You do not want to hear this from your doctor. It’s the famous euphemism for, “You’re about to die – soon – so get your s*** together, say your goodbyes, and make sure you still fit in your dark blue suit.”
“Getting your affairs in order” certainly sounds better, sort of like you have a bunch of loose papers on a desk and you just need to get them into organized piles. Doctors are nice like that.
Hearing this message is certainly going to ruin your day, but there’s a silver lining from a personal finance perspective: it at least gives you time to take care of any (all?) the loose ends you’ve left laying around.
Assets: Family, Money, Tons of Stuff; Liabilities: You’re Dead
Your life is just about your greatest asset. You may have a lot of awesome things – a great spouse, cool friends, wonderful kids, lots of money, a Lamborghini – but you won’t be able to enjoy any of them (at least in this world…) if you’re dead. We think of our lives as massive, solid structures of great relationships, wealth, and accomplishments, but they can be snuffed out in an instant.
Earning money and administering your financial empire also becomes rather challenging when you’re dead. The good news is there are many things you can do to address these challenges before you die. The bad news is that many of us haven’t done them, which is why our helpful doctor always gives his little speech.
That speech is critical, because where we had been thinking about death in purely conceptual terms (it happens to other people, and won’t happen to me for a very long time), we now need to think of it in practical terms (it’s real, and it’s coming fast).
The huge breakdown, however, is that not everyone gets the little speech from the doctor. Sometimes, the path from conceptual to practical can take just a few seconds, and then you’re gone.
It’s not a pleasant thought on which to dwell, but an important one nonetheless. Today, all over the world, lots of folks woke up just as sanguine about living a long life as you or I. And now, they’re all dead.
So here’s my message to you, a modified version of the doctor’s speech:
You are going to die. Maybe not today, and maybe not for a long time. But you need to get your affairs in order immediately, because there is a very slim chance that you’re about to die soon. And, most importantly, if you are about to die soon, there is a very good chance you’re going to go with no warning at all.
My focus is on going with no warning. I’ll let your doctor, plus an army of lawyers and accountants, worry about your exit when you’ve got plenty of time to plan.
I’m Feeling Lucky
So what kind of odds are we talking about?
The U.S. Social Security Administration has provided a helpful chart that gives the probability of dying (based on historical results) within one year.
Let’s say you’re a 40 year old man. The chart gives you a .2084% chance of dying in the next year. That’s not that much, really, but is sure as heck isn’t 0.000%. There are a lot of 40 year old men in the U.S., so there’s going to be a good number who roll snake eyes this year and check out. And here’s the kicker – almost every single one of them is sure he’s part of the 99.7916% who’ll live to see another birthday.
There are a number of other things about this chart that are completely intuitive, but still scare me as they’re laid out in stark numbers:
- From a starting population of 100,000, a bunch – over 4,000 – have checked out before our hypothetical 40 year old guy rolls his dice for the year
- A 40 year old is almost twice as likely to die in a year than a 20 year old. As someone in my 40’s, I don’t feel any more at risk than I did in my 20’s (I actually feel less at risk…). But the actuarial tables don’t lie, and death is creeping up on all of us, a little more every year.
- There are a lot of people who don’t make it to the major milestone (40, 50, 60) birthdays.
- An average life expectancy is exactly that – an average. Very few people will actually live close to their (at birth) life expectancy.
- Remaining life expectancy drops every year you live, but it doesn’t drop by a full year. This of course makes sense, but it also reinforces the risk of an untimely death: every single year you’re running the gauntlet. If you make it through, your total life expectancy goes up a little, which is wonderful. But some of your starting “class” of 100,000 doesn’t make it through each year. There’s no special guarantee you’re not among them.
On the bright side, it can make birthdays a little more celebrative. Rather than whining about another year in the books and some more aches, pains, and wrinkles, you should be really fired up that you didn’t check out – an ever increasing number of your classmates did. Your perfect record of not dying is still intact! Record the score on your birthday cake: Me 40 Death 0! Just remember Death always turns in some amazing play right at the buzzer.
This chart helped me grasp the overall type of risk I’m running, and my creative imagination has always taken care of my own “how” (my current scenario is a dumbass playing with a smartphone drifting into my lane and hitting me head on). But I’d like to understand, from a data standpoint, exactly how folks go at every age, because that comes to the crux of the matter: are these people getting the friendly chat from their doctor and plenty of time to get their affairs in order, or is the doctor they’re seeing one who doesn’t need a bedside manner at all?
The “How” Matters
Thankfully, another helpful government entity, the Center for Disease Control, has provided a chart showing the leading causes of death by age group. The year is slightly updated, and I haven’t cross referenced the Social Security and CDC data to confirm they perfectly agree, but I think it’s safe to say the two data sources are complementary.
Not having a medical background, I had to do a little research to make sure I understood these causes. I’ve organized common causes for the 25-34 & 35-44 crowds into a handy chart with some observations:
The problem is readily apparent. Some of the big killers give little or no warning.
I also wanted to know what exactly is an unintentional injury – that’s the biggest killer for my demographic, and it seems a little vague. Thankfully the CDC was ready for me, and even highlighted the unintentional injuries in nice colors:
It’s Not Going to Happen to Me
As I went down the categories, I started to take heart a little. Other than driving accidents, where I knew the dumbass with a smartphone could control my fate, I was very good at convincing myself why the other ones simply couldn’t happen to me. I’m smart enough to avoid poisoning myself, I’m really careful on ladders, and I’m a good swimmer who lives inland. Sweet.
But then I remembered – this is hard data, and none of the dead people who drove these figures were planning on going via unintentional injury. That’s why they’re unintentional, and that’s why our “I’m going to live forever” optimism needs to be checked.
The Happy Takeaway…
So through some morbid data crunching, it’s become clear: there is at least a very slim chance that you will die this year, and if you die, there is a very good chance that it will be a surprise.
In other words, as you walk out your door this morning, it is possible, however unlikely, that you’re not going to make it back home.
…And What To Do About It
What you need to do, and why, can be summed up in a tidy little package:
- You need to get your s*** together before you die
- You may not have any warning of your death
- With no warning of your death, you will have no time to get your s*** together
- Therefore, you need to get your s*** together today
We’ll soon dive into what “your affairs” really consist of, and discuss life insurance, estate planning, and far more important issues.
While getting them in order won’t be the most fun you’ve had in your life, having them in order is a pretty nice thing. Whatever nagging worries you’ve felt will be replaced by a feeling of peace and accomplishment at taking a responsible approach to the real risk that you face every day.
And that will actually make every remaining day, no matter how many or few, a little more enjoyable.