Claire Brimley working on paperwork in DC house
New Perspectives

Promises I Can’t Keep

Four days. That’s how long Shawn and I had to plan. I knew late Friday night that things were going badly, but it wasn’t until Saturday morning, January 6th, that the doctor told us that Shawn had “weeks, not months” to live. We thought we had at least a few weeks to get things together, but really, we ended up with only a few days.

After we got the news, we cried. Well, mostly I cried. Shawn seemed to take it all in stride. He wanted to know how hospice worked and how we would make sure that he got all of his medicine. And then he wanted to plan with me.

“You’ll need to call the financial planner,” he said.

I looked at him. “I already did that,” I said.

I’ll never forget how he looked back at me. He was surprised, and clearly really impressed. “Really?”

“I was just running worst-case scenarios by him,” I said, “but I didn’t think I’d need his help. I just wanted to figure out what to do if things went really badly.”

“Good,” Shawn said. “You need to plan. You have to keep the house. He can help you figure out how to do that with the life insurance money.”

I started to cry. Again.

“It will be okay,” he said, “but you’ll need to be smart. Don’t do everything the financial planner tells you to do. Track your own investments. Don’t pay him to do that. You can find the spreadsheets on my computer and you can do everything yourself. You’re smart. I know you can do this.”

He had such confidence in me. “Okay,” I told him, “don’t worry. I can do all of that.”

A few weeks later, I broke this promise.

I had the life insurance money sitting in my bank account. I figured I could use it to pay off the house or just add to the investments that Shawn already had. Luckily, I had people around me who encouraged me to talk to a number of financial advisors and planners.

I knew one thing – I was not going to get screwed.

Before I met with any financial people, I went to the spreadsheets on Shawn’s computer. In them, he had tracked every dollar of investments that we’d ever made. It wasn’t a huge chunk of money at all, but we had some retirement and kids’ college savings, and they were spread out over a variety of funds and individual investments. There were pages and pages of graphs and charts and monthly totals of how each investment was doing.  He had even done projections for potential growth.

It was dizzying. Even if I had been in my right mind, I don’t think I could have handled taking over something like that. I never found investing interesting, even when I was teaching economics. Following his spreadsheets and monthly tracking goals seemed impossible.

“I can’t do it,” I told my friends Paige and Kelly. They were at my house for the week, helping me organize my life and my emotional health.

“You can’t be expected to do everything,” Paige told me.

“But I promised Shawn I’d do it,” I said.

“I know,” Paige said, “but Shawn couldn’t have predicted what your life would be like now. This is something you don’t have the interest or the time for, so you need to hire someone to help you.”

And so I did. I was smart about it and I went with Paige and Kelly to meet with a number of financial advisors just days after Shawn’s funeral. Paige is a lawyer and would ask very pointed questions throughout the meetings. Kelly is a therapist and would make sure to check in with me about how I was feeling throughout the day. They made a great team. Eventually, I found a financial advisor, and I transferred my assets.

Many people since then have told me not to pay someone to manage my finances. They say the fees are too high and I should be doing it myself. I don’t care that much about what others say, but whenever people bring it up, I remember my promise to Shawn that I’d manage my own money. Any conversation about my finances makes me remember that I broke this promise to Shawn.

But I can’t do everything, and I definitely don’t want to manage money that will be used to pay off my mortgage and send my kids to college. I know I am making the right decision for my family, because I know that if I were left to manage the money, I’d feel an enormous amount of stress over it.

It’s a promise I made to Shawn that I didn’t keep. But when I made that promise, I was not the same person as I am now. For starters, I had a husband, which meant that I had someone by my side to steady me when I felt unsure about my decisions. Now, I am making all of those decisions alone, and the impact of those decisions will land not only on me, but also on my three kids.

If Shawn could send me a message about this, maybe he would say that I should be investing everything on my own. But Shawn was a smart man who had this great quality where he was willing to change his mind when the situation changed. And the situation has most definitely changed.

It’s a new world for me. I think Shawn would understand that this means sometimes I have to make choices that I never thought I would make.