Exactly one year ago at 5am in the morning, my wife was driving me to the hospital for a major surgical procedure that was scheduled to start at 6:30am. I will never forget that surreal feeling as we drove on mostly empty roads to get there and thinking about how quickly time had passed since the time my surgery was scheduled until it was actually happening. This would be the first time I ever had any type of surgery, and this was several major procedures. I knew this day was coming for several months, but everything felt like it was happening so quickly in those last few days leading to the surgery. I spent a long time with my kids before they went to bed the night before, because I just did not have it in me to wake them up before heading to the hospital. While driving I felt a bit of regret about not being able to say goodbye in the morning, and really hoped that I did not miss the last opportunity for them to see me. The literally life saving surgeries and procedures I was having came with a fair amount of risk and I would be under general anesthesia somewhere between seven and eight hours. I knew the potential risks of complications and potential death going in, but there were no other medical or non-medical options available that would solve or even begin to address my medical issues. In this post I am not going to describe my medical history and details for the whole internet to read, and in fact I am unable to do so right now even if wanted to. As I think about this day one year ago, I want to use this event to highlight some of the impact this had both on planning and thinking as it relates to financial independence, and life in general. There is a significant amount of research in psychology that discusses how facing mortality can impact your outlook on life and self-perception as well as having a huge impact on your personality, disposition, and beliefs. This is especially true when potential events or diagnoses are directly related to one’s own mortality.
As I mark this year milestone I find myself reflecting on the past year and the future in many different ways. The good news is that as I am typing this post exactly one year from the day of my surgery, I can say that everything turned out well. Aside from a pretty rough recovery that lasted a few months, everything, at least from a physiological perspective, has normalized. In this post I want to reflect on how I prepared for my surgery since I knew it was coming about six months before it took place. This is going to come mostly from a financial perspective, but it is impossible to do so without including some of the personal and emotional aspects of preparing for this as well, and I think that is the point. So often we pretend personal finance, and especially financial independence is only about numbers, or about the math, but that ignores so many aspects of our lived experience. That being said, I am just going to dive in and share my approach preparing for this significant life event, especially when I had such a large amount of time between scheduling and the surgery taking place…
The Basic Stuff (Documents and Forms)
At the beginning of this process I remained fairly focused on checking off everything that I needed to do, and in some cases had been neglecting for a few years. I already had a will that I created almost six years ago once we added our first child to our family, but it needed to be updated to reflect the growth in our family. The changes took maybe five minutes of actual work, and then several days of lining up witnesses and a notary. Really my will is fairly simple and it leaves everything to my wife and by proxy my children. The only thing that is even somewhat complicated is the parts dealing with what to do if something happens to both my wife and I at the same time (especially guardians for our children).
I then, for the first time, created a living will and advance directives document in case things did not go well during the surgery, but I was still alive. While my wife is well aware of my wishes if certain things happen, I needed to get this formalized, and in fact the hospital and surgeons requested copies of these as part of the enormous amount of paperwork required prior to admission.
Finally, I drafted a limited Power Of Attorney so my wife could act on my behalf while I was incapacitated. Going into this, even if everything went well, there was a significant amount of time that I would be unable to fully care for myself, let alone make rational decisions, so I wanted her to be able to act on my behalf. For most of the things related to finances this was not an issue because we decided a little ways into our marriage to combine financial assets and accounts. This is just what works for us and I am in no way suggesting everyone should do this, but in this situation it certainly made things easier financially. The Power of Attorney was never needed during my recovery, but I am glad it was there just in case.
Typically these are documents every adult should probably have in place, but like many I was guilty of never taking the time to create or update them because it is not usually a pleasant experience thinking about the situations where they would be needed. Anyone on a similar path as us should not only make sure you have these, but update them regularly as life circumstances change.
Financial Accounts and Assets
Almost every financial account and asset that we hold and where it is possible are held jointly. That means checking, savings, our home, and vehicles are in both of our names. This is a decision that we made thoughtfully after we were married and was really a three year process of integrating our finances step by step. I will say that this is what works for us, and in no way am I advocating that everyone should do this. This is a very personal decision and we respect all the different ways that couples handle finances as long as it is done equitably. We do each have one separate checking account that we hold and keep some discretionary money in, but for the most part our finances are fully combined and integrated.
Most retirement accounts can not be jointly held, so I just had to make sure that my wife was listed as the beneficiary on all the accounts, or in the case of one of my accounts had a transfer on death form in place :/ Since we both are engaged in managing our finances I did not need to do too much work in this area. We keep a spreadsheet of all the institutions and accounts that we hold, including usernames and passwords, that is shared between the two of us, but I also printed a copy out as well to put in the “just in case” binder” (more on this later).
The non-financial stuff
Everything I have discussed so far is fairly standard in estate planning and making wishes related to health decisions known. It is stuff we all should be doing, even when we are not confronted with a situation that forces us to consider our own mortality. While not everyone may need or want to create a “just in case” binder with all of these documents, some of these things are bare minimums that should be in place, especially when we enter ourselves into relationships or have family members that depend on us. With that out of the way, here are some other unique and personal things that I did in preparation for my medical procedures.
