Updated on 10.05.07

How To Handle It When Life Kicks You In The Teeth

Trent Hamm

Eventually, it happens to everyone. Something unexpected and disastrous happens, leaving us with a giant medical bill or some other enormous expense. Maybe you wake up one morning with more than a pint of blood having poured from your ear (it happened to me in college) or you have a heart attack on Thanksgiving morning as you’re about to pull the turkey out of the oven (it more or less happened to my mother). Maybe you’re awakened by the sound of a car running into and mostly through your house (it happened to the parents of a friend of mine). Maybe a tornado picks up your car and drops it in an abandoned rock quarry (it happened to a friend of mine). Maybe you buy a house on Tuesday and it burns to the ground on Friday (it happened to my cousin and his wife).

Sometimes these things just happen – they’re devastating, and often they tear asunder things you’ve been planning. There’s not too much you can do to really prevent them, but there are a lot of things you can do to minimize their impact on your life.

First of all, don’t panic. If you find yourself getting extremely upset and losing control, separate yourself for a little while and calm down. If you really can’t handle the emergency yourself, call 911. That’s what they are there for.

Second, don’t avoid it. As soon as you’re in control of your faculties, start dealing with the situation. Find out all of the resources available to you that can help, and start using them to correct your life. If you lost your job, don’t sit around for three weeks playing video games in the basement – polish up your resume and start hitting the pavement now.

Third, it is often useful to let down your guard a bit and contact someone you really trust to help you; for example, if your spouse is in dire straits or just passed on, you may need someone to step in and help you with the affairs of the moment. If you don’t have anyone, contact a local church (preferably the one most similar to your faith and upbringing) as most pastors are glad to help out someone truly in need.

There are also a few simple ways you can prepare now so that when the bad thing happens, you’re ready.

The first (and perhaps most important) thing is building up an emergency fund. Each week, you should have an automatic withdrawal from your checking account into a savings account – say, $25 or so. This money should just sit there in that savings account until a disaster strikes. That way, if the transmission dies in your car, it’s not panic time – it’s just time to go get money out of your savings account. This will help for smaller emergencies that can mostly be dealt with with cash.

The second task is to cover yourself and your spouse with life insurance, especially if you have children. This is especially true if you are in a two-income home, where both people work and both incomes are required to make payments – life insurance will help to prevent a financial disaster later on. A term policy for a person in their twenties is quite inexpensive – this should be a precaution that many people take.

Most states require some form of automobile insurance and many employers (though not all) provide health insurance. If your employer does not provide health insurance, it is well worth your time to seek out an employment situation that does provide it, as it is incredibly valuable. If you are self-employed, you may need to insure yourself, but there are many plans available for this.

If you take home nothing else, though, it’s this: build an emergency fund and don’t be afraid to use it when you need it. It will serve you well time and time again when life, well, kicks you in the teeth.

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  1. Great advice that applies to finance and beyond :-) Wise man, keep up the good work.

  2. Optimus says:

    Giant, life breaking medical bill? Only in America!

  3. Stephan F- says:

    I knows this really well: Bought a house, got fired, had a baby. Finally sold the house to pay off all the debts. We’re slowly rebuilding our lives once again.

    One thing that helped us was not just an emergency fund (which is never big enough), but also some stored up food and consumables. We lasted a long time on our stored up dry and canned goods and lots of toilet paper. Having a Costco closet really helped us get thru the time our house was on the market until it sold.

  4. vh says:

    Here’s another to-do: Get yourself some long-term care insurance while you’re young and it’s relatively affordable.

    Had an office-mate, a lively young dude who loved to tool around town on his motorcycle. Well, you can imagine what happened next: he had a strange encounter with a truck. He broke every bone in his body (nope: not a figure of speech), somehow survived, and spent six months in a nursing home recuperating.

    Accidents happen. So does cancer. So do strokes. They all can happen to surprisingly young people and any one of them can land you in a nursing home. Long-term care insurance can at least give you a shot at saving your assets for your spouse and kids–without it, your family can lose everything and then some.

  5. Ro says:

    We have had some major medical bills in the past three years, and that’s *with* insurance. :(

  6. Rob in Madrid says:

    Having been through enough the garden variety financial crisses (nothing as bad as the above but still difficult) over the years to become some what of an expert. 3 lessons I learned from the last one.

    1. Set backs are inevitable deal with it. (in other words don’t freak out)
    2. Present a solution not a problem
    3. Minimize the damage to the budget
    4. Lessons learned from previous financial disasters. This was a big one for us this last time. Realized I often compounded the problem with stupid spending decisions.

