Coping Financially after My Husband’s Death

March 2, 1985, started out as a typical Saturday morning for our family. The children were still in bed when my husband, Dennis, slipped down to the office to catch up on some work. When he came home I was resting—a necessary treatment for the multiple sclerosis that has been part of my life for twenty-three years. He gathered three of our boys and one of their friends and climbed onto the roof to shovel the snow that had been collecting during our exceptionally long winter. Within minutes, he spun around and, without a word, fell into the snow on the roof. Our Boy Scout, Mark, immediately started mouth to mouth resuscitation. Aaron called the paramedics, and the friend, Jason, awakened me. The paramedics arrived within ten minutes, but Dennis was gone—a victim of arteriosclerosis.

Without warning, I had lost my confidant, my sweetheart, my protector, my partner in parenthood, the person with whom I expected to share life as we both grew older. I was left with ten children—six of them between the ages of six and seventeen and still living at home—and a disease that foreshadowed major disability.

And yet, virtually my every prayer since Dennis’s death has been one of overwhelming gratitude for the many blessings that I have. In spite of my physical limitations, I have a genuine sense of well-being. As I have thought about why, I have come up with three factors that I believe have helped me to cope.

The first is the strength that comes from knowing that Dennis and I had a good relationship, based on mutual respect. I have never been burdened by regrets. I loved and honored my husband, and he did the same for me. Knowing that—and knowing he knew it—has given me peace.

The second factor is spiritual strength. I was not ready for so profound a loss. Suddenly eternal questions became very real: Is there life after death? Is there meaning to our mortal experiences and trials? Is the gospel true? I drew from my foundation of faith to gain perspective. That, joined with courage and self-reliance, helped me weather the initial crisis and continues to help me meet the challenges of being a single parent to a large and active family.

The third element that has helped me cope—which is the real subject of this piece—is financial preparedness. I have been able to keep the temporal aspects of our family life running smoothly because Dennis and I practiced six areas of financial preparation, outlined by inspired leaders. Following these principles will help every person meet any financial crisis.

1. Stay Out of Debt

President N. Eldon Tanner, a former member of the First Presidency and a renowned businessman, warned that people “can’t enjoy living if they are so badly in debt that they don’t know how they are going to carry on. This causes friction in the family, it causes worry and concern, and sometimes divorces, just because people don’t live within their means.” (Address at Welfare Agricultural Meeting, 9 Apr. 1966.)

In this world of easy credit, we can easily find ourselves living beyond our means. Yesterday’s luxuries have become today’s necessities. There are, of course, legitimate purposes for money, not only to meet present needs but future ones as well. How do we determine where the money goes? Hyrum W. Smith has observed that most people tend to spend whatever is in their checking account, taking little note of possible vital future expenditures. He said that a simple question will help us sort out our financial priorities and enable us to take the first step toward gaining control over our money: “Is this something I must buy or pay now, or is this a future expense?” (“What Are Your Personal Financial Priorities?” The Cutting Edge, vol. 1, no. 2, Introductory series, 1987.)

When all is said and done, perhaps the most important thing to remember about debt is that a sure way to have a miserable life is to live in a style you can’t afford.

2. Have Adequate Insurance Protection

A young couple I know decided that they would save money in the bank for emergencies rather than pay health insurance premiums. One night their daughter ran a high fever and went into convulsions. Her twenty-four-hour hospital stay included numerous tests. She was all right—but the bill came to $1,100.

The experience taught my friends the importance of insurance; in our high-tech world, hospital bills ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 are not uncommon. Law suits, too, with accident claims ranging in the thousands and even millions of dollars, can devastate a family without insurance. A wise insurance program should include adequate health, life, fire, car, and, if not available on the job, disability insurance. Extended coverage on one’s home is also important.

My financial well-being today is due to the foresight of a husband who recognized that I would not be able to work to support our family should anything happen to him, and who planned accordingly.

3. Save Money

Dennis and I found the key to our savings program in some advice we came across once: The advice was to make our money work for us, rather than against us. To do that, we should keep a portion of all we earn, keeping in mind that a small, safe return is better than risk.

While Dennis and I did not set an arbitrary figure as to what percentage of our income we would save, we considered long-term savings plans, including yearly individual retirement accounts, as necessary a part of our budget as any other living expenses. And we consistently lived below our income level so that we could save.

4. Keep Accurate Financial Records

One of the things I noticed most after Dennis’s death was the increase in the amount of paperwork that I had to handle. Property and income tax payments and car and medical insurance premiums that Dennis had previously taken care of at the office were now my responsibility, and I knew no one would remind me to send them in on time or cover for me if I were late.

To help me keep on top of the numerous financial transactions now a part of my life, I devised a record-keeping system based on the one Dennis had used at work. Following are the essential categories of my system.

  • Bills, Pending (I keep these in a special place on my desk.)

