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The Moneyist: I’m 34 and have 5-10 years to live — I want to spend $50K on a new kitchen, but my wife is vehemently opposed

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Dear Moneyist,

I am a 34-year-old with a degenerative neurological condition that gives me somewhere between five and 10 years to live.

I recently retired on disability from my job and will gross $80,000 a year, 50% of which is tax-free. My wife is a teacher and has a steady career, grossing $68,000 a year. We have no children, and have total savings (retirement and other accounts) of $350,000. We owe $250,000 on a $500,000 home that is in good condition. My life-insurance policy is worth approximately $1 million and I have minimal health-care costs.

‘While I understand her position, it seems a bit conservative to me and I’m frustrated at her absolute opposition.’

With my limited time left, I want to invest in a new kitchen — both as a gift to my wife and as something positive and new to lift my spirits, since I’m largely confined to our home and I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Given the numbers, I do not see much risk in investing $50,000 between $75,000 on a new kitchen.

My wife, on the other hand, is vehemently opposed to spending any of our savings given my certain demise in the next decade. While I understand her position, it seems a bit conservative to me and I’m frustrated at her absolute opposition.

Any advice would be appreciated.

Loving husband in Tacoma, Wash.

Dear Husband,

Thank you for your letter and for sharing your story. Before I get into the logistics of kitchen costs and house values and savings and financial security, I wanted to say one thing: Whatever is really going on here, it’s not about the kitchen. It’s never just about the kitchen. Whenever I focus on some material issue that I need to change, I try — not always successfully — to remind myself that whatever it is I want to change or improve or purchase represents some other issue that I haven’t quite figured out yet. It may also represent something different to your wife. She may already be living with fear of losing you and life after you’ve gone, and a major change or upheaval could be the last thing she wants right now.

‘Whatever is really going on here, it’s not about the kitchen. It’s never just about the kitchen.’

Reading stories like yours also gives me perspective on my own life. We are the canned beans and we need others to tell us what’s written on the can! By answering your letter and contemplating your predicament and your relationship, it helps me too. Believe it or not, when I am faced with a big decision or I need to advocate for myself on a financial matter and my own emotions get in the way, I ask myself, “What would the Moneyist advise me to do?” Of course, I can’t ask myself, but I ask a friend who will be that person for me. So thank you for choosing me to be that person — or one of those people — for you.

I don’t know what this kitchen means to you aside from the idea that it would make the time you have at home more comfortable. I understand that totally, and I don’t know whether your existing kitchen is badly in need of renovations and/or is falling apart, or whether it’s a perfectly serviceable room that could be turbo-charged with gadgets and, to quote the real-estate agent, “all mod cons.” Will having such a project also give you something outside of yourself and your illness to focus on? Will it mean you have something bearing your own personal stamp that you can leave behind for your wife? I can certainly understand that.

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Or is this a dynamic between two strong-willed people that repeats itself over and over again? That may be a negative or even a positive thing. Perhaps you both enjoy locking horns and finding issues to wrestle over. That could be how you bonded when you first met, or that might be how you were raised — to argue things out. It could be a stimulating game in which you take turns winning the game, set and match. Or it could be an unhealthy part of your relationship that this dream kitchen project gives you an opportunity to address. Perhaps the real remodeling needs to take place on your communication styles and willingness to hear each other out.

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Sometimes it’s frustrating to answer a question with a question. But I do have one more question for you. Would this project give you something you can start and finish before you die? It is big enough for you to feel a great deal of satisfaction when it is complete. After all, this is where you talk and eat. It would be a gift to your wife — if she did not regret spending the money and were able to sit in it and think of you. It would not be such a gift if you won her over and she found herself worrying about money, drinking of a cup of tea on an expensive marble surface while nursing resentment. I don’t think either of you would want that.

You don’t want to leave your wife with a white elephant or an alabaster albatross around her neck.

You are embarking on a journey, and I suggest that you take it together. The good news: All things considered, you’re in great financial shape. Homeowners spend roughly between $12,500 and $33,000 on a new kitchen, so your current budget is on the expensive side. There may be a cheaper way to do it. Your wife may not live in this house forever, so it would be wise to consult a real-estate agent to see how much of that would add value to your home if your wife decided to sell it after you’ve gone. You don’t want to leave her with a white elephant or — to stick with the animal metaphor — an alabaster albatross around her neck.

Thank you for indulging me. Finally, I’m getting to the actionable bit. Seek out a financial manager. You need a third-party, objective opinion to discuss all financial end-of-life issues with your wife — including your life insurance, your retirement and other expenses she will likely face alone after you’ve gone. You need to see this kitchen renovation in black and white, together and in the context of all of your other financial commitments. I also recommend that you see a counselor and talk about grief and how you would like to spend the years you have left. Perhaps there are places you have always wanted to go as a couple, or academic courses or retreats that you have always wanted to take. It may be that you put a modest pot of gold aside for this.

Some couples experience old age together. Others lose their partner without warning. You are able to put your heads together and draw up a road map for the time you have left, and that is no small gift.

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