Posted Dec. 27, 2015 at 2:01 AM
There were three things my grandmother taught me:
Martinis with breakfast were fine as long as it was Saturday.
Nothing feels more free than diving off the bow of a boat into the open ocean.
And class above crass wins every time.
She died just over a week ago, you see, and since then everything she said to me over the years echoes in my mind over and over … but there was one thing she didn’t tell me until it was too late — something she learned the hard way. And that was how to financially prepare for a time where she would be alone.
It’s not exactly her fault. Virginia Smith was born in 1926. And while women’s suffrage had just been ratified, women were largely taught to marry and depend on their spouses for survival.
And as a young nurse cadet, Virginia followed suit by marrying my grandfather, John Wheeler, who was a Navy officer and a urologist in 1946. In the eyes of her friends and family, she had done well. And the marriage would last 60 years, until my grandfather’s death in 2005.
What my grandmother didn’t prepare for was what would happen to her once he was gone. She left her future in his hands — which wasn’t uncommon for married couples her age. And while they lived a full life, wanting for nothing, my grandfather, unfortunately, didn’t leave her with much.
Luckily, her six children stepped in, pooling their resources and moving her into her own condominium apartment in Hyannis.
Because she received an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis in 2009, my grandmother would only be on her own for a few years, but her health would become costly. My mother Judi and I took care of her for the first two years, but as she further declined she eventually moved to The Pavilion nursing home in Hyannis for the rest of her days.
While the moments of clarity became few and far between, I remember one moment in particular. I was sitting beside her, watching TV, and after giving my hand a squeeze she said “No matter who you have in your life, I want you to remember to provide for yourself. Whether you get married or not, you always tuck a little something away just in case.”
And that made me think. I was 32, unmarried, and had a one-year-old daughter, with roughly $0 in the bank. What did I need to do to become financially fit in today’s day and age?
I started to research services on the Cape and found two standout organizations that hold regular financial workshops for people of all genders and ages: Women’s Empowerment through Cape Area Networking (better known as WE CAN), with Harwich and Falmouth locations, and the Housing Assistance Corp. in Hyannis.
WE CAN, which is entering its 16th year of operation in 2016, is a nonprofit that’s designed to provide guidance and options for women, including how to become educated on personal finances. Andrea Genser, the organization’s executive director, explained that there are many women who find themselves in the same predicament as my grandmother, but can learn to change their situations by taking WE CAN classes like “Money Sense,” which will run again on Feb. 2 at the Sandwich Public Library, and “Bankruptcy Overview: Starting the Conversation,” where attendees can sit down with attorney and financial advisor Sarah Robinson on Feb. 29. She said the financial empowerment sessions help women from any age and background take control of their financial future.
“We do one-to-one financial empowerment sessions where women can meet with a banker and a financial planner and women can learn about debt consolidation, budgeting, and even how to put their child through college,” Genser said. “There are so many women who may be recently widowed or could be in the throes of divorce that have never dealt with finances before. We provide them with a range of planning options that can help them be proactive and think about money in new and different ways, and that’s empowering.”
Genser also encourages women to attend these classes with a partner. While it’s her opinion that women should always take responsibility for their own financial well-being, she said financial education also benefits families as a whole.
“We’ve come a long way in the last 100 years — not just women, but the nation as a whole — and it’s imperative that couples approach financial habits and decisions together,” Genser said. “Even in a marriage it’s important for both partners to understand finances equally.”
Cheryl Kramer, housing center education manager at Housing Assistance Corp., agreed and said her organization offers a spectrum of financial education classes for men and women including ones on community resources, home buyer education, post-purchase considerations, points for tenants, creating a budget and rebuilding credit. Kramer, who I consider the Suze Orman of the Cape, said people young and old have the “power to build” a financial future through these workshops.
“We try to offer these classes quarterly, and whether we are talking about buying a house or evaluating credit, the point is to show people how to reach their goals,” Kramer said. “We encourage people to understand that it’s their financial future. We can give them the tools, but it’s up to them to follow through and monitor spending so they can eventually achieve what they want in life.”
Kramer admits that it’s not always easy. She said life can “get in the way,” but there is always another day to try again.
“When it comes to finances, people give up so quickly. They may need money to fix a car, or maybe a child gets sick or maybe even a family member dies and you need to help with costs,” Kramer said. “It’s these bigger issues that can get us off track, but I encourage all my people not to give up. Life happens to all of us, but we can always restart and give it another shot.”
She went on to explain that there are many people who are struggling to live and work on the Cape, but she said it’s up to each person individually to actively reach out for help — and follow through.
“I’m a counselor, so I’m not going to tell you how to invest your money. But I can tell you from things that have happened in my own life that every individual can take control and not only eliminate outstanding debt, but also make those tough decisions that will help save money,” Kramer said. “It’s incredibly empowering to watch someone who comes to one of my classes and really wants to learn. I have watched people succeed, and there is no better gift than that.”
One woman who benefited from several of Kramer’s classes is Adrienne Gonsalves, a Cotuit resident. She began with the credit workshop, but would eventually take the the first-time home buyer’s class as well. Gonsalves, who bought a home just last year, said she learned how to budget her spending to achieve her short- and long-term financial goals.
“Cheryl taught me how to be organized and how to budget, but she also showed me that I needed to be serious about it and pay attention to spending. I forced myself to focus and figure out what I needed in life and what I wanted,” Gonsalves said. “I began to prioritize and cut down significantly on things I didn’t really need, like going out to dinner. I also took on a second job so that I wasn’t just breaking even at the end of the month, I was putting money away in a savings account.”
And while Gonsalves achieved her ultimate goal of home ownership, she still has a spectrum of financial targets she hopes to hit in years to come.
“It doesn’t just stop at buying a house. You absolutely need to plan ahead and remember that things happen in life that you need to be prepared for. Right now I have a credit card tucked away in case of an emergency, but I would like to eventually replace that with cash and have a safety net,” Gonsalves said. “You have to make sure you are covered so that you don’t need to rely on anyone else.”
And, in my heart, I know that’s what Virginia was trying to show me. Yes, she enjoyed a husband she loved, and raised six children who would do just about anything to talk with her again, but she wished she had prioritized financially for herself a bit more. While I continue to make strides in my own life, and do what needs to be done for my own child, I hope she knows that I heard her and I understand.
I hope that you all do as well.