From Ashes to Diamonds

Where would you want to be buried?

This simple yet important question led to one of the most important discussions in my life. Steve and I would use time travelling in the car to talk about anything that was on our mind – I’m so glad this conversation happened.

There was a reason I asked the question – I had no idea what I wanted! Anytime I didn’t know the answer to a question, I’d talk ask Steve. There isn’t a perfect way to navigate this conversation, but here are the things we talked about that day.

1. Location

Steve wanted to be buried in Valley City. This made perfect sense, because he lived his whole life in that community. For me, the answer wasn’t so simple. If I died the next day, did I really want to be buried in Valley City?

The answer for me was no. I wanted to be buried by Steve, but I also wanted to be where my friends and family were. As the world becomes more global and families more mobile, the question of location becomes harder and harder to answer.

2. Cremation or Burial

The discussion of location led me to believe that cremation may be the answer for us. Steve wasn’t a fan of this originally, but once we talked through it we came to realize that this would be the best option for us and you’ll understand why in the next sections.

Steve’s only request with the cremation was that he have a headstone. He wanted a place that people could go to remember and he wanted a final resting place.

3. From Ashes to Diamonds

A few weeks prior to this discussion I had read an article about LifeGem, a company that developed technology that would take the person’s ashes and compress the carbon in the ashes into a diamond. In my heart this is what I wanted. I knew that life was never guaranteed and I knew I wanted to be close to my loved ones.

If I was made into a diamond, then Steve could mount that into something that he could take with him everywhere. A part of me would always be with him. As life would have it, I’m the one with the diamond. When Steve and I got home from our trip we looked up the article together and decided that this was what we both wanted for the other person. We had a plan.

4. Creating a Family Heirloom

Technology had changed and the company that creates the diamonds from ashes could now make diamonds from hair as well. I immediately knew that I wanted a family stone.

I asked the funeral director to cut a lock of Steve’s hair and I cut a lock of hair from me, Reanna and Kaelyn. We added the hair to Steve’s ashes and that made my diamond.

The stone didn’t require all of Steve’s ashes. His mom asked if she could have a stone along with one for his sister and brother. I wanted one for Reanna and Kaelyn too. Steve’s ashes made six diamonds in all and I still had enough to bury half of what was left in his final resting place and keep the other half with me.

5. A Gift from Dad

The girls are too young to understand or appreciate the diamonds that were made with their Dad’s ashes. I decided to place their stones in our safety deposit box to give to them as a graduation gift from their Dad.

My portion of the gift will be the setting of their choice. Their dad will always watch over them and they will have a piece of their Dad to take with them as they go off into the world. I think he would have approved.

The conversations around death and planning made my decisions after Steve died much easier. I know I couldn’t have chosen cremation had I not discussed this with him. I felt some measure of peace with my decisions as I knew I was fulfilling my end of the wishes and expectations we had of each other. Every time I look at my family stone, I know that I fulfilled his wishes. He is with me no matter where I go in this world.

Having conversations about death and what you want for yourself and your significant other can seem scary and overwhelming. I’m so glad that we took the time to have these conversations before it was too late. If you haven’t had a conversation like this with your significant other or close family, I urge you to take some time to do so this holiday season. Don’t wait until it’s too late!

Would you choose burial or cremation? Why?

Photo Credit: Giovanni ‘jjjohn’ Orlando via Compfight cc

3 Tips to Conduct Your Family Budget Meetings

Family Budget MeetingDo you know that couples fight about money in marriage more than anything else? Let’s figure out how to squash that together!

Usually one person in the relationship tends to be the “money person.” And that’s okay! Opposites attract and all that – it’s easier to divide and conquer in many cases, and if one of you has a natural strength or affinity to handling the finances, so be it.

As Erin has shared with us though, it’s vital that both spouses know what’s going on financially. If one of you does handle the money, the other person should be kept in the loop from time to time. I suggest having at least a monthly family budget meeting, so everyone can get on the same page.

You can also (as a team) make necessary changes to stay on track for your various financial goals. Here are three tips to ensure your meetings take place and do so without the aid of a referee!

1. Set a Non-negotiable Date on the Calendar

It’s important to be consistent and make sure these meetings happen. Treat this time like any other important appointment or scheduled activity that you would make sure to keep.

