Updated on 08.28.14

Where Can You Turn If You Lose It All?

Trent Hamm

I received a long email recently from an utterly despondent woman (that I’ll call Ellen) who was caught in a devastating situation. A year ago, she was a stay-at-home mother with three preschool-aged children. Her husband worked at a high-paying job that seemed to have great long-term potential and it seemed as though their life was set.

Then, very suddenly, her husband died in a car accident, and there wasn’t much life insurance money. Within months, she was back in the workplace at a fairly low paying job, her family had moved into a tiny apartment, and the house was up for sale. Then, just as quickly, she was laid off from that job and the house sold for roughly what was still owed on it. Within a year, she was back living in her parents’ basement, a single mother with three young children and few assets to her name, searching for any job in her field of expertise while working as a gas station attendant.

What surprised her more than anything was the absence of the people she had believed to be her friends. They were there at first when her husband passed away, but when it became clear that her life was going to radically change, those friends stopped returning phone calls and stopped visiting. When she really needed help, most of her friends simply weren’t there for her.

It turned out that the people she could rely on were her close family and just a few of her closest friends. All of the rest of the people that she had come to rely on in her life – confiding in them, helping them, spending countless hours with them – simply weren’t there when push came to shove.

Ellen’s story really resonated with me, mostly because it’s pretty easy for me to see how something like this could happen in my own life. If my wife were to pass away suddenly, I know that I’d need a lot of help over the short term. I’d likely sell the house we live in and move into a much smaller home with my children, likely much closer to my parents (and my wife’s parents, actually). I believe the income from The Simple Dollar would support the three of us, particularly if I were to move to a different home, so that’s not a big worry.

Then I thought of a close friend of ours, whose situation closely mirrors Ellen, and I got a sick feeling in my stomach. She’s also a stay at home mom with a two year old girl and another one almost ready to arrive. Her husband has a solid job, but one that does involve some degree of physical risk. What would happen to her if something happened to her husband? I know my wife and I would offer her some support, as would her parents and, I would imagine, some other friends and family, but her life (and the lives of her children) would change radically.

Things We Can Do to Prepare

There are a lot of obvious things that can be done to make such a blow easier to take.

Life insurance

This is the obvious option, but it’s only the beginning. If you’re in a situation where your life would be significantly derailed by the sudden passing of a partner, then that person needs to be well insured with you as a beneficiary. If you have children, you need to have a substantial life insurance policy for both partners – several multiples of your annual salary. Read more about how to prepare yourself in this guide.

Build strong relationships with family

Building up and maintaining very strong relationships with the key people in your life becomes even more important if you’re in such a situation. The birth of your children should be an indication that it’s time to work on your relationship with your parents and with other family members. If there are rifts, you should take the first step (and the second – and the third) to repair that rift and build a healthy relationship. This isn’t only beneficial in such a painful scenario, it’s also generally beneficial to you right now as well as for your partner and your children.

Build friendships with real value and meaning

It’s fine to have a circle of friends that you hang out with, but those friends shouldn’t be relied upon to help you out in a pinch unless you do the same for them when they need help. That means if you have a close friend that truly needs help, give them everything you can. True friendships are built in times of need, and when you see a friend in need, you have that opportunity. It might be hard or inconvenient or painful, but when you offer your hand when they need it, you’ll build a much stronger friendship, one that has a much higher likelihood of being there for you when you need it.

Get involved in civic and religious organizations

I’ve been involved in quite a few organizations in the community over the years, and I’ve found that time and time again, when an involved member needs a hand, the whole organization comes together to help. Churches, community groups, volunteer groups – it’s true for all of them. However, just signing up and not doing anything else isn’t enough – you need to get involved and be involved over a long period of time and step up to the plate regularly for leadership opportunities, service events, and when others need help.

All of these things have some key things in common: all of them require you to be proactive – you have to take the first step to make them work. You have to give of yourself without expecting things in return. All of them also provide some level of personal joy – close friends, close family, and good organizations all provide great social situations and a lot of fun (or provide some peace of mind, in the case of life insurance).

In short, if you don’t truly give of yourself when times are good, it’s unrealistic to expect to receive when times are bad.

Good luck.

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  1. Jimbo says:

    If you have ANY dependents, it is a crime not to get a ton of life insurance for this very reason.

  2. Rob says:

    Sometimes the familiy wont help either. Maybe simply disfunctional or have their own problems. I can rely on 3 people, and 3 people only. Me, myself, and I.

  3. Anastasia says:

    This reminds me of the situation after hurricane Katrina. My husband and I got very lucky, we moved out of New Orleans (I got a new job) about a month before Katrina. Most of our friends and family were not so lucky. We gladly sent what we could to help them. Of course it wasn’t anything life changing, but I like to think that with everyone pitching in, many of them got a good chance at a “restart”.

  4. Mark B. says:

    I agree with Jimbo, there are several different schools of thought regarding “how much” life insurance you need, but my thought is that you would need about FIVE times your annual salary for EACH child. PLUS the current balance on all of your debts.

    For example, if you make $50k per year and you have 2 children and a $200k mortgage, a $20k car loan, and a $10k credit card balance, you should have about $730k in life insurance.

    Now, EACH parent should be insured for this amount. It doesn’t matter whether the main bread-winner passes or the SAH parent, it creates almost an identical hardship.

