the-new-york-times logo“My husband and I had decided life was too short,” recalled Ginny McKinney, “so we went shopping to buy a travel trailer to take us into an early retirement.” That was three years ago.

“While standing in the fourth trailer that we were considering, he had a heart attack and died,” she said. Dan McKinney was 62.

Ms. McKinney was 59 and retired from her work as a medical assistant, although she was taking on occasional work to make a little extra money. Her husband was getting ready to retire from his post as a restaurant manager at the Ritz Carlton Club at the Aspen Highlands Ski Resort in Colorado.

Like Ms. McKinney, one-third of the women who become widows are under age 65, according to data from the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, known as Wiser, a nonprofit organization dedicated to women’s financial education and advocacy. The Census Bureau reported in 2011 that the median age of widowhood was 59.4 for a first marriage and 60.3 for a second marriage.

No one is ever prepared for such an event. But for many women, the road to financial hardship begins after their husbands die. Nearly a third of single women over age 75 are living in poverty, according to Wiser’s research.


Ms. McKinney is not one of them. The couple had some savings, and she was the recipient of his $150,000 life insurance policy. Nonetheless, the sudden loss turned her world upside down. “He carried my heart on a velvet pillow, and I was crushed,” she said.

One of her first moves after the funeral was to connect with a certified financial planner, Danielle Howard of Wealth by Design in Basalt, Colo., who made it clear from the start that Ms. McKinney needed to share responsibility for her finances and not leave everything to her adviser.

“Some women are heads of households and managing it all,” Ms. Howard said, “but probably 75 percent of women I’ve worked with just go, ‘I am not good at math.’ It is not a matter of being good with math, I tell them. You can use a calculator. You just need to be comfortable talking about it.”

Ms. Howard urged her client to increase her financial literacy. “That education is vital to getting your feet back on the ground,” she said.

Like most widows, Ms. McKinney is living on a lot less than before her spouse died. “The big-picture look at widows is that there’s almost always a loss of income,” said Cindy Hounsell, the founder and president of Wiser. Women also generally live longer than men, making it even more important that they plan their finances carefully.

Ginny McKinney

For reasons she still doesn’t fully understand, two weeks after her husband’s sudden death, Ms. McKinney headed back to the travel trailer dealership to pursue the dream she had with her spouse. She bought a 15-foot Sportsmen Classic.

“I took off for three months, driving a circle around Colorado,” she said. “I went to places in the wilderness and on the top of mountains, where I could stand outside and scream at the sky, and scream at God for taking my man. And scream at him for leaving me.”

She also joined the Sisters on the Fly, a women’s empowerment adventure group. “The group made me feel I wasn’t a victim,” she said. “I wasn’t the only one who had gone through this.”

Since her husband’s death, Ms. McKinney has put tens of thousands of miles on her truck and trailer. “I’ve done a lot of driving, but I haven’t done anything exorbitant,” she said. “I didn’t go around the world.”

Indeed, widows need to make their initial financial moves cautiously. “There’s a sense of urgency to do something right after you lose a spouse, but I caution widows to recognize the psychological trauma and don’t do anything hastily,” said Eleanor Blayney, author of “Women’s Worth: Finding Your Financial Confidence” and consumer advocate of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. “Widows, in particular, have to be very careful about being taken advantage of by people who may or may not have their best interests at heart.”

One stumbling block for many widows is knowing where the money is. That often requires some sleuthing to locate savings accounts, brokerage accounts and retirement plans — and identifying the proper online passwords. “The first step to piecing things together,” Ms. Blayney said, “is digging out your joint tax returns for the past five years.”

“An ounce of prevention is everything,” Ms. Blayney added. “Anticipating widowhood is tough, but the more financial information a woman can gather in advance of the loss of a spouse, the smoother it will be.”

That’s easier said than done — even when the death is not sudden. Five years ago, Joyce McCue, now 63, and her husband of 30 years, Richard, moved to McLean, Va., from Memphis for his job as vice president for Hilton International. Six months later, he learned he had throat cancer. He died a year after their move at the age of 55.

Her spouse had a $2.5 million life insurance policy. But when it came to what to do with it and other family investments, she was at a loss. “I was always totally bored when we went to our financial planner,” Mrs. McCue said. “I controlled the day-to-day finances. I paid the bills. I balanced the checkbooks. But he did the big-picture stuff.”

She did have one thing in her favor: She knew how to control her spending. “Richard and I always teased each other,” she said, “because my motto was always ‘Do we need that?’ and his motto was ‘Let’s get two.’ ”

She hired a financial adviser, Eileen O’ Connor, co-founder of Hemington Wealth Management in McLean. “It was quite intimidating,” Mrs. McCue said. “I felt like I was asking questions a kid in high school would.”

And, like Ms. McKinney, she joined a women’s support group. “Widows are able to share and help each other with the challenges they’re facing and resources,” Ms. O’Connor said. “While I’d like to think I’m helpful to my widowed clients, I think they find as much support, or more, from peers that are going through the same ordeal.”

Most financial planners suggest that widows refrain from investing or spending any lump sum insurance or pension payout for at least six months and ideally a year. Some widows, however, overspend early after the death of a spouse.

That’s one mistake Ms. McKinney made. “If I had it to go over again, I would not take that life insurance in one lump sum,” she said. “I would have had it divvied out. You’re not thinking that first year.”

Among other things, she gave some large gifts to her adult children. “Somehow it felt like it might soften things, ease the pain — however irrational it is,” she said.

An even more important decision is where to live. “That’s an emotional one because the family home is often the locus of the marriage,” Ms. Blayney said. “It’s not just a financial decision; it is a very emotional decision.”

Ms. McKinney waited a year to sell the couple’s 1,700-square-foot home in New Castle, Colo., which sold for $260,000. “After I came back from my trip, I never moved back in,” she said. “I realized I was living in my camper on the front curb and using my house as a really expensive laundromat. I didn’t love the house anymore.”

After paying off the mortgage and upgrading to a 250-square-foot travel trailer, she had $63,000 left. “For now, I draw from that for living expenses,” she said, “so I don’t touch my retirement savings.”

Like Mrs. McCue, Ms. McKinney found new life through sharing with others, writing a blog on Facebook for widows and forming fresh bonds with the women she met through Sisters on the Fly.

“They’re a hoot,” she said. “I needed to have something joyful to look forward to and there they were.”


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