Essays & Confessions

How I Had To Revise My Finances After Becoming A Widow At 26

By | Friday, August 24, 2018

We planned a life of freedom and thrills. We were going to harness frugality to retire early and spend the balance of life traveling the world and pursuing transient hobbies.

My husband died two years ago. At 26, I was a suddenly solo female homeowner and castaway in a state where I had about three casual acquaintances. (New Hampshire is mystical and mountainous and proud; I love it now, but it was an intimidating adjustment for this native New Yorker.) Young widowhood is strange. I could fill volumes with the surprise challenges and bizarre social encounters that I experienced in those first months. However, I have, of course, come to TFD to share my story of adapting in the realm of personal finance.

The most glaring Big Life Decision that stared me down immediately was whether to keep or sell my house. I have a modest but well-built single-family home, which I purchased as one half of a husband/wife mortgage-paying team. After only one year of homeownership, I became responsible for the entire mortgage bill plus the trimmings of utilities/maintenance/necessary improvements. The following advice is common among the thriftier finance gurus: if you wouldn’t buy a possession at its current value, sell it! I certainly would not have purchased the house alone…so I should sell, right? 

I didn’t sell, but it’s a decision that I need to continuously reevaluate. My mortgage payment (minus taxes) is roughly equivalent to the rent on a decent-quality apartment in the same city. So I have decided that it makes sense for me to keep the house and build equity while enjoying a lifestyle free of renter’s troubles. However, certain variables could change my decision in the future. If my income were to decrease markedly, I would sell. If taxes increased dramatically, or the house needed a surfeit of costly repairs, I would sell. 

(A quick note: Do not assume that every house purchase is a good investment. It might make you money long-term if you are very lucky, but in plain financial terms, a house is more like a savings account with a highly unreliable interest rate,in my opinion. Real estate is nice to have in your portfolio, but it shouldn’t BE your portfolio.)

In my opinion, the best insurance against financial surprises is a dual-income household. (Usually, this means two people, although there are some side hustlers out there deviating heroically from the norm.) A single-income household needs to have its own contingency plans for a stoppage or a decrease in cash flow. I was lucky enough to graduate from adolescence with a healthy emergency fund. I keep a certain Happy Number in there, and I have never dipped below that number without a plan to restore it expeditiously. I know that this fund could sustain me and my mortgage for a few months if I suddenly found myself job-searching.

The other main pillar of my contingency plan is my willingness to downsize my lifestyle significantly and on short notice. Obviously, I hope that my income increases on an ever-upward trajectory. But realistically, I don’t have a defined skill set outside of my current field. If I were to face some sort of Career Apocalypse and had to change fields, I would need to plan on a serious drop in salary for several years thereafter. I don’t want to struggle to support my current lifestyle; I would prefer to downsize and live a more modest life comfortably.

Further, on the subject of income, I naturally felt the need to increase mine once I began supporting myself alone. I am fortunate that my current employer offers very generous overtime opportunities. My subset of the healthcare field has long been understaffed, and we are able to work extra shifts to fill in the gaps. I now work about 72 hours per week. Sometimes that number feels high, but I remind myself that hard work produces concrete results in the form of bill payments, savings, and financial peace of mind.

Financial literacy empowered me to cope with a true shock. My life as I had planned it dissolved instantaneously, but I was able to recover and regroup without any true money concerns. Though I experienced challenges of other kinds, I never worried about losing my home or being unable to support myself as a single woman. I am still steadfastly pursuing early retirement and other goals I set while part of a couple.

Having a partner is an enormous asset, but it’s not a necessity to achieve personal financial security. Choose to see the value in your independence. And know that when you achieve success, it will be your own.

Kayla Murdock is a paramedic who loves personal finance, crossword puzzles, and her pet rabbit. She is a self-educated finance enthusiast, who writes to share ideas and promote discussion. She is not a financial professional, and her articles do not constitute financial advice or suggest a fiduciary relationship. Consult a professional regarding your own money decisions.

Image via Unsplash

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