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Sick Happens: How to Prepare for an Illness or Injury

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Yellow AmbulanceThis latest guest post is part of our Financial Contingency Plan series and is written by none other than Donna Freedman, so please give her a kind Bargaineering welcome!

How many sick days do you have? Five? Assuming you have any at all.

Maybe you’ll never need them. But one good case of the flu in January and you’re out of luck for the rest of the year. So that strep throat you catch in April means chipping away at vacation time – assuming you have any.

Time to start thinking about how you’d handle a major ailment. Or even a minor one.

Shout-out to all you part-time workers, or to anyone else living close to the bone: How much would it take to topple your budgetary house of cards? If you missed a week’s salary, would you be able to pay your rent?

Think about these things now, before you have to – not from a gurney in the ER.

A long time gone?

First, find out how much sick and vacation time you have. Maybe none at all, if you’re still in a probationary period or are a part-time employee.

Suppose it’s a lousy year for you, health-wise: Flu in January, strep in March and appendicitis in June. Swell: Now your vacation days are gone, too. Your workplace might provide for unpaid personal leave, which means going into the red. (More later on how to prepare for that.)

But here’s a new aspect to consider: How long would you feel comfortable being away from the office? Is there a chance they might start thinking they could live without you?

You don’t want that to happen, especially if it’s true. Could you do your job from home at least part of the time while you were recuperating? This would reduce the number of days without pay, as well as make you look like a heck of a team player. (That is, if your team sits around in its skivvies sucking on a bottle of TheraFlu.)

Some supervisors frown on telecommuting. Be ready to provide a very clear idea of how you would work from home and why it would be successful. Again, this is the sort of thing to figure out before you need it. Take a couple of hours this weekend to draw up a basic plan.

Meeting basic needs

Suppose they won’t let you work from home and you’ve used up all your sick/vacation days in this mythical Year of the Crappy Immune System. Now your budget has a big hole where a week’s salary should be. Would you be able to pay for basic expenses without hitting the payday lender?

Time to look at your emergency fund, which (with luck) is healthier than you’ve been lately.

Don’t have an EF? Start one. Today. The link above shows you how.

Think you can’t afford it? So did some of the people I interviewed for an MSN Money article called “An emergency fund out of thin air.” They found creative ways to do it. Let them inspire you to do the same.

Soup’s on! Or not

Suppose you were home sick for a week. Is there enough in your cupboards and freezer to keep you reasonably nourished?

Try to keep some of these basics on hand at all times: tuna, soup, cheese, frozen juices, crackers, canned black beans, cereal, tea, canned and frozen veggies, pasta sauce, fruits (dried, canned, frozen), rice, a couple of decent frozen entrees – and, of course, peanut butter and a spoon.

The Department of Homeland Security wants us all to have at least three days’ worth of basic supplies, in case of emergency. See my “Surviving Armageddon on a budget” for tips on acquiring food and other essentials on the cheap.

Seriously: Imagine how much a week’s worth of pizza deliveries would add to the total cost of your illness.

Don’t go it alone

How’s your social capital? Do you have a supportive group of friends who might visit with casseroles, drive you to the doctor, pick up prescriptions, ferry your laundry to the basement?

If not, you need to get out more. No man is an island, and no island can manage comfortably when he’s sick. Note: I said “comfortably.” Anyone can be alone during an illness, but it’s a bad idea – especially if you have a high fever or just discovered you’re allergic to your presctription.

It’s also lonely. You’ll feel better if someone checks in on you now and then, and maybe brings you a cup of chicken soup and a copy of Mad Magazine. Laughter is the second-best medicine, after friendship. (And maybe Zithromax.)

Get your ducks in a row

I wouldn’t be so crass as to suggest you cultivate buddies solely in case of an emergency. But this is yet another reason to have friends: Because life doesn’t always go the way we wish it would.

Two cases in point:

My best friend tripped going up a short flight of stairs, breaking her arm quite badly. After surgery she was out of work for eight months. The disability insurance didn’t cover all her expenses. The social-capital thing came in handy, though: Early on, I had to help her put on a bra. (Note to male readers: It is unlikely your gal pals will ask you to do this.)

Second case: My daughter was a college sophomore when she got a minor stomach bug. A week later she was paralyzed and on life support because of Guillain-Barre syndrome, which nearly killed her and left her hospitalized for months. (For more on her story, see “You can’t even tell perfect bodies apart.”)

