Normally I write about ways to save and make money. It’s a necessary part of life, particularly if you want to live responsibly and well. But today I am reminded that, while money may matter, it is far from the most important thing in life.
My area was hit by deadly tornadoes this week. The damage is mind bending. Houses are completely gone, cars are crushed, businesses are closed, and stuff is everywhere. People are picking up insulation and bits of debris that was carried from two counties away. I was fortunate. We suffered no major damage and all of my loved ones are safe. Some people that I know peripherally were injured or lost homes. As scary as the event was, it has served as a reminder of what really matters in life.
People who have lost entire homes as well as those who suffered no damage all say the same thing. “Thank goodness we’re safe.” Over and over again I’ve heard from friends and strangers the same phrase: “Stuff can be replaced. Life cannot.” How true this is. While we fret over which shoes or gizmo to buy, or whether our lifestyle measures up to the neighbors, we should remember that these concerns really don’t matter. It doesn’t really matter if you have the latest car or the biggest house. It doesn’t matter if your DVD collection is complete. All of that stuff can be gone in seconds. Literally.
People who survived the storms say that it lasted maybe thirty seconds. Thirty seconds to completely erase your home and belongings. Thirty seconds to destroy both million dollar homes and mobile homes. Thirty seconds and people who were alive just thirty seconds before are dead. Your status or income doesn’t matter in the face of that kind of disaster. While most of us (we all hope) will never face that kind of disaster, facing it firsthand makes you think long and hard about what’s important in life.
So today I’m sitting here reflecting on what’s really important financially. Stuff isn’t important. Neither are cars, homes, or toys like motorcycles, jet skis and campers. It’s all just metal, glass, plastic, or wood. I don’t argue that you need some form of shelter and probably a car to get to work in, but on the grand scale of things, they don’t matter because they are replaceable. We spend a lot of our financial time worrying about how to get “things” and not enough time on what’s really important.
Insurance is important, including property, health and life insurance. People who had good insurance will have an easier recovery from these tornadoes than those who neglected that detail. Property insurance will replace the stuff, life insurance will help if you lose a loved one, and health insurance will make any injuries suffered much easier to handle. Those without good insurance will be at the mercy of federal agencies like FEMA, which can take years to pay any money. Others will simply have to start from scratch with nothing but their wages.
An emergency fund is important. If you have money saved, you can get by until your insurance settlement comes in. If you have a large stash of cash, you may not even need to draw upon insurance. You can start getting your life back on track much faster than the person who has to wait for insurance or the government to pay out. If you don’t have decent savings, you’ll be at the mercy of friends, family, or organizations like the Red Cross until you can get back on your feet. Savings are also important because you might not be able to work. Many people around here are either out of work because their employer was destroyed or because they were injured in the storms. Until they recover or new work can be found, they need money. Without an emergency fund, it’s a much harder path to recovery.
Beyond those two things, many of our financial concerns are minor, even though we assign them major importance in our own minds. A big house and car are great and can make life easier. Belongings are fun and can provide some comfort. Retirement savings and college accounts are great to have and something to strive for, but should only come after you’ve got your insurance and emergency fund situation straight. Things like cell phones, cable, and Internet are luxuries. They’re fun and helpful, but ultimately unimportant. We worry about all of these things, but without good insurance and an emergency fund, we’re worrying about things in the wrong order.
When you start worrying obsessively about how you’re going to afford that expensive vacation, new house, better car, or new iPad, stop and think for a second. Are you fully insured? Do you have an emergency fund? If not, take care of that first. Those are the things that are most important. Those are the things that will really save you and your family if disaster strikes. The rest of it is just window dressing that can be gone in seconds.
Instead of going shopping or fretting over your outward appearance, take some time to hug your family and spend some quality time with your friends. Instead of thinking about the object that you don’t have and want, focus on your life and the non-material blessings that you have. Get to know your neighbors and build some bonds there. You may need them one day. You may never face a tornado, but all of us risk facing some sort of life altering event that will remind us of what’s really important. It might be a fire, hurricane, earthquake, or life threatening illness or injury. One day you might find yourself facing the truth that stuff is stuff and that what really matters is your life and the lives of those you care about.