Times & Dimes Podcast

Episode 6: Rebuilding your finances after the death of a spouse

How do you cope with the financial realities of losing your partner? Host Graham Clark wraps Season 1 with Mary Lou, a retired mother of three whose husband’s sudden illness threw their life’s plans into an unexpected limbo.

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GRAHAM CLARK: This is Times & Dimes, a podcast brought to you by Sun Life. We're talking everyday Canadians about how money affects their lives, happiness, and well-being. I'm your host, Graham Clark, with today's guest, Mary Lou.


GC: Thanks so much for joining us today. Tell me a bit of your background — who are you, Mary Lou?

MARY LOU: Born in Toronto. Went to Ryerson, radio and television arts graduate.

GC: Oh awesome! That's what I studied as well.

ML: No!

GC: Yes!

ML: Really?

GC: Yeah.

ML: It was the best program ever, so… And then I worked in the biz for a while, not too long. My last job, though, was part of the when big companies had their own in-house studios. We had a whole production unit and I was part of that group. I met my husband and we decided to move back to where he was raised, which was Waterloo.

GC: Wow! How did you meet your husband?

ML: On a job. He was a camera assistant on probably the last freelance job that I did and we re-met about six months later…

GC: Oh wow.

ML: … through a connection and rest is history.

GC: You worked predominantly as a freelancer back in the day?

ML: Back in those days, yeah. And then, when we moved here, we immediately started having kids, so I stayed out of the workforce for about 15 years.

GC: Fifteen years, so leading up to that point, freelancer, and then took some time off. Raised a family…?

ML: Run a couple of businesses, so I was, I think on paper, treasurer/vice president. And there was— I mean, not to say that I did nothing, and I was certainly aware of the business and what was going on, but when you’ve got three monsters… children…

GC: That's what my mom called me and my brother, so…

ML: Well, that's nicer than animals, which, I used that a couple times, too. So, it was busy times.

GC: So, you started a family and I know, as the story goes, at one point, your husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor…

ML: Correct.

GC: And I can only imagine how devastating that would have been, especially, like you say, with three kids and having something like that just rocks the foundation of everything, I imagine.

ML: Totally. It was a complete change of course because he was healthy. Trained athletes. Bit of an athlete, but a few years back, in his own right. He had some skills and he was running a couple of companies, or we were running a couple of companies. We owned a commercial property…


ML: …that was what the business ran out of, plus we were renting space in Mississauga for a clinic that was there. And so, there were people who were contracted to us for the business in Mississauga and in Waterloo. So, it didn't occur to us that was an unusual way to live, although, you know, friends of mine who had the corporate jobs and benefits and medical and all that stuff, we didn't. It was whatever we bought. So, we had policies and things to protect our safety, if that’s you want to call it, thinking we’ll never use it.

GC: Yeah, and I think that's the same in anybody's job; you just kind of put that money away, you don't think about it, and you just assume it's always going to be just waiting for you.

ML: Yeah.

GC: And was there— because I also work freelance and don't have a corporate job, and, sometimes, when you're working as a freelancer, some weeks, you're doing three jobs at once and I kind of get a little jealous of the consistency that my friends have with their jobs. Did you ever feel that while you were kind of swinging from gig to gig?

ML: I didn't do it long enough for it to really become a long-term issue, but, by the time— like, when I was on my own and freelancing in a married situation, when we were freelancing, or rather Richard was, really… he worked all the time anyhow and that was his personality. He never stopped. He was either working in the house or he was working at work, and I think that goes with the freelance mentality. You never really shut it off. It just was the way we lived. Our dates were going to— Saturday night dates, we leave the kids when they were a certain age, and we go to Home Depot and start the next renovation.

GC: (Laughs) Who says romance is dead?

ML: We kept saying we'd never do that and we ended up doing it…

GC: Yeah, of course.

ML: It’s like “Oh, let's just swing by Home Depot first” and that was sort of the whole night. So, you know, it wasn't different from— I mean, it was different than when my dad did it growing up, but I was young and I wasn't really paying attention. He was probably working all the time, too, and if it's not physically, it's in your head.

GC: Yeah, absolutely, the wheels always turning. What did it feel like when you transitioned from doing these gigs and then into being a full-time mother? What did that transition feel like in terms of pace or whatever?

ML: It took me probably about a year and I'm a pretty flexible— probably more so today than I was then, but game for an adventure.

GC: Oh yeah.

ML: It was an adventure to move.

GC: But you did it. You were up for an adventure and you had an adventure.

You're starting a family, you're leaving the workforce for a while. Are you in charge of the household budget at that point? Are you kind of the point person for that kind of stuff?

ML: Pretty much. There was a time when I kind of had to opt out with what was going on at the business end of it because the kids were so small, but I always had a pretty good idea, even though I wasn't initially savvy at computers. By the time kid number three showed up and we were about to buy the commercial… or the business property that we had, I sort of came back into knowing what was going on.

