How To Re-Think Money After The Death Of Your Spouse

Photo: getty
How To Re-Think Money After The Death Of Your Spouse

I hadn’t expected to have less money after Ralph died. Although he worked part-time right up until his death, I thought that his income and expenses would cancel each other out upon his death, more or less. 

That didn’t turn out to be the case.

Two other sources of income he had also ended, and by the second month after his death, I started realizing there was significantly less money running through our checking account than before.

RELATED: Nurturing Yourself In Widowhood As You Grieve The Loss Of Your Spouse

So, my first money task after Ralph’s death was to "right-size" my finances. Not what a grieving widow wants to do, nor the kind of thing you have the abundant intellectual capacity for during the first phases of widowhood.

But running low on cash was a wakeup call that demanded attention.

Wasn’t it bad enough that my beloved spouse had died without having to make unwanted chops to my lifestyle?

This was the first of several annoying money challenges I experienced with widowhood. There were others...

  • Handling all money management and bill paying by myself.
  • Managing income tax by myself.
  • Changing names on lots of joint accounts.
  • Overcoming password blockage in Quicken.

The last one was an annoyance that I hadn’t expected, as Ralph had taken care to make sure that I knew the name and password on our Quicken account so I could access those records. He even walked me through the system, so I knew what records were there and exactly where to find them.

However, unanticipated by either of us, Quicken blocked my access as soon as they’d learned of his death. Nothing I attempted to say or do — and I tried — could overturn this annoying policy.

And the annoyance continues, as I still get charged a monthly fee for Quicken to execute two or three automatic payments that I cannot stop nor can I access financial records that could be helpful at income tax time.

I learned too late that the solution to this exasperating problem is for both spouses to have their own separate passwords so that if one spouse dies, the other can get into the account.

Words to the wise that came too late for me.

Meanwhile, I found I could handle the other money challenges, once I managed to get my grief-addled brains to focus on them: readjusting my budget, changing account names, and even handling income tax matters.

It turns out that, at this point in life, 40 years after Ralph took over doing our income tax and saving me from having to do so, I’m not cowed by it as I had been many years earlier.

Not that I like the tasks, as they're tedious, but they actually aren’t difficult once I face them.

Still, losing Ralph as our family income tax organizer was a poignant loss and I cried piteous tears for myself the first year I had to meet the April 15 deadline on my own.

Once I faced the realities of money management, I discovered there were opportunities in this that I enjoyed.

It was now, very clearly, my money to do with as I wanted.

Spend or save, it was up to me — starting with getting clear on exactly how much money I had, how much the mandatory expenses came to, how much was available beyond that, and what my savings goals were.

RELATED: 7 Common Money Mistakes You Subconsciously Make That Keep You Strapped For Cash

Here are 2 important steps you need to take when dealing with your finances after the death of a spouse.

1. Move your account's management onto your bank’s mobile app.

I’ve grown to love this! Of the various capacities available online, the ones I like best are:

  • Depositing checks via photos taken by my smartphone.
  • Electronic bill paying, which I can set up in advance to be paid on exactly the day I want, while not having to write, stamp, and mail physical checks.
  • Transferring money from one account to another.
  • Monitoring my account balances as often as I’d like.

2. Open a lot of little savings accounts.

I was caught by two large, unexpected bills soon after Ralph died that strapped my finances.

So, I decided the way to navigate big expenses — long-term health insurance, property taxes, etc. — would be to set aside a proportionate amount each month that would reach the amount needed by the time those bills had to be paid.

My online banking app made it easy to set up additional savings accounts.

I liked this "set aside the money" system so much that I opened up additional accounts for savings, vacations, special projects (e.g., funds for major household purchases or a new car), and even a special account for treats (e.g., facials or other indulgences I might want).

This "set aside" system enabled me to project how many months of saving it would take to buy a new car (forget it for the next two years, I discovered) or, after viewing what’s in the account, decide my vacation plans accordingly.

So, there are satisfactions here in having taken a new look at money, including a sense of being my own person, charting my own course, accomplishing with money what I want to make happen.

Those satisfactions have come from getting myself on the other side of the widowhood money challenge.

During the early days of widowhood, it’s a victory just to pay the rent on time, and to get food from the grocery store. You're fighting for breath, at first.

The idea of organizing your income tax or experiencing the joys of being in charge of your own finances is far removed from what you can at first imagine.

So, take baby steps and be supportive of success. Get the rent paid and the food bought. Celebrate those as victories.

Find ways to acknowledge yourself for doing those basic things, because who you are at this point is someone who needs a loving pat on the back for doing basic things.

Be an advocate for yourself and cradle yourself in acceptance.

When you can take another step, do that and give yourself more loving pats on the back and more positive self-talk.

Keep on being supportive to yourself as you do your best to deal with tremendous pain and loss while still keeping yourself going in the basic tasks of daily life.

If you find some of those tasks too difficult at first, give yourself permission to ask for help.

Friends and family know you’re struggling and it makes them feel good to be able to help you when they can.

Bottom line: Widowhood triggers a need and opportunity to take a new look at money because your financial reality is altered.

Whether you’ve got more money, less, or exactly the same, this money has now become yours alone to manage.

It will take some time to articulate for yourself what your values are around money and chart a prudent course of action to achieve those goals.

Cut yourself some slack as you struggle with these tasks.

There are opportunities ahead for an increased sense of self-direction and power for the sweet satisfaction of being able to think through and chart your own financial course.

In this way, you can use your money in ways that are the most beneficial and satisfying for you.

RELATED: 7 Steps To Gain Financial Freedom, Save For The Future, & Get Out Of Debt

Patty Howell, Ed.M., A.G.C., is a prolific author, developer of Psychosocial Education programs, and President of Healthy Relationships California, a non-profit that has taught Relationship Skills programs to more than 200,000 participants. She co-authored World Class Marriage: How to Create the Relationship You Always Wanted with the Partner You Already Have with her late husband, Ralph Jones.