    Once you have decided the $ amount, the only thing that would change is the term of the life insurance. Just make sure your term takes you until your youngest child turns 25. For example, if you have a baby right now and you plan to have more kids, you should get at least a 30-year term.

  5. eden says:

    Also, notice that the two examples that you cited were stay-at-home moms – this is not unusual. If you are in a position where one of the parents is at home, or are considering such a situation you have to address the possibility of death or diability of the working spouse ASAP. And you needs lots and lots of life insurance – not only do you have to replace (probably) the only source of income you’re probably replacing the source of health insurance and other benefits, and the stay at home spouse will have a much harder time finding comparable income (generally speaking).

  6. Johanna says:

    To me, the conclusion to this post comes dangerously close to a “blame the victim” mentality. “If you don’t truly give of yourself when times are good, it’s unrealistic to expect to receive when times are bad” implies “If people aren’t there to support you when you need it, it must be because you weren’t there to support them when they needed it, so really, you’re just getting what’s coming to you.”

    Which is too bad, because the rest of the post contains some good constructive advice. To which I’ll add: If you choose to be a stay-at-home parent, try to stay in touch with people in your field of expertise. That might make it a little easier to return to the workplace quickly if you suddenly find you have to.

  7. !wanda says:

    This post comes dangerously close for blaming Ellen for her own misfortunes. What if none of her friends ever really needed help? (Also, she said that she did help them but that they didn’t repay the favor.) In addition, I’m sure that a mother of three pre-schoolers has *a lot* of time to help with civic organizations.

  8. !wanda says:

    Furthermore, don’t civic organizations and charities have stated goals and targets? How are they supposed to help out their volunteers on top of that? If I’m donating to a charity or organization, I want to help get people elected or feed poor people in Darfur or save endangered sticklebacks, not help out unfortunate people who happen to volunteer there.

  9. Michael says:

    Translation: Ellen was selfish and now she’s paying for it. Why weren’t you doing more networking, Ellen?

    Come on, man.

  10. I don’t know this person’s particular scenario as far as the type of lifestyle they were living prior to the father’s death. I am sorry for their loss, first and foremost. You make many good points, but this is a common scenario.

    Only going by the assumption that they were doing reasonably well financially if she did not need to work, which may be totally incorrect, I have seen this type of “harsh reality” hit people for a lot of reasons.

    Whether death, layoff, or other crisis, I have seen a number of situations where suddenly peoples’ whole world gets turned upside-down and they lose “everything”. In most cases, it is described like you described it (and again, I am only generalizing, as I know little about this situation), and a major lifestyle change follows, after losing their homes and “stuff”. So many times people can’t imagine how someone can suddenly be homeless after living in a 5-bedroom home in suburbia. “But they drive a Mercedes. They MUST be doing fine?”

    We can see it all over the news lately, with people realizing their vast fortunes are not actually fortunes at all. Their McMansions and multiple cars, boats and other such “stuff” is just an illusion of their actual wealth, and they are only a mis-step or paycheck away from starting to miss a payment. All that “stuff” is expensive, and most of it doesn’t even belong to the people using it. Borrowing our way to keeping up with the Jones’ sure seems like a bad plan when the money to make the payments suddenly stops coming in.

    I am NOT belittling this woman’s situation at all, however cold this may sound. That is not where I am coming from at all. I am glad she has a warm place to go and isn’t sleeping with the 3 kids in the car, despite how troubling the situation feels for her right now. Perhaps it’s good that she found out who her “friends” really are. I’m sure she would have wanted an easier lesson, of course. But perhaps the lifestyle we’ve all been taught was the American Dream appears to have needed a better set of instructions with all these economic issues hitting so many people all at once.

    So many people thought they were doing what they were supposed to be doing, and it turns out it really was just a dream.

  11. Mule Skinner says:

    (Second try) A young widow can get payments from Social Security for herself if the children are under 16; and for the children if they are under 18.

  12. Mule Skinner says:

    We had a young lady in our house recently who is getting divorced. In the wide-ranging financial discusion we had with her, she mentioned life insurance. In questioning I discovered that she intended to insure her own life but really wasn’t sure why she wanted to have it so I pointed out that her (to be ex-) husband made far more money than she was ever likely to, so she probably didn’t need insurance on herself, but should probably get it on him. This would cover the risk of alimony and child support disruption.

  13. momof4 says:

    Ellen should qualify for some sort of social security benefit for her and the children if they are still young and, if her income is seriously low she could qualify for the food stamp program to help her on her way up and out.

  14. Abby says:

    This was my life.

    My father died – suddenly, of a completely undetected illness – at the age of 41. I was the oldest of four; my youngest sibling was three years old.

    As luck would have it, my mother was a nurse. She’d worked part-time and maintained her license, so our situation was better than it could’ve been. While she’s never made a fortune, she’s always had a steady job – and in recent years, she’s actually done pretty well. But right after my dad died, we ended up in a small house, my mom making an hour plus commute twice daily to shuffle us between my grandmother’s (she babysat for the little ones) and her new job.

    When I read Ellen’s story, it sounds like she’s doing everything she can to provide for her children. My mother did the same. Ellen, if you’re reading, the result is that I have incredible respect for my mother, the strongest, most determined woman I’ve ever known. I’m also very close to my siblings – adversity created bonds that plenty could never have forged.

    And things did get better, year by year, inch by inch.

