Updated on 07.31.08

Dollars and Sense When Life Hits You Hard

Trent Hamm

Temporary like sadness by Dominic on Flickr!Not too long ago, a friend of mine lost one of his parents very suddenly. It just came out of nowhere and it felt like a punch in the gut to him. He spent a few weeks almost in a daze, lamenting the loss of his father, who he was very close to, and when he finally came out of that daze, he discovered a few things. He’d racked up quite a bit of credit card debt. He was deeply behind on his work. He had let some important personal things slide. In short, he now had some serious catching up to do in his day to day life.

The closest experience I had to this was during the first week of January 1996, when over a three day period the son of a family friend killed himself, an uncle I was very close to passed away from cancer, and a cousin of mine that I had practically grown up with hung himself. I don’t remember much of that period – it was kind of a haze – but I do remember going back to school and just withdrawing from things for a week or two.

Thankfully, my life was easy in those days. I went to school. I participated in some extracurricular activities. I went home. That was pretty much the cycle of my life, so there wasn’t anything too bad going on if I didn’t quite live up to my responsibilities.

Now, as an adult, things are much different. If something devastating hit my life, I’d have to rebound quickly for the sake of my family – and for the sake of my career. Plus, when those extra expenses that happen during a personal crisis hit, I’d be much happier in the long run if they didn’t have to go onto plastic.

Here are some basic steps you can follow to keep yourself always ready for the unexpected but inevitable bad hands that life deals to us.

Keep an emergency fund.
More than anything else, an emergency fund can help you through tough times in the future. Keep a savings or a checking account somewhere stocked with a few months’ worth of living expenses, and keep a little bit of cash at hand for more specific emergencies.

Having easy access to cash without putting yourself in debt means that you don’t have to worry about the bills later on from the actions you need to take right now. You’ve got the cash to handle most issues, like sudden travel, meal expenses, and other short-term costs that are often related to sudden emergencies.

I usually recommend keeping some cash nearby, too, in an intelligent hiding place in your home. I have $300 in $20 bills hidden in my home, waiting for the right opportunity to be used. When I need it, I can just grab it and go.

Keep a “work buffer.”
Keeping a “work buffer” can be vitally important for enabling you to deal with day to day life. It allows you to walk away from your work for a short while with minimal stress, and the less stress you have during an already-stressful situation, the less likely you are to spend money needlessly and make rash decisions. Here are some great methods of giving yourself a work buffer.

Get ahead – and stay ahead – on basic work tasks. For me, this takes the form of having several days’ worth of articles written in advance, so if the vagaries of day to day life catch me off guard, I can just walk away and know that the basics of my job are taken care of.

Have a well-trained backup. Make sure that there’s a person who can handle the mission-critical aspects of your job, or at least knows how to assemble the pieces so that these tasks get done.

Prepare solid documentation of your daily routine. This way, a person can fill your shoes with minimal training in a pinch, making it possible for you to back away with minimal stress at important moments.

Have a list of key contacts ready to go.
If you’re suddenly pulled away because of a personal emergency, there are likely several people you’ll need to contact to make them aware of the situation. Have these people already entered in your cell phone and listed somewhere where you can easily find them.

Contacting all the right people when an emergency happens can be the difference between an easy exit from your responsibilities and a disastrous one. Make sure you’ve covered your job responsibilities thoroughly, as well as the most challenging of your personal responsibilities.

Don’t run yourself out of leave at work.
Many people have a tendency to use their work leave as soon as they get it and fail to accumulate a buffer of leave for later on in the year, then when an emergency strikes, they’ve got to juggle a lot of things in their life and likely alienate their boss in order to be able to handle life’s emergencies.

A better tactic is to hold on to at least a week of your leave and use it only when you have to use it. This way, if a personal crisis strikes, you can quickly tap into that leave and utilize it for something truly important. Coupled with a strong work buffer, adequate spare leave can often make a quick job sabbatical go by with nary a worry.