No one can truly prepare for such an out-of-the-blue scenario. But lots of people don’t even think about minor illness, especially when they’re young and healthy.

My daughter was young and healthy – until she wasn’t.

Sick happens. And sometimes it happens to you. Get your finances, your work life and your support network in order. A little Vitamin C wouldn’t hurt, either.

(Donna Freedman writes the Living With Less personal finance column for MSN Money, contributes to MSN’s Smart Spending blog and has her own site, Surviving And Thriving. As a self-employed writer, she has zero sick days and zero vacation days – but she does have an EF and a stash of canned soup.)

(Photo: gwire)

{ 12 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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12 Responses to “Sick Happens: How to Prepare for an Illness or Injury”

  1. My company has perhaps the most generous sick policy ever dreamed up. If I went into the details, I doubt you’d believe me. But here’s one example. A friend of mine has battled cancer twice in the last few years. Both times, all of his time off was paid sick leave. Obviously, we’re talking about a LOT of days.

    • Scott says:

      I have 5 sick and 15 paid; unpaid leave within reason. Could home work, but they would likely frown on that for too long.

      Have plenty of savings, friends without jobs to check on me and a wife who works only 8 miles from home, so I’m covered there.

      Emergency fund, no prob. Also have an HSA with $14k in it for medical expenses besides the EF.

      Barring the worst case, I feel covered…We also live on only one income while making 2, so we’re covered that way too for the worst case.

  2. Kosmo: You’re very lucky. And so is your friend. I hope he’s cancer-free now.

  3. My job is also very generous with sick leave. When I worked PT three days a week, I had no sick leave and I came down with pneumonia (my first lung sickness ever) and was so ill that I was in bed for an entire month. I couldn’t tolerate sitting up at my computer, let alone working. Luckily I’d just finished the busiest week at my job, my billing week, and I recovered in time to complete that busy week the next month (but one week late). I started working four days a week about four years ago and the next thing I knew I was awarded with five days sick leave a year, and four weeks vacation. I hope I never get that sick again, but at this job I don’t feel like I have have to worry. This entire post is full of excellent recommendations. Great job.

  4. Shirley says:

    As a retiree who had a wonderful benefit package and truly appreciated it, I see many young people going into the job market looking only at wages and not even thinking about benefits.

    • Yep.

      Several years ago, a co-worker was griping about my company’s 401(k) match, which is less than that of some other companies in the area.

      However, he was completely overlooking the fact that we also have a defined benefit pension …

  5. billsnider says:

    My company refused to tell us what the sick benefit was. I learned as I went up the ladder that it was highly discretionary.

    If you were out sick, the supervisor had to sign for each day taken. If I thought you were a good employee and did little extra things which helped us out, we paid you. If you were a problem, I wouldn’t.

    Thought this was fair.

    Bill Snider

    • Shirley says:

      That seems strange to me. I would think that the employee, who didn’t know whether he would be paid or not, would come in if at all possible and spread the illness around. That ends up unfair to everyone!

  6. I am not a big fan of sick days, I would rather have more time off than to have sick days. This past year was probably the worst year I have had in many years, but I still only used a few sick days. As Kosmo suggested, there are times where you have extenuating circumstances. I would rather just save up the paid time off instead.

    • Shirley says:

      My employer gave us up to five days sick leave each year (accrued hourly) on top of whatever vacation we had coming. Anything not used in sick leave was paid out the first week in December. That made for a nice pre-holiday extra!

      Vacation time earned could be rolled over and added to the next year. When I retired I had two months vacation time at full pay to either take weekly or as a lump sum. I had kept this as an “in case I need it” type backup fund.

      Nugget Market was a GREAT place to work!

  7. elloo says:

    I broke my ankle in 2 places mowing the lawn and was out of work for 3 months. During that time, my company paid my full salary plus my quarterly sales bonus as if I had been in the field that quarter and continued to match my 401k. I was floored at such a generous policy. No questions, no hassles as long as I had paperwork from the surgeon, rehab center, etc. I almost left the company a few years ago because I felt underpaid. No longer. This policy is worth its weight in gold. Moral–you have to weigh the entire benefits package vs your salary. You never know when the former will soundly trump the latter.

  8. CreditShout says:

    I hate thinking about getting sick, but it’s great to be prepared.

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