  15. Lisa says:

    Good advice, but the wild card here is the friends. No matter how close they seem, no matter how you can rely on them when all’s right with the world, in a time of tragedy there’s no counting on them to be there for you past the initial moments. My husband was murdered; for a while, everyone was assiduous in contacting me, seeing how I was, etc. Then little by little many of them started to drift away, whether from being uncomfortable with the situation, with me being a widow, with my husband no longer being there and possibly the reason they were friends with me in the first place. It’s sad but true – only in adversity do your friends’ true colors show themselves.

    My condolences and best wishes to Ellen and her children.

  16. Joey says:

    Got to agree with the people reading blame the victim here:

    “Translation: Ellen was selfish and now she’s paying for it. Why weren’t you doing more networking, Ellen?

    Come on, man.”

    Exactly. If you’re suddenly left in a critical financial situation due to the death of a loved one, it doesn’t mean you should have gone out and performed a lot of community service so people would feel obligated to help you; that’s a warped way of viewing human relationships. Rather, it simply means you were unfortunate enough to have someone you depended on leave you through no fault of your own.

  17. Amy says:

    Depending upon how long her husband worked (as long as he had enough credits paid in), the children are eligible for social security payments until they are 18 (and after, if still in high school, living at home, and progressing toward graduation). I don’t know if she will see this or you can get in touch with her, but there is a deadline after the death to apply for the benefits (not sure what it is), so she needs to look into it right away.

  18. Brad says:

    There’s a reason why I am misanthropic. I find any human relationships I build are fickle, for any number of reasons. I can only depend on myself and I have learned that. I do have a few relationships with people who can be trusted – however they will not be depended on or expected to return favors.

  19. Claire says:

    Ellen definitely needs to contact Social Security asap. My ex-husband passed away about 6 months after our divorce and I was able to get survivor’s benefits for myself and my son, which allowed me to go back to school and work part time until I was through with school. My portion of the benefits stopped when my son turned 16 and his stopped when he graduated from high school. I hope Ellen finds out if they can assist her.

  20. CPA Kevin says:

    If something like this were to happen to me, I would definitely lean hard on my family. No way would I expect friends to give me anything other than emotional support and I think expecting anything more is unreasonable. Maybe I just don’t have the right friends, I don’t know.

    I tend to think you have to prepare for something like this yourself – life insurance being the main way to do so. I guess church is another good way to get help, but honestly even the best intentioned people tend to forget things as time passes. Like others said, between work and raising kids, who has that much extra time to devote to being active in several different groups? I’d rather spend the free time I have with my wife and son and the rest of my family and pray something this horrible never happens.

  21. Sally says:

    If there are rifts, you should take the first step (and the second – and the third) to repair that rift and build a healthy relationship.

    Unfortunatley one cannot make another person get along with them. Both my husband and I have experienced this first hand in his family with a sibling and the sibling’s spouse. No amount of good will (talking….attending all the important stuff) can seem to repair the damage that has been done.

  22. Maha says:

    My mother taught me a lesson that I feel every woman should consider: Always be able to support yourself. My mother found herself divorced with small children and no financial (or other) support-my father was entirely out of our lives. She didn’t have an education, so finding a job was difficult. She became a SAHM, got a day care license and provided for us that way. I’ve always known that I would not be financially dependent on my husband. If anything should happen to him or our marriage, I’m at ease knowing that I will be able to provide for our children and still live comfortably.

    For Ellen, none of this helpful in her difficult situation, but as others have said, it will get better with time. It’s great that her family is there for her (my mom didn’t even have that!). If she’s working at a gas station, she must have someone looking after her kids, so that’s a plus. She could consider a applying for jobs with the government. It sounds like she has some kind of education, which is an advantage. Once in, it’s easy enough to move up and around. I realize even that’s tough right now, but the app process is long, so if she starts now, she could have a job in 6-12 months. Also, govt jobs are usually flexible with regard to family. I hope that helps some.

  23. Jacinta says:

    The post does sound a little like Trent’s blaming Ellen for her lack of support, that was certainly my first impression. However, I don’t think Trent has any idea of what Ellen had been doing, while her husband was still alive, to build up her community. I suspect he’s merely looking forward to what he and others he knows could do to ensure a stronger community support in case of a similar disaster. Many of us take our communities for granted. We *assume* our friends will be there for us if we ever need them. We also *assume* that such things will never happen to us. In this post, Trent’s challenging us to reconsider those assumptions and making suggestions on what we can do to mitigate the issues we would face.

    What he leaves out is what advice he could offer to Ellen *now*. She’s already lost most of her friends and other community support and is reliant on a few remaining friends and family. How can she improve her current situation?

    Part of the answer is still the same. Get involved with your local communities. Probably not the same ones, maybe not even the same types of ones as before. Turn up to school events, join the parents/teachers association; join mailing lists related to your professional area of expertise and turn up to related events if possible (even (and especially) if you’ve been out of the loop for a while). Get involved in reciprocal playdates with children your children get along well with. Join a a few social clubs. It’s just as important for Ellen to make new friends and connections as it is for her children.

    Apply for all financial aid you’re entitled to, and learn to be frugal and money wise (it’s not something people instinctively know).

    It’s possible, it’s also very hard work.