Develop a strong social and professional network.
If you invest time and energy into consistently helping out others without anything in return, most of those people will be there for you when you really need it. Don’t hesitate to help out people when they ask and never ask for a thing in return unless you truly have a need.

Then, when you’re in a situation where you need help, these people will almost always step forward and give you the help you need, stepping up to the plate for you in pinches and taking some of the workload off your backs. They may also be a personal help, lending you emotional support or other specific things that you may need.

The time spent building up relationships with others pays dividends when you’re in a pinch, so spend some time now building up those relationships before you ever have to call things in.

Keep your master information document (and related documents) up to date – and help others prepare theirs.
There may even be some situations where you have to delve into your own personal finances or into the personal finances of others. For example, if you’re facing a major liability situation, you’ve been critically injured yourself, or a close family member is critically injured or has passed on, it may be important to know what wishes are in place and how people want their assets to be handled.

You can make this easier right now by preparing your own master information document which contains all of this information about you, so if someone needs to access it to help you out in a major emergency, you’re ready to go. Similarly, you should encourage the people you’re closest to to prepare similar documents – your parents, your spouse, your children, and perhaps your siblings or closest friends – so that you can step up to the plate for them in a pinch without having to waste a lot of time or use an attorney and incur a bunch of unnecessary fees.

A little preparation now can make a huge difference when you need it later on. Take some time to get a few things in order and when something disastrous happens, you can focus on the things that are really important and not worry so much about your personal, professional, and financial obligations.

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  1. Ariana says:

    I wish I would have known about this information sooner. I’ve been in that same sort of “haze” for several months since my husband’s deployment.

    How about writting about how to manage things while in this great “haze” if the opportunity to prepare was not taken?

  2. Saving Freak says:

    A somewhat uncomfortable but truly necessary step to take is having “the talk” with your parents. By knowing where all the important documents and legal information are located can expidite the inconvenience part of losing a loved one, so that we can work on the grieving process.

    My parents have let each of us know where their most important documents are and what their wishes are for when they pass. This only came about when they had problems in dealing with their own parents final wishes. This is a load off of our minds and it lets us know that when the day comes our family can worry about each other instead of worrying about finances.

  3. This is great advice. Thanks!

  4. clint says:

    My uncle passed away and did not have anything set up, he left his daughter is a real bind…when this happened I had the talk with my Dad and he walked me through everything that needed to be done if he were to pass. He is set up Life insurance, a trust, the whole nine yards. but no one knew how to get to everything.

    We need to make sure to follow the Boy Scouts and Be prepared for anything that might come your way. Have a years supply of food and a 72hr kit with the necessary things of life.

    Your emergency fund should be one of the first on the list to take care of.

    But just think BE Prepared in every needfully thing. Doubt not fear not. If yea are prepared yea shall not fear and all that.

    Trent You Rock.

    Keep up the great work. There are thousands and thousands of people that need this message.

    You are making a difference in a lot of lives.

    Clint Lawton


  5. Sarah says:

    This is an excellent article! I hadn’t thought of it in this way before. When my dad died, my life stopped for a while. Thankfully, my boss was fantastic and I was paid full salary even though I didn’t work regularly for almost three months. I’m unlikely to have that option ever again.

    The part II of this article is, of course, having your estate in order (living will, trusts, durable powers of attorney, etc.) and making sure that they are accessible by the executor(s).

    Part III is having this talk, as the other posters said, with anyone whose death or incapacitation will affect you. Spouse, parents, grown children if unmarried.

    I pestered my parents for years before they finally got their estate in order and just in the nick of time as my father died suddenly early on Christmas day. (Have you ever tried to book a funeral home on Christmas day?)

    I don’t have kids or a spouse, but I still have durable powers of attorney and a living will so my family knows what to do in case something happens to me. They know my lawyer personally so they know who has the papers.

    My apartment is neat, tidy and not cluttered so disposing of my things won’t be a giant chore.

