How My Father’s Death Taught Me The Most Important Money Lesson I’ve Ever Learned

dad-standing

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.

Veronica Goin is a writer and editor living in The Hudson Valley. Her work has previously appeared on XOJane, Eco-Chick and her blog. She currently works as a marketing copywriter and is working on her first novel.

Image via Unsplash

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  • jdub

    This is so important, and it’s something that a lot of people are scared to think about. If you don’t have life insurance, at the very least a will that will cover funeral expenses and any outstanding debts.

    My parents put my brother and I on their life insurance back when we were 14 & 16, and explained how important it was to cover our family in the event of a tragedy. It was made glaringly obvious several years later, when my uncle passed away and his three children had nothing to work with, because he hadn’t created a will and didn’t have a policy in place.

    • Thanks, jdub! I’m sorry about your uncle. Your parents sound like they are on top of preparedness in a big way. Love that they took care of it when you and your brother were so young– and had an honest conversation with you about it.

  • Great article. I’m glad that you chose to share this. Other than unwillingness to face the possibility of dying, I’ve actually heard that some people choose not to have life insurance because they don’t want their spouses to benefit from their death. I have no words.

    • Veronica

      Thanks, missarewa! That’s something I hadn’t even thought about– chilling.

  • Elbee

    Totally agree. It is selfish and short-sighted not to have life insurance (and, for that matter, not to have a will). I am 25. I do not currently have life insurance, but I have a very clear will and more than enough money to pay for my funerary expenses and help my family in my accounts, which would then pass on to them. My SO, who is significantly older than me and has a contentious family, has a will and life insurance that would allow me to buy out his house and live on for several years. This was important to both of us because he is the breadwinner in our relationship. I’m sorry about your dad and totally understand how this would cause you to carry some anger at him, but glad you were able to move on and I hope your mother is doing better now financially–totally agree that teachers should be paid way more!

    • Veronica

      Hi Elbee, thanks! Your level of planning is seriously amazing. I struggled with the first part of your comment for awhile– I don’t want to call anyone selfish in this piece, and I hope that wasn’t what came across. People make mistakes and bad choices (like choosing not to have life insurance) but it is rarely malicious. Our fear of death is very deep and largely beyond our conscious minds– part of the reason why I wrote this is to bring attention to it so that people do think consciously about it and avoid that mistake. Anyway, AMEN to more money for teachers and again congrats on getting on top of your life planning.

      • Elbee

        Haha no, you definitely didn’t come across like that. That was me editorializing. I watched my mother struggle to pay for her father’s funeral as well as saw how hard it was for my fiance to settle his mother’s estate after her death because they both refused to think of others before themselves. In my opinion, fear isn’t an adequate excuse. We’re all afraid of death. I certainly am, but it actually brought me comfort to know that while I cannot control when I die, I can control what happens to my body and my money, and that I can do this in a way that will take some of the weight off my family’s shoulders in what will obviously be a terrible time for them.

  • Zoe

    Something similar has happened to my family. My Dad died suddenly of a stroke in July after never really having any health problems. No life insurance, no holiday pay left, nothing. My Mum couldn’t even cover the funeral so she had to take out her Kiwisaver account early (savings scheme in New Zealand). The family home is now on the market because she can’t afford the mortgage repayments. This article really summed up the thoughts I have been having around finances. I can’t help but think about how frivolous my parents were with money, often living beyond their means and know that I never want to be in the position my Mum is in now. It just sucks losing someone you are so close to and being a grieving mess and then worrying about money on top of all that.

    • Veronica

      Hi Zoe, I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s so hard to be anything but angry (and I’ll still take anger over pain any day). The only silver lining I can offer is that we both will come out of this knowing what kind of financial behavior is unacceptable to us. We can’t change the past, we can only learn from it. If you ever want to talk, I’m around.

  • Lauren

    Brilliant article. I am so sorry for your loss. This is a great reminder that death very literally happens to all of us and we need to be prepared.