  24. Jean says:

    Good post, Trent. I witnessed this very scenario when a good friend died in a car accident 5 years ago, and left behind 2 children & a wife who was pregnant & on bedrest. Even though he was relatively young, he was smart & had enough life insurance to carry his widow through so that she did not have to worry about returning to work, and the older children were able to stay in private school. That family had enough to deal with, so changing their lives as little as possible was a good thing. Family was important as well; one of the widow’s sisters-in-law moved back to town to be close & help out with the kids.

    And to the commenter who ‘dissed’ civic & community organizations: even though they have a mission, they are still filled with PEOPLE who care about each other; in more than one organization that I belong to, we have provided meals to families in crisis (as an example). And you NEVER give to people so that you can ‘bank’ that help in case you ever need it.

  25. Joey says:

    “And you NEVER give to people so that you can ‘bank’ that help in case you ever need it.”

    Yet this is exactly what we’re being urged to do in this post, which, I suspect, is part of what disturbs many about this entry.

  26. This happened to me 13+ years ago. I had a 12 yr old boy, 7 yr old boy and 7 month old girl. When you are in this situation, you find out who your friends really are and exactly who you can count on. Has this woman applied for Social security benefits..they will pay for her and her children until her children turn 18. Does her state provide any kind of reduced premium health insurance plan that she can get the children on? And honestly, she can apply for food stamps. I never did the food stamps but I got ss benefits and really cheap costing health ins. for the kids.
    And I don’t know if there is any amount of life ins. that is too much. It will eventually run out, if you need it to live on.

  27. McKenna says:

    This is a horrible situation, and my heart goes out to Ellen and her kids. It is a tragedy no matter how you look at it.

    Trent’s advice is good, but I think he overlooked one item: Disability insurance. What if Ellen’s husband hadn’t died, but had been paralyzed in the accident and couldn’t work? Or he needed a year of physical therapy before he could get back into the office? Without disability insurance, those situations might be even more tragic because there would be no life insurance settlement, no income and higher medical bills. That is a recipe for disaster. Disability insurance can cover that gap if the almost-worst-thing happens.

  28. ric in richmond says:

    I sell life insurance as a “Good Neighbor”.

    I help people think about this simple question:

    “If your spouse was not here tomorrow what would you want your life to look like?”

    From there we determine how much life insurance it would take to make that happen and then figure out what plan works best for them.

    It is an amazing process to watch couple go through. They invariably come out stronger, they know that the family will survive if something happens.

    Wish someone had done this for Ellen.

  29. Raggy says:

    Sometimes we get blind-sided. I was totally blind-sided when my 36 year-old wife died suddenly, leaving me with our two girls aged 1 and 3. But I was even more surprised when my family decided that since I was the “rich” one in the family, I really didn’t need their help any more (this was after only a couple months of grieving).

    I am thankful every day that I had a great job and could support us, but I would have given *anything* to feel like my friends and family – especially my family – were really there for me and my girls. So I totally feel for Ellen, and can’t even comprehend how things would have been for us had I not been as financially stable as I was. . . .

    Hang in there Ellen! There are selfless souls in the world who can help you gain perspective and get back on track; mine was a grief counselor I happened upon.

  30. Stephanie says:

    I don’t know how old “Ellen” is but I will say that in my experience being a 20-something, I think age has something to do with it. My mother died and there were some of my “friends” who thought it was appropriate to text message their condolences. It hurt my feelings at the time but then I realized that it does make people uncomfortable when they are forced to think of mortality. My friends had never lost their mother and it made them uncomfortable to think about what it would be like to lose them, therefore, they just avoided it. Now when my grandmother died, the older folks brought food over and made sure that my grandfather was taken care of. There are definitely generational differences.

    I admittedly have some “friends” that I tend to shy away from when they are going through hard times because that is what they are fixated on and I am not. But I consider them to be mostly acquaintances that I have known for awhile, not my good friends. Maybe Ellen has a different idea of what friendship is. Some good advice I received is to never have as many friends as you do fingers on one hand. That advice has served me well.

    Ellen’s situation is bad but she is still fortunate to have parents that will help her out. The situation is far from ideal but it beats being at a homeless shelter with three kids. A year is only a scratch on the surface in getting things back to “normal” as it is. Things take time.

  31. Michael says:

    McKenna, this situation would be less tragic if her husband was disabled because he would still be alive.

  32. Ken says:

    Seriously people… Stop with the “you are blaming Ellen” nonsense.

    It is a post about a woman who went through a tragedy and the lessons learned from that. And then a transformation in the reading into how you, YOU THE READER, can avoid being caught in the same situation. This post would be remiss if it didn’t write about how you the reader could possible minimize the effect of a tragedy like this, if it were to happen to you.

  33. Bill says:

    I get the vibe that she should have been a better community member. Maybe Trent knows something not in the story. Otherwise it sounds naive to suggest you can build up a bank of goodwill that will raise your three kids for you.

  34. Rebecca says:

    I don’t think Trent is “blaming” Ellen. Rather, he is suggesting that life changes in the blink of an eye and we should be prepared. What would each of us do if this same scenario happened to us?
    My husband has also worked in a dangerous environment…therefore we had life insurance and disability. I also stayed home for four years with small children. During this time, I made sure we had our bases covered with life insurance.
    I’ve returned to the workforce and provide one-half of our income. Therefore, it is protected with life, disability, long-term care, and cancer insurance…My mother has recently beaten back breast cancer. These insurances set me back…yet I’d rather have these because we just never know.
    Ellen I pray your road gets easier. Please apply for your Social Security for your children and any other government benefits.

