Blindsided by Bills

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Hugh Kretschmer / The Atlantic

Our reader series on financial insecurity has really struck a chord, as your emails continue to stream in. This short dispatch from Amanda is devastating:

My mother died of breast cancer because she couldn’t afford a mammogram, and she was too ashamed to ask anyone in the family for help. By the time her cancer was discovered, it was stage 3 and had spread to her lungs and elsewhere. She had no insurance because she had been fired from her job after 19 years—less than one year before they would have owed her a pension. She couldn’t afford COBRA, and this was before the ACA.

Her medical care and Hospice were eventually paid by Medicaid. A free mammogram not only would have allowed her to see her grandchildren grow up, but it would have saved tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars.

This next reader was also hit with a medical crisis:

The biggest unexpected event happened when my husband had to stop working and go on social security disability due to a health issue. That was six years ago, and he is still unable to work more than a few hours per week. (He’s tried a few times.) Fortunately I have found a job that allows me to work from home, because I’m now a full-time caregiver, but my salary is half what I used to earn.

The cost of medical bills and prescription drugs is like a weight around our ankles. There is one drug that his doctor wants him to take, but at $800 a month it’s not ever going to happen. This is our lot in life for good. His condition is not curable, and unless a miracle treatment comes down the pike, he will continue on as he is now, or get worse.

Aside from the financial stress, it’s taken a toll on his spirit to not be able to provide for his family in the way he feels every man should.

We have stripped everything we possibly can in order to keep us afloat. The only “luxury” we have is that our teen son is in a private school for the gifted. Our local public schools are a nightmare, and we were fortunate enough to receive excellent scholarships that cover almost all of the tuition. For the rest, we took out loans. I don’t apologize for that. Education is top priority in this household. My son sacrifices in every other way due to our financial situation. We feel this is the one thing we can give him to get him started in the world.

I never imagined that I’d be in this situation, but life happens and we continue to try to roll with the punches.

Monica is also resilient in the face of tragedy:

Linda and Neal and others, you are not alone … far from it. I am 63, and I, too, am living from one paycheck to the next.

This century has not been good to me. In 2002, my husband died of cancer at 45, leaving his intellectually and physically disabled child with me. I was a public school administrator who, when my child’s medical conditions exploded beyond the control of medical science, took a five-month leave of absence to care for her.

When I did go back to work, it was not as the principal I had been. I, too, needed health leave: I was stressed beyond my ability to cope effectively with the demands of both my personal and professional lives. By 2008, my health had deteriorated to the point that I took an early retirement and consequently a much smaller pension than if I had stayed to 62.

Then the Great Recession hit, the value of my home plummeted by 50%, the job that was to begin in September 2008 vanished, and I couldn’t find regular work because of my age. I survived by having the pension check go to the mortgage and doing sporadic substitute teaching for utilities and groceries.

I did have a phenomenal stroke of luck when I was offered a fellowship to earn an advanced degree in special education in 2009. I don’t know how I would have survived without that opportunity. I began an entirely new career at the age of 59 and became nationally certified in my field at 62.

I was able to refinance the house at a very low rate (I was financed with a local credit union that worked diligently with and for me), created a rental property in the basement, and continue to have hens in my backyard and grow my own or to shop locally for fresh food.

I can’t afford to move (rents are high), and I can barely afford to stay, but here I am because I am surrounded by a wonderful, supportive community. They peeled me off the sidewalk when I fell down a set of concrete stairs breaking bones in both legs in 2015 and brought me meals until I was able to go back to my part-time work (no paid sick leave) two months later.

I love my tiny cottage, I am near my family, and my neighborhood supports one another, so I live a simple, almost comfortable life here. I will never see Europe, or travel the U.S., or do any of the activities that I aspired to for the third act of my life. The mortgage will be paid in full when I am 88. I still awaken in the night and wonder what will happen if there is an emergency.

This reader’s spouse also got hit with cancer:

As a teenager, I guess I was unusual in that I remember subscribing (in 1980) to a couple of periodicals on personal finance and reading them cover to cover every month. I’m not entirely sure why, I simply wanted to understand money. Those magazines were full of articles on 401Ks, IRAs, and planning for retirement and the like. I took that financial education to heart and applied it as I moved into the work force.

After I married, completed graduate school and began working as an engineer, I took on the responsibility to manage our family’s finances.  My wife was content to live within the budget we had set that included saving a significant percentage of our income. I started using Quicken to track expenses, I created spreadsheets to fully understand and budget for the purchase of our first home.  I set our asset allocations for our investments within our 401Ks. With each raise, I increased our 401K contribution until we reached the maximum allowable contribution every year and have reached that maximum for as long as I can remember. Annual bonuses from work were saved and invested.

We purchased a home significantly cheaper than the amount of a loan that the banks would have loaned to us. We have never in our 26 years of marriage carried a credit card balance and pay off the balance completely every month. We strove to set our budget so that my wife could quit working to raise children when they came along.  It turns out she continued working part-time while we raised our children and so we have continued to aggressively save.  

Life hasn’t always been perfect by any means. My wife was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 but is now in remission. Our high deductible health insurance paid the lions share of the chemotherapy drugs, but we had no problem paying the full deductible and max out of pocket expenses during her years of treatment.

I imagine that many people would see such an event as a catastrophic financial event, yet we had savings readily available to cover the costs without adding additional stress to her effort to get better.  It was a life altering event, but it didn’t alter our financial life.

Now that I am nearing the end of my working career, I feel quite guilty being blessed as we have been and knowing that so many people in our country have followed quite a different financial path, as Mr. Gabler has done. I hope my email doesn’t sound egregiously prideful, but the lessons learned by our grandparents during the Great Depression were lost on the Baby Boomers. I hope that articles like Mr. Gabler’s are a lesson that the younger generations can learn from. I know that I have tried to teach my sons these principles ... only time will tell.