"I Realized I Can Do These Things"

Andrea Garbarini, wife of a fireman killed on September 11, talks about how she's getting a hold on running the family finances

During the nine years she was married, Andrea Garbarini was more than happy to let her husband pay the bills and handle the couple's finances. In fact, Andrea, a part-time emergency-room nurse and her husband Charles, a firefighter who perished on September 11, rarely discussed their finances -- or the possibility that he might die in the line of duty.

When BusinessWeek Online interviewed Garbarini last fall, she was still overwhelmed by her reluctant role as a single mother of two boys who was now solely responsible for handling the family's finances, a job she thought she would never have to do. "I'm not good with money," she said. In fact, she added, she barely knew where the checkbook was kept (see BW, 10/24/01, "I'll be O.K. I'll Figure It Out").

Nine months later, BW Online contributor Michele Turk conducted a follow-up interview with Garbarini about how she dealt with some of the financial hurdles she has faced in the past year. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q: How are you coping financially and otherwise?


We're doing O.K. We're taking each day as it comes. It's not a normal event. It's not how most people die. It's in the paper every day, you get reminded every day, all day long.

I have his pension. His income is tax-free. I'm very thankful for that. We have gotten the life insurance policy, and the American people have been very generous. Financially, we'll be O.K. I should have enough money to support my children and me.

Q: What new tasks and responsibilities are you dealing with on a regular basis?


I had to get used to writing all the bills. I realized I can do these things. It's not complicated. It's just a matter of staying on top of the mail coming in. I get a tremendous amount of mail, probably three times the amount a normal person does, as a result of September 11. Sometimes it's hard to keep track of all that -- I've [had] a few late payments.

It's constant. The fire department keeps me updated. Now, the U.S. government keeps me updated on all of the trials. I'm thankful people are concerned about me, but the volume of paper that comes into the house is a lot. I haven't done everything yet, like transferring the phone bill into my name. Some things you get to, and some things you don't.

Q: What's your investment strategy, and have you hired a financial planner to help you?


I've used Merrill Lynch. [Former New York City Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani appointed some people to do it pro bono. They're doing it very conservatively. Seventy percent is in cash and money markets, 20% is going to go to bonds, and 10% is in equities. I really didn't know a lot about bonds, so I had to try to understand what AAA-rated means and how long they go out to mature. I've decided that bonds are not a bad thing.

I bought one aggressive-growth mutual fund outside of Merrill Lynch. I'm still young, I may as well take a little risk. I don't know if I should throw all my eggs in one basket. They're investing in a portfolio. I have some money in Citibank in a money-market [account]. I have accounts set up for the boys through Merrill Lynch. We're in the process of doing custodial accounts.

Q: Are you working?


I'm working one day a week. I need to be here for my children. With my profession -- nursing -- I decided I really need to keep my foot in the door to stay on top of things. But if I'm careful and watch myself, I'll probably be O.K. without that because I have my husband's income.

Q: Can you comment on the financial donations your family has received?


I feel like a warm hug has come from the country, and this is how they wanted to comfort us. Some people out there are saying we've [received] too much money. I know there's a little hostility about that.... I would switch places with anyone right now. Give me back my husband and the father of my children. My husband risked his life every day. He ran into places that people were running out of.

This is one of the benefits of working as a civil servant, where you risk your life every day. My kids will have a college fund. I can take them to Disney World. I can work part-time and be home when they get home from school. And I can keep my house. I'm not driving a Ferrari. I can start to give back to my community.

Q: Is the Victims' Compensation Fund all it's cracked up to be?


I don't expect money from anyone. I'm still on the fence with the VCF. The bottom line is, we're not going to get anything else from the government if we don't sign up.

The problem with the Victim's Compensation Fund is, the government approached us and said "We will start a fund." That was nice. Then they turned around and said, "We're going to subtract the pension and the amount you get if your husband dies in the line of duty -- and by the way, you're going to waive you're right to sue." So I would not be eligible for anything. The government was denying us the ability to sue the government and to look into the facts.

We're people that were mourning. We all get angry, you kind of want to blame somebody. So the bottom line is, you sign this paper to waive your right to sue, and you don't end up getting money. That's kind of bizarre. Anybody would be angry.

Q: Do you plan to remain in your house in Westchester County, N.Y.?


I'm going to stay here. I think it's important to the boys to stay in one place. I don't feel compelled to leave right now. This house is new to us. It's hard, because Charlie really loved this house. It was kind of his baby. I almost feel, out of respect for him, I don't want to move right now. According to the grief therapist, another move is another loss for [my children].

Q: What has been the most difficult part when it comes to managing your money?


The hardest thing, believe it or not, is dealing with the tremendous generosity of the American people. You get overwhelmed. It's very comforting, but it's so bittersweet.

Fire departments around the country gave us money. There's a whole trust fund created from the church I belong to. It's a large amount of money, enough to start their college funds. The community has been great.

There's a woman in town who has gotten her car signed: You pay a dollar and sign the car, a Ford Focus. The Yankees, [former President Bill] Clinton, and the Arizona Diamondbacks -- a lot of celebrities have signed it. She's going to auction the car off and give the proceeds to the firefighters' families in Westchester [County]. I would like Ford [Motor] to donate something to her.

Q: What lessons have you learned?


What I've learned is something I've always known -- that money doesn't give you happiness. It can give you comfort and security, but it doesn't make you a whole lot better. [But] I'm happy that I don't have to be anxious about paying bills. It's a big worry to have off your shoulders.

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