Since it doesn’t feel vital, it’s easy to be tempted to put it off or reschedule, but don’t let that happen! It is important and you’ll be happy in the long run that you made it a priority.

2. Make It Fun

A good way to make sure that these dates are kept, is to make them something that you look forward to. Maybe you hire a sitter (if you have young kids) and go out for coffee, dinner or ice cream to have you budget meeting. Or just sit at home, open a bottle of wine, turn the television off and the radio on and dig into the numbers together.

Get business out of the way first and then have the second part of your night be an actual date night. Connect with your spouse, let your hair down and have a little fun!

3. Celebrate Hitting Your Goals

Let’s say that you’re trying to pay down debt or save up for a big purchase to be paid for in cash. It’s likely to happen faster, if you’re both working towards said goal together. Keep it top of mind by creating a goal progress chart and taping it to the fridge.

When you are making the last payment or reached the funds needed for your purchase, make the next step together. Sit on the couch together, fire up your laptop and hit “submit payment” together to pay off that credit card or auto note. Go to the car dealership or furniture store to buy that new love seat together. Notice a theme?

It’s What You Make of It

Like anything in life, a family budget meeting can be as exciting, fun, dull or boring as you want it to be. Be creative, be consistent and treat this time talking about your money as sacred, because it really is.

It doesn’t have to take long, it doesn’t have to be full of conflict or blame. Make some rules (including one for no arguing or sarcasm if that’s what you’re prone to) and remember to respect each other. Most of all, work together as a team!

In your family who usually handles the finances? 

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6 Quick Steps to Get Your Accounts Organized

Organizing your finances

Do you know the ins and outs of your financial accounts? I didn’t for a long time!

About two months before Steve died, I looked at him working at our kitchen table and stated, “if anything ever happened to you, I wouldn’t know where to start.” Instead of putting it off until later, he had me come with him and showed me right then how to access our finances on his computer.

He simply opened a folder, which all of our financial information was in. I figured that was good enough and went back to what I was doing. If only I knew then what I know now…

A Preview Was Not Good Enough

Fast forward to a few days after the accident. I remembered that conversation. I remembered where the folder was. I found all of our information.

The problem? It wasn’t good enough. I didn’t have enough information to act. Figuring things out was like a full-time job – when I was barely qualified to get through each day. Instead, every day I would have a plan of places to call or go to and hope to find answers. Don’t let this happen to your loved ones!

Here are six quick and simple steps that you can take this weekend to get your finances organized. Don’t forget to share them with your significant other – better yet, do this together!

1. Start a Spreadsheet

Use Excel (or another program) to make a list of all of your accounts. Include checking, savings, retirement, life insurance, loans, investments, basically everything. Locate statements, so you have full details available to complete the rest of the steps below.

2. Add Contact Info.

List contact information for each account. This may be the local bank, a financial advisor or just a customer service phone number. Make sure to list something.

3. Add Beneficiaries

List your beneficiaries for every account. Read my horror story about having incorrect beneficiaries if you need additional motivation!

Some accounts should be Payable On Death (POD) in the event that funds are needed immediately to cover costs (think the accounts at your local bank). The rest should be listed to beneficiaries or to a trust.

Many accounts do not force you to name a beneficiary – do it anyway! This avoids probate. Keeping the list handy makes it easy to review on a routine basis.

4. Add Account Numbers and Balances

Consider listing account numbers and dollar amounts for any accounts with a loan or asset balance. You should keep this information confidential with the exception of the executor of your estate or financial advisor.

Doing this will make any follow up phone calls so much easier. It’s also important when you’re trying to make changes, such as consolidating accounts.

5. Make It Accessible to the Right People

Store this information where your executor can get to it. If you have it in a safe deposit box, make sure they are a signor. I have a copy on my computer and my parents have a copy since they are now the executors of my estate.

6. Review, Review, Review

Make a plan to review your information. Keep a copy handy for a quick review. I review it annually on the anniversary of Steve’s death. I will never forget to review my information!

