Occupation: My business card says ‘Explorer.’ [Heinerth is one of the world’s most accomplished cave divers, and has spent more than 30 years exploring, filming, photographing and guiding expeditions in submerged caves around the world. She is the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s first Explorer in Residence, as well as a corporate speaker and consultant, and the author of the memoir Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver.]
Earnings: It varies. As an entrepreneur, I’ve gotten used to living through feasts and famines. In a great year I can pull in well into the six figures. A bad year might bring in more like $30,000–$40,000.
Assets and liabilities: A condo in Carleton Place, near Ottawa, worth about $300,000; an investment portfolio worth about $600,000. I’m a dual Canadian and U.S. citizen (my husband, Robert, is a Canadian permanent resident and an American citizen), which complicates our finances considerably. We’ve chosen to take his U.S. Social Security early, because we’re not 100% confident it’ll be there later on. Our philosophy is to carry no debt. That said, we have a car loan because the interest rate was under 1% and it helped re-establish my Canadian credit rating.
Life insurance: I don’t have any. Based on my profession, I’m not insurable.
Leaving planning to the pros
I’ve been working with a financial planner for a couple of years. He’s my father’s planner and he took me on because of the family connection, even though I didn’t meet his usual minimum. Both of my siblings now work with him as well. My father, an engineer, tracks everything on spreadsheets and has always been very involved in each trade and financial decision. I’m not nearly as hands-on. It would stress me out. My approach is that my financial planner is in my life because he’s the pro. He knows my goals, and I leave the details to him so that I can maximize my time and income doing what I love, and what I’m good at.
Every time I’m about to swim out into the blackness of an underwater cave, I visualize everything that could go wrong and how to prevent it or deal with it. I’m taking a similar approach to finances.
For example, I recently repatriated to Canada after living in the U.S. since the ’90s. Life in the U.S. started to feel frightening, in terms of the political and social climate. As well, I was paying US$900 a month on health insurance; even with that coverage I knew I could be bankrupted by the uninsured costs of a major illness or accident. So, moving back to Canada was in part a way of envisioning and preventing that worst-case scenario.
Focusing on the next right step
I was guiding a young scientist on a dive in a very small cave, a space about as big as under your bed. As we turned to leave, she panicked, stirring up silt and getting tangled in the safety line, which eventually broke. So, I’m blind, underwater, guiding a panicked person who is now the cork in the bottle containing my life. I could feel my heart rate, my respiration, go up. My first thought was, “Two women can’t die in an underwater cave — this will be world news.” And my second thought was, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get out of here: it’s tax season, and Robert has no clue how to deal with the taxes.”
And then I took a deep breath. I recognized that the crazy thoughts and emotions would not serve me well. I got pragmatic. I didn’t necessarily know how to solve the really big issue at hand, which was getting back to the light of day in the face of all these obstacles. But I always knew what the next small, right step was, and I took each one until I got us to safety.
It’s one of those life lessons, whether in scuba diving or financial planning: always know what the next small, right step is, and those small steps will take you toward achieving your bigger goals.
Up close and personal
In my line of work, people die. I’ve lost a lot of friends to diving. Quite early on I decided that I didn’t want to defer satisfaction in my life until some sort of late retirement. I thought, “Let’s do things now, because there’s no guarantee that we’ll be around later.” And we have. My biggest financial triumph is that we’ve been able to create a lifestyle that’s comfortable and fulfilling, and that gives us control over what we do now while still saving for the future.