Family Finance: Reality Check

Denise Trowbridge
Denise Trowbridge

I'm writing this from a bed in the observation unit at OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital. I came into the ER to pass a kidney stone, but now I'm waiting to find out if I have cancer. They found something unexpected while they were searching for that tiny bit of calcium that had caused me so much pain.

So here I sit. A healthy (or so I thought) 42-year-old, nonsmoking, reasonably thin mother of two young children. I have no risk factors for kidney cancer, yet I have a strange blob on one of mine.

Suddenly, the column I originally intended to write seems trivial. I tell myself there must be a lesson in this experience, somewhere, that I can share. But it's hard to find in the whirlwind of nurses and bad news. Then it comes into focus: It's something I've always felt deep down to be true, but didn't want to believe. None of us do.

Sometimes, you do everything you are supposed to do, and life falls apart anyway. You work hard and you don't get ahead. You lose your job. You save and invest your entire life, and it's all wiped out overnight in a stock market crash. You work hard to be fit, and you get cancer anyway. It's just dumb luck. It's the way life goes.

We need to stop blaming ourselves. Bad things happen to good people. Sometimes, we get what we get, not what we deserve. Not one of us can plan or prepare our way out of tragedy, hard times or medical emergencies. You can't. I certainly can't. We have to accept it, and in that acceptance is the way forward. Bad times will hit all of us. The sooner we stop blaming ourselves and others for the misfortune in life, the better off we all will be as individuals and as a society.

Yes, you still should follow the traditional advice in both health and finance. Take care of your body. Don't take on debt if you don't have to. Save part of every dollar that touches your fingers, even if it's just a penny or two. Every bit of money saved, every bit fitter your body is, is a plate of armor that strengthens you. But don't fall into the trap of believing that armor is impenetrable or will shield you completely.

Just ask me. I'mthatperson. I don't have a smartphone because I'm too cheap to pay the data bill. I don't have cable TV. I don't drink Starbucks. We save part of every paycheck, for retirement and college. I put well over 10,000 steps a day on my Fitbit. I grow organic vegetables in my backyard. I lost the baby weight. I'm the poster child for doing things the “right” way.

The doctor came back and didn't mince words: It's cancer. You're lucky, they say, but even though they explain why and I believe them, I don't feel it. I believed the advice. I believed I was shielded. I was fooled.

After the shock dies down, I think, “Oh no.” Even though I've done everything “right,” I'm scared. Our savings account already is drained, because we just replaced the roof. Water was collecting in little pools on the kitchen counter every time it rained, dripping through the electric can lights above. I thought that was the emergency I was saving for. Silly me. I didn't know a true emergency was coming down the pike. How could I? I didn't feel sick.

I've written about money enough to know that most Americans are one medical emergency away from financial ruin, and I think, “Well, this is it. We're ruined.” We have insurance, but you never know what it won't cover, or how much you'll have to pay or why. Giving birth with no complications cost me more than $5,000 out of pocket—with insurance that's considered good. Who knows what this will cost. Who knows if it will wipe us out.

So I grit my teeth and follow my own advice: I must accept it. I—we—must do whatever we need to get through the hard times. We must survive. Then, when it's all over, we must rebuild. Physically, financially, emotionally.

We need to stop blaming ourselves, and others, when tragedy calls. We have to stop wondering what we did to deserve this. Many times, the answer is: nothing.

As I look at a photo of my two sons, still in elementary school, it doesn't matter why. It doesn't matter how big the hospital bill will be. All that matters is that I live long enough to help them grow up. I'd pay any price for that.

Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance. Follow her on Twitter at @DeniseTrowbridg.