Seven years ago, Serenity’s life took a drastic turn. After seeing several doctors to address ongoing stomach pain, she was eventually diagnosed with stage 1 Gastroesophageal Junction cancer. Serenity underwent a difficult and painful surgery to remove the tumor, and after over a year of recovery, was able to move forward with her life. Serenity met her husband, had a daughter and continued her career at a local museum. Unfortunately, a few years later her cancer recurred, this time in her lungs, and in the years that followed, Serenity experienced multiple recurrences of cancer throughout her body, with radiation and chemotherapy effectively treating the cancer each time. Despite such difficult, ongoing circumstances, Serenity continued to work, had good job security, and was able to meet her financial and personal goals.
This changed in early 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the economy and Serenity was initially furloughed from her job. Her cancer recurred, and the intensity and rigorous schedule of Serenity’s radiation and chemotherapy treatments made it very difficult for her to reenter the workforce. “It is hard to jump right back into a career when I’m in and out of treatment; I lost the momentum I would like to have had,” she says.
When Serenity received an e-mail from FFP Grantee, the Angel Foundation, a close partner of her oncology clinic, about their Financial Cancer Care Program, Serenity seized the opportunity to speak with a pro bono financial planner about her family’s situation. She signed up and was paired with one of their new CFP® volunteers, Leisa Olson.
Leisa started volunteering with the Angel Foundation in early 2020 because she wanted to assist cancer patients after some of her close friends and family members had experienced battles with the illness. “For me, there is a real passion around trying to make something positive out of a terrible situation, and it’s a way for me to do something vs. nothing.”
During the first two sessions, Serenity and Leisa focused on the family’s monthly budget and financial goals. Initially, the family finances were still in good shape. Serenity’s husband was still employed, Serenity had been diligent about saving throughout her career, and she was currently receiving unemployment benefits, including the federal unemployment supplement from the CARES act. However, as 2020 went on, Serenity and her husband found their financial stability slipping. The extra unemployment benefits ended. Eventually, she said, “We saw that we couldn’t afford emergency pop-up expenses, like when our plumbing went out”.
As a result, Leisa and Serenity pivoted their focus to how the family could bridge the gap from the lost income and make ends meet for the rest of the year. After reviewing the family’s budget, expenses, and assets, they decided that a one-time withdrawal from Serenity’s 401K retirement account would be the best option, especially given the CARES Act flexibility on retirement withdrawal fees and taxes. The impact on Serenity? “Having someone tell me that taking money out of a retirement account is an option, that people do this, and it is okay … that took a load of the stress off. Now I am more hopeful than scared.”
Leisa reflects, “It really is kudos to her for saving first. It’s so important to pay yourself first and she did that, so the money was there [when she really needed it]. Thankfully, with the pandemic, the CARES act allowed those impacted by COVID-19 to access their retirement accounts and spread the taxes ratably over the next three years. We talked through how within three years she could pay it back and not be subject to the annual cap on contributions.”
Additionally, when Serenity lost her job, she also lost her health insurance, and finding coverage again was a pressing concern. She was eligible for health insurance options through her husband’s workplace, but they were high deductible plans, which Serenity had never enrolled in before. Leisa reviewed the different options with Serenity and walked her through finding a health insurance plan that would fit her budget and needs. Leisa says, “Most people don’t think of leaning on their financial advisor to help with choosing benefits, but I deal with [benefits] all of the time”.
Today, Serenity is incredibly grateful not only for Leisa’s advice and guidance, which was essential in maintaining her family’s financial stability, but also for the Angel Foundation’s Financial Cancer Care Program. “It doesn’t seem like there is a lot of practical support out there to help middle-class people keep it together so they don’t end up losing everything they’ve worked for. This program has been one of the most helpful things that I have had access to as a cancer patient. Because of it, I feel a lot more secure about making it through this year.”
Leisa’s advice to other advisors? “Just get involved. You’ll never realize what impact you could have and how much knowledge you have to give back. The feelings I’ve had while working with Serenity … I almost feel like I got more out of that than she did. The impact it has had on me, the ability to be able to do something meaningful, is powerful. I think everyone has had some type of personal experience with cancer, and it’s normal to be sad and frustrated with cancer – but this was a way for me to step back from everything I do with regular clients and really have an impact on someone.”
“Having someone tell me that taking money out of a retirement account is an option, that people do this and it is ok … that took a load of the stress off. Now I am more hopeful than scared.”
Together, Planner and Client were able to…
- Assess the family’s financial situation to bridge a loss of income due to the pandemic, unemployment, and recurring illness.
- Make a withdrawal from a retirement account to cover the family’s bills, taking advantage of the CARES Act flexibility provision on retirement withdrawal fees and taxes.
- Choose a health insurance plan that was right for the client’s needs and budget.