It got a little more complicated at that point because there was tie-ins with mortgages and the so-called business loan that really was the mortgage for the building. So, there were connections that way. There were tax connections. But I still wasn't doing it day to day because, by that time, it got more complicated and I basically had to hand over the accounting to— we had a bookkeeper that showed up once a month, I think, and made sure everything was straight and narrow.

GC: Yeah. Were there any sudden financial mishaps or setbacks or anything like that?

ML: We're always pretty organized that way. We had periods of time where there wasn't a lot of money and that was early on. So, you know, you buy a house and you're popping your own popcorn because that's, you know, how you afford the mortgage.

GC: (Laughs) I love that description, popping your own popcorn.

ML: We actually did. We had a hot-air popper…

GC: Nice.

ML: …so, we weren't the type of family that spent— and my kids would remember this, if we ordered a pizza, it was like “wooooo.” It was like that for a lot of times. And then I remember, by the time we hit our second house, we were so used to not spending money and we stood — and I still remember looking out the front door — watching our neighbours across the street. They were going off on a cottage holiday, and we just kind of looked at each other and went, “Oh my god, we've got enough money, we could do that!”

GC: Oh wow!

ML: And we've been married for ten years at that point. So, the first ten years were lean and we never really did spend a lot of money even after that, but we managed to get a few holidays in. At that point, the vacations started. We said we’ve got to take some time off here.

GC: Yeah, and treat yourself a little bit because that's a lot of hard work. What kind of lessons from that time, from the lean years and the budget years, were you able to pass on to your kids?

ML: Well, I think if— and I think they will acknowledge it today, but not so much a bunch of years ago, but don't spend all that you learn. We never thought anything bad would happen, but we thought, what if. Because we were so young, everybody was still healthy and well, although we had an interesting— the guy across the street died of cancer. And very quickly. And he was even younger than Richard was when it happened because Richard was a few years later. That was a bit of a surprise and that was the first sort of young person funeral we went to. And it was such a big funeral that they couldn't even fit everybody in the church, they had speakers out on the lawn. And I remember, I think by that time, we always were prone to be buying insurance and preparing for something that we thought would never happen. That was just sort of the way our mind worked.

GC: And did that give you a degree of comfort by having just having insurance and the like?

ML: Oh yeah, oh yeah. It was that knowing that nothing would happen, but if it did…

GC: Totally, that you would be ready.

ML: …you know, we could sleep at night.

GC: Yeah, that's not an easy thing to do when it comes to money.

ML: No, but when you're self-employed, I think you're always, whatever you do— that was our thing, but, whatever you do, you plan for the what-ifs. What if you can't work? You know, not really identifying why you can't work, but what if you can’t because you're greatest asset is your ability to work — especially when you're freelance, but anybody who's in working years, I think.

GC: At one point, your husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which meant, for a time, you had to re-enter the workforce. Was it a shock how things were different or was it “the more things change, the more they stay the same”?

ML: It was only about 15 hours a week initially, so I didn't have to plunge in. And it would have been difficult for me to do full-time originally, so my thinking… I didn't know how much time we had before he would have to stop working completely. There was a bit of a limbo period. But again, because I'm the kind of thinking ahead, almost disaster prone thinking, I decided to get a job early, but I got a part-time knowing that this was not going to end well. There was no sort of, like, “Well, maybe it'll be OK.” It was never going to be good.

So, I got a job, 15 hours a week and it was just enough to whet my whistle, so to speak, until I had to work— and the hours increased as he eventually got into surgery and then follow-up care. So, it worked out well, but I was never full-time until after he died — which made it possible for me to run a house, get my son to hockey, which was the thing that took up the next amount of time, and that was important for him to do. And, you know, help the girls do whatever they were doing because they were older.

GC: Yeah, and I imagine there was a lot of difficulty balancing your time at work and, like you say, hockey practice, and then just the day-to-day of making sure a house doesn't collapse in on itself?

ML: Well, and, just before the diagnosis, we bought our dream house. So, we went to house three with three-quarters of an acre. It was a fantastic bungalow and it was in Waterloo, and it just happened. And I wasn't down to buy the house, but once I walked into it, I was a sucker for it, so we bought it. The house size suddenly expanded because we were on that property and then he was diagnosed. And then we had one more year before he couldn't work anymore.

GC: Right, and that's when you were back in the workforce?

ML: Yeah, and I was there I was doing part-time. I had to have time to look after the place to some extent.

GC: So, during this very— like I say, I can't imagine how stressful a time that must have been. What affected all this keeping a budget going, and husband being sick, and kids need to be taken care of, and job — what was the physical toll of all that kind of work?

ML: No sleep. I think I ran on about four hours of sleep a night for probably about four years. Every once in a while, I might get a good sleep, but sleep just disappeared at that point. Because, when the diagnosis came and there was no question as to what the end result was going to be, I had to sell everything. So, basically, I had to get rid of the business property, I had to sever the leases in Mississauga, I had to cancel all contracts… and that took a period of time to kind of— and then I had to wind the companies down because, by that time, there had been three companies that were created. One was not really operational, but the other two were, kind of. And there were numbers on the books and— I don't remember all the details, but I spent a lot of time at the accountants making sure that with every tax year, everything was finished.