  35. Valerie says:

    @Ken That’s right, Trent’s telling us what to do to protect ourselves, and it’s all good advice. That is hardly blaming people who didn’t have that advice to go by!

    @Bill That “bank of goodwill” is more important than you think. That’s what tips you off to the unadvertised job, the good sales, the perfect apartment coming vacant. When you’ve lost everything that info is GOLD.

  36. Gabriel says:

    A very powerful piece of writing. My thoughts are with her and her family, and I pray that nobody here will end up needing your sound advice. Stay safe, everyone!

  37. russ says:

    Great post Trent. Powerful, good words for us Fathers and Husbands. Thanks!

  38. Chris says:

    I think that Ken, comment #26 says it best. Lessons learned: Who can you depend on? YOURSELF. If you think anything else at all here, you are fooling yourself. Family can help out, but only to a point; after that they will resent you and you will feel guilty, if you have any sort of conscience. Buy a boat load of life insurance, have a basketful of skills and constantly keep up on them. Also, learning to be resourceful helps. Never get too comfortable. I have been with my husband for 18 years – married 12. In all that time I have never relied on him for my living subsistance, however that was how I was raised, to be independent and fear that that bottom could drop out at any time (parents were from the depression era).

  39. Cathy says:

    Perhaps Ellen’s friends stopped returning her phone calls because they knew she was in a dire situation, and were afraid she was going to start asking for money. I know when I was severely in debt, I kept it secret from most people in my life because some people would change when they knew. I think they were afraid I was going to ask them for money. It was better just not discussed – I didn’t share it and they didn’t need to know. Maybe it’s callous and they aren’t my real friends, but as my old fashioned grandma used to say, “Don’t talk religion, politics, or money if you want to keep your friends.”

    I think it was appropriate to receive condolences and support from friends after her husband’s death. But the day to day details are the responsibility of family, in my opinion.

  40. katy says:

    My heart goes out to Ellen. But, unfortunately, making lots of quality time for relationships, especially in emergencies, doesn’t guarantee that people will be there for you in return. I know that from experience. It is critical to not harden your heart, though, and take all steps Trent suggests.

    But money will be the most important thing. (sigh)
    Prayers for Ellen.

  41. katy says:

    My heart goes out to Ellen. But, unfortunately, making lots of quality time for relationships, especially in emergencies, doesn’t guarantee that people will be there for you in return. I know that from experience. It is critical to not harden your heart, though, and take all steps Trent suggests.

    But money will be the most important thing. (sigh)
    Prayers for Ellen.
    I’m with Rob – me, myself and I.

  42. sara says:

    really? you think trent was blaming her for her situation? that’s not the impression I got at all. I thought he was just showing an example of how easy it is to end up in a place you never thought you’d be in. And then my takeaway was to think of things that I can do to try and be prepared if a tragedy hits me. maybe i just tend to give the author the benefit of the doubt, and not automatically assume that they’re heartless…

  43. Clare says:

    Regarding life insurance (which I have, though not in the amounts recommended above): It can be very hard (or prohibitively expensive) for some people to get. Commenters make it sound as if it’s something you sign up for, as in a credit card in 2006. It’s not. Your whole medical history is examined and if you have a heart condition (arrhythmia), depression, or diabetes, or any other chronic condition, it can be quite expensive. Or maybe that’s just in California?

  44. Jimbo says:

    What REALLY annoys me is the Trent-defenders on this blog – why is it that a lot of what he says gets blasted and these defenders come through explaining what Trent “really meant.” Of course Trent is nowhere to be found – because, as he tell us, he routinely gets 100+ comments and cannot keep up. But I don’t get is how Leo at zenhabits and JD at getrichslowly participate in the comments when the audiences of their blogs is considerably larger than The Simple Dollar…

  45. kristine says:

    You now, the Amish never seem to have these kinds of problems.

    Interesting fact: Old Order Amish do not pay, or receive, social security. They objected on the grounds that receiving S benefits would erode their communal interdependence.

  46. Gunny says:

    My wife’s mother had a similar experience in the early 70’s. Husband came home one day and didn’t want to be married anymore and POOF threw Ninja dust and was gone. My mother in law-mid 20s- realized it was just her to care for the 2 kids in a rural depressed area. She had a couple of friends but put her brain to work. Did many of the things that now seem simple-grew her own food, happen to make friends who were hunters, either made her own clothes or went to garage/yard sales. Slowly worked up to 3 jobs-school bus driver etc. Finally, as the kids were teenagers/young adults, she continued into higher education and just retired as a teacher at a community college. Proof that it mainly takes guts, hard work and thinking outside the box. She had basic homemaking skills thanks to a traditional stay at home mother that passed on skills, and a mindset to figure things out. These things don’t solve themselves in a month or year. But they can be conquered. Good luck Ellen. You can do it.

  47. Carrie says:

    I can definitely relate to this situation. I’ve been a SAH wife/mom for the past 6 years. I have a bachelor’s degree, but I never was employed in my field.

    Although it might sound morbid, I’ve spent time thinking about what I might do in the event that my husband were killed or permanently disabled. I have several options in my back pocket, and just knowing what they are has certainly given me peace of mind. I also recognize that it would require a lot of work and sacrifice to build an entirely new life for myself and children.

    I think an important addition to Trent’s suggestions would be to talk about what the options are if either partner were to die. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about the realities of life, and it is foolishness to pretend that something dire could never happen to ourselves.

