(Courtesy of Peter Rosenberger)
How do you know when an accountant is on vacation?
He doesn't wear a tie to work and comes in after 8:30.
Caregiving is challenging enough, but adding money issues to the mix creates a massive strain on individuals and families. Three decades of caregiving experience leads me to believe that although they may help, I cannot permanently rely on a government program, individual, family member, or a lottery ticket to come to my rescue. By the way, the lottery is simply a tax on people who are bad at math. The only permanent thing in this scenario is that caregiving requires long hours, weary nights, and constant battles to stretch a dollar until it is translucent.
From a server struggling to make tips working at Cracker Barrel while caring for a sick spouse, to multi-millionaire children able to pay for full-time care for aging parents, I've encountered individuals in virtually every type of caregiving situation. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle – but lean towards the server trying to squeeze out a living.
Many financial experts share how to deal with money, get out of debt, and so forth – yet I've not heard one of them who has even remotely juggled anything like my family's three decades of surgeries, pain, constant crises, and health costs (cresting $9,000,000).
• What kind of financial impact does enduring something like this have on a family budget?
• How does this affect my ability to pay my bills, realize professional potential and earn more, prepare for retirement, have peace of mind, or tithe to my church?
• How do I keep my head above water?
• Is it possible to "get ahead?"
These questions (and more) serve as regular topics during my frequent late-night conversations with the ceiling fan.
Before launching my radio show and writing my book, Wear Comfortable Shoes – Surviving and Thriving as a Caregiver, I spent a great deal of time thinking about "What does 'help' look like to a caregiver?" For example, having someone bring meals to the family is helpful, but eventually someone has to learn to cook.
Likewise with money: A gift of cash in time of need is helpful. Ultimately, however, one must earn a living and effectively manage money.
The key is sustainability – and in order to manage the massive bills, extra costs, and nuances of the tax code, I have found that I need the help of trained professionals; specifically Certified Public Accountants (CPA).
I look at a CPA almost like a primary care doctor. To me, the CPA functions as the "hub" of the financial wheel of life. From mortgages to tax deductions, a CPA can serve as a guide through the financial jungle of both individual budgets and our national economy. When my heating unit needs servicing, I leave it to the professionals. When my financial "unit" needs servicing, I also call the professionals.
How many accountants does it take to change a light bulb?
Hmmmm…I'll just do a few numbers and get back to you!
I won't presume to tell anyone, particularly caregivers, how to manage their money. I can offer a few things that changed the way I view money, helped me keep a superior credit rating, and avoid bankruptcy while dealing with the massive medical bills incurred for the last several decades.
Looking at the life of a caregiver, it is important to stay healthy emotionally, physically – and fiscally! I use a simple 1-2-30 system that I developed. For example, when taking care of my physical health, I get:
- 1 Annual Flu Shot
- 2 Well Visits With My Doctor (including a physical)
- 30 minutes per day (average) of some kind of physical activity.
That same 1-2-30 system also has an easy component for dealing with money.
1. Charity to financially support
Over the years, I discovered that thinking about someone else's struggles and challenges helped put mine in perspective. Even though my wife and I founded a non-profit ourselves, we give to others that are totally unrelated to what we do at Standing With Hope, and also have nothing to do with the caregiving, disability, and amputation issues we daily face.
We found that by focusing on issues other than our own, it allowed us to "get outside ourselves," if only for a brief moment. At some point, everyone in life hurts, deals with problems, and generally struggles. It is mentally and emotionally unhealthy to place my individual issues at the center of the universe. Looking to make a difference in the lives of others reframes how important my crisis du jour really is, and in doing so offers an opportunity to look at my circumstances in a different light. Self-pity and self-importance lead to mental and emotional dysfunction, which hampers the ability to think clearly in high stress moments.
Caregivers regularly endure tense situations, so keeping a clear head and a healthy perspective becomes critical when dealing with the day-to-day stresses of caregiving. Thinking about and doing something for someone else's misery, has taught me gratitude and fostered more compassion, empathy, and understanding – which spills over to my role as caregiver. Regardless of how small the amount, contributing to the betterment of others changes perspective and expands the heart of an individual.
