"I'll be O.K. I'll Figure It Out"

A New York fireman's wife, Andrea Garbarini was widowed September 11. She's learning the hard way now about handling the family's finances by herself

Lieutenant Charles Garbarini was one of the 343 New York City firefighters who lost their lives while trying to rescue people trapped in the World Trade Center on September 11. Garbarini, 44, is survived by his wife Andrea, 39, an emergency-room nurse who worked part-time, and two children, 3 and 5.

Andrea is struggling with the emotional trauma of losing her spouse while at the same time adapting to her new role as a single mother and sorting out her family's financial situation. Garbarini recently agreed to talk with BusinessWeek Online contributor Michele Turk about how her husband's death will affect the family's income and how she'll deal with their suddenly uncertain financial future. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: How are you coping with the financial consequences of your husband's death?

A:

It's overwhelming because my life has changed. There is no normal for me right now. I don't know what my income will be and what's going to happen. It's a very uncertain time for me financially and emotionally. I'm swimming in new waters I never thought I'd have to.

Q: Have you received any financial assistance yet?

A:

There are lots of monies coming in from different charities. People have been so generous. The Fire Dept. has given us a certain amount of money. If a fireman dies in the line of duty, they try to help the family as much as possible. We'll be given [proceeds of] life-insurance policies. And the American Red Cross and the Knights of Columbus have been very generous.

All sorts of organizations have, and it's starting to come directly to us. I'm trying to stay on top of everything -- the other monies that are coming in from charities, along with my regular bills. And I'm just taking it one day at a time, which is all we can all do.

Q: What was your family's financial situation before, and how will these donations help?

A:

We're a nurse and a fireman -- we didn't make a lot of money. But if you look at a whole lifetime of spending...I have to budget it wisely. I have two small children, so I'm going to have to set up college funds. I have a mortgage on a house. I live in a very expensive area -- Westchester County.

Q: How involved were you in the family's finances?

A:

My husband did the bills. He was quite organized. I'm not good with money. It never was a big deal to me. I lived in the moment, and my husband lived for the future and retirement, so we made a good pair. The advice I can give -- as a woman who allowed the other partner to do the bills -- is this: Make sure you have a joint understanding of exactly what you have.

You might even have an envelope filled with [a list of] your mutual funds and write on it "open in case of death." We didn't have that, and I'm kind of confused about what we have. And some [assets] are only in his name. I'll be O.K. I'll figure it out.

Q: How did your husband approach financial planning?

A:

My husband did a lot of saving. He was smart with his money. And he was shrewd in a lot of ways. I've found some things I didn't know were there. He didn't want me to spend all the money. I think he was trying to surprise me with money we would be able to spend in retirement.

[By contrast, my philosophy was] don't wait until you're old to enjoy your money. We did a lot of traveling. We spent six or seven months in Cambodia, Nepal, Vietnam, India, Turkey. Sometimes I [had to] drag him around, because he was more worried about money. He grew up with nine kids, so he had a deep insecurity about not having enough money. When you don't have a lot growing up, you tend to squirrel it away.

Q: Will you need to work full-time now that you're the sole breadwinner?

A:

I'll go back part-time. I'll financially be able to do that. The Fire Dept. has been generous with the pension, and our health benefits will stay intact.

Q: Will you need to make significant changes in your lifestyle, such as moving out of your house?

A:

I won't make any major changes right away. I had good advice given to me by a friend. She said, "Don't make any major changes for a year." I don't know what the future will bring. I don't think I'll have to move. [Still], it's three of us in a big house. It's a little overwhelming to think about the bills and the lawn.

Q: You were married to a firefighter, obviously a risky job. Did you discuss your financial situation -- especially what would happen if he died on the job?

A:

We've been together forever. We started dating when I was 16. We didn't sit down and talk about it as much as we could have. Because we both dealt with people in crisis, maybe we were a little numb.

The smart thing to do is have that list and know where everything is. I'm still looking for some things. It's pretty disorganized. A lot of it is being handled by the Fire Dept. because a lot of savings came directly from his Fire Dept. check.

Q: Did you and your husband have a will?

A:

We didn't have a will. But I'm going to make up a will in the next month, maybe in the next week. People in their 30s should think about getting a will. Who wants to think about it? But with the kids [I need to].

Q: Have you made any other decisions?

A:

I will be getting a financial planner. Some big companies have donated their services, and that's very nice. I'm going to interview a few of them. I think I'm going to go with a big company because I feel more secure knowing that whoever is helping me will be insured and backed up by a large company.

I need someone to manage my money, so I'll have a lot of responsibility taken off of me. I don't want to be worrying about where everything is going. I need to concentrate on my children.

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