On Christmas Eve my brother Paul rang me out of the blue. It was just after dinner and I’d stopped all of my “OMG I’m hosting Christmas!” running around, so I poured a glass of wine and sat out on the front verandah and talked with him.
We spoke for maybe 20 or 30 minutes about lots of things. His son, a young dad, is undergoing chemo, my son was still in hospital with a brand-new skin graft on his foot, our Mum is in hospital ‘enjoying’ physical rehab for her broken shoulder… but we also talked about more fun things as well! At the end of his call, I thanked him for taking the time to do it because I really enjoyed it. He replied that it was good to hear my voice.
I may never be able to have a conversation like that with him again.
You see, on Christmas morning my brother had a stroke. He’s 54.
We knew Christmas Day was going to be a bit different this year, what with Mum walking around with a walker and Ryan24 being in hospital waiting to be released. I got everything ready that could possibly be prepared in advance the day before, with David26 and Ryan23 cleaning the house like mad. The next morning, I got the text from Ryan24 saying. ‘Come now. Physio’s going to be here soon‘ so I jumped in the car and raced off to Dandenong hospital. The last thing I saw when I walked out the door was Evan23 – a vegetarian – slicing the Christmas ham.
When we arrived home a couple of hours later, Christmas festivities were in full swing. Ryan24 hobbled in on his crutches, with a bandaged foot and bandaged thigh from where they took the skin graft. He has to keep the foot totally elevated for at least a week, so we settled him down at the end of the table where no one would bump his foot. Ryan23 was holding sway in the kitchen, champagne in hand, while everyone else was gathered around the coffee table enjoying the pre-lunch nibbles and drinks. I smiled. It looked like the perfect Christmas.
We were 10 around the table. My nieces weren’t there because they had to work, but for the first time ever we had a girlfriend – David26’s Izzy. Her family celebrate Christmas at night so she was able to join us. Mum and Dad, my sister Kate and brother-in-law Francis, my boys and me. Paul and Jen were spending Christmas with their immediate family.
On Christmas we always eat the main meal, then break for presents, then finish up with desserts. We were halfway through the gift-giving, where one person opens a gift at a time so we can all see what everyone gets when my phone rang. I grabbed it and slipped into my room to answer it. It was my sister-in-law Jen, telling me that she and the kids were at Monash because Paul had had a stroke that morning.
He was very lucky. He was in the shower when it happened and Jen heard the thump as he went down. Within 10 minutes the ambos were there and he was being hooked up to everything he needed to be hooked up to. He was swept straight to the hospital.
It was a strange conversation. In one ear I was hearing Jen’s voice telling me this dreadful news, while in the other ear I could hear the family laughing and joking, completely unaware of what was going on. I told Jen that I’d wait until after the gifts were open and then I’d tell them. We hung up and I went back into the room.
Sometimes being a drama teacher comes in handy. No one had a clue anything was wrong until after the last present was opened. As you can imagine, Christmas fizzled straight after that, with people leaving for the hospital immediately after hearing the news. A lot of desserts were thrown out that night…
That was 6 days ago. Paul’s speech is totally slurred. It’s major progress that he can lift his hand to scratch his chin. He had to have 2 shunts put into his brain to drain fluid away from his brain when he lapsed into unconsciousness a few days ago. It’s going to be a long road.
One thing that keeps playing on my mind, being the financial independence blogger that I am, was our conversation on Christmas Eve. I mentioned that I was dropping down to part-time next year as a glide-path towards retirement and he replied, “I can’t even think about that. I can’t afford to retire.” He laughed.
Well, no one’s laughing now.
Financial Independence and its little cousin, being Debt-Free, isn’t an optional extra if you want to have freedom and security in life. If you have to turn up to work for the paycheque, even if something catastrophic has happened to you or a loved one, then you aren’t secure and you aren’t free.
We’re coming to the end of the break between Christmas and New Years. Paul will be in hospital for at least 2 months before he goes to rehab. Jen will have to make a lot of decisions going forward, particularly in how she’ll be juggling her full-time job and caring for her husband. The decision-making would be that little bit simpler if things like mortgage and car payments weren’t a consideration.
I’m not pointing the finger at Paul and Jen. No one ever sees this sort of thing coming. But then again, that’s the point, isn’t it?
When we think of FIRE, we think of people taking back years, sometimes decades, to do the things they really want to do. We think of travelling the world, throwing away the alarm clock, going for hikes mid-week and generally having the freedom to design the life that suits each of us. We think of all the enjoyable things we could be doing. We don’t think of being hooked up to machines, unable to make anyone understand you, possibly having brain damage and having to face the possibility of never being independent again.
But isn’t that when you’d really want the freedom to make decisions that aren’t based on finances? To choose to do (or not do) things purely based on what was best for YOU, rather than what was cheapest or what enables the breadwinner to keep bringing home the money needed to keep a roof over your heads? Imagine how much stress would be lifted from the situation if finances weren’t an issue.
Seeing my brother lying in that hospital bed brought home to me the utter importance of financial security. All of these steps are talked about in the FIRE world. But it bears repeating when viewed through the lens of what has happened to Paul and Jen.
- Put together an Emergency Fund of around 3 – 6 months of expenses. Then leave it alone. Don’t tap into it unless you have a real emergency. Then, if your hot water service dies or your car breaks down, top it up again as soon as possible. This pool of money is there for when the worst happens. It allows your family the time and space to gather your feet under yourselves and have a calm window of time in which to assess the situation. When something completely unexpected hits, it’s a huge shock to the system. Being able to have the time and space to regroup and begin to move forward is a huge gift to your loved ones.
- Get rid of debt. All of it. People talk about “good debt and bad debt” but really… all debt is bad debt. You’ve essentially taken money from your future self to buy things that your present self wants and you’re making your future self pay extra (because of the interest) for the privilege. That’s all fine and dandy when things are going to plan. But if something bad happens? You’ve locked your future self into a very stressful situation. Be kind to your future self. Don’t do that to them. Get out of debt as soon as you can. It may not be quick. It took me 17 years to pay off my house. But the feeling of security and freedom when I made that last payment was unforgettable.
- Invest. Make your money start working for you. I’ve been stony broke – hey, I wrote about it on my ‘About’ page. It took years to dig myself out of that hole, but it was worth it. Now, I’m earning more from my investments than I’m making at my full-time job. (It’s incredible. All those charts and tables about compound interest are actually true.) But the really precious thing about it is that by building up my investments, I’m giving Future Frogdancer the gift of security and CHOICES. Hopefully, the only type of choice I’ll be making is deciding which country I’ll be travelling to each year. But if things turn pear-shaped, I, or my children, will be financially able to make the best decisions for my care going forward.
Steadily working on these steps is the smart thing to do. They range from short to long-term goals but in the end, the time is going to pass anyway so I figure that you may as well give yourself some financial stability and freedom while the years go by. Speaking from the vantage point of my mid-fifties, I’m extremely grateful to Past Frogdancer that she didn’t lose sight of the overarching goal of providing a secure base for the family as the years went by.
Financial Independence is a wonderful thing to experience when you’re young and healthy. The world is your oyster and you can live it to the full. But I think that Financial Independence really comes into its own when things don’t exactly run to the plan and you’re backed into a corner by circumstances you can’t control.
When the sh*t hits the fan, the last thing you want to be concerned about is scraping together enough money to pay the bills. That’s the ultimate reason that working towards being financially independent is an essential thing to do.
Financial stability matters. It matters a lot. Please think of your future self and work to make things easier for them.
Future You will be so glad you did.