  • Bank Statements—Separate folders for each bank and each account within the bank. At the end of the year, remove to storage.

  • Insurance—Separate folders for each individual policy.

  • Investments—Separate folders for each investment.

  • Receipts.

  • Taxes—Separate folders for income tax returns, receipts to verify income tax deductions, state tax returns, etc.

  • Warrantee Information

The following files are optional but helpful:

  • Car—Gasoline and car repair receipts and records.

  • House and Yard—Receipts and other information relating to the maintenance of the house.

  • Money Matters—General financial management information.

  • Miscellaneous Receipts

I keep categories in separate file folders, labeled as to content. When I have several folders in a category (for example, “Insurance”), I group them together in a larger, expandable folder. I maintain a safety deposit box for originals of important documents and keep a photocopy of the contents at home so that I know exactly what is in the box without having to go to the bank.

5. Maintain Personal Resources

Personal resources are our aptitudes and talents, our education and training, and our resourcefulness.

Good homemaking skills always stretch the budget and help make ends meet. Many resourceful women use their time at home to help the family financially and also to prepare for the day when they may not need to or be able to stay at home full-time.

In my own case, because of the effects of multiple sclerosis, I am unable to do many of the physical things that once were an important part of my life. However, I can still think, write, and plan. And so rather than mourn my condition, making myself and those around me miserable, I have turned my interests to the computer. I am enjoying a new level of discovery and opportunity as I enter the world of the byte and bit, the LaserJet and System II, all from my desk at the “crossroads” of our home, where I can observe and direct almost all that goes on.

It is never too late to seek additional education, training, and skills to improve one’s position. An orthopedic surgeon and a dentist in my community were previously established in the insurance business. One morning, they met on a street corner.

“How’s it going?” inquired one of the other.

“Things couldn’t be better!” he answered. “How about you?”

“Just the same!” was the enthusiastic reply.

“Okay, how is it really going?”

And then the truth came out. Neither man was happy with his career choice, and during their conversation they decided they weren’t locked into anything they couldn’t change. With a great deal of support and sacrifice from their wives and families, they went back to medical and dental school respectively, and ultimately achieved success in their newly chosen professions.

6. Know the Entire Financial Situation

Dennis was an attorney, and I never felt the need to take care of the insurance and investments; he did that from his office. However, he included me as a full partner in all decisions, and I was fully aware of his transactions and business dealings pertaining to our family. I also managed the entire household budget.

Occasionally Dennis would make a complete list of our assets and liabilities on a legal pad or in a special book I had bought for that purpose. A few days after his death, I met with attorneys from his law firm to put our affairs in order. Using Dennis’s careful notes, I was able to identify all the necessary documents quickly.

Following is a checklist of information that I think all husbands and wives should have at their disposal. It took me a few hours to gather, but it makes me feel secure to have these details all in one place.

  • Your full name(s) and social security number(s), and those of your children.

  • The name of your bank(s) and each account number.

  • The names of each of your insurance policies. Identify what kind of insurance—life, health, car, etc., and give the name, address, and telephone number of the agent.

  • The name of every investment—stocks, real estate, certificates of deposit, retirement funds, etc.—and the location of the original documents.

  • Names, addresses, and telephone numbers of people who owe you money.

  • Names, addresses, and telephone numbers of people and institutions to whom you owe money. List credit card names and numbers here.

  • Name, address, and telephone number of the mortgage holder of your home. Include the mortgage number and the amount due.

  • Names, addresses, and telephone numbers of specialists, such as an attorney, accountant, financial adviser, and car mechanic.

There is an additional principal of sound financial management which we routinely practiced during our marriage and which has been important for me to continue. That is the prompt payment of bills.

I require and receive strong support from the business community as I function as a single parent who has the added challenge of an inability to walk. At the same time, I recognize that businessmen and women have needs and obligations of their own, and I make every effort to pay my bills in a fair and timely manner. Even more important to us than money in the bank is the legacy of honesty and integrity that Dennis left. We, as a family, can practice no less in our dealings with others.

In the years since I faced the sudden death of my husband, I have come to appreciate more fully the strength that comes from both spiritual and temporal preparation. Knowing that Dennis’s life continues in another realm has made it easier for me to continue with mine here. Adding to my peace of mind are the “temporal” aspects of financial preparation. I now understand more completely the words of the Lord, “All things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal.” (D&C 29:34.)

The Lord has given us principles of sound financial planning through the Brethren. Following these simple practices will help us face the challenges when “What if?” becomes “What now?”

[photos] Photography by Welden Andersen and Philip S. Shurtleff

Sheila Sorensen Olsen serves as director of the stake public communications council and as stake historian in the Ammon Idaho West Stake. She is a member of the Idaho Falls (Idaho) Twenty-ninth Ward. In 1989 she was selected as National MS Mother of the Year.