Do It – Before It’s Too Late

Get started by gathering all of your financial statements. Make a date (this weekend) with your significant other (if you have one) and start a spreadsheet. Add the contact info. for each company, the beneficiary, any balances and account numbers and then make it accessible to the right people. Review it annually. Rinse, cycle, repeat!

And don’t forget to list, review and update your beneficiaries! I cannot stress enough the importance of this!

Even though my beneficiaries were listed on my sheet, I worried about whether I linked everything to my trust correctly. It took a simple email to ask the bank to update my beneficiaries with the trust information. They had everything printed for me that day, I went in, reviewed it, signed and was done in five minutes. It isn’t as complicated or time intensive as you think. The peace of mind is completely worth it!

Gina: As a financial advisor, we would help clients create these and called them “single sheets.” Basically it was a one page document that encompassed all of the pertinent details of a client’s financial situation – both for the client’s benefit, as well as their beneficiaries should something happen to them. We traditionally did this for older individuals/couples, but as Erin’s experienced, EVERYONE should start and maintain one. Make sure to share this information with your spouse or build/maintain it together!

Do you have a single sheet? If not, do you now plan on starting one soon?

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6 Tips for Talking to Your Children about Death

Erin's Phone Dump 10142013 956How do you being to tell your children that their father has died?

The loss of a loved one is extremely difficult. Having to talk about death with the children left behind tears what is left of a shattered heart even further apart. I knew I couldn’t back away from these conversations – I didn’t want my children to fill in the gaps with their imagination. I also wanted to make sure they could trust me to tell them the truth. It needed to come from me and I wanted to be the source of their truth about what happened. It’s my job to define death and afterlife for our family.

Telling my mother and father-in-law that Steve had died was the worst thing that has ever come out of my mouth. Telling my children that their daddy was now an angel was the most heartbreaking thing I have ever had to say.

I was lucky that my girls had some prior knowledge of death. We had lost a dog a couple months prior to Steve’s accident. Steve was heartbroken and he took a lot of time explaining death and heaven to the girls. Even through tears he made it seem like a great place. There is no doubt that the foundation he laid made my conversations a little easier. Here are six tips for talking to your children about death.

1. Don’t Shy Away from Talking about Death

Death is part of the cycle of life. In our society, it is something that we typically shy away from talking about regularly. I don’t know if it’s because we feel ill prepared, or unqualified or if it’s because we fear that it may make people uncomfortable.

It’s important to figure out your stance and take the opportunity to talk to your children about death. If you are a Christian, talk about God and heaven. A death of a pet is a great first opportunity to start the conversation. Don’t wait until you lose someone important to introduce the concept of death!

2. Choose Your Words Wisely

If you say the person “went away” kids take that literally. They will wonder why they were left – or when they will be coming back. As hard as it was, I explained to the girls that the Jeep rolled over and daddy got hurt. He had to go to heaven to get better.

There were reasons for my honesty. They needed to know they weren’t going to see the Jeep or daddy again and they needed to know why. They especially needed to know that their daddy didn’t leave us. In fact, I reiterated hundreds of times how much their daddy loved us and how he would never choose to leave us.

The one thing that was really hard to explain was when I said that I knew their dad was near us. I said he was talking to my heart. Reanna got really sad because she couldn’t hear her daddy talking to her and she wondered why her daddy couldn’t talk to her. Remember that kids think very literally or in black/while, so be prepared to explain whatever you say in a way they can understand.

3. Help Them Remember

There were times I could hardly speak a word and Reanna would ask about her dad. She wanted to hear stories. She wanted to know if I remembered certain events. There are no words to describe the pain involved with these conversations and the amount of tears that were shed. However, it is important to keep him alive.

She was grieving in her own way and she needed to remember. She needed to be listened to. Most of all, she needed me to put my desire to curl up in a ball of tears aside and just be there as her support. She needed to know that she could count on me to be her confidant.

Here we are one year later and we still love to tell stories. I praise her for pictures that include her dad. In all of her school work we list her “angel daddy” on forms about family. The girls love to hear about their Dad. I still struggle getting through stories without tears, but the tears are worth it. They deserve to know how great their father was!

4. Explain What to Expect at the Funeral

Remember I mentioned that children are literal thinkers, right? Imagine what it is like for them to see their daddy “sleeping.” I took the time to explain that they would be seeing their daddy’s body, but only his body was left on earth. I explained that he got a new body in heaven, one that was not broken.

