"They're Repossessing the Jeep and I Need a Cartier Bracelet": What I Wish I Knew About My Finances *Before* My Husband Died

financial-lessons-for-widows: a woman and children standing next to a gravestone and clipboard
Getty images/Visual Generation/Dasha Burobina

How to take over the family finances after a tragedy? How about not like this: I got a call maybe a month or three after my 55-year-old husband died from cancer, leaving our 12-year-old son and me stunned that this big personality had finally, in my husband’s words, “rolled over and called it a life.” I was picking up my elderly parents from the airport when I got an urgent call from the new manny (a male caretaker would be good for the kid, I was advised) saying, “Um, there’s a man here to take the Jeep.”

Yikes, I’d somehow forgotten to make the payments on my late husband’s car, and here we had a man attaching a winch to the front bumper and my tween son yelling, “Don’t take my daddy’s car!” in the street in front of all the neighbors.

So, even though my husband had briefed me repeatedly on what accounts he’d set up, what policies he had taken out, it’s not like I was really prepped for the financial realities of death. I was barely prepared for the “one less person living there in the house with us” part of death, and just staying awake and alert enough to interact with my son and friends and colleagues felt like running a daily marathon. And now I’m supposed to weigh the merits of competing Investment Retirement Accounts? No thanks, all set there.

What This Has to Do with You, Non-Widowed Person

If you’re thinking “what does this have to do with me?” here’s a pitch to keep reading: According to a recent study conducted by wealth management firm UBS, 85 percent of women manage everyday expenses but only 23 percent take the lead when it comes to long-term financial planning. What’s more, 80 percent of women will become the sole financial decision-maker at some time in their life, and many widows will spend a long time at the helm of their finances. And here’s the capper: Half of all women who become widowed in the US are under 59. As the average life expectancy of women is 79, these young widows can expect to manage their finances by themselves for at least two decades.

So, let’s do a thought experiment. Say your partner is taken out of your family’s life today—how would you pay your bills for the next five to 50 years, and meet any children’s needs until they’re adults? Unless you can say you’ve got a solid plan, then my experience may help you. Because when the worst day of your life happens, if you’re anything like me, you’ll have a deer-in-the-headlights reaction at best and some downright counter-productive ideas at worst.

Here's what I encourage you to do: use a slice of your marvelous married time making a financial road map so that, should the unthinkable happen, you can devote more time to your thoughts and feelings and tribe, and less to the amount of money left on your car loan. Below, four tips I learned the hard way.

Don’t Commit to a Big Spend for at Least 90 Days

At my friend’s memorial service for her 40-something husband—he had died of cancer leaving her with two young sons—she repeatedly floated the idea of all of us taking a girlfriend’s vacation in Paris. I’m not sure what the other women thought, but my internal monologue was all, “what is she talking about, there are these two little boys and a job and that’s not real life and….”

Ultimately, I decided she was suffering from “grief bananas.” That’s a syndrome I invented to describe when grieving people think up bananas-insane ideas that are impractical, illogical and maybe even illegal. All of her friends could see these bananas for what they were, and, when asked if we’d be up for a Paris trip, just smiled and changed the subject, hoping she’d stop asking us to go to Europe. And eventually, she did.

Some time later I had my own version of grief bananas, when I became obsessed with the Cartier love bracelet. As I looked at doctor bills and my comatose husband in the midst of cancer agonistes, I told myself I would get myself said bracelet when he died. I deserved it, damnit. But my friends knew better, listening to me ramble on about why I wanted a $7,000 hunk of gold, agreeing vaguely and moving on to other subjects. In the end, I did not purchase a Cartier love bracelet (although, hello French luxury goods house, I’m so open to gifts!). It wasn’t because I didn’t crave it, but entirely because it wasn’t in my single-mom budget and because I put off the decision for enough time. I just told myself, I’ll get it next week, next month, until the desire for a big splurge to take away all the discomfort/terror dissipated. A big basket of grief bananas for me!

According to financial planner Natalie Colley of Francis Financial, a wealth management and financial planning firm dedicated to women in transitions such as divorce or widowhood, this travel-and-splurge impulse is common. “You’ve been nonstop running on empty emotionally and in every way possible,” she says. “A lot of women in such situations have a similar impulse to go off the grid.” Instead of making an impulsive move prompted by Big Feelings, Colley recommends working with a grief counselor to talk through the underlying emotions so that they can understand and resist compulsive impulses. In my case, I gave myself an arbitrary cap of purchasing anything non-essential over $100 for three months, buying myself not a Cartier bracelet but instead time itself to attend a cancer caregivers’ grief group. There I expressed the discomforts, insecurities and confusion that I thought looking down at a gold bracelet would protect me from. After 90 days, I (almost) forgot about the jewelry.

