This post is based on an interview we conducted with Wendy in October 2018.
Real Money Talk is our series where we interview Australians from all walks of life about their personal finances. The views expressed are those of the interviewees, based on their experiences with money, and as such are not necessarily representative of Spaceship's views.
Wendy has had a difficult year.
Her husband was diagnosed with cancer and, despite having a life insurance policy, they had to dig deep into their savings and even draw down credit out of their house loan to cover the medical bills.
Wendy lays out her and her husband’s finances and shares how they managed to get by.
Where do you live?
What’s your business?
My husband and I run a renovations company.
He does the building and I do the administration. We have one full-time employee.
We’ve never been that interested in growing it larger. We get good quality jobs in our part of the city and we managed to raise our family (two kids) on our combined income.
Sometimes it’s stressful. Like when the economy turns down and there have been times where I’ve wondered if we’d ever get another job again! But something generally turns up.
I would describe our business as modest, but it has worked well for us.
What is your current net worth?
Broken out it looks like:
Assets: ($1.52 million)
● Cash: $2,500
● Investments: $5,000
● House value: $1.5 million
● Cars: resale probably around $16,000
● Mortgage: $170,000
● Business loans: $0
● Car loan: $0
● Credit card: $1,000 (with a limit of $10,000)
Both Wendy and her husband have around $1 million each in superannuation.
Any debts? (including HELP from Uni)
Our mortgage is our biggest debt.
We bought our house more than twenty years ago, but we’ve renovated and changed it about four times. That’s what happens when you marry a builder!
But we’ve battened down to just get rid of the last part. We are paying off about three times more than the minimum repayments and we should be rid of it in about three years.
What was your first job and how has that changed?
I was actually a chambermaid at the Ritz in Piccadilly, London.
It was a strangely glamourous job! We saw some outrageous things that went on in the hotel rooms and we had to keep absolutely silent about them.
I earned £50 per week and they took £10 off for rent because I lived in the staff residence.
It wasn’t a great amount of money at the time, but I had come straight out of school and was young, in love and free.
Do you make purchase decisions carefully, or are you loose with your money?
Very carefully. We never had the money to throw away!
Tell us a bit about your most recent money scare?
My husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the end of last year.
Anybody reading this with fathers or husbands or brothers over 50-years-old should encourage them to get checked by a doctor.
It was absolutely terrifying.
We went into a private hospital because we immediately thought we wanted to get the best care for him. The mindset is immediately, we will do anything. He had a very high PSI reading (which is a prostate cancer indicator) and the best recommendation was to remove it.
The operation to have his prostate removed was about $17,000, but only about $2,000 was covered by his private health insurance. We were absolutely shocked by that. Only $2,000.
This was a policy we’ve been paying every month for more than 30 years.
But what really got us was that the $17,000 figure doesn’t even cover the assistant surgeon fees, the anaesthetist, the operating theatre, hospital stay or the pathology tests.
In total, the out-of-pocket-cost to us was around $22,000. That nearly wiped us out.
We had around $7,000 in savings at the time (because we were planning a trip to Europe). Then we used my credit card (which had a maximum of $10,000) and we had to draw a bit of money out of our mortgage.
Luckily we had always been paying more than our minimum repayments.
My husband obviously had to stop work too, so we didn’t have any income for a few months.
We absolutely went back to zero. It was this state of double-distress.
Particularly because there were so many unexpected fees and bills.
A few times we were scheduled for check-up appointments that cost us $250 each. And tests! Tests were sometimes $600.
It seemed liked we were being bled dry. I can remember taking the train to the city and trying to tap off but the tapping machine was broken so my metroCARD charged me $8 for a $2.70 trip.
It felt like every dollar was getting taken off us.
It didn’t help that this 4 Corners episode about medical price gouging and bill creep came out just after my husband’s operation.
I really think that happened to us.
And now that I’m not in a state of panic, I have since found out the public health system would have treated him for much less money and there are surgeons who are speaking out about what some of their colleagues are charging.
I think a lot about how vulnerable we were at the time. In one hour we found out the diagnosis, it was cancer, and that we needed surgery. Nobody knows what’s realistic or reasonable at that time so there’s no level-headed cost analysis.
So it cost us about $22,000 at the time and sent us back to zero.
We are okay now, and he’s okay! (Although he still needs tests and checkups every once in a while).
We paid off the credit card and we have some building jobs, so there’s an income again.
We just had to start again. We have always been good at living off not much money, so we just did that this year.
How do you live frugally?
I’ve always managed the home economics and I’ve been pretty tidy about it.
We give ourselves $500 a week to live on and if there’s anything left over, I roll it over to the next week.
I find cash much easier to keep track of, so I take out $300 cash every week and that covers groceries and bills. $200 is for the unexpected things. (Like sometimes it’s necessary to have a champagne lunch with your friends!)
My husband installed solar panels on our roof about ten years ago so we haven’t paid electricity for quite some time, which is handy.
Sometimes we even make money off the grid. I can see this being a very powerful way for people to help themselves in the future rather than rely on energy companies. Or politicians.
I feel sad that common sense is somehow so difficult to actually implement in Australia.
What advice do you have for people wanting to earn more money?
Look, I would think about whether you need more money.
I’m a bit fed up with people constantly wanting to grow and expand and get bigger.
Before you start yelling, I’ve done my business degree! I know how modern economics works!
But for the individual, it’s worth thinking about why you think you need more money.
Those people who just want to earn money just to have more and be flashier and louder, I think they can just get lost.
Take on new challenges by all means, that will actually make you richer in the true sense. But I think it would be worth just asking if you’re totally happy to swap your time for more money.
Buy yourself a bunch of flowers every week and look at them.
This interview is an edited transcript of a phone conversation that took place on 11 October 2018.