This brought on questions for months about how daddy gets to heaven, what he looks like in heaven and all sorts of different things. I still do not know how to explain it all to them, but I am honest and tell them that I don’t have the answers.

I tried to keep the girls away from the coffin, but they did have their time to see him. I still remember Kaelyn saying, “Daddy, wake up!” Talk about a heartbreaking moment!

The girls had a nanny – Steph – and I asked her to play with the girls during the visitation. I wanted them to be there, but I wanted them to be able to be kids as well. They played outside in their dresses. Someone went and got them ice cream cones. They were content and taken care of – that meant the world to me. They came and went as they pleased, which allowed me to focus on trying to keep myself together.

I remember driving by the “bubble,” where Steve’s funeral was held and Reanna asking if we could stop and see her daddy in the box again. She said she just wanted to see him one more time. Don’t we all baby girl…

Above all, follow any leads your children give you. Reanna leaned over and asked me if she could say something on the microphone in the middle of the funeral. I asked if she was sure – she was. The song, I Miss My Friend was played – it was the same song we played at our wedding for three special loved ones missing on our special day. I placed a rose on his coffin during the song and walked Reanna up on the stage, much to the pastor’s surprise. I asked for the microphone and at the end of the song handed it to Reanna. I didn’t know what to expect, but she simply looked at a packed basketball gym and stated, “I love daddy” and handed the microphone back to me. Her strength at four years old amazed me!

5. Talk to Other’s Children about Their Loved One

First, it is absolutely okay to talk about any fun, uplifting stories involving the person that passed away. Be sure to ask ahead of time how the death was explained to the child if you do plan to talk about that person.

Children like to ask questions and your intent may not be to bring up the person’s death, but a child may ask anyway. Be prepared to answer. They need to know it isn’t a scary or a taboo subject.

Align what you say to what they have heard from others – even if you don’t agree. Children need a consistent message. My in-laws did a great job giving me a heads up about any questions the girls asked and how they answered the questions when I wasn’t there. This ensured that we never broke the children’s trust by giving them two different stories.

6. Seek Help

I’ll admit that I didn’t seek help for me or my children, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend it. I asked for referrals from the state patrol and our family doctor. I only wanted to go somewhere that specialized in children’s grief. I wanted someone I could trust.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t anyone that was a clear choice – even in Fargo, which is 60 miles away. So, I studied and read up on how children manage grief. One thing that I am good at is learning – this activity made me feel like I was doing something to help my children through this.

As you can imagine this was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. I still consider myself lucky – lucky to have married such a wonderful partner in life that loved me and my girls with his whole heart. He will always be remembered as an amazing father and husband.

It’s so important to introduce your children to the concept of death early on – you never know when loss will happen. Consider the six tips above as you do and pass this message on. Death is hard – but you can make it easier by talking. Find the right words to say and start preparing your family today. Hopefully you’ll never experience a loss like mine, but the loss of a grandparent or another close relative or friend is hard and confusing too. Be prepared!

My children were young (four and two) when my husband died. Do you have experience with older children or teenagers? Anything you’d change or add to my list?

Married and Dating? It’s Not What You Think!

Married and Dating?Widowhood has a unique set of challenges in today’s society.

Being a widow means that your marriage ended without either of you making the choice to end it. To this day I cannot accept that I am single. I cannot utter the word for the simple fact that I am not single – I am married and will always be married.

I do not have an ex-husband, nor am I a single parent.  I’m a solo mom, with a partner in heaven. I am a widow.

That Awkward Moment

A few weeks ago I was out on a date with my significant other and another couple. At dinner I was talking about “my husband” and the lady across from me stopped me and said, “You mean your ex-husband? I said, “No, my husband.  I’m a widow. I don’t have an ex-husband.” Society assumes that people my age are divorced, not widowed. That’s both understandable and disheartening at the same time!

If you are on the other side of the conversation – NO WORRIES! I’m happy that I don’t have a flashing sign that tells you I am a widow. I (we) do not expect you to know our story. My Widowed Life post highlighted some ways to embrace the term widow and the new definition I have given that word.