Make a “Money Stuff” Timeline

The first month or so of my widowhood, I split my waking hours worried about my impending penury and feeling confused by what money needed to go where and where said money would come from. On especially energetic days, I’d make a real effort to start sorting through papers to look for that form or this password, then come upon some relic of the past that would render me aphasic, weepy or dissociated. When I’d calm down, I’d feel exhausted and have to lie down (I decided this was a healthier choice than my other best coping ideas, chardonnay at 10 a.m. or an entire cheesecake as a mid-afternoon snack). Then post-nap, the last thing I wanted to do was go anywhere near that box where I’d stumbled upon the “I love you Daddy” paperweight.

After a few cycles of this, I lost track of tax deadlines and car registration renewals and miscellaneous bills. If I had it all to do over again, however, I’d mark up an inexpensive calendar with weekly goals: This week, find all the mortgage paperwork and deadlines and note them on the calendar. The next week, find his-and-hers credit card statements and determine a payment plan. The third week, make an appointment with an accountant for a tax filing. And on and on.

This tip sounds so simple as to be idiotic, but in the fog of widowhood, the idea of breaking down tasks was as elusive as the proof to Fermatt’s Theorem. In retrospect, a simple timeline would have saved me the mounting self-loathing that comes from financial avoidance, as well as some dings on my credit rating.

Find a Money Professional and Get Your Paperwork in Order

This tip is often vaguely alluded to as “consult a financial advisor,” which is about as helpful as saying “get a guru” or “start dating.” Oh right, I’ll just wedge that in between the work and home repairs and needy children, thanks. But in reality, I asked friends for the names of their financial advisors, scheduled appointments and even read a Suze Orman book or two. It was uncomfortable at first, but I got better at my planning and now take pride in my ongoing financial curiosity. For instance, thanks to my planner, I now care deeply about my debt-to-credit ratio, Roth IRA and monthly budget. (Words my 30-year-old self never thought she would say.) What’s more, I’m learning that regular attention to these matters helps me to see them as opportunities instead of stress bombs.

You’ll also need a lot of financial documentation at the ready, and there’s one online resource I wish I had known about earlier, called Unveiling the Unspoken Truth: The Financial Challenges Women Face During and After Divorce and Financial Help for Widows, that can help with that. Request it from Francis Financial—in exchange for sharing your email, you’ll have access to a PDF that lists exactly what paperwork you should gather. For example, you’ll want more than a dozen certified death certificates to send to accounts you’ll need to close. And if possible, for your first visit with your advisor, you’ll want to bring two years of tax returns, as well as a list of your monthly living expenses, so that you can have a clear idea of your assets and liabilities. The goal is to have six months of living expenses on hand, according to Francis Financial, though this can vary according to your financial situation.  Meet with your advisor sooner rather than later, because along with monthly bills that need paying, there are a few tax deadlines that are important—for example, if an estate tax filing is required, it needs to be submitted within nine months. Additionally, widows are eligible to file in a more favorable tax status for two years after a spousal death. Other paperwork you’ll need includes year-end reports from mortgage banks, receipts from medical bills (both paid and outstanding) and records of investment dividends.

Expect Less

Finally, what I’d wished I’d know before I undertook the financial planning of widowhood was that I should expect less. Not less money or less happiness or less satisfaction (although, sure). I mean expect less life perfection. For example, I expected my son would have two or more parents to see him graduate from high school, but instead, the three of us got an elementary school diploma to celebrate together. I expected to make the right financial choices, and enjoy my preferred outcomes. Instead, I made tons of mistakes large and small, which are the parts of the story I often remember first, but in fairness I also manifested wins. And not to get too philosophical, but the mistakes often led to the wins.

Mistake: I didn’t have the presence of mind to put my late husband’s life insurance payout into any high-yield financial vehicle. Win: By not locking that money into, say, a five-year fund, I had liquidity to spend on some much-needed family mental health expenses. Mistake: I am a terrible record-keeper. Win: I doubled-down on paper-pushing and refinanced into a lower mortgage rate one month before rates began rocketing upward.

And that Jeep that got repossessed? Here’s the rest of the story. In the months before my husband slipped into the aphasia-then-coma that served as this irascible, charismatic man’s life coda, he would continually worry over how to handle the months left on his car lease. “You won’t need two cars, but the contract says it has to be paid off, but I don’t want to give up the car now since I can still drive, maybe we can sell it, can we get the dealership to take it back…” and on and on.  That car lease revved doughnuts in his consciousness, as I tried not to notice the weight slipping off his body, the household shouting, the fear bouncing between us three.

The win? After my husband’s death, and after the man with the winch came to carry the Jeep who knows where, I got a letter saying something to the effect that yes the Jeep was taken, and since it had been under my husband’s name, under state law there was nothing more to be done—no more payments to make, no more contracts to break, no more thinking about that car and how I was going to pay for it. I’m sure I could have handled it better—the Jeep lease, the money, the marriage, all of it. But today, I’m able to plan ahead in a way I couldn’t before, and to not be so afraid of the future. After all, the worst has already happened. And look, even in my imperfection, I survived. Reader, that win is more precious than rubies.

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dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...