Monday, May 17, 2010

Making More Sense out of Fewer Dollars

At our last human resources meeting, our speaker’s topic was helping families in financial crisis. It made me think about families dealing with the emotional and economical strain when a loved one has dementia.

Our speaker, Cynthia Crawford, with the extension office, has seen an alarming increase in the number of people who find themselves in financial distress. No one wants to change their lifestyle, but hard economic times call for taking action to reduce the adverse consequences.

Employment has turned into shaky ground for a lot of people as financial woes beget more financial woes. Retired people see their nest eggs dwindle, not through spending, but through an unpredictable stock market or low interest rates on investments.

We all know that as our income increases, we proportionally step up our standard of living to match. This is perfectly acceptable, as long as we put money aside for emergencies—or as our parents always called it—for a rainy day.

When our family hits a financial crisis and income plummets, it is human nature to want to hold to our standard of living. In fact, our first reaction is denial that we need to take action. Our standard of living is closely connected to our self-esteem, and we begin to think we are failures if we can’t pay our country club dues.

First thing you need to do, according to Cynthia, is cut expenses. Pay your mortgage, utilities, and insurance first. If you don’t have enough left to pay other bills, call the people you owe and explain the circumstances. They will be more willing to work with you, if you make the first contact.

Giving your attention to what you need rather than just what you want can lower your stress levels. Eating at home is healthier and cuts costs in two ways. You pay less for meals and don’t throw away leftovers or food that spoiled while you pick up fast food at a drive-thru window.

Cynthia has some good advice for those who may lose their jobs. “Don’t sit in the basement and sink into depression.” If you have lost your job, you’ve lost precious time if you do not immediately sign up for unemployment. Unemployment is not retroactive and if you don’t sign up for it, you get nothing. I might add that if you lose your job because of Alzheimer’s, sign up for disability.

When Jim was diagnosed with dementia, I was fortunate to have a good job with health insurance benefits. We made it through the years he lived at home partly because we had always lived within our means and found great pleasure in the simple things in life—camping, fishing, and spending time with family and friends.

No matter how frugal you may be, long-term care may be beyond your means, and we were no exception. When my sons and I toured nursing homes, the first bit of information I learned was that I didn’t earn enough money to pay the monthly bill! Through the Alzheimer’s Association support group, I learned about division of assets. Sure, we had to sacrifice some of our dreams—we sold our lake property and Jim’s truck, cashed some CDs, and disposed of other possessions.

In personal life, as in business, downsizing is preferable to losing it all. I still live in the house Jim and I build with our own hands, and I’m not facing a lifetime of debt from his five-year stay in long-term care.

Other good advice from Cynthia is to ask for help. Check into local agencies that provide support and services that could help you through the transitional period while you bring your financial situation back into balance. To get help, you have to ask. People or agencies that can help you may not have any idea that you are in crisis.

If having a family member with dementia has thrown your financial world into a tailspin, don’t give into despair. Instead, look at it as a challenge to your ingenuity and grit. Check into all available resources, and ask for help. Take stock of your way of life and work out a plan to protect your family and the possessions that are important to you.

copyright (c) May 2010 L. S. Fisher
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