They Avoided Financial Ruin After Traumatic Brain Injury

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traumatic brain injury
personal finance
Michelle Mollino
By Gerri Detweiler

Daniel Mollino was not quite 27 when a 20-foot fall from the top of a telephone pole to the street below changed most of his world.

He was making repairs when he fell in 2010. He was first not expected to live, then not expected to be able to function outside of a healthcare setting. If you've ever had a brain injury patient in your family, you know you're told over and over that the person who comes home from the hospital isn't the same one who came in. In many cases, marriages collapse under the strain.

But Daniel's didn't. And in part that was due to the solid financial foundation he and his wife had built before the accident. Daniel and his wife, Amber, had been married three years when he fell. They were accomplished savers; when they got raises, they put the additional money toward the joint goal of buying a home. At the time, Daniel had their finances automated on Quicken: Salaries went in and were allocated into bills, savings accounts, Christmas accounts and the like. The system pretty much ran itself. And, they had a fat cushion of cash.

Daniel said that early in their marriage, they had put themselves on fairly strict budgets, paying down some credit card debt and giving each person a cash allowance each week. They later graduated to using credit cards -- but if you went over your spending limit, you had to explain it. It was a friendly competition.

What Amber Needed to Know -- But Didn't

Both Amber and Daniel say that they did run into trouble because they hadn't been quite as financially intimate as they needed to be. While they knew how money was spent, only Daniel (who had initiated the tracking of savings and spending and had automated their finances) knew the passwords. And when Amber needed to know them, Daniel was in a coma.

Here's how Amber remembers it: "When Dan was in his coma I had to immediately learn how he paid the bills. Dan was always the one to pay any cable, or car insurance bills for us. I had to try to figure out his passwords and if he paid bills online or by check. I did not ever go over what to do if he was not around. From this accident, I have learned to now be aware and we both have each other's passwords for accounts. Once Dan was out of the hospital about three months, we continued our account for saving for a house."

Long-Term Health Effects

Daniel's life won't ever go back to being the way it was. He has hearing loss, double vision, severe headaches and some other long-term effects from his accident. But his disciplined savings kept what was already a serious setback from being a dream-killer. He will continue to get his old salary through disability (but he won't get raises). He would like to work again someday, but he'll need a boss who is understanding of "bad days" and absences.

In 2012, Daniel and Amber bought that house they had been saving for, putting 20 percent down and making sure they could cover bills if Daniel had to continue to wait -- without pay -- for a decision about his degree of disability. A process that was supposed to take 26 weeks ended up taking 122, he said, and they bought a house during it. "Having savings allowed us to live a normal life," he said, adding that his savings dropped from $20,000 before the process started to about $3,000 now. (The decision on his disability case involved back pay, which will replenish the Mollinos' savings.)

Although they don't use credit cards much, they use them enough to maintain good credit scores, which helped them secure a mortgage. (You can check your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

What Life Is Like Now

Daniel is back to driving now, and he drives a 2005 Saturn Ion. Amber has a 2012 Chevrolet Cruze. They keep to a budget. Daniel notes that they have separate Christmas savings accounts. ("That way, you can surprise the other person.") They went on a three-week cross-country vacation this summer. He said they can afford the life they want because they spend less than most people on things like food and technology. He said they rarely spend more than $60 in a week at the grocery store, and he does most of the cooking. They dine out only occasionally. And they use coupons.

Amber is a teacher, and she tutors after school a couple of days a week. In other words, their incomes aren't so different from those of people you probably know, some of whom may be trying to work their way out of debt. The Mollinos feel financially secure, and they are enjoying their lives. Both are grateful that they were able to understand early what debt would cost them and develop a habit of saving. (You can use Credit.com's online tool to see what your debt costs you over a lifetime.)

What They Learned

Amber's advice: "I would just like to let couples know that it is a good idea to set up a plan if someone is in the hospital and not able to take care of bills or any financial concerns that they need to be aware of how the bills are paid."

And from Daniel, who notes that despite his traumatic brain injury, "I bought a house, I've gone on trips, and I'm still (financially) good."

Both say there was plenty of stress related to Daniel's accident -- and that the absence of financial stress probably helped keep the other stress from overwhelming them. These days, they are working on Daniel's planned bike ride across the country to help raise awareness about traumatic brain injury and to recognize the healthcare facilities that helped him. (That, and Daniel says he's still trying to get his younger brother to use Mint.com, so he can see, visually, where money is going.)

Because he knows that good money management can pay off in ways that can't be calculated financially.

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