We don’t like to think about death, and many of us don’t like to think about money either. But bereavement brings these things into a collision course, too often destined to bring nothing but pain and resentment.

True stories:

Sixty year old Ms A is nursing her husband through the final stages of a terminal illness. He tells her he has something to get off his chest. All the properties he said he owned – they don’t exist anymore. He sold them and they have been living off the proceeds. And her inheritance from her mother? He’s spent that too. The good news is that he won’t leave her with any debts. The bad news is there won’t be any money for her living expenses. Ms A believed she was never very good at money, so she left their finances up to him, a decision she now regrets.

Mrs B, also in her sixties, loses her husband suddenly. They’ve always lived a simple life – camping holidays, rarely eating out etc. He’s had total control of the finances. When the will is read she discovers he was vastly wealthy, worth four times what she’d expected, and that he has left everything to his two sons from his first marriage. All she gets after 30 years together is a pension to cover her living expenses. Mrs B trusted him implicitly, and even signed an ante nuptial without accrual because that was what he wanted.

Mrs C is enjoying a comfortable retirement with her husband, who is ten years older than her. However, he is diagnosed with a dread disease and has to tell her the calamitous truth – when he took out his retirement policy years earlier, he’d signed up to receive an annuity for his lifetime only (not hers). It will end on his death, leaving her with a very limited income. She could live for another thirty years, but she won’t have income to cover it. Her children will have to support her. Mrs C grew up in a generation where dealing with money was the man’s job as head of the house, and an interest in money was considered unladylike.

I faced a similar scenario when I was bereaved in my late forties. My husband and I were useless at money. We made repeated bad decisions. We didn’t have enough life insurance and we didn’t have bond insurance at all. When he died at the height of the economic downturn, the life insurance paid out 40% of what we’d anticipated, and it was enough to pay off two thirds of the bond and give me a monthly annuity of R750. I’d spent my married life as a financial ‘child,’ refusing to face up to our real situation and constantly stressed by the awareness that what I was hiding from was ugly. Now I was forced to grow up instantly or lose my house.

What I, and all these other sad women failed to learn until it was too late is that money is power. In a good relationship one person may earn more than the other, but the power is balanced because everything is out in the open and expenditure and major decisions like investments and retirement policies are negotiated.

You have to know how to control money, whether you have a little or a lot. That’s why I like the 22seven app so much. Once your accounts are all linked to the app you can see exactly what you are worth every day. You can see immediately what comes in and goes out. Nothing is hidden.

You shouldn’t hand your power over to anyone, no matter how much you love them and trust them. Even if you are predominantly right brained and find numbers scary you must find a way to negotiate a budget and learn how to invest for your old age or you may end up impoverished in retirement with no way to earn more.

If you’re handing over your financial power to someone else I urge you to take it back. Make a budget and stick to it, don’t spend money for emotional reasons, make sure you know who the beneficiaries are on any policies and insist on an open book approach with your partner. You don’t want any horrible surprises one day when the will is read.

Photo:pbkwee, someone loves molly via Flickr. CC by 2.0