Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Most Pitiful Sight

OK. I admit it. I'm a Diet Coke fiend. Chances are you will find me with a Diet Coke in the office, at home, and in the car. Sometimes my preplanning breaks down, and I find myself in the car without my cherished refreshment. When that happens, I usually pull into a convenience store to pick one up. It's an addiction really.

But that's not the pitiful part. This week I found myself in that situation. I was in a rural area and stopped at the first convenience store I came to when the addiction struck. When I went to the cashier to pay for the drink, there was a large plastic jar on the counter with pennies, nickles, dimes, some quarters, and a few dollar bills in it. A sign on the jar said "Help us help the Johnston family." Below this headline was the picture of a seemingly healthy man, looked to be in his early-30's holding a small child, and both were smiling. Below the picture, the text informed me that Mr. Johnston died unexpectedly and left a wife and 2 kids. The collection jar was placed there by his church to help the family. I asked the clerk if she knew the family, and she said she did. She said Mr. Johnston had no life insurance when he died.

What's pitiful is that this family's never going to be whole again. I'm not talking about the emotional void the family has. Nothing can fill that. Rather it's the economic desperation they're going through. Hats off to his church. They are doing what they can to help. (I found out the church had placed jars like this all over the area). But look at the reality. There might have been $25.00 in the jar, tops. And the jar had been there for 3 weeks. So let's say there were 40 of these jars total with a similar amount of collections. That's still only $1000. Hardly enough to sustain the family for any length of time.

The cashier told me Mr. Johnston came "in all the time." In the mornings, he would stop in for a coffee on his way to work. In the afternoon, he usually stopped for a snack and a drink on his way home. He filleds his tank a couple times a week. The cashier told me that money was tight for the family, as Mr. Johnston was the sole "breadwinner". Clearly this cashier was feeling bad about what happened to a community neighbor and good customer, and helpless to do anything more significant to help the family.

I dropped my 41 cents in the jar. (The drink was $1.59 including tax). And on the way out, I thought, "You know, this guy probably spent $5.00 a day on drinks and snacks at the convenience store. That's a hundred a month. For a young 30-ish man, that buys a damn nice life insurance policy." After I got back to the office, I ran an illustration for a 35 year old standard health non-smoker and found that this guy's snack money would buy a $844,835 term policy for 20 years.

You can tell this situation made me angry. All I could think of was the desperation his wife might be feeling right now. How often does she wake up at night, not because she's missing her husband, but because she's worried about how she'll make the rent or mortgage--if not this month, then the next? Or how many bills are piling up on her kitchen table? Does she worry about getting her growing kids new shoes or clothes when they need them? Is she able to go grocery shopping without using food stamps?

I'm sure Mr. Johnston thought he was taking care of his family. I could see from the picture he was a very proud father. And no one expects to die prematurely. But he did, and his wife and her little children are in a world of hopelessness that they can't easily get out of. And all they have now to help them are the good intentions of some good willed people and a pitiful few dollars in collection jars scattered around their county.

Reality is that money feels "tight" for most families. We all have a habit of living up to the level of our incomes. And maybe even a bit beyond it at times. But like Mr. Johnston, we usually have discretionary spending somewhere, even if it's only a few dollars a day. And that small amount applied to a life policy will leave our families a lot more than memories if we take an early and unexpected exit from this life.

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