Breaking the News to a New Date

When is a good time to break the news to a date that you are a widow? I’d say whenever you are comfortable! If the person on the other side of the table can’t accept or handle your journey, then they probably aren’t the right one to take on the path with you.

How much you share with that person will likely depend on how well you know them. If they were a friend before you started dating, they likely know your story. If you were set up by another friend, find out before your date what the other person knows about you.

Everyone has a journey in life. There are people you meet that make a big impact on who you are. For better or worse, your spouse (or ex-spouse if you are divorced) was one of them.

You Have a Date – Now What?

One thing I’ve learned was to temper just how much I talked about Steve. I started dating a person that had been my confidant as I was going through the pain of losing Steve. He had heard every story that came to my head, learned about my regrets and was there as I discovered the strength I needed to continue.

The first part of our friendship was all about me working through losing Steve – and on the flip side, him working through losing his wife through divorce. We were a mess alone, but together somehow we started to become whole.

We were able to lean on each other during the very difficult times and he was truly a lifeline to me. About six months after Steve died, we decided to give dating a try.

Shortly after that I realized that by talking about Steve in every conversation I wasn’t really living in the moment with Jon. I never plan to quit talking about Steve, but there has to be a balance.

This was not an easy transition for me and I still talk about Steve in most of our conversations. Talking about him keeps him alive for me. The difference today, is that my memories do not dominate the conversation. I can enjoy the present, look forward to my future and never forget the past.

Breaking the News to Others

You would think the hardest thing about being a widow dating would be the date. Wrong! The hardest part is dealing with the other people in your life that may not be ready for you to start living again.

One of my widowed friends said it best, “If you are divorced in society and start dating the next week everyone congratulates you. If you are a widow, you are expected to sit with your broken heart and grieve forever.”

Remember, this is your life and your journey. Everyone else is able to go back to “normal”, while you no longer have anything that resembles normal.  If you find someone that makes you happy, then by all means be with them.

People will judge you for dating too soon and eventually for not dating soon enough (or so I am told). I have fallen into the too soon category.  There doesn’t seem to be a just right category. Expect this. Do what is right for you.  If you find a person that interests you and helps you live the life you want to live, then go for it! There is no right time, just the right person.

Receiving negative or unsupportive feedback hurts! It cuts you to your core and when you are really in the infancy stage of rebuilding your life, it can be painful and very isolating. Know that you are not alone.

No matter where your loss stems from – death or divorce – dating is hard! It is awkward, you judge yourself and you wonder if you are really ready. If you are lucky enough to find a real connection, it can renew your spirit.

Starting a new relationship takes guts! If you are a friend or family member of someone that is grieving a loss, be supportive of their decisions. They have likely spent weeks or months trying to figure out what is right for them. As long as it doesn’t put them in danger, keep your opinions to yourself and just be happy to see them smile.

3 Simple Ways to Show Your Support

1. Ask About the New Person

Then follow that up by genuinely listening. Ask questions because you care to hear all about the other person, not because you are challenging their sanity. There is a noticable difference!

2. Meet the Individual

Hold any judgements for after you actually meet the new person. Then follow the advice above and listen to really learn about them. What do they enjoy doing? What do you have in common? Why do they think your friend/sister/brother/daughter is amazing?

3. Invite the Couple to Socialize

Invite your widowed (or divorced) friend/family member to events that you may be hosting. Giving the open invitation is much more inviting than having to ask if you can bring an extra person.

4 Tips for the Widow/Divorcee

1. Don’t Feel Shame About Your Relationship

People will judge you. Have confidence and remember, this is your life and your happiness.

Sometimes people judge you because they see strength, courage and your will to live your life after loss. Not all judgement is bad! Sometimes it just feels that way.

2. Consider Your Public Relationship

Consider how much air time you are both comfortable giving your relationship in the beginning stages, especially on social media. Jon and I have chosen to keep our relationship relatively private (although I include him in my public writings – thank goodness for his common name!).

You would have a hard time finding pictures online of the two of us – that is intentional for the time being. The reason? We wanted to avoid unnecessary drama. We have both met each other’s families and many close friends. We enjoy our time out and yet it keeps our relationship stress low to remain off the digital grid – for now!

