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Sick Happens: How to Prepare for an Illness or Injury

This latest guest post is part of our Financial Contingency Plan series and is written by none other than Donna Freedman [3], 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 [4]?

Time to look at your emergency fund [5], 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 [6].” 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 [7]” 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 [8]? 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 [9], which nearly killed her and left her hospitalized for months. (For more on her story, see “You can’t even tell perfect bodies apart [10].”)

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 [11] personal finance column for MSN Money, contributes to MSN’s Smart Spending blog [12] and has her own site, Surviving And Thriving [3]. 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 [13])