When they told me my life would be severely abbreviated, I did the best I could to convince myself that dying young was the way to go. As I tooled down country roads in my car, thinking I was enjoying my last summer on earth, I sang along to Blondie: “Die young, stay pretty / Live fast ’cause it won’t last.” I gloated that I’d never have to watch wrinkles render my face into a shrunken apple head doll (OK, maybe not that gruesome, but I was desperately seeking solace). Then I made a list of all the miseries I’d skip by avoiding old age. Many of those, it turned out, were financial: decades of taxes, for instance. I wouldn’t need to squirrel away money in a 401K, pension or retirement fund. I wouldn’t have kids, so no tuitions or braces. Blissfully absolved of fiscal responsibility, I considered tossing out my unpaid parking tickets.
Not long after I’d gotten used to the idea of cashing out early, I found that I had a new lease on life, thanks to protease inhibitors. Strangely, the news made me depressed—so depressed that I had to go to my doctor. I remember confessing, in a whisper, my alarming mental state. “I don’t understand,” I said to my doc. “I should be thrilled that I might live longer. Instead, I feel like killing myself.” He assured me that mine wasn’t an isolated phenomenon. He brought me to my senses, prescribed a little pick-me-up to get me through the work I had to do to get my head around planning for the future (including addressing my long-term prognosis for solvency) and sent me on my way.
It took me longer than I’d planned to pull together my finances. Ten years to be exact. Just this year, I started contributing to a 401K. It was a major milestone to fill out the paperwork that would send some of my salary into the vault for years to come. Why hadn’t I been able to do it before? Partly, I think, because I saw my doctor’s promise for a lengthy life a little akin to hearing that the check’s in the mail. Yeah, right, I’d said. But, I never banked on it. After a decade of dealing only with daily living expenses, it’s high time to start fortifying my financial future. Another reason it’s been hard is that I try to be so mature and responsible in other ways—dutifully choking down my regimen, always checking my bloodwork, practicing safer sex—that it sometimes feels good to be financially footloose. I can’t risk my health or others’, but, hey, no one’s gonna die if I don’t balance my checkbook, right? Well, maybe just me—badly dressed and without a roof over my head.
I’ve learned that financial freedom is the rich dividend to be earned from wrangling fiscal control over your life—something that’s not always easy to do—especially when it requires handling debilitating debt amassed during times we didn’t think we’d be around to face the repercussions. The good news? No matter what state your finances are in, there are ways that you can improve your monetary position. Our feature, “The Money Pit,” shows you how. There’s no doubt about it. Financial planning can lead to the same happy end I once hoped to enjoy as the result of an early demise: never having money troubles again. May we all live long and prosper.