3. Find a Word You Are Comfortable With

I still can’t bring myself to introduce Jon as my boyfriend and he has never called me his girlfriend. It just seems too weird to use those terms since we have both been married.

We laughed about these words a long time ago and yet, we still haven’t come up with a good introduction. For now it is “friend” which is not my favorite…hmm, I may need to revisit this one myself!

3. Surround Your Relationship With Support

I was ignorant and thought that because people loved me they would like to see me happy and would support me. I was wrong. My new relationship made them uncomfortable and they made me feel like I was doing something wrong.

When you are just getting on your feet, this is a horrible feeling. It took a lot of time for me to move past the hurt of that experience. Surround yourself with those that will build you and your new relationship up – people that give you strength and confidence in your ability to be the champion of your life.

My New Perspective

I realized just how much judgement I was passing on to others by going through this experience. Over the years I have heard people judge others for being happy – those that have been divorced (and heaven forbid want an actual wedding for marriage #2!), those that have children out of wedlock and even those that started dating too soon after becoming a widow/widower. I’m here to say NO MORE!

I was appalled at these thoughts when I realized they crossed my own mind at times. I felt sorrow for the times and the people I had judged, even if it was only in my head. That was a reflection of ME, not them or their choices.

Now I revel in other’s happiness. When people I know and love are happy, I am happy too. It’s as simple as that!

Fellow widows or divorcees, what advice would you add for those that are going to reenter the dating scene?

Building a Bucket List – Part 3!

Photo Credit: tubblesnap via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: tubblesnap via Compfight cc

I only planned to have two bucket list posts until it dawned on me that I forgot a couple important categories!  One more bucket list post it is, as some of these ideas are worth sharing!

Read part one and part two here!

“Adults are always asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, because they are looking for ideas.” ~Paula Poundstone

Dreaming as Children

As children we all dream of what we will be when we grow up. I dreamed of being a veterinarian, a fighter pilot, a firefighter or a doctor. Steve had dreams of being a race car driver and a teacher.

Our dreams evolved as we grew older – as we grew together it became more and more important for us to understand what we truly wanted to get out of our working lives. We didn’t have 9-5 jobs, as we often worked on the weekends and many evenings. We’d spend this extra time working outside of the office at home, where we strategized and worked on each other’s projects.

We enjoyed the challenge that work presented us and most importantly, we truly enjoyed working together. The beauty came in that we didn’t work in the same company or industry, so we learned a lot from each other. We were also able to help each other do our own jobs better and came to understand our individual strengths and weaknesses. We understood what drove us and how that played into where we ended up in our careers. We coached, supported, and mentored each other as a natural part of our relationship.

An Ultimate Career List

Together we started an ultimate career list. Steve wanted to teach business classes to college students and coach softball during the summer. He had a passion for teaching and contributing to the next generation.

I realized that I truly enjoy problem solving, coaching and developing others. I like operations and I have a passion for safety. I couldn’t (and still can’t!) put my finger on exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I do know what I’m looking for in the jobs I am interested in.

We decided one night to put our heads together and try to figure out how we could live the life we wanted while still providing for our children. We came up with a plan and a dream that was all our own. We were in alignment and before I knew it Steve had put together a marketing plan and was designing a website. He couldn’t wait for us to live our career dreams together – because for us – it meant more time working on problems together (which we loved) and also more time together as a family. Ah, dreams!

We also had a discussion about what it would mean for our family finances if he wanted to “retire” in 5-10 year and start teaching. We mapped it out and I was fully supportive of his desire to teach, even if it meant a more stringent budget.

The benefit of a career bucket list is that it aligns you to what you really want to get out of a career. For some it is a paycheck, for others it is a title and for us it was the difference we could make on the organizations we worked in and the people we worked alongside. For our relationship it meant the feeling of support and freedom in our career options. The world was our oyster and we knew that we were each other’s number one fans no matter what dreams we had for the future.

Things That Made Our List

I didn’t mention things in either of my other bucket list posts and while we tried not to be materialistic, there were a couple things on our list. Steve dreamed of having a woodworking shop. Woodworking was also a source of pride for him and he dreamed of making many things for me and our girls. It was a stress reliever and something he truly enjoyed doing.

