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How personal tragedy changed my financial outlook

Sally Herigstad

My attitude toward personal finances has shifted dramatically since November  2015, when a life-shattering tragedy hit our family.

As a personal finance writer, I’ve preached for years about living frugally and thinking long term. It’s not that I was stingy. I just placed a high priority on saving money and being financially responsible.

One part of me knew that you can’t always do the fun things later. I was familiar, as I’m sure you are, of “seizing the day” and “living life now.” I never quite got it, though. They seemed like calendar sayings, the kind you nod at and then go about your day.

The difference for me between these worn-out sayings and a nugget of wisdom that makes me go “Oh!” is really whether I have enough life experience to truly understand it. When a family member is at the table one day and gone the next, you get it – as if you’ve never heard it before.

Another shift in my attitude toward money is that I’ve gotten better about being really, really nice to myself. I’ll do just about anything to feel better. Some people go to counseling. Others get a massage or join an exercise class (that sounds more like punishment to me!) to escape their grief. I find nothing lifts my spirits like doing something with my friends. That something often involves a mall and a latte.

I’ve gotten good at asking, “Why not?” When I spot the cheery little See’s Candies storefront, I can’t think of a good reason why not. If I feel better looking in the glass case at See’s Candies, so be it. I feel much better walking around an outdoor mall in the sunshine, eating dark chocolate raspberry truffles.

Of course, sometimes “Why not?” answers itself with a very good reason. We toyed with the idea of buying a fishing boat with a cabin, and our responsible selves had to reply that we can’t afford it right now. Chocolate – yes. Fishing boat – no, not unless it’s the kind of boat you have to blow up.

It’s been almost a year now, and I’ve learned that we start to heal, whether we want to or not. When that happens, encourage it. It’s OK. In those sad days, when sharp grief gives way to dull emptiness, you may think you’ll never be excited about anything again. You’ll never care about your career again. You may not care about making money, cleaning the house or taking up a new hobby.

Then one day, you feel a bit of enthusiasm for something. It’s an unfamiliar, odd feeling after all this time. You may have taken up coloring as a distraction, and suddenly you need a different color felt pen. That spark of enthusiasm is like a little flame. Fan it. Give yourself permission to buy better pens or pencils. It’s pretty cheap therapy, if you think of it that way.

Another thing I’ve learned is the value of having to work. Whether you work for money or just take care of yourself and your family, needing to work is a good thing.

That’s because after a tragedy, it’s easy to sit on the couch and feel like you can’t move. I didn’t want to do anything. I’d have retired early if I could have afforded it. That would have been a disaster!

At first I could hardly think, and writing is primarily a thinking job. But I feel better when I use my mind, and I love the satisfaction of knowing I’ve done a good job. Don’t underestimate the value of having to focus on something other than the tragedy that happened, or everything you lost with it, either. Being able to work, being needed, is a blessing. I’d be far worse off without it.

Lastly, I’ve had to relax some of my personal finance rules in the face of the loss of a loved one. Between final expenses and time off work, the death of an immediate family member is expensive. If you have to carry a credit card balance temporarily, or use your emergency fund, don’t feel like a failure. This is the emergency you were preparing for.

To be clear, I’m not advocating financial imprudence with my newfound attitude change. I still have a budget, and I’m not going crazy. I’m still responsible. I just think how I’d love to take my son to one more movie, on one more adventure, or maybe even on a cruise. I can still do those things with family and friends – not to escape from the memory of my son – but in honor of him. It’s not too late.

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