  48. @Trent:

    I’m glad you asked!

    Matthew 6:19-21 says, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

    What does this mean for us? That God doesn’t want us to save? God forbid! It means simply that we should not trust in earthly riches, but instead should focus on loving God and serving Him according to His purpose for our lives.

    What happens if we lose everything? The answer is simple! We can turn to Jesus Christ the Lord of all. He is waiting for us to do just that.

    The frugal lifestyle is one that pleases God. Being a faithful steward of that which He entrusts us with is a very good thing.

    It saddens me that I have not submitted myself to God in a greater way than I have, but yet He is still faithful and just to forgive my short-comings, if I have a repentant and loving heart toward Him.

    Christ is the answer to all things, but most times, because of our unbelief and lack of faith, sadly He WILL have to bring us low before we turn to Him.

    Psalm 34:18 says, “The LORD [is] nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.”

    And again, Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”

    I pray that this may bless even one.


  49. So says:

    MY husband had leukemia in 2007 and few people were there. He is OK now, and we know who are our friends. almost no one.

  50. Noah says:

    I think the real lesson here is to pick good friends. I don’t mean that tritely, clearly it’s a difficult task to surround yourself with people that are wholly reliable. The question is why you’re with the people in the first place, vis-a-vis are You reliable. This is I think the point Trent was going for, and it’s a good one.

    What is the value of your friends that make them your friends? Is it sustainable?

  51. Rose says:

    This is a very helpful article. I learned a long time ago that there are different types of friends in life. Those that will be there in the good times and a handful that will be there throughout your life. I think the most important lesson is to prepare yourself as if no one will be there for you and when someone is, that’s a wonderful surprise.

    The comments about life insurance are good advice. However, there are some situations when you can’t take advantage of this. When my husband and I were in our early twenties, we did everything we thought we should do…IRA, savings, life insurance. At the time, we took out what we thought was a substantial amount of life insurance. With a child in college and being self employed, we would like to increase that amount. Unfortunately, since then my husband got diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Being in our late 40’s and him having diabetes and a history of smoking, premiums are so high that we can’t afford to increase the life insurance. Thankfully, our house is paid and we can commit to savings, but sometimes even when you think you have it all covered, these things happen.

  52. Oskar says:

    Why focus so much on insurance? Live frugaly pay of debt (including student loans and morgage). Don’t over insure yourself the insurance companies are doing this to make money so in 99 out of a 100 cases you will loose money on your insurance over the term of a lifetime.

    Financial independence equals self insurance!

  53. ChrisD says:

    It’s important to note that this kind of life insurance can be quite cheap because there is only a payoff IF you die young. As this is relatively rare, the insurance is relatively cheap (if you don’t have a medical condition).
    But disability insurance is essential. Also what if you are a highly paid surgeon, get sick, and then get well enough to work in e.g. a gas station, but not as a surgeon? Check whether the insurance covers this.
    Also, as above, you don’t need to ask for enough money to keep everything the same, only enough, to be comfortable. If the children are in their teens then the survivor can work quite well and less insurance money is needed than if the children are tiny.
    Re summary. This did come out sounding very unfortunate, but I think this was accidental.

  54. jreed says:

    The help usually seems to come from a direction that we never expected it from…a stranger, a casual aquaintance,a friend we haven’t seen in years. I think people shy away from the committment of help when they feel the burden of you expecting it.

  55. TParkerson says:

    Thanks for the conversation starter Trent…and yes, at first I was a little put off by the tone you used at the end of the post. Then I stepped back and realized that you were likely having a difficult time communicating your heart…as just about every poster here can attest.

    I agree with the sound advice you have given for protecting yourself financially. After all, part of being the grown-up is making a plan B ( and sometimes C,D,E,etc). So, yes, go get your financial house in order, have the what if discussions sooner rather than later, and know what resources are available to you.

    IMO, what makes this post so sticky is that it is one of the very basic human tenants that we all want to belong to a group / tribe. When an event like this does slap you in the face, you particularly want to reach out for support. I believe that it is just as important to keep your relationship house in order as it is to keep your financial house in order. In my life, I call them “3 am friends”…there are 3 or 4 people that I will call at 3 am when all hell has broken loose and they will literally give me the clothes from their backs, their last dollar and the last beer in their cooler. And while this is major comfort to me, a bigger comfort comes from my knowing that I am on their 3 am list and would do the very same for them.

    I think part of the disconnect comes from the difference in financial independance, something we are all striving for, and community interdependance. Let’s not become so isolated in our pursuit of financial security that we forget that we need other human beings to be here with us.

    Finally, I think that mostly this is hard because none of us wants to face our mortality. We all need to have a plan B but I will tell you from experience, none of you can walk in Ellen’s shoes, unless you have suffered the loss she has faced. It is amazingly difficult for her right now…there is a rawness that cannot be described. My thoughts and prayers go to she and her kids.

    Tell your loved ones TODAY how you feel about them. Time’

  56. prodgod says:

    I knew a woman who lost her husband many years ago. We called and offered to immediately fly down to help her, but she refused, even though we were quite insistent and sincere. We also asked repeatedly if there was anything she needed or anything we could do. She insisted that she was fine and we left it open for her to let us know if she needed any help. We assumed she just needed time and space. Well, years later we heard her complaining about how alone she was when her husband died and that nobody was there for her. I’m not at all implying this is the situation with “Ellen;” I’m merely pointing out that sometimes there’s a limit to how persistent one can be with their offers of help. I realize the article indicates that Ellen’s friends stopped returning her calls, but often people don’t ASK for help and later complain that no one was there for them.