When we decided to build a barn, we allocated 1/4 of it to a shop meant for woodworking. He was so excited to get his shop done, but not before he hand built some gorgeous horse stalls for me. That was Steve.

After he passed, finishing his shop became a focal point for me. I don’t do woodworking, although I do know how to use many of the tools. Employees from Grotberg Electric, the company Steve worked for, came and finished the wiring and the lighting. Some of my co-workers came and helped me finish some of the siding. I finished the walls that Steve had started and it gave me an enormous sense of accomplishment. I finished a dream that he had started.

Steve also had a dream of restoring a 1967 (I think!) Mustang. I told him that he could do a project like that when he would actually have time to finish it. I was assuming this would be in 20+ years. It’s not something he ever got around to unfortunately.

We both dreamed of finishing our basement to make it a place that we could entertain friends. We dreamed of having a fireplace, a bar and unsurprisingly for everyone that knew Steve – surround sound. We have everything plumbed in and the wires run. All we needed to do was wait until our daughters were a little older to add in the nice touches.

Working on this project brought a lot of growth in our relationship – we had to take our two individual visions and somehow form one. We had disagreements, went to home shows and spent lots of time comparing notes regarding what we wanted. We both ended up giving a little and it reminded us that while we each had individual wants, we could come together and compromise to make us both happy. The vision we formed together was far better than what either of us had thought of alone.

More Than Travel

As you can see, bucket lists can be for more than where you want to travel. For us, they were a way to define the dreams and desires of our hearts. We could make them tangible by writing them down and assessing progress over time. Some of them were accomplished during Steve’s life, some I accomplished or finished on my own (or with help) after he passed and some are still on the list awaiting the right time or funding.

We all have to have goals in life – it’s part of what makes life worth living. You need some sort of direction to move towards. If you haven’t already, I challenge you to get out a piece of paper (or hop on your computer) and start brainstorming some place, things or events to add to your list. What’s keeping you?

What could you do in the next year to Live Your List?

My Experience with Life Insurance – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Photo Credit: feministjulie via Compfight cc Photo Credit: feministjulie via Compfight cc

Figuring out and obtaining enough life insurance is a task that is easy to put off, forget about or wrongly assume that you have enough of it.

Steve and I knew that we didn’t have enough. We took action and worked with a financial advisor to understand what we would likely need and were given quotes for different types of coverage. We completed our applications and only had our blood tests and physicals left to do.

Then, life got in the way. The applications proceeded to the bottom of the pile on our desk, which is equivalent to a black hole. We never got it done. Then Steve died.

Knowing that we did not have the coverage that we needed added A LOT of financial stress to an already extremely emotional and overwhelming time. When you add the surprise beneficiary issues I ran into, it made the worst time in my life even tougher.

Life insurance was one of many things I relied on Steve to handle. I trusted him implicitly, so when he said what we needed I agreed. After he died, I needed to learn a lot of things. One of my priorities was to learn more about life insurance.

Combing through my life insurance policies and adding additional coverage was a very high priority for me. I had to make sure that my girls would be financially okay if anything ever happened to me.  Here is what I learned (the hard way) about the different types of life insurance that are out there.

I am NOT a financial advisor, so before you decide what you need please pursue professional advice.

Term Life Insurance

Term life policies provide life insurance protection for a specific period of time. If you live past the end of the term, the policy simply terminates unless it is renewed. Renewal at that point tends to be extremely expensive.

With guaranteed level term insurance both the premium and the amount of coverage (death benefit) remain level for a set period of time, i.e. 10, 15 or 20 years are all very common. Many policies are also convertible to permanent coverage for a portion or all of the term.

You can also secure group term insurance through your employer benefits (provided you have them). Typically these are not portable, so if you leave your job (or your job leaves you), you no longer have coverage. Usually it makes the most sense to have some sort of individual life insurance.

Permanent Life Insurance

Permanent insurance policies provide protection for your entire life as long as you pay the premium to keep the policy in force. With a permanent policy, a portion of each payment goes to the cost of insurance and a portion goes into a savings or investment account that can build over time.

