Can Your Financial 'Plan B' Withstand the Unexpected?

Jeannine McCurrie
Jeannine McCurrie

Over the course of a decade, Jeannine McCurrie suffered three tragedies: her brother's murder, her father's death from emphysema and strokes, and then, three years ago, the sudden death of her husband, Darin. Those loses taught her: Expect the unexpected, because when you do, you can prepare.

She's grateful that she and her husband talked about the "what ifs" in life, including the unpleasant thought of one leaving the other behind. They wrote wills and purchased life insurance. Now, nearly three years after her husband's passing, she reflects on what life would had been like if they had not thought things through.

"I would have lost the house that we had just bought in 2006,"says McCurrie. "I would have had to pack up and move our two children to California to join family, work two jobs, and have too little time for my children at a time when they needed me most."

Instead, she was able to maintain a stable life for her family. They moved to a new home to get a fresh start, but kept the old home as rental. She has had the luxury of working part-time, could afford a nanny when needed, and can pay for health insurance.

"When you can alleviate the financial stress, the grieving process is very different," says McCurrie.

She was also able to take the nearly half a year it took to write My Plan B Handbook, a road map to help people prepare and organize their important financial information. She speaks on the topic part-time at workshops and conferences around the country.

The Majority of Us Are Not Ready

McCurrie is a poster child for getting your affairs in order in advance, and though she isn't unique, her proactive stance put her in the minority. In the new Financial Plan B survey by State Farm, only 45% of those surveyed said they've actually planned ahead and are ready to take on a life crisis, despite the fact that 81% said that having a back-up plan is very important. Nearly 60% said they don't have their plan in writing. Worse still, the survey revealed that some of the "plans" people have are short-sighted, unrealistic or incomplete, says Joe Monk, senior vice president and chief administrative officer for State Farm Life Insurance.

This is troubling news. "If the last few years have taught us anything about personal finance it is to expect the unexpected," says Sharon Lechter, founder of Pay Your Family First, a financial education organization. "Individuals who thought they were on track for retirement lost much of their savings due to the market changes. Others believed they would always have job security with their current employer until the company suddenly and unexpectedly went out of business. None of us can predict the future and what obstacles will be thrown our way."

So, what's your Plan B?

Think the Unthinkable

If you're squirming in your seat because you're uncomfortable with the question, get over it.

Start by asking yourself a few questions. If there was a life change -- a job loss, death, serious illness or divorce, for example -- could you meet your short-, medium- and long-term financial needs? What would be your most critical needs? How would you prioritize them? Who could help you deal psychologically with a setback?

The complexity of creating a financial plan can be overwhelming. "Don't get analysis paralysis. Remember, not everything needs to be done all at once," says ReKeithen Miller, a certified financial planner with Palisades Hudson Asset Management. "Break the process up into manageable tasks and take them one-by-one."

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Map out on paper a list of actions that you would take, as well as those you wouldn't, suggests Susan Howe, a certified public accountant with Howe Advisory.

At a minimum, your financial Plan B should include estate planning documents. "A will is increasingly important if you are married or have small children," says Miller.

Next, your arsenal against the unexpected is incomplete without insurance. "Life insurance can protect you or your family in the event of an income provider's premature death," says Miller. Disability insurance can protect your future earnings potential if you're injured and can no longer work.

Of much importance too, is that much talked-about emergency fund -- savings to cover at least six months of expenses. Indeed, given how much longer it's taking to find new employment after a job loss, nine months is even better. If you don't have that much readily available, start saving in regular amounts until you do, says Lechter. And do discuss with your significant other or family members under what circumstances the money would be tapped.

Decide what alternatives will be used before drawing from the fund, and set a strategy for replenishing it.

"By setting guidelines and discussing the fund at the beginning, everyone will be clear on what defines an emergency," says Lechter.

You Can't Afford to Not Prepare

Do what's necessary to get prepared, no matter how tight your budget. "We had a tight budget when we wanted to buy life insurance. We decided to cut out date nights, cut out cable, we clipped coupons. We would have a date night that was a sack dinner at the park," says Lechter. "If you think you can't afford a policy, think about what you'll be able to afford if one of you passes."

Seek help from professionals -- financial planners, CPAs, or perhaps your auto and homeowner's insurance agent. Ask around among family and friends for their trusted advisers.

You could even get a friend and go through the process together: Having a buddy helps fight inertia.

Get Real

The State Farm survey found that many people may have a false sense of security when it comes to the adequacy of their plans. Some of their go-to options will create just as many problems as they solve, says Monk: 61% said they would take money from a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored retirement plan as part of their Plan B, while 34% would downsize their home and 22% would move in with family. Nearly 70% of people 55 and older said they would likely take on an additional job if necessary.

Monk explains why these solutions fall short. "Retirement savings are for retirement. That is really not the first place to turn. Living with relatives can be less than ideal, and getting a second job when you're 55 and older isn't so easy, particularly in this job market."

Uncle Sam may not be a savior either, "With 77 the average life expectancy, you have to ask yourself whether there is likely to be more or less resources from the Federal government? Social Security is not a good Plan B," says Monk.

Miller adds soberly, "Most people fail to plan because they think that the unexpected will not happen to them.

Another reason is procrastination. They always think they can put off planing until 'tomorrow'. Well, tomorrow is always an option, until it isn't."

With planning comes peace. Says McCurrie, "You'll know that you've done what you can to take care of your affairs, it's not hanging over you, it allows you to live. You think tragedies happen to other people. I'm here to tell you that I am the face of what could be anybody's story."