In one shocking afternoon, Ellen lost not just her beloved husband of 15 years but her sense of her future as well. "We had plans," said Ellen, now 53. "I see so many couples who don't think about retirement, but we did. We planned to sell our home, pile into an RV, and visit all the ballparks and stadiums across the United States."
Ellen, who works as a speech pathologist, still hopes to one day take that cross-country RV adventure, and yet like so many of us who face a life-altering change, she is struggling through the transition. She contacted me to ask for help creating a new financial plan. But as I pored over her financial information, I quickly saw that she is actually in great shape.
In fact, she has plenty of income to cover her monthly living expenses. The mortgage for the three-bedroom home she and Nick bought for $150,000 in 1995 is nearly paid off. A treasured lake house—which Ellen visits every weekend and plans to one day make her main residence—is mortgage-free. In addition to about $400,000 in retirement savings, she expects to eventually receive $500,000 after-tax, when an office building she and Nick invested in is sold. I was intrigued by Ellen's plea. She's got a solid job, has the retirement-planning puzzle pretty much solved, and, bless her heart, no credit card debt. So what's the problem?
"I find it very difficult to make financial decisions by myself," she confided. "It's pretty accurate to say I am afraid of money." So afraid, it turned out, that she recently lent a close relative $17,000 rather than let the money sit in her bank account. The finances of the deal don't worry me much—her relative has a solid track record and is paying Ellen 5 percent interest—but what jumped out was Ellen's motivation: "I thought giving her the money would be safer than my keeping it," she told me. Giving the money away is safer than keeping it? In a federally insured bank?
What Ellen needed wasn't really financial advice. Instead, she had to overcome the emotional issues that were triggering her fear-based decisions.
Next: The real source of Ellen's fear
The Earnings Test
Whenever I'm told that someone is fearful of money, I know something else is going on: Money fears are a symptom of a deeper, underlying fear. I asked Ellen specifically what it was about money that was eating at her. "It's not the mechanics that worry me," she said. "The real nut of it is that maybe I don't feel like it is mine."
She and Nick both worked full time, and they shared all money decisions as equal partners. But the investment property was bought with an inheritance Nick received, which also funded a retirement account that passed to Ellen. Having that money, let alone making decisions about how to handle it, didn't feel right to her.
"We didn't earn it together," she told me. "I was raised to believe that you have to work for everything." "But you did earn it," I told her. "You earned Nick's trust over 15 years. You earned his love." And Nick made it absolutely clear that he wanted her to have every penny. He died with both a will and a trust in place, and in both documents he specified that Ellen was to be the sole beneficiary. I encouraged Ellen to think of the will and trust as Nick's instructions to her: I love you. What was ours is now yours. Feeling guilty or unsettled by this money is in no way honoring the love that Nick expressed through his last wishes.
To move forward on her financial path—with love and courage—Ellen needs to confront her fears and strengthen her confidence. My first piece of advice to widows, or anyone who's experienced a life-shattering event, is to not make any major financial decisions while you're still in emotional turmoil. Unless there's a truly pressing money matter, it's better to put your decision making on pause while you regain your footing.
That was Ellen's situation: She didn't have to decide in the next six months or even the next year when to sell her home or relocate to her lake house. But there are some smaller money moves that I thought would help her feel more secure. I encouraged Ellen to pay off the remaining $4,000 on an old student loan as well as the final $38,000 on her mortgage. Both moves make sense financially, but there is an even more important reason to do them now: Ellen will feel better and stronger emotionally if she finally feels in control of her financial life.
Our next step was to begin tearing down Ellen's fears. I told her about an incredible teacher I studied with years ago, who taught me a simple method for measuring the integrity of my actions. Imagine three gatekeepers standing between you and the actions you want to take or the things you want to purchase, or even the things you want to say. Each of these gatekeepers represents one question: Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true? To this day, I check in with these gatekeepers when I'm unsure about my course of action. And if it doesn't pass one of the gatekeepers—if the purchase isn't really necessary or the word isn't kind or the action true—I know I need to stop and rethink what I'm doing.
Ellen acts as if she hasn't earned her money and so shouldn't take responsibility for it. I asked her to judge her thoughts against the three gatekeepers. We agreed it was in no way kind to Ellen (or to Nick's memory) for her to feel uneasy about taking charge of her finances. Was it necessary to think that this money was not hers? Absolutely not. And was it true that she did not deserve the money? Her husband put his wishes down in writing. The truth doesn't get clearer than that.
I asked Ellen to keep the gatekeepers on her shoulder for the next few months. When fears and anxieties arise, these three questions can show her the way forward.
Suze Orman's latest book is The Money Class: How to Stand in Your Truth and Build the Future You Deserve (Spiegel and Grau). To ask Suze a question, go to oprah.com/omagazine_talk.
Big Changes and How to Deal with Them