardless of your pain. Improbably, the world keeps spinning, and you have to cling to anything that keeps you from floating away, adrift and helpless. And then there was the aftershock: he had no life insurance. There’s no way that life insurance would have turned our lives into an up tempo musical number — but it would have helped.
My mother wanted more than anything to keep our house. Life insurance would have made that possible. She is a teacher, and an incredible one, who works for a wonderful school, but a single income spread among five people with bills and kids who want to go to college…yeah. (Aside: until teachers make the same salaries as professional athletes, I will consider them underpaid.) Without my father, we couldn’t do it. Losing a parent or a partner goes beyond turning your life upside down — it can fuck up your finances in every way possible. The home I grew up in was sold.
For my father, purchasing a policy was an economic reality — he just made a decision not to. I loved him dearly and I miss him every day, but I’m so angry with him. He didn’t know he’d die, except in the sense that we all know we are dying. But he did know that life insurance was a thing that existed, as evidenced by the conversation he had with my mother when she asked about buying a policy. When he said no.
I don’t want to miscast him on the internet — he was not incompetent. He was just a man who thought briefly about death, shuddered, turned away. Which we all do at one time or another. This is a normal, common, human thing. But we have to stop doing it.
What I learned from his death was this: you owe it to your family to have your financial shit together to the best of your ability. I owe it to my future family, and I owe it to myself. This is not to shame people who can’t afford a life insurance policy — I would never ever do that. Currently, I can’t afford a policy at the moment, either.
My parents worked hard, but our family was large, money was scarce enough to freak me out, and shit happened on a regular enough basis to make me scared. My mother is radically honest and didn’t lie to her children — we knew what was up. My response to being afraid of money (and most other adult things) was denial to the point of self-sabotage. I looked away, just like my father did. Having your financial shit together in case you die (HYFSTICYD?) requires that you not turn away from anything. Now I look at the things that frighten me, and stare until my eyes hurt.
Not having enough money makes you vulnerable. I don’t know what the magic amount is; how much money do you need to stop the fear? Until I hit that amount, here’s the plan: stare at it and do not flinch. Turning away from reality doesn’t make me or you or the people we love less likely to die. Turning away has the potential to make things really bad for my family — I don’t want that. Also, I am not a total martyr — I want my life to be good while I’m here living it, and that means facing fear, figuring out problems, and doing the work to solve them.
In the time since my father died, I finished college, bought a car (used, from my mom), got a job that came with health insurance, paid down nearly all of my student loans, and established my credit history. I am debt-phobic, and my motto is “If I can’t afford to buy it in cash, I can’t afford it,” but establishing a credit history was a crucial component of getting my finances together. When selecting credit cards, I prioritize 0% APR over points or miles. I automate all my bills and loan payments. The credit card gets paid in full every month. I check my accounts every morning while I drink my coffee: bank, credit cards, 401k, savings, and student loan. I have an overview tool (I use Mint.com), but I also log into each account individually. I take any class that my employer is kind enough to pay for. I have a side hustle for extra income. I negotiate aggressively for the raises and titles I deserve. I work hard enough and well enough to know that if there’s a disaster I’ve done everything that I could do. No more flinching.
I will still die someday, regardless of how much money I have in the bank. When I die, I want things to be incrementally less awful for my family by having my shit together. This means, when my partner and I decide to grow our family, it’s time for life insurance, for both of us.