Scheduled some pretty epic trips that we could do as a family
As a family we love to travel and already do so rather extensively, but because of the upcoming surgery we front loaded a lot of travel last summer. Even in the best case scenario, which proved to be true, travel would not be possible until January or later when I felt comfortable enough in my recovery to travel more than just short little drives. So at the beginning of the summer we took our family on a Disney cruise through the Southern Caribbean for 11 days, stopped back at our house for three days, and then spent the rest of the summer in Hawai’i on three different islands. As I have mentioned in previous posts we sacrifice some of the speed with which would could reach financial independence by spending in the categories we value and this is certainly true for travel. On a side note, while the scale of these trips was pretty impressive, our actual spending did not exceed our yearly average, it just was concentrated over a couple of months rather than spread out over the year, and we still did a lot of travel hacking. More importantly than considering the financial aspects of the trips, it gave us some concentrated time with family, especially our kids. As an added bonus, I did not check my email a single time, and barely used my phone at all. I don’t think I have had another period in my life where I had such intense focus on just spending time with everyone I love. It also had the added benefit of taking my mind off of my medical issues since I only had a limited time once we were done traveling before September 19th arrived.
Recorded a Video Series for my Wife and Children
This was one of the harder things I did but I think it was very important for my psychological health as the day kept getting closer. I recorded a large set of videos mostly for my children of everything I would have hoped to tell them as they grew older. My kids at the time had just turned five and two, so it was hard to imagine a scenario where they would have very little first hand memories of me if I was not able to make it through surgery. The amount of raw emotion in creating these videos was something I can not even begin to explain. I think each day I worked on these I cried until I was unable to cry anymore and at times could barely get any words out. During those times I would just hit pause, and start back when I was able. Thankfully none of the videos needed to be used, and I don’t think I could ever go back and watch them at this point. I will say the therapeutic value of creating these is one of the only reasons I was able to hold it together for those last few weeks.
Created step by step guides of what would need to be done in case of my death
Next, I started putting together what I called a “just in case binder” that had all of my legal documents in it, as well as a few other things that I spent time creating. I made a series of step-by-step guides of what my wife (or someone helping her) would need to do if I did not make it through surgery, or something went horribly wrong. Without wanting to look through the binder while writing this post, here are some of the main things I included:
- A guide with each step needed for applying for survivor benefits from the Social Security Administration.
- A series of what would need to be done for specific accounts, especially my work place retirement accounts, and contact information.
- A document with all of our account information, financial and non-financial, and how to access them. We keep a digital copy, but I think it was better to consolidate all this information into one document and put it in the binder.
- A list of all the financial responsibilities I usually take care of (paying bills, etc.) as well as reminders of the items my wife is usually responsible for, especially if someone needed to help for a little while.
- How to make a claim on my life insurance policies.
- A list to send to my employer of things related to my job that would need to be wrapped up, and things that would need to be boxed up from my office and sent to my wife.
- A supplemental list and guide that went with the videos I made for our kids, including a list of things that I hope my children would learn about me as they grew older that was not included in the videos.
- Information about my wife’s business and the things I typically took care of for the company.
- A self-written final post for social media, and email to send to friends if it was needed.
- A list of professionals to get in touch with if she needed help, including a certified financial planner that I explicitly trust.
There were also a few other items in the binder, but they were mostly related to things I have already discussed. While this may seem odd to some, doing all of this is just part of my personality, and actually helped me cope with the situation. If something happens to me, I want to take as much of the load off of my loved ones as possible. I don’t want my wife to have to figure out how things work or how to apply for different things while she is also grieving and taking care of two children by herself.
Some Closing Thoughts
During the period of time leading up to my surgery, and for a while after, it is important to note, especially on this blog, that financial independence is not something we really thought about often. I talked about this a little bit in my post “A Project off-track but not off the rails”, but it is amazing how events like these consume all of your time and thinking, and certainly change your perspective on the importance of FI, especially the right balance of “sacrifice” you are willing to make to get there as quickly as possible. In the end I think it actually helped us become more focused and balanced on our FI path.
As I wrap up this post, here are a few take-aways from my personal experience:
- Don’t sacrifice everything now for a potential tomorrow. Sure we can make some calculated trade-offs that will make our future better, but never forget that our future (life) is not guaranteed. There needs to be a balance that is made based on what you value now and what your plan is for the future. This will look different for different people, but it needs to be made through thoughtful well-planned actions and decisions.
- Don’t neglect the psychological impact of significant life events and the impact it can have not only on financial independence plans, but your outlook on life in general.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of working toward financial independence not only for your future goals, but for unexpected or unplanned events in the present as well. If it was not for the significant amount of savings and financial cushion we had, we would be in a very different place right now. We are still battling issues related to medical costs and health care, that I am looking forward to sharing on this blog once I am able. I can honestly say that if we were not in the financial position we were, we more than likely would have needed to file for bankruptcy, or worse, I would not have had access to the care I received in the first place.
There are probably a couple of other take-aways I am forgetting, but these are the ones that really stood out from my experience.
In many ways, today is a day celebrating having a full recovery and basically just reaching a point of normalcy in my life. The recovery period was rough for a time, but I am glad that not a single item from the “just in case binder” was needed. In the end, I am happy to have had the results I did from all the medical procedures, and glad my life is actually better than normal at the one year mark. There are certainly a lot of issues related to health care, especially access and insurance, that I will need to continue to deal with over the coming year(s), but at least I have a lot of help on that front. Regardless of some of these issues that still need to be resolved, I am just really happy to be here today to write this post. Never forget to enjoy now while planning for the future!