    I also would add, get used to saving money and spending less, it helps immensely when money is tight.

  7. Kate says:


    I am so glad you wrote this today. Yesterday, my husband had to be driven to the ER for extremely acute pains in his abdomen. He needed a CT scan, many pain drugs, and an emergency room visit before the doctor pin-pointed that he had a kidney stone – his first one.

    We’re young and newly married, and I think our emergency fund will JUST cover these expenses (especially if I ask for a discount after I receive the bill.)

    We’re also uninsured. Our employer doesn’t offer adequate coverage – basically a glorified prescription card, and we were in the process of shopping for insurance when this happened. Well. As of this morning, an insurance application in on its way to Aetna in the mail. Thank heavens for our emergency fund.



  8. Deila says:

    Trent~ Ever feel like a bad luck charm? You sure know a LOT of people that had bad things happen to them!


    J/K. Law of averages. You know a GAJILLION people.

  9. Minimum Wage says:

    I can’t imagine how my dead-end resume could be polished, and I can’t build an emergency fund on my income and debt load.

  10. Tamie says:

    RE: Dead end job. Maybe you have to go back to school. See if you can get a student loan. Or, sometimes folks can get unemployment insurance while they start up a new business (here in Ottawa, you can get this for a whole year.)

    Maybe you could team up with a few people with similar interests so you won’t feel like you’re on your own while doing this- you already sound like you’re kinda tired out & negative, and with some buddies you could keep each other motivated.

    There must be someone in your community that gives career counselling and can come up with something appropriate & helpful for your specific situation and location.

  11. SJ says:

    I actually don’t think life-insurance is only for two-income families – at least not with young kids – if your working spouse died, you would need daycare if you were to work, or something to live off of in the meantime, plus college, etc to be saved up for on only one income – in my case, with two working parents, we’ve made sure to have enough life insurance to cover the remaining mortgage – that would at least leave the other spouse with greater flexibility in spending/saving
    Otherwise, great advice.

  12. N'Awlins Kat says:

    Hoo-eeey. Been there, done that, bought many of the t-shirts in different sizes. :( Our first class at the School of Hard Knocks came six months after our marriage. We bought a house in Dec. 94, the week we got married, and six months later, it flooded. We didn’t live in a flood zone, so didn’t have flood insurance, but I’m here to tell ya, 27 inches of rain in 36 hours will flood *anything*! Coincidentally, my 20 year old sister had, the DAY BEFORE the flood, put down $9K, her entire savings, on a house. Fortunately, it had insurance, as the next day, when she was scheduled to move in, before the ink was dry on the contract, she launched her boat from an interstate overpass to get the rest of the way to the house, which had 4 feet of water in it. Because she hadn’t spent the night in it, she didn’t qualify for FEMA or Small Business Administration aid, and that was when we found out that insurance companies depreciate trailers, so the trailer with brick addition that she’d paid $29K for the day before was valued by the insurance company at only $15K. Needless to say, we learned a lot of construction and DIY over the next couple of years.

    Then came the five years of horrendous medical bills, four miscarriages in two years, and a job loss the day we found out I was pregnant with our daughter, a high risk pregnancy. Oh, and six operations, one of which wasn’t completely covered by insurance (huge deductible).

    Two years ago, we sat glued to the tv in a couple of motel rooms in Memphis, TN with my parents, sis and her family, our family, assorted pets, and what we’d been able to carry away with us, and watched southeast Louisiana wash away. My sister’s house (which we’d custom-redone…it was NICE), was flooded again (no insurance this time, either. AND there was a tree through the roof. And the heavily wooded lot we’d all planned to build on had been hit by a tornado, so we had 6.5 acres of broken and dangling trees to deal with, as well. Not covered by insurance.

    We are well-schooled in the art of managing crises. Now, when we go a couple months without something breaking or blowing up, we start getting worried; what’s next?

    My primo piece of advice. Buy flood insurance. Even if you live smack in the middle of the Mojave Desert. At some point, no matter where you live, chances are good you’ll need it.

    And after 12 years, my main realization has been that sometimes, your purpose in life really IS to serve as a warning to others!

  13. Katy says:

    Very good tips, thank you. But it would help to have the emergency fund in place before reading this! I have been setting aside some money automatically during unemployment; it is the act of automatically sending the money, not the amount – but that must rise when I get a new job, for sure. Excellent piece.

  14. Katy says:

    sos – get an emergency fund first! I am working on this one, after the fact of unemployment.

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