The following is a guest post by Stephani Jenkins of Cheapskate Cook:
Six years ago, my husband was on his motorcycle, headed home from picking up mayonnaise at the store. The phone rang while I fed our kids dinner, dropping soft bits of food on my 9-month old’s high chair.
I don’t know why I answered the phone. I never answer when I don’t recognize the number.
“Excuse me, is this Stephani? Does your husband drive, like… like a scooter or a motorcycle?”
I barely remember what else she said.
“They’re calling an ambulance. You’d better get over here right away. He’s really hurt.”
I left the kids with a neighbor and arrived minutes later. There had been a crash, and when you’re on a motorcycle, you always lose.
Chris’ neck was in a brace, and I pushed my way through the EMTs. When he saw me, his first and only words were, “I’m sorry, babe.”
That night, we slept in the emergency room. Chris drifted in and out of pain meds, and I watched blood drip onto the floor before they got him bandaged up for surgery the next morning. A friend came around midnight with snacks, a sweater, and a breast pump.
The next morning, when the surgeon wheeled Chris away, he said, “We’ll do our best to save his leg, but I can’t make any promises.”
That was the beginning of the most difficult and expensive season of our lives so far.
5 Things That Saved Us From Financial Disaster
In that weird way that our brains face trauma with a detached realism, I remember not understanding the full scope of Chris’s injuries, knowing we would do everything we could, and knowing that even if it all went south, we would be okay.
This was a morbid comfort when the situation was completely out of my control.
We were young and healthy and had every reason to think we would continue that way for the next 30 years (well, maybe not the young part).
But what happened at the grocery store stoplight could have destroyed us.
There were a lot of things that helped pull us through that season and climb out stronger than ever – our commitment to each other, our faith, counseling, supportive family.
Even still, when I look back, I see 5 things that saved us from financial disaster that night.
1. We had health insurance.
As a healthy family that rarely goes to the doctor and needs private insurance, we opted for a high-deductible plan. This means that besides a few routine check-ups, like wellness visits, all medical expenses come out of our pocket and go towards a yearly deductible. The idea is that most years, we just pay cash for our medical expenses. But if something catastrophic happens, after we pay our deductible (usually a couple thousand dollars), everything else is covered 100%.
The good news is that most practitioners have special discounts for cash-paying patients. It’s still expensive, but it’s possible to plan ahead and save for expenses we know are coming.
This also means that a high deductible plan covers treatments over a certain amount. We knew that if there was an emergency – a car accident or a bad diagnosis – we could pay our deductible and our insurance would cover the rest.
It’s the kind of health insurance you never want to have to use, but when you do, you are so grateful.
Every insurance company is different, so read their policies carefully. Some cover 100% after the deductible, some cover a percentage, and some have a tiered system.
As I sat in the emergency room, reliving the x-rays of Chris’s shattered bones, I breathed a prayer of gratitude for life and disability insurance. I don’t think we will ever go without these again, no matter how tight things get. We got too close to needing them over a jar of mayonnaise.
2. We had an emergency fund.
I clung to any bit of hope I could find… and the emergency fund was one.
Even when we were really broke, Chris and I always kept an emergency fund. Because of our insurance, we made sure we had enough to cover our deductible.
So even if Chris lost his job after this, we had something.
3. We had ZERO debt.
We knew Chris’s job was not guaranteed after this crash. Thankfully, he works for a great company who allowed him to keep his job despite 13 surgeries and years of recovery.
However, there were still so many unknowns about what his career would look like after that first surgery.
When Chris and I were first married, we made a commitment to avoid debt. This meant driving ugly vehicles and repairing them until we could afford to upgrade in cash. We had been married for 11 years before we ever purchased a car from a dealer – and even then it was used and 5 years old.
This meant buying furniture off Craigslist (before Facebook marketplace was a thing), shopping Goodwill’s 50% off days for kids’ clothes and household needs, and simply learning what was really important to us. Being debt-free was important to us. Eating out was less important.
I will never regret the decision to stay debt-free. It changed our lives.
4. We had a “saving lifestyle”.
Ever since the early years of our marriage when Chris and I had only $25 a week for food, we’ve been savers. We lived under the poverty line and on below-average incomes for years, but we made it a habit to save as much as we could.
Instead of approaching our frugal lifestyle like a death sentence to all my home decor dreams, I took it as a challenge to help us launch into the next season. We were here, but we would not stay.
Saving money helped us stay debt-free while living below the poverty line. It helped us pay for repairs on our old vehicles while saving money towards newer ones. It helped us pay our health insurance deductible for multiple years in a row during Chris’ recovery.
Currently, our family is living in an 80-year-old fixer-upper farmhouse and we’re cash-flowing the renovations. Saving money has brought the best things into our lives.
5. We have a healthy lifestyle.
During Chris’s recovery, I was talking to a woman whose husband had a similar accident and similar injuries. She said that after years of watching him not follow doctors’ orders, not take care of his body, and start self-medicating, she had to make some devastating decisions for the safety of herself and their children.
When I got home that day, I hugged Chris. He had to relearn to walk at least 5 times. He spent nearly 2 years on bed rest. He’s had parts of his body rearranged in order to heal the broken parts. But he always did his best with what he had.
Before the crash, we were avid gym-goers. We liked being healthy and active together. After the crash, we committed to staying active — even if that would have to look different.
Eventually, Chris gained a reputation with his surgeons. They knew that no matter what happened, Chris was going to make it. He would keep exercising, he would go to physical therapy appointments, and he would be back in the gym in between surgeries, dragging his crutches from bench to machine.
On the day before the 5th anniversary of Chris’ crash, he and Crystal’s husband, Jesse, and another friend ran the Tough Mudder, an obstacle course race that tests the strength and endurance of its athletes.
While it’s hard to measure how Chris’ healthy choices helped affect our finances during that season, we both agree that doing our best to take care of our bodies is important. As that other woman showed me, our story could have looked very different.
I hope you never have to use this advice. I hope you never have to sit in the emergency room, thanking God for your disability insurance and savings account. I hope you never get that phone call during dinner.
But at the same time, I hope you experience the peace that comes from making small, important decisions with your money.
I hope you sleep well at night, knowing you’re building an emergency fund – no matter how slow that progress feels. (As someone who has had to rebuild her emergency fund more times than she can count, I know how slow it seems!)
I hope you feel the thrill of paying cash for a car, proudly nicknaming it “the grandma car” (true story), and driving it away with a light heart.
I hope that when life gets real — as it does for all of us — you stand and face it, cling to faith and family, and come out stronger on the other end.
Empowering you to save money and eat healthy, Stephani Jenkins writes at CheapskateCook.com, where she shares recipes, grocery hacks, tutorials, and daily motivation to guard your health and your budget.