This cash value grows tax-deferred as long as the policy is in force (and you follow the rules). If you cancel the policy before you die, you will receive the cash value in the account (minus any surrender charges), but may be subject to taxation (depending on your cost basis).

There are other definitions that are used to represent different types of permanent life insurance.

  • Whole life enables a person to make equal payments for their life or as long as they want the policy in effect. The death benefit and cash value are predetermined and guaranteed. Gerber life is a good example of this.
  • Universal life allows policyholders to pay premiums at any time, in any amount (within set limits), as long as the policy expenses and the insurance costs are met. The amount of insurance coverage can be changed and the cash value will grow at a predetermined interest rate. The interest rate may vary over the length of the policy, but there is usually a guaranteed minimum.
  • Variable life also enables a person to pay a level premium for their life. The difference between this type of policy and the whole life policy is that the death benefit and cash value will fluctuate depending o the performance of investments. This policy has sub-accounts which are similar to mutual funds. Another way to think of this money is a pool of investor funds professionally managed. The policy owner has the ability to select the sub-accounts in which their money is invested (from the available list) to coincide with their individual risk tolerance.
  • Variable universal life is a combination of universal and variable life insurance. A person can pay premiums at any time and amount (within limits) as long as the costs are covered. The amount of the insurance coverage can be changed and the cash value goes up or down based on investment performance in the sub-accounts.

My Experience Filing Claims

Some insurance companies give policy holders the option for “extras” such as accident, cancer, or long term disability coverage. Generally speaking (and depending on the cost) they may be worth it. I say “may” because of the experience I had. Steve had three different policies through three different companies.

One company (Aflac) refused to pay out the policy because of their long list of exclusions. The second company (MetLife) paid out the entire amount only to request half of it back – apparently due to a policy change that no one could find documented. PLEASE hang on to your actual insurance policy and any policy changes, especially those with your signature on it.

I fought this one and asked them to produce the copy that showed the new exclusions (I apparently had the “old” policy which did not list the contested exclusion) and they never produced it. They eventually turned it into collections and threatened court all without ever producing the proof – how awful is that?

The cost of fighting it coupled with the fact that I was fighting to survive each day forced me to return half the money without having the simple courtesy of seeing Steve’s signature accepting a change.

The third company (Dakota Capital Life) is a private life insurance fund and they paid the whole amount. I was beyond grateful to this organization for not trying to get out of what they owed.

Do Your Homework

Read the exclusions in each policy and determine if the exclusions are so far reaching and vague that they will exclude any “likely” cause of death for you. Compare the exclusions to your normal activities. Some companies are great – while others seem to be there to collect money, but never pay.

There are a ton of options out there – don’t let the extensive list keep you from taking action. Life insurance is an investment, whether you buy a term or a permanent contract. We all hope it is something that ultimately isn’t needed due to a premature death.

Remember, the policy isn’t for you – it is for those that you leave behind. The small cost is absolutely worth it.

What I Did

Again – I am not a financial advisor!  I opted for a 30 year term life insurance policy. My reasoning was this – in 30 years I will not have a mortgage. My children will be out of college and I will have enough cash saved in my retirement accounts to cover all of my final expenses and any debts I may have at that time.

The primary goal of my life insurance is to ensure my children are taken care of if God forbid something happened to me. As adults, I fully expect them to be capable of paying all of their own bills. The 30 year term policy was really affordable, it can be cancelled when/if it is no longer needed and my rate is locked in until I am 59, which is great!

The policy is not tied to an employer – it is my own personal policy. Having this coverage means I do not need to rely on an employer to provide it and it can’t change as benefit packages change.

I also have a second life insurance policy through my employer. This policy allows me to have 8X my annual salary, up to a specified amount. I chose the max, so as my annual salary increases (hopefully!), so does my coverage until I hit the limit.

This policy also allowed me to have up to $10,000 of coverage on each of my children. I chose to include that coverage since I know too well that unexpected nightmares do happen.

The total cost of Steve’s funeral, cremation and headstone well surpassed $10,000. Death is expensive – please make sure you have some coverage for those left behind. I hope that by me sharing my journey full of challenges, that you’ll do things differently while you still have time.

When’s the last time you looked at your coverage? Do you know where your policies physically are?