By Quentin Fottrell, MarketWatch
I am a 34-year-old with a degenerative neurological condition that gives me somewhere between five and 10 years to live.
I recently retired on disability from my job and will gross $80,000 a year, 50% of which is tax-free. My wife is a teacher and has a steady career, grossing $68,000 a year. We have no children, and have total savings (retirement and other accounts) of $350,000. We owe $250,000 on a $500,000 home that is in good condition. My life-insurance policy is worth approximately $1 million, and I have minimal health-care costs.
‘While I understand her position, it seems a bit conservative to me and I’m frustrated at her absolute opposition.’
With my limited time left, I want to invest in a new kitchen — both as a gift to my wife and as something positive and new to lift my spirits, since I’m largely confined to our home and spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Given the numbers, I do not see much risk in investing between $50,000 and $75,000 on a new kitchen.
My wife, on the other hand, is vehemently opposed to spending any of our savings given my certain demise in the next decade. While I understand her position, it seems a bit conservative to me, and I’m frustrated at her absolute opposition.
Any advice would be appreciated.
Loving husband in Tacoma, Wash.
Thank you for your letter and for sharing your story. I’m on your side. I’m also on your wife’s side. It’s a good sign that you are having this discussion and, no doubt, it will be the first of many issues related to your illness that you will need to navigate. Start as you mean to continue.
If you’re spending time alone at home for the foreseeable future, it makes sense that you would want to be comfortable at home. Before spending money on your kitchen, make sure you don’t need to allocate money for other adjustments to prepare for any lack of mobility related to your illness. Do you have enough room downstairs for a bedroom if the stairs become unmanageable and a bathroom that will suit your needs? What adjustments could you make to your kitchen that would not cost as much as $50,000 and also might appease your wife?
Before I get into the logistics of kitchen costs and house values and savings and financial security, I wanted to say one thing: Whatever is really going on here, it’s not only about the kitchen. It’s never just about the kitchen. Whenever I focus on some material issue that I need to change, I try — not always successfully — to remind myself that whatever it is I want to change or improve or purchase represents some other issue that I haven’t quite figured out yet. It may also represent something different to your wife. She may be living with the fear of losing you and anxious about life after you’ve gone, and a major change or upheaval could be the last thing she wants right now.
‘Whatever is really going on here, it’s not only about the kitchen. It’s never just about the kitchen.’
Reading stories like yours also gives me perspective on my own life. We are the canned beans, and often times we need others to tell us what’s written on the can. Answering your letter and contemplating your predicament and your relationship helps me, too. Believe it or not, when I am faced with a big decision or I need to advocate for myself on a financial matter and my own emotions get in the way, I ask myself, “What would the Moneyist advise me to do?” Of course, I can’t ask myself, but I ask a friend who will be that person for me. So thank you for choosing me to be that person — or one of those people — for you.
Seek outside help from a professional to help ensure this issue isn’t a proxy for other issues related to your condition. I don’t know whether your existing kitchen is badly in need of renovations and/or is falling apart, or whether it’s a perfectly serviceable room that could be turbocharged with gadgets and, to quote the realtor, “ all mod cons .” I’ll leave that for you two to figure out. But I have some questions: Will having such a project also give you something outside of yourself and your illness to focus on? Will it mean you have something bearing your own personal stamp that you can leave behind for your wife? If so, I can certainly understand that.
I also wonder whether this is part of a pattern. Is this a dynamic between two strong-willed people that repeats itself? That may be a negative or a positive thing. Perhaps you both enjoy locking horns and finding issues to wrestle over. That could be how you bonded when you first met, or that might be how you were raised — to argue things out. It could be a stimulating game in which you take turns winning game, set and match. Or it could be an unhealthy part of your relationship that this dream kitchen project gives you an opportunity to address. Perhaps the real remodeling needs to take place on your communication styles and willingness to hear each other out.
You don’t want to leave your wife with a white elephant or an alabaster albatross around her neck.
I have one more question for you. Would this project give you something you can start and finish before you die? It is big enough for you to feel a great deal of satisfaction when it is complete. After all, this is where you talk and eat, and probably feel most at home in the world. It would be a gift to your wife — if she did not regret spending the money and was able to sit in it on a rainy Sunday afternoon and think of you. It would not be such a gift if you won her over and she found herself worrying about money, drinking a cup of tea on an expensive marble surface while nursing a resentment. I don’t think either of you would want that.
You are embarking on a journey together. The good news: All things considered, you’re in great financial shape. Homeowners spend roughly up $33,000 on a new kitchen , but this varies dramatically by city and region. In fact, TheSpruce.com says it can cost $200 to $250 per square foot for a mid-range kitchen in the Pacific Northwest or $300 per square foot for a high-end kitchen. So it may be that any kitchen renovation will run at the higher end of the scale. Your wife may not live in this house forever, so it would be wise to consult a real-estate agent to see how much of that would add value to your home if your wife decided to sell it after you’ve gone. You don’t want to leave her with a white elephant or — to stick with the animal metaphor — an alabaster albatross around her neck.
Seek out a financial manager. You need a third-party, objective opinion to discuss all financial end-of-life issues with your wife — including your life insurance, your retirement and other expenses she will face alone after you’ve gone. You need to see this kitchen renovation in the context of all of your other financial commitments. I also recommend that you see a counselor and/or seek out group therapy to talk about how you would like to spend the years you have left. Perhaps there are places you have always wanted to go as a couple, or academic courses or retreats that you have always wanted to take. It may be that you put a modest pot of gold aside for this.
Some couples are fortunate enough to experience old age together. Others lose their partner without warning, and are left with so many things that have gone unsaid. You have the opportunity to find common ground and draw up a road map for the time you have left, and that is no small gift.
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