How My Mother’s Death Changed Me Financially

Robert Hoetink /

In the summer of 2015, I received a phone call that changed how I look at everything in my life today. The voice on the other end of the line said, “I am so sorry to be the one to tell you this, but your mother just committed suicide.” This news was something I was mentally and financially unprepared to handle.

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation or much of what happened immediately after I hung up the phone. I just remember wondering, “How am I going to get home?” My wife Dannie and I currently live in Northern California but we’re both originally from North Carolina. These states are more than 2,500 miles away from each other.

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In a moment like this, money should have been the absolute last thing on my mind. Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite the case. All of a sudden, I needed to figure out how I was going to find the money for two plane tickets, a rental car and a place to stay.

I logged into our bank account and saw:

Account Balance: $200

Two. Hundred. Dollars.

According to a 2017 GOBankingRates survey, more than half of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings and are, therefore, unprepared for emergencies. That was us.

For perspective, one round-trip plane ticket was about $600 at the time — and we needed two of them. So, simply getting home was going to cost us six times more than what we had in our bank account. Credit cards were out of the question because they were already nearly maxed-out from buying God knows what and we didn’t have any money saved for emergencies.

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What Our Family Taught Us About Money

I didn’t know what we were going to do. At the time, we were a single-income family living on a low-rank military salary. There wasn’t much money coming in to help solve the problem that we were now facing.

Both of my parents had been working for almost 30 years, yet there were no savings, life insurance or even a plan in place to cover my mother’s funeral. We turned to our family to see if they could offer any assistance. But that’s when we learned that most of them were actually in a worse position than we were and couldn’t help us.

This opened our eyes to the fact that being intentional with your finances is something most people don’t have a firm grasp on.

Change Starts Now

We took out a personal loan to pay for everything we needed. We handled what we needed to, but we knew that when we finally returned to California, a change was necessary. The feeling of being helpless due to a lack of money was something we never wanted to experience again.

We sought advice from various personal finance experts (Suze Orman was one of our favorites) and we started figuring out the steps we would need to take in order to get rid of about $121,000 worth of debt over the next few years and start preparing for our future.

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Here’s what we did specifically:

  1. Built an adequate emergency fund to keep our finances from being derailed by any future life events.
  2. Stopped living paycheck to paycheck by decreasing our monthly expenses, following a detailed budget and building a one-month cushion in our checking account.
  3. Started aggressively paying off debt and finding ways to increase our income.
  4. Began saving and investing for our future.

It shouldn’t have taken my mother’s death for us to fix our finances, but that is what happened. Thankfully, we were able to learn a lesson from experience and take positive steps to change our lives for the better.

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