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Expensive Bucket List Lands Couple $80,000 in Debt

A terminal diagnosis led New Zealanders to blow their savings — then he learned he wasn't sick after all

By Suzanne Gerber

Gone viral: a news story first reported in the New Zealand Herald about a New Zealand couple in their 60s who blew through their savings living out bucket list fantasies when he received a diagnosis of terminal cancer in May 2010.

But when he came home and waited to die, an unexpected thing happened: He didn’t. An offhand comment from a hospice caregiver revealed that he was fit as a Stradivarius. A test performed in December 2011 had made that determination, but for reasons unknown, the hospital failed to inform him.
Most of the commentary (in outlets including a Yahoo video, the Huffington Post and Britain’s Daily Mail) has focused on how “irresponsible” it was for Frank and Wilma (the Herald withheld the couple's last name) to do such an outrageous thing. My thoughts on that later, but first, an attempt at a defense.
The reports all differ a bit, and the astute reader is left unsure whether Frank and Wilma had actual savings, but we do know that they sold their home at a loss of $70,000 and ultimately racked up $80,000 in credit card debt.

(MORE: Smart Ways to Avoid Outliving Your Money)

When Frank received his initial diagnosis of terminal lung cancer in December 2010, the couple did what many people would love to do but are afraid to. They decided to carpe diem, not knowing how many diems Frank had left. After selling the house and giving away $24,000 of possessions, they set off for for a five-star resort in Fiji, where they reportedly spent $30,000.
The math gets a little sketchy, but somewhere in there they apparently dropped an additional $33,000, touring New Zealand and paying a visit — presumably Frank’s last — to their daughter and two grandchildren in Australia. Frank hasn’t been quoted in the media, but Wilma offered this: "What would you do in this situation? If he said jump, I would jump. ... I was putting him first, whatever he wanted, he got.”
Wilma’s loyalty to Fred — I mean Frank — is touching, and the couple’s gumption and “live for the moment” philosophy is admirable. And it’s always wonderful to read about people realizing their lifelong dreams, even if they were expecting their life insurance to pick up the tab (per the Herald).
Yet there are elements of this story that I find disturbing. We know from the Bible what happens when we judge others. So rather than pontificate on what they should have done, I’ve chosen to look for the “takeaway” in this mortality tale. (But first, I just have to ask: If Frank and Wilma loved their daughter enough to drop a small fortune visiting her, why didn’t they want to her leave her and the two wee ones anything in their will?)

(MORE: Women Need to Get Serious About Emergency Savings)
6 Lessons From Frank and Wilma 

  1. Remember that miracles (as well as bad things) do happen. So while you’re living for today, don’t forget to plan for tomorrow.
  2. Get a second opinion. The life you save may be your own.
  3. Don’t give everything away. Much, sure. But hang on to a few things — just in case.
  4. Don’t cancel your health insurance. Again for reasons not explained, our heroes did. Whoopsie!
  5. Don’t put him first to your detriment. Following Frank’s lead was sweet — but c’mon, Wilma! You didn’t have a terminal illness. What did you expect to live on? And hello! Where did you expect to live?
  6. Don’t smoke. Frank reportedly quit smoking when he got his first diagnosis, and when he learned his cancer was supposedly terminal, he took it back up. Quitting only gets harder after each “relapse.” I don’t know what smokes cost in New Zealand, but if you’re $80,000 in debt, I would suggest this is one expense you can live without. Touch wood.
Suzanne Gerber, former Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue, writes about inspirational topics including health, food, travel, relationships and spirituality. Read More
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