Des Moines Register 08-20-06 Basu: First comes loss of spouse, then comes loss of income Spouses urged to get involved in finances in 'normal times' REKHA BASU REGISTER COLUMNIST She gave him the best, most productive years of her life, 19 of them. While he earned their keep - a very good one, too - she raised their children. "It's what I do, and I do it very well," she said of her stay-at-home-mother status. It was the deal they made, a social pact bolstered by centuries of economic tradition. Now, as her first child is leaving for college, her marriage is gone, and with it the financial foundation that should have been hers in this next phase of life. At 45, she's been thrust back into the realities of a life dependent on a paycheck. It was she, this Iowa woman who does not want her name used, who sought the divorce, fed up with what she says was her husband's multi-year gambling addiction. There will be alimony and child support. Her husband is well-to-do, a wealth that is supposed to be shared. But she knows what can happen to wealth in the hands of a compulsive gambler, so she wants some financial independence from him. Yet she lies awake at night wondering who will hire a woman who's been out of the workforce 19 years. This is one, often overlooked byproduct of shattered love: a shredded safety net. For many, surviving the crippling emotional impact of losing your loved one in midstream, whether from separation or death, is only the beginning. Then come the realities of having to survive financially. Studies have long documented the gender differences in financial well-being post-divorce, when a woman's standard of living typically plunges, while a man's rises. Blame women's years of child-rearing outside the workforce, the wage gap or the respective outlooks for remarriage. And blame unpaid child support: In 2004, 17 million kids in America were owed $107 billion that went uncollected. Only half of what is overdue is collected by government agencies nationally (78 percent in Iowa). Some survivors haven't begun to recover from the emotional distress when they're kicked back into an unfamiliar workforce. For Rhonda Eilderts of Ackley, it meant at times working three to five part-time jobs on top of a full-time teaching one. Her children were 7 and 4 when her husband died from an accidental drowning while overseas with the Army in 1991. They should have been OK. They had life insurance, which she invested. There was Social Security for the kids and some veterans' benefits. She was frugal, growing, canning and freezing her own food and sewing her kids' clothes. She went to grad school to improve her prospects: "We were not destitute, but things were tight." But some things you can't plan for. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, her investments tanked, emptying the kids' college fund. Eilderts now urges other women to get the maximum amount of life insurance and to get smart about investing. A shocking arrest It's unseemly to talk of love and money in the same breath. One involves the heart, the other cold, pragmatic calculations. But the loss of a love can also begin a downward financial spiral that is hard to recover from. That effect can be especially acute when one partner wasn't in the workforce. So the experts caution to hope for the best and plan for the worst. Imagine the dual romantic and financial free-fall for a well-heeled central Iowa suburban wife of 42, married 20 years and raising three children under 12. You're in love, and think you have the perfect life when one day the FBI shows up and hauls off your husband. He is charged with producing and distributing child pornography on the Internet. You never had a clue, and you can never trust him again. So while he sits in jail, you file for divorce and feel cheated of the security that should have been yours in old age. You can no longer afford your home, so now you're house-hunting and jobhunting at once, and "learning all the legal mumbo jumbo in terms of jointly-held assets and child support, getting on Medicaid." Multiple jobs and lengthy commutes might become the new normal. Sharon Terpstra, recently divorced after a 22-year marriage, drives 120 miles a day from Coralville to Grinnell for a teaching job, a career that was once intended only to supplement the family income. Then, to cover gas, car insurance and health care, she works part-time as a cashier at a grocery store. She cringes when people see her there, fearful of their pity. But she wants to set an example to her college-age children of a single mother making it on her own. Robbed of optimism Then there is Grace Oakley of Altoona, married nearly 24 years when her husband died of cancer in 2002. With his death went her dreams, she says. Their youngest child was 19, just past the Social Security cutoff age. So Oakley got nothing. "I live on my income as an office worker as the fuel pricing rises, the heating of your home is through the roof, car insurance ... went up due to my new status as 'single,' but raises at my job of 21 years top out at 3 percent a year," she wrote. The saddest part: "I used to be such an optimistic person, and I try hard to hold onto it, but it is tough. People always want to tell me, 'your plates are expired on the car, your tires are bald,' and I know this, but can't do anything about it right now." What she can do, and has done, is to try to regain some control over her future by going back to school to get at least an associate's degree. For low-income single parents, it will soon be harder under new federal rules to receive welfare and go to school. There will be more required hours of work. Unlikely windfall For those who did plan ahead, sometimes there's an ironic financial windfall after a spouse's death. Barb Wolter, a Perry mother of three, lost her husband suddenly less than two years ago to a rare form of cancer. When he was alive, he had struggled to fulfill his dream of dairy farming, trying twice but failing. They had to declare bankruptcy. After his death, their home was foreclosed. Only then did she discover that at the young age of 39, he had provided well for her and the kids after his death through plenty of life insurance. It helped, though all she wanted was to have him back. Men are susceptible to the same economic struggles, although it's noteworthy that of all the stories readers have shared about surviving, no man has written me about his financial losses. Tahira Hira, a professor of family finance at Iowa State University, says women generally face more financial upheaval after the death of a spouse or divorce - the two events that drive women's greater involvement in family finances. Hira urges women to get more involved in normal times as preventive maintenance. I'm an unlikely person to be transmitting this message. I hate investment decisions and anything to do with finances. My late husband and I were also advised, when times were good, to buy life insurance beyond the employerprovided year's salary we had. But we shrugged it off as just one more useless expenditure intended to fatten insurance companies. I guess we thought we were invincible. Doesn't everyone?