  6. LC says:

    This is timely for me. I was getting ready to make an “if I die” folder for my husband, who doesn’t ever log onto the computer.

  7. Matt says:

    Thanks for the helpful advice. I aggree that havin a work buffer is important.

  8. Shannon says:

    Thanks for the great reminders. My Dad is elderly and frail and for me, being prepared means that my monthly work responsibilities are up-to-date such as various sales and use tax returns and other tasks with deadlines. You’re doing a great job, Trent. Thanks!

  9. This all makes very good sense.

    Now as far as scheduling paid time off work, here’s what I’ve noticed at my current and previous work places:

    Most of us who are parents do keep anywhere from 1 to 5 days in reserve, not scheduling them during the initial vacation day sign-ups but waiting for the inevitable “things that come up.”

    This drives management crazy because they keep sending memos out: “Please schedule your unscheduled days.” We have a use it or lose it policy by Dec. 31. And management really doesn’t like it when too many employees are out of the office during the same day or week!

    My boss had a horrified look on her face when I told her I probably would need to take a day off in December and can’t schedule it yet.

    But it’s not like I have much choice over the matter — I need to be the one picking up daughter from college during finals week. We won’t know until well into the semester what her exam schedule will be (some professors are known to give papers in lieu of exams for example.)

    My husband can’t do the college day pickup … he works at a factory where employees’ time off is pretty much when the factory is shut down.

    Backup plan if I can’t take the entire day off when I need it: I will work four hours in the morning and leave for college at lunchtime.

  10. Carol says:

    One thing that I have done is that I made a document to help myself and others in the event of an emergency which makes it impossible for me to communicate. I also use this document to give each doctor when I have an appointment so that it quickly updates their records on my health since the last appointment, etc. My doctors love it and it saves me time filling out forms. This document can be done manually or on the computer. It’s all done on a regular 8-1/2″ x 11″ piece of paper. You would be amazed what you can get on there.

    I made a spreadsheet that I keep in a Ziplock inside my wallet for water safety. It is updated with all the pertinent information on my health and life. One side includes My full name and DOB, all of my medications by name, dose mg, daily dosage, physical description of the medicine, date filled, date to refill, Dr., their address, phone & fax numbers, last appointment and next appointment. My extensive allergy information is on the bottom of this page. On the flip side I have listed all of my doctors and the reasons that I use them, all appointments, medications, surgeries, procedures, etc. I have on this side listed Emergency contact information for any Paramedic or person that looks through my wallet so they can know what medications I am taking, my doctors and basically just who to call. I also have my last wishes there as to living will, not the estate information. My family members all have that information.

    If you haven’t updated your cell phone yet, now is the time to do so. Make the 411 a code for your main emergency contact. This way Paramedics or others can take your cell phone and dial 411 to get the person that you have chosen as your emergency contact. I hope to never need this, but it’s better to be prepared and safe than sorry.

  11. LC, I need to do the same. My husband logs on, but I’m the one who does the finances and he wouldn’t have a clue where to start if I died.

  12. Dody says:

    This is a good idea. I hadn’t thought about writing my articles in advance.

  13. MJ says:

    Another great article, I finally just made an appointment with my 81 year old mother and took her to an attorney, she “didn’t want to talk about it”. I made her collect all her papers, insurance, car title, bank statements etc and the lawyer has a copy of everything. I was smart enough to pick a female attorney who made everything very easy. Now I need to work on her life history (think obit.), where she worked etc, none of us kids know all the information, it’s not a secret she just doesn’t talk about it.
    Clint (#3) A years supply of food? I can “work” over everything I have and stretch it a month or so, but there is only 2 of us, I can’t see having that much food, although we are considering the purchase of 1/4 to 1/2 a beef which is so much better then store bought, is this what you mean by a years worth? I do need to get a kit set up.
    Kristen (#8)I have everything in Quicken, because I have so many bills auto-paid, everything else in schedule and direct deposit hubby shouldn’t have to much of a problem.