So, it had to be wound down, otherwise I was going to have to do that after he passed away. And to carry that those costs when he wasn't working— like, we were living, basically, on my part-time income and his disability income, but the disability income would end when he passed away. So, suddenly, the income would drop.

GC: Yeah. And so you're doing all those things, you're a superwoman. I mean, that so much to be on one person's plate and you're only sleeping four hours a night, and it's… just trying to imagine how you kept it all together, you know?

ML: Well, some people would say I didn't.

GC: (Laughs) Well, you can’t please everybody!

ML: No, you can’t… but it was just the prospect of what would happen if that wasn't looked after was worse than doing it all at that same time. And, uppermost in my mind, was having the right things pay for that. So, you know, getting rid of the commercial property, getting rid of that mortgage, and getting rid of all that weight, and not have it impact the kids and the registered education savings plan that we had waiting for them, because they were right on the verge — one was in university, one was heading to university, and the other one was finishing high school. I didn't want that money to get used for what it wasn't purposed to be, so everything else had to go — and, like, yesterday.

GC: Yeah. Did that, overall, feel like weight off the shoulders a little bit or was it just business as usual?

ML: Well, once it was done, it felt lighter. But, you know, we still had to go through Richard's passing. But at least there wasn't a financial Armageddon…

GC: Right, yeah.

ML: …lurking. I think if you ever explained it to somebody who maybe knew part of the situation, it's kind of like “Oh, I never thought that would happen” or “Oh, it never even occurred to me you'd have to look after that.”

GC: Of course, yeah.

ML: But it wasn't like, you know, you're working for another company and the company pays for your income while you're short-term or long-term disability. There's no pension, so you wanted to be able to be functional when everything was finished, including when he finally passed away. So, it's not like this was sudden — I had a four-year window, from start to finish, in which to make sure that we weren't going to be sucked under with the weight of money owing.

GC: You were very forward looking and forward thinking. Is that something that you developed from him or you guys together, or was that something you were kind of taught growing up?

ML: A little bit of both, I think. We both thought in a similar way, although my parents did it differently. They we're big savers. They did think about what happens when I can't work anymore, and my dad was able to retire and have some time before he did pass away himself. He left my mother with a house and enough money to survive, and that was all on a freelance income. We didn't have big holidays, so they always were prepared, I guess to some extent. I think I got some from there and then also, too, just living with somebody whose income is— not that anybody's income is guaranteed, but, particularly, it's based on his ability to work and that was most of the income for most of the years that we were married.

GC: And so, you mentioned that you're retired now — how has that changed your relationship to money?

ML: Oh, now I'm full-force panic. (Laughs)

I'm careful, but I understand how things are set up. So, I have an advisor who I trust and greatly admire, and I've got things carefully sorted. That is important to me. And I can sell my house— this is not the dream house. That got sold and I moved into a smaller house. How long I’d be here, I'm not sure; I guess when I get bored of looking after a garden. And I know that I'll be fine. I looked after things back when it was a mess and the proper things, the things that we're having to be looked after, were being paid for by what should be paying for them, and it left enough to get the ball rolling, so I'm OK.

GC: Yeah, that's great.

ML: Because I shortened my work life, right? I only worked for 15 years after Richard died roughly. A little less than that. So, there was a lot of catchup and sorting out to do.

GC: That's great. I mean, that is the dream to be able to, at some point… you know, tools down, feet up on the ottoman, take it easy.

ML: I don’t do that! (Laughs)

GC: No, you're too busy traveling around, jet-setting.

ML: Yeah. But I was surprised I was able to do it when I did. I think I was expecting that I'd work a bit longer. But when I looked at the numbers, I just went “Meh, I don't have to.” But sometimes you get to a point where you’ve crossed a point you didn't think you were going to get, and then you look back and go “Wow, there's some money there!” It happens very quickly. Things changed very quickly — both good and bad.

GC: Yeah, and that kind of fits into your narrative quite well that things good and bad just kind of come out of the clear blue sky, you know?

ML: I mean, we were making enough money; we were saving money. We had assets. We thought about which assets to buy and where we we're going to put our money, but never thinking that— we figured we had another 15–20 years, which is the time it was that I was working on my own after Richard died, we figured we had that to now really go full steam ahead.

GC: Well, this has been a real treat. Thank you so much for joining me and being so open and telling me your story.

ML: Thank you, Graham.


GC: Money plays a huge role in all our lives and it's not always easy to talk about it, but we truly believe that having open, honest conversations about money can help improve your mental, physical, and financial health.

Before we go, we'd like to ask our listeners if they've ever found themselves in a situation similar to Mary Lou. If you have, you can find resources to help you at sunlife.ca.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Times & Dimes.