    We all could use more honest communication with each other.

  57. katy says:

    Sara, thank you for pointing out my dual behavior. I simultaneously care about helping while acknowledging I have only myself to fall back on. I do hope people will help Ellen/myself (?) while experience has shown me otherwise.

  58. Heather says:

    What if one can’t get life insurance? My husband is 44 year old man who had an aortic valve replacement two years go can’t get life insurance – at least not affordable life insurance. He’ll need another surgery in 10 – 15 years, so the risk of losing medical insurance coverage is very real too. The condition is congenital so life insurance for him (that is affordable) was never an option. It’s not like we just waited too long to apply.

    I work full time, he works full time – but he works construction (dangerous, occasionally) and is currently laid off. We are paying Cobra for insurance so it doesn’t lapse because I don’t know if he’d ever get (affordable) coverage again. The last surgery was $160,000. We definitely don’t have the money to cover that without insurance.

    He drives a 9 year old truck, my vehicle is 5 years old. We live in a modest home in a cheaper neighborhood. I’d like to think we are doing the best we can with what we have, but sometimes, it’s just not black and white. Sometimes, it’s scary to not have any more known options.

  59. john d says:

    Maybe i am missing something, but the thing that i take away from this article is that your ‘stuff’ can be taken away from you in the blink of an eye with no fault of your own. Sure, you can prepare yourself by saving money, getting life insurance, etc, but at the end of the day, there are things beyond your control that can change your life in a profound way. I think this article really underscores the fact that no one person, or family, can go it alone. We need the interrelationships of our friends, family, and communities for our own basic survival. The relationships you build with your family, friends, and community have their own permanence and can be very valuable assets when everything else you have is gone.

  60. kari says:

    I don’t know if “Ellen” knows about http://www.mattlogelin.com/ and the recently formed liz logelin foundation…I think she might qualify for some $$$ etc…

  61. Carole says:

    I don’t think we can be prepared for every possible scenario life can throw at us. I am a Christian and think that God will help us thru these difficulties. Others may feel that “where there is a will, there is a way” to get thru these seemingly insurmountable problems.

  62. noelle says:

    As a single gal, with parents who are deceased and they never kept up with their family so no family either, I just lost my job about 2 weeks ago. It is very difficult because even my friends are struggling. I am stuck in a small town and know very few people. Ironically enough, I was looking for a church when I lost my job. All of the programs out there are geared towards families, which are great (!), but for those of us with no one to rely on, we are just stuck on the sidelines. The great part is unemployment is 1/2 of my regular paycheck. And the kicker? If I get a job making more than 1/2 my unemployment, I lose my unemployment. Oh, that equals to anything over $550 a month and I lose my unemployment.
    So, now what?!

  63. Mule Skinner says:

    Re Amish: They have a comprehensive social safety net. Some other societies have this too, but it usually depends on staying in one community so the network can develop. I would probably have a strong network back in the city where I grew up, but alas I chose to move on to other places.

  64. Jim says:

    She should definitely go sign up for social security survivor benefits. I’m puzzled why she wouldn’t have unless for whatever reason her husband didn’t pay SS.

    Its regrettable that they didn’t have sufficient life insurance. If you have dependents then you should get enough life insurance to cover the loss of either parent. IMHO 10 times your income for 20 year term should be fine.

    As far as the womans friends not supporting her, frankly I think thats mainly just a reflection on those people. She did say her close friends still stuck by her. This is the kind of thing that defines close friendships and tests friendships that aren’t close. I wouldn’t expect most casual friendships to hold up so well under this kind of situation.

    Here’s a thought: go ask all your friends if they can give you a ride to the airport or help your cousin move. Do you expect them all to say yes to this kind of favor? If not then I certainly wouldn’t expect them to be supportive and help you out after a death, job loss, etc.


  65. Anne says:

    I’m so glad several people mentioned Social Security benefits. She *really* needs to look into that immediately as there may be a time limit. There are benefits for children up to 18 and for widows — for which her husband paid into. It would change her situation significantly.

  66. littlepitcher says:

    Give up on expecting people to “be there for you”.
    Whether death or a economic crisis lays you low, once your status in life visibly is reduced, you will lose many so-called friends.
    After losing a job in a previous economic downturn, I finally took a job as a waitress after several weeks of searching without results. At the time, I was a member of a women’s political caucus in a large coastal city.
    Once I let them know that my employment circumstances had changed and that I had to take a survival job, they froze me out. So much for feminism!

    Rely on those three people Rob mentioned and you will do fine.

  67. beth says:

    Hey Trent– Maybe this lays the perfect foundation for a post about where people *can* turn in the event of emergencies. More and more people are in need of resources these days, but those who have never been near the edge before often don’t know where to look. Public benefits liks SSI, WIC, and food stamps are there to help people, although the application process and beauracracy can be stifling. Utility assistance, food warehouses, and sometimes even rental assistance can be found in lots of towns if one knows how to look for it. I hated it when I found myself in a position many years ago needing to rely on some of those options, but once I got back on my feet, I was able to donate back to those causes to help keep them afloat and to help the next suddenly-single working mom who couldn’t make ends meet.