  14. Tracy says:

    One of the best pieces of advice I received as a new manager was “when given the chance to do someone a favor, do it.” This holds true in work, with neighbors, friends, etc. Not only will lots of people “owe you” but it’s just good kharma.

  15. Keeping a work buffer has been extremely important for me. I recently just asked my girlfriend to marry me and now we are happily engaged. However, this meant I couldn’t really work for a few days as we celebrated together with friends and family. I had a few days buffer to keep me going over this time (which I planned for) and this really helped relieve the stress levels fter the excitement and celebration died down..
    Great tips….thanks

  16. BonzoGal says:

    Congrats on your engagement, Ryan!

    The emergency kit info is really important where I live (earthquake country!). My workplace is having a seminar tomorrow on earthquake preparedness, because a major quake in our area is not an “if”, it’s a “when.”

    I’ve sent emergency info to friends and relatives who live outside my area, that way if our phone/computer contact is down (like it was in the 1989 quake), they’ll know where we’ve headed, etc.

  17. Shan says:

    I’m so glad to see you posted this. Nine years ago my mom committed suicide (I was 28) and had it not been for my brother-in-law travelling across the country with me (his wife, my sister, was home with their kids) to close up the house, hire a realtor and an attorney and deal with the coroner all in one week I would not have been able to do it. Mom left no will, no instructions and no direction. She hid the severity of her declining psychological and financial states from us by being across the country and by us being consumed with our daily lives. Most importantly, be mindful of family members who may be vulnerable and step in to help when and however possible.
    I cannot stress enough the importance of a strong social circle (friends, church, etc) to help keep you “in touch” with each day. I was new in the city I was living in and knew very few people, let alone being close enough to anyone there to discuss it to help me through. Life was a haze for a long time.
    Being overwhelmed by the loss and how it came, the practical and legal aspects, a demanding job and my own already precarious financial situation, I soon found myself in bankrupty court as reminding myself it was a weekday and I had to go to work and get through the day was the most I could muster for a long time.
    Being mindful of how those around us will have to take care of our lives after we’ve passed or incapable is one of the best things you can do for them as they will also be coping with their own loss and stress. We should make it as easy for them as we can.
    The result? After years of an emotional roller coaster of many very, very dark days I’ve come to terms with my loss and feel more lke myself every day, although I will always miss her and carry the guilt of not knowing her sitution. Next month my bankruptcy comes off my credit report and I have a bottle of champagne already chilling as it feels like the last black cloud of that time which can be lifted will be, and also as a mark that somehow I’m not only still breathing but look forward to today and the next day. Although I have a small and simple life, I have a will, copies of insurance papers and other documents, information and instructions with my sister having copies and us having discussed them. As they change or are updated she gets copies of the new ones.
    Thanks again for your post.

  18. asithi says:

    I know more than a few co-workers who burn through their leave as soon as they get them. Then when something happens, they ask for donation. To me, that is just plain selfish.

  19. shakti says:

    A better tactic is to hold on to at least a week of your leave and use it only when you have to use it.

    That sounds like a good suggestion. However, what if you work at a job 40 hours a week but your contract only gives you a week of vacation, sick leave, whatever time, period? How would you suggest building in a “leave buffer”?
    At one job I had, they had me on part time status though I worked there 40 hours a week. I had to take a deduction out of my paycheck in order to get another week to visit my grandparents in about a year. The company had bereavement leave of three days but due to the fact my deceased grandmother lived in a country across the world it would have taken two days just to get there, flying. It also takes a week to get over jet lag traveling that far. I explained the situation to my superiors and asked if I could tack on that leave to my other pool of leave so I’d actually be able to go pay my respects;(and not bankrupt myself by buying a last minute ticket well over $4000 on a salary of 20,000) they refused and said it was a “use it or lose it” situation. So I took the three days and I cared not a farthing for their irritation because they had been scheduling their back to back two week vacations during December for the last two years.

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