Medical bills, death of husband add to financial woes
Single mother stressed out by mountain of unpaid bills.
Special to The Seattle Times
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Joy Eckwood didn’t expect to become a widow two years ago at 44.
Things were already tough even before her husband, Terry, was diagnosed with cancer in 2009.
The Tacoma house the couple bought for $285,000 at the peak of the 2006 real-estate market was underwater. Neither Terry’s commission-based sales job nor Joy’s work in social-services ministry was enough to pay the mortgage.
To make partial house payments and chip away at student loans for the Seattle University master’s degree in public administration Joy earned in 2007, Terry took a seasonal job, and the couple let their life-insurance policies lapse while trying to catch up financially.
After that, she says, “words can’t even describe” the next 18 months.
While dealing with her own breast-cancer scare, Joy lost her grandmother and inherited one-third of the older woman’s house in New Jersey.
Joy assumed payments on the East Coast house so that one of the other two heirs — her partially disabled uncle — could have a place to live.
Meanwhile, her son, who had been in an auto accident, began suffering grand mal seizures.
The tipping point came in June 2009.
Sidelined from work by pain, Terry “finally broke down and saw a doctor on a Friday,” she says. “By Monday, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.”
Eight months after his diagnosis, Joy was laid off.
During her husband’s illness, a glitch in her unemployment benefits and a six-month delay in Terry’s disability payments created an income gap that “almost left us homeless,” she says.
“Without the kindness of friends — people helping pay our mortgage, keeping our van running, bringing food to the house — we would have been living in the gutter.”
In mid-2010, Joy was nursing her husband, trying to pay all their bills, supporting one son in college and still raising two of their other five children.
By the time Terry entered hospice in September, Joy’s health had deteriorated, too. “I wasn’t eating,” she recalls.
When Terry passed away in December 2010, the new widow had little time to regroup: A long-awaited job started one week later.
Joy says her faith, friends and a “determination to leave some kind of legacy for my kids” kept her going through the grief.
And yet, though she lights up while talking about her job as diversity program manager for the Washington State Bar Association, she also describes the “many nights when I get home and I still have work projects to complete.”
“It’s all I can to do to bring the mail from the mailbox and get it into the house. Sometimes that’s as far as the bills get. They’re just stacking up. It makes me feel as I’m getting even deeper in the hole.”
Between her $73,000 annual salary and the $25,000 in her husband’s Social Security benefits that she collects each year for her kids, she laments, “I know I look good on paper — but I just can’t seem to get out of debt.”
Weary of a combined $400,000 in debts, Joy filled out an online survey to participate in a free financial makeover with a member of the Puget Sound Chapter of the Financial Planning Association.
When paired with chapter member Laurie Klein, a certified financial planner and principal with Bellevue-based Kaizen Financial Advisors, the two women started ripping open the mountain of bill envelopes to face the figures.
Klein jumped right in by showing Joy how to organize her debts into three categories.
“First, there were the bills she could get rid of right away,” says Klein. “These are debts that are under $1,000.”
In fact, says Klein, half of the bills on Joy’s kitchen table were under that mark.
“We looked at eight bills — $55 here, $172 there, all under $1,000,” says Klein. “We both agreed to earmark $1,000 per month to pay these off in three months. Paying off her small bills means receiving one less piece of paper each month, and it reduces her level of stress.”
The second category to target?
“Midrange things — bills over $1,000 but less $10,000,” says Klein.
Three vendors, including health-care providers, account for Joy’s bills in this group.
In one case, Klein points out, “one-third of a $3,000 bill is interest accrual.”
“It can be worth a call to the vendor and explain your situation,” says Klein. “See if they will accept payment just on the principal. In many cases, they just want their money.”
Stressful as looking at the figures might be, reading the fine print is vital when reviewing bills, Klein adds.
“(Joy) has one bill where she owes $461, but there is an opportunity for her to pay $100,” Klein says. “Once paid, the letter says, it will reflect the bill as settled and closed.”
Klein recommends lumping Joy’s highest bills for $10,000 and higher into a final category. Her mortgage and student loans fall in here. Klein says, “ I only recommend bankruptcy as a last option. I think there is enough opportunity there that she (Joy) should be able to whittle herself out of this problem” and avoid another bankruptcy. (The Eckwoods settled a bankruptcy case in 1996.)
Though Joy could never have foreseen her husband’s early death and its financial consequences, Klein says all homebuyers need to think about life insurance, disability insurance and a cash reserve when buying a house.
In hindsight, Klein notes, Joy regrets dropping their life insurance.
“If you have a large mortgage relative to your income and assets, insurance and cash reserve are important things to have,” the planner says.
“If you or your family experience a health problem or loss of job, you could find yourself financially stretched and not able to make your mortgage payments.”
In general, Klein encourages clients to buy term life insurance while they are young.
For about $50 a month, a healthy person in his or her 30s can find a $1 million, 20-year term insurance policy by shopping online, she says.
Even with adequate insurance coverage, Klein says homebuyers need to be cautious about how much they pay for a home. As a rule, she says, a mortgage payment shouldn’t exceed 30 percent of the owner’s monthly income.
“If it’s greater, you’re not going to be able to save for retirement,” she adds. “Although real estate is an asset, for most owners it is also their greatest liability.”
Meanwhile, Klein suggests Joy begin steering the Social Security benefits, which will expire when her teens are grown, toward paying off the larger debts she faces.
At the same time, Joy needs to make new arrangements with her family about her role in the East Coast house she partially inherited.
If Joy is the only adult making payments, Klein believes this should translate to a greater percentage of her eventual outright ownership. Otherwise, says Klein, Joy’s New Jersey family members need to start paying a fair share of the expenses.
That’s not always an easy discussion for women who are often “nurturers and caregivers,” says Klein. “Women tend to want to care for everyone else before themselves. Instead, her goal should be to build a solid financial foundation and then help her loved ones.”
Taking each of these steps, says Klein, needs to be “a priority. If you don’t make an effort to correct your course of action, your situation isn’t going to get better; it will get worse. It’s bad for your health and your relationships.
“Remember: just tackling that first level is going to make it feel like a brand new day. For Joy, it will be a huge weight off her shoulders.”