On any given day I am not sure if I learn more from my children or they from me. I’m a single father of three and so much of my learning continues to come from my high schooler, Sarah, who has Down syndrome. One of the lessons I have learned is that if we can make our schools, social groups, and work environments more friendly and accessible to people like my daughter, then we will improve the quality of life for each member of our community. Furthermore, as a financial planner working with families with special-needs members, I have learned that by preparing for the future of a person with a disability you are also preparing for each family member as well.
Let me expand on this.
First, you need to Get Your Planning Done, No Excuses!
Planning for a family member with special needs means planning for a second generation. Financial and legal decisions look and feel different when the need to create a legacy is paramount. Mostly it means not waiting to take care of important matters. Now is the time to get your estate plan in place; it will help you feel better and take care of important people in your life. Families like mine surrender valuable governmental resources if they plan poorly; typical families give up peace of mind and control when they do not plan. Without a will, courts—and not you—will choose who raises your children, who makes certain medical decisions, and who receives inheritances. Disturbingly, one study I came across shows that 60% of American adults do not have a will.
Commit to Create Financial Security
What will it take for you to move towards financial security? You do not need a degree in finance to get out of debt, have emergency funds, and save for retirement. You simply need commitment. You need to make the decision that “today is the day”. My children get more expensive every year and, apparently, will until they move out. I can spend every dollar I have and more on school, soccer, vacations, movies. and funding experiences. Funding for the future will not just happen until some income goes to savings. I have additional urgency as I will need to save for my retirement and to fund a future for my daughter. Take advantage of my learning. The biggest financial decision you can make is committing to putting money into paying off debt, into cash reserves, and into your retirement account. Keep it simple and do it.
Expand Your Idea of Possible
Future planning means putting some energy into education, family conversations, and careers to open opportunities down the road. With some imagination and effort, the possibilities are endless. I grew up in a time when people with disabilities were segregated in schools and employment options were limited. Today, people with disabilities can be found working in local stores and offices. There is a coffee shop in North Carolina run by people with Down syndrome. A technology recycling center with multiple locations nationwide is staffed almost entirely by people with autism. My daughter’s ability to live a full life depends on the kindness and efforts of a team, and with that team she has flourished. She has been integrated into typical classrooms, lettered three years on her cheer team, and modeled on calendars and in a fashion show. She lives a full and entertaining life. Often all it took was someone to say “yes”, allowing her to participate in an activity. Your life will be far richer and entertaining for these new experiences of meeting people with differences. And you will discover more potential in yourself as you see people with significant challenges who thrive.
Chicken Soup for the Soul series co-author Jack Canfield has been quoted as saying he is an inverse paranoid – that everything is part of a universal plot to enhance his well-being. As a parent, I am concerned whether my children will thrive, whether they will find their places in schools, work, housing, and with friends. Some days I look at my daughter with Down syndrome and wonder if her future will be full or if she will be lonely and lack opportunities. When I invert my expectations, I see a different world. My daughter engages with people. She is the first in my family to talk with the waitstaff at restaurants. She will find a friend in new social situations. She seems at ease with who she is, and others are attracted to her sweetness. My job as a father is easier when I recognize her strengths and encourage them. My stress about her future, and the future of my other children, decreases when I start to see opportunity in the future and put some effort into helping make that happen.
As a financial planner, I have a unique perspective. I talk with many people about what is working in their lives today and the type of lives they want to live. Those who take some basic, but not always easy, actions can enjoy today and feel comfortable about where they are headed. Find ways to reduce and get out of debt. Save for emergencies. Fund retirement accounts. I know for me, once I had those strategies in place, I could enjoy each day with my children as they continue to teach me.