Keep all charitable donation receipts and give them to your CPA!
2. Meetings per year with a financial advisor
Taxes, bills, and creditors, oh my! The financial matters caregivers deal with are daunting on a good day, insane on a bad one. For one person to carry all of the financial burdens of caregiving is just too much, and errors are inevitable. Having a second (or third) set of eyes helps bring organization and peace of mind to what can often be chaotic. A good CPA is a great ally. They're not perfect, and, like all professionals, some of them shine above others in their field. By and large, however, a good financial advisor can serve as a strong and important team member for caregivers.
For non-caregivers, if you see a caregiver who is struggling, try to avoid platitudes like, "You're in our hearts and prayers." Instead, ask them, "Do you have a CPA you regularly see?"
That simple question can direct the caregiver toward a healthier financial path – and can circumvent a slew of problems, help someone manage bills, stay current on taxes, learn to operate within a budget, and take advantage of tax-deductible expenses incurred in most caregiving scenarios.
For folks who can truly not afford it, I often encourage churches to provide leadership in this area. Clergy members can connect a caregiver to a CPA within the church who might be willing to provide discounted or even free accounting services. Underwriting the cost of two visits per year to a CPA through a discretionary/benevolence fund, makes a whole lot more sense than just sending a cash "mercy gift." Caregivers struggle with long-term issues – and a path towards sustainability is more helpful than just sending a "financial band-aid." People are generally eager to help and give, but it is important to identify "real help" to caregiver faced with long-term challenges.
A CPA can also refer clients out to a good financial planner. Just as a primary care doctor refers to specialists, I trust my CPA to have relationships with qualified financial planners. Sitting down with reputable financial planners, caregivers can adequately assess such things as life insurance, disability insurance, investments, and so forth. Employment may offer many of those services, but periodically revisiting these issues ensures that products and services are up to date, organized, and easily accessible in the event of a death or injury. In addition, a CPA and financial planner become critical when setting up arrangements for children with special needs. For those with elderly parents, consider underwriting a CPA to help them with their finances if they don't have one already. Since you will most likely have to take over the responsibility of their money, wouldn't it be nice to have it all neat and tidy?
An important tip to remember is not to flog yourself if your finances are in disarray. Every journey starts with step one. Even today, a single step in the right direction is possible. I love the truism, "You didn't get here overnight, and you won't get out of this overnight."
It's a marathon, not a sprint; pacing one's self while wearing comfortable shoes is the key.
$30 per paycheck into savings
Caregiving often means living paycheck to paycheck – on a good week. Financially treading water for as long as caregiving requires can cause even the stoutest checkbooks to grow weary, and getting ahead sometimes seems out of the question. Putting something in a savings account (or a Health Savings Account) can sound like it asks too much while drowning in bills. Squirreling away even a little bit, however, goes a long way towards a better night's sleep.
Although some caregivers can afford to put $30,000 per month in savings, most of us do not live in that world. Pushing ourselves to put money aside, however small the amount, accomplishes several things in our journey towards living healthy lives, one of which is forcing us to regularly look at our budget and evaluate needs versus wants. In trying to deal calmly with the "expected unexpected," knowing the cost of a new tire, plumbing repair, or a shower chair is socked away can be assuring.
These simple 1-2-30 steps, which cost comparatively little, allow caregivers a measure of peace of mind in order to live a little more calmly – in what often feels like a storm. People who live in the paths of hurricanes store up batteries, fresh water, and various other supplies in the event of an emergency. Caregivers face storms lasting longer than any hurricane in recorded history – and can wreak all manner of damage. A good CPA is simply part of "storm preparation."
Anyone can implement these 1-2-30 steps today – and immediately generate positive benefits to any situation. These simple ideas can ease the craziness and stress in a caregiver's life – and represent a few of the reasons why you should "hug your CPA today!"
The Accountant's Prayer:
Lord, help me be more relaxed about insignificant details - starting tomorrow at 10.53:16 AM, Eastern Daylight Saving Time.