I received a call recently from a woman asking me if I could meet her urgently to review her finances because, in her own words, they were out of control.
She wasn’t exaggerating - her finances were in a mess. She had maxed out on two credit cards owing €12k, she was €3k overdrawn on her current account, and owed the credit union €7k as well.
I noticed from the statements she had with her that this explosion of debt and spending only happened in the last 24 months. Prior to April 2014 she had no debt and had a healthy balance in her savings account. So what was the trigger two years ago that made this young woman begin to live way beyond her means?
Without hesitation she recalled the day very clearly - Friday, April 4. She remembers the weather was good that morning, when she received the news she was free of cancer.
She said, the day she was told she had cancer, and that day she was told it was gone, were the two days that changed her life forever.
And when I say changed her life, I mean it changed her outlook and perspective on life entirely, which had a knock on effect, because from a financial point of view, up until then she was a bit of a saver, she denied herself splurging on clothes, holidays, changing her car because she thought she needed to plan for the future and save, but that all changed when she was diagnosed.
Life is for living was her new philosophy. So the first thing she told me she did that day two years ago was to buy herself a new dress, a ring, a watch and she even got herself a very small tattoo marking the date on her chest.
She said that was just the start of it - her debt and spending habits began to increase quickly. She decided to move to a property by herself and the rent increased by about €500 per month. She upgraded her car to a really nice VW beetle, and she also booked a number of weekends away and holidays abroad, and put the cost on her credit cards.
Having led a healthy lifestyle she felt it unfair what she had to go through and it changed her outlook on life. She didn’t share the same priorities as she once did and planning for the future for her was the next 24 hours. She couldn't and didn’t want to see beyond that.
This can often be the case for people who survive a life threatening illness? Very often people surviving cancer treatment make deals with themselves. They resolve to put the rest of their life to good use and help others, give up the boring job to do something else, set up a new business etc.
According to one leading psychiatrist this pressure to make the most of life can backfire. After the initial excitement, it can feel overwhelming, leading people to later be very confused, low and remorseful.
Conversely, I was surprised to learn, another side effect of cancer survival was people feeling down, and even depressed soon after treatment ends. In my ignorance I thought people who survived cancer would always be in great form.
Rresearch has indicated that between 25% and 40% of people go through some form of depression after cancer. The reason being they need time to recover after the trauma.
Feeling low may not happen after their treatment ends but can manifest itself months or even years later.
This young woman told me that although she is free of cancer, and in no danger, she still feels threatened by it, it still feels close by.
When she was having treatment, she knew the doctors and nurses busily fighting to keep her alive, and they did. But when the treatment ends - something she longed for - she had no one around her, she felt a little lost and vulnerable. Surely this isn’t right, this woman needed ongoing support and financial advice should be one element of that support.
I spoke with the Irish Cancer Society and they provide an incredible service and are an excellent source of advice and information around financial entitlements, how to deal with creditors, who you should speak with etc.
This is so important because the financial impact of undergoing treatment according to research carried out by them, shows an average income drop of €1,400 per month.
According to other research, approximately one third of families of ill patients report losing most or all of their family savings after treatment is completed.
But when I refer to financial support, I mean how they manage their finances from a behavioural and emotional point of view.
That is, what they may be feeling and how money greatly devalues in their estimation. That is all well and fine, but money is important even if they don’t think it is, and this is something people need to be cognisant of.
This young woman I am helping, now recognises that she can’t ignore money anymore and think it doesn’t matter, because it does.
Had she known then what she knows now, would she have done anything differently? Probably is her answer, because she now wouldn’t be awake at night worrying about paying the bills or the financial consequences if her cancer ever came back, had she at least realised what the consequences of her actions might have been.
Liam Croke is MD of Harmonics Financial Ltd,
based in Plassey. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.harmonics.ie