  68. lindsay says:

    I am really late reading yesterday’s essay from Trent, and I don’t have time to read all the responses, but I hope Trent or someone has told Ellen that she qualifies for Social Security benefits under her late husband for her children. She should definitely be collecting that.

  69. Kim says:

    While people can be incredibly generous when presented with a big immediate need, their patience, compassion and generosity end as soon as their attention span limit is reached.

    Are we all guilty? Haven’t we heard that many of Katrina victims STILL aren’t back in their homes? How many of us who donate when a child is injured stay in touch with that family over time to make sure they are okay?

    There is a strange and false assumption made here that this is somehow the victim’s fault and that the fact that humans are fickle is her fault. It makes us all more comfortable to shake our heads and tsk, tsk that he hadn’t purchased more life insurance and that she did not have the foresight to keep her career in case something like this might happen.

    In other words, at 27 when I was diagnosed with a lifelong debilitating condition, I should have had the foresight to have purchased sufficient disability or long-term care insurance to have taken care of me in comfort.

    Perhaps we should all have taken out insurance against a national or global economic downturn. The facts are harsh. Her life has changed. It’s sad. It’s tragic. She needs help. We would all like to blame her for needing help. Perhaps the help she needs is how to get back to school, friends to help with the children while she gets the education she needs to make a decent living. Perhaps we all need to look at ourselves and figure out when we blame a person for things they have no control over and pretend that we are exempt and immune from tragedy because of our massive foresight and good planning.

  70. Tina says:

    Life insurance does helps and if planned perfect it even safes our life.At any situation either family helps or not we can relay on Insurence and get started back overcoming the stress.

  71. Sharon says:

    I’ve always heard in situations like this offers of help should be concrete. It’s too easy to be polite about offering/refusing “anything at all”. Instead, offer something that can be refused or altered without too much effort. “Since your kids go to my kids school, I’ll pick up/drop off yours the rest of the year for free.” or “I’ve been a financial planner at my church’s Dave Ramsey ministry, would you like me to help you form a new budget over the next few months?” or “Since we are neighbors, I’ll mow your lawn this summer while I mow mine”. “I’ll watch the kids on Tuesday afternoon and evenings while you do errands”
    When I didn’t have a car, I often wished someone would offer me their car one evening every couple of weeks. If I could have planned for it, that would have saved me ten hours a week of effort going to the grocery store and carrying laundry. Specific and not too much effort on someone’s part. And when you offer, put an end mark so the person doesn’t feel like they are on welfare, and that it really isn’t too much trouble.

  72. It is amazing how quickly things can turn . . . another reason to avoid taking things for granted.

    The lack of life insurance in this story is sad– about $1 a day could have solved that.

  73. m says:

    Interesting responses, some blame Ellen, some blame her friends, some even blame her possible lack of knowledge of what she could be eligible for. Ellen I am so sorry for your loss, my own father died suddenly and had almost no insurance, just enough to pay the hospital and for the funeral. Mom signed up for Social Security (a great help) and many friends said at the funeral if we need anything just call. Well she called a few during emergencies and some helped, but it wasn’t long before they were already committed or just was unable to help. I felt very angry at the people mom went out of her way to help, she was a sahm, and watched kids during school holidays while the parents worked, volunteered at the school, etc. Mom let me know these people also have a life of their own and life goes on. While I learned a valuable lesson, if I can’t help a person after a tragedy, I don’t offer, I give my condolences, if there is something I can do later I offer. If they call and ask for help and I can’t do it I am honest, but many times I offer to do something else. I’ve also help anonymously, I’ve sent grocery gift certificates, certificates for meals like pizza, movie passes, signed them up for the Christmas basket and gift thing many churches offer. The thing to remember is this is an unforeseen tragedy, to try to pin the blame on anyone is a waste of effort, there are many assumptions made in these responses, why didn’t he have insurance, why didn’t she volunteer,……. why does it make any difference now. Learn from her experience, and remember life goes on.

  74. tammy says:

    What a really heartwrenching story. But how wonderful Ellen could count on her parents. There are many of us who help our parents, knowing full well if disaster struck, we could not count on them. Ellen is indeed lucky to have a warm and loving family.

  75. Barbara says:

    Thank you so much for this article. You’ve been writing some humdingers recently!

    You inspired me to give voice to some thoughts I’ve been having recently about investing in relationships: http://mydailyround.blogspot.com/2009/02/investing-in-relationships.html

  76. ItHasToBeSaid says:

    There’s an lesson in there which IMHO should be stressed more than it is.

    A lot of the people we consider as friends are merely acquaintances. The test of a friendship is when they are there to help in times of need. It’s times like these which separate the friends from the benefactors – people who befriend you out of some benefit they receive from you. I wish this didn’t sound as corny as it does, but it’s probably the biggest lesson I have learnt time and again proven true. Cultivate close relationships, stop giving time to people you are merely acquaintances or who only approach you when they are in want (notice that I do not say need) of help. They are most often than not those who will be the first to disappear in difficult times like those Ellen is facing.

  77. Robyn says:

    I’ve a started a homebased business in the last few months and I’m wondering if you have recommendations on software for managing small business accounting? Any you like better than others? Thanks!

  78. I agree with you .. having insurance for self is the first and foremost thing we all should do.. term insurance will serve the purpose best… anyone not having insurance is pretty much asking for trouble… Thanks for the lovely post..

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