Updated on 06.17.13

Playing the “What If?” Game

Trent Hamm

The “what if?” game is a scary game to play, but it’s an important one.

What if I lose my job?

What if I get seriously ill?

What if I pass away suddenly?

What if one of my children has a condition that requires constant care?

What if my spouse suddenly passes away?

There was a time not too long ago in my life where I dreaded the “what if?” game. I basically avoided thinking about these types of questions, choosing instead to believe that my life was completely safe and nothing like that would ever happen.

I used to think that even if something like that did happen, well, I’d figure it out when it happened. I’d cross that bridge when I got there. Everything would turn out okay.

Well, everything doesn’t turn out okay. I’ve watched loved ones slip away because of inadequate health care, simply because they couldn’t afford what they needed. I’ve watched a single parent struggle mightily after their spouse died in a car accident. I’ve watched a person’s life fall apart as they battled an illness that doctors claimed was just in their head yet rendered that formerly vibrant person incapable of getting out of bed.

Simply put, the “what if?” game is a vital one, particularly if you have anyone who is dependent on you. It’s incredibly scary to think about, especially when you don’t have answers to the questions.

When I first started playing the “what if?” game, I didn’t have answers to the questions, either. I didn’t have any sort of plan for any of these questions.

Slowly, over time, I began to answer those questions, and I began to feel a lot better about my life. I didn’t avoid the scary thoughts and, while they were unpleasant, they didn’t fill me with panic or dread any more.

What kind of answers did I find?

Term life insurance I have a very healthy term life insurance policy now. My wife has a pretty significant one, too. If either one of us died, it would not signal a financial meltdown for our family. We would continue to get along for years without a significant change in our lifestyle. There’s also money for any needed therapy that might follow such an incident.

A healthy emergency fund We have enough cash in the bank that we could live at our current standard of living for fifteen months without any additional income. This would get us through job losses, through an awful lot of unexpected illnesses, and through many other unplanned but problematic situations.

Mementos This seems like a strange thing to add here, but if you think about all of the things you’d like your loved ones to remember you with, it becomes important. The key to this, for me, is a journal I’ve written for each of my children detailing things I’d like them to know when they’re adults. I intend to give these to them as adults, but if that doesn’t work out, I’m sure they’ll receive them anyway.

The one area that I’ve not covered yet that I intend to cover soon is long term care and disability insurance. This, of course, covers a situation in which one of us requires long term care beyond what our health insurance will provide.

Obviously, no one can answer every question. What each of us can do, though, is to answer as many of them as possible, starting with the ones that are most likely and most devastating. Start with term life insurance and an emergency fund.

The “what if?” question is a powerful litmus test for your personal finances and choices. If you can’t face those questions, you might want to start re-examining the financial choices you’re making.

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  1. valleycat1 says:

    An excellent ‘what if’ preparation tip I’ve seen is if you ask someone to c-sign a loan or you co-sign one for them. The primary person obtaining the loan should take out a term life policy for the total value of the loan on his or her self with the co-signer as the beneficiary.

  2. Steven says:

    What if I find a great job?
    What if I am in great health and physically fit?
    What if I live until I’m 110?
    What if my children are happy and healthy?
    What if my spouse is by my side until the day I die?

    The “What if…” game shouldn’t only be played looking at the worst case scenarios. Sure, bad things will happen, but I think dwelling on the negative things that *could* happen leads to a life of worry and stress. Be prepared, but don’t obsess over the bad things that may or may not happen.

  3. krantcents says:

    I go through a What if when I make decisions otherwise I don’t think about it.

  4. jackowick says:

    I didn’t do the “What If” game until 2008 when one of my friends lost his job. It made me take a good look in the mirror at my finances and rechecking that my ducks were all in a row.

    People confuse “preparing” with “obsessing”. Saying you don’t worry about it is completely independent from being prepared. I am prepared, and now “I don’t think about it”.

    Ignorance is bliss, bankruptcy or financial/lifestyle ruin isn’t.

  5. Andrew says:

    I wish you luck with the disabilty and long-term care insurance. Disability coverage for the self-employed is hard to get, frequently very restrictive, and expensive. If your income is not generated by physical labor the exclusions make a policy almost worthless. If you’re a roofer, it’s worth it. If you,’re a financial blogger, not so much.

    Long term care policies aren’t worth getting if you’re much under 50. True, they’re cheap, but any policy you huy at that age will probably have a term which will expire before you’re statistically going to need it.

  6. DivaJean says:

    The big problem for me with the “What If” game is that it always leads to the most extreme in negative thinking.

    I went thru a bad patch years ago when my mom was undergoing a third round of cancer treatment and my foster son was potentially going to go back with bio mom and dad. My “what if” thinking led me into deep depression and inability to function in the day to day, since the “what ifs” were in my face.

    It actually took counseling to get out of the “what if” thinking. I do plan for potential disaster, but I really don’t allow myself to spend any amount of time dwelling in it.

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