Money was tight at the Mayhle household in the months before Pittsburgh police officer Stephen Mayhle was killed in a shootout along with two other city police officers in April 2009.
After nine years of marriage, Officer Mayhle and his stay-at-home wife, Shandra, were living from one paycheck to the next. They had two daughters, ages 4 and 2. Their housing expenses had gone up. They needed a new car. And the couple had even begun discussing the idea of Shandra babysitting to bring in extra money.
When their financial frustration reached a breaking point around the summer of 2008, the Mayhles decided the $50,000 whole life insurance policy they bought when they got married in 2000 had to be dropped. They would use the policy's cash value for a down payment on a 2007 Ford Explorer.
"We were looking at our budget and I believe at the time we were paying $35 a month for the policy and at the time it would have been nice to have the extra $35 a month," she said. "So the plan was we needed the cash value that had built up."
As fate would have it, instead of cashing in the policy for about $1,200, Mr. Mayhle's insurance agent convinced him to change it to a $250,000 20-year term life policy for around the same monthly payment.
Nine months later, Mr. Mayhle was killed in the line of duty on April 4, 2009, one day after he turned 29 years old.
The devastating turn of events left his family emotionally torn, but the insurance helped them get through the mourning process and replaced some of the income that was gone forever.
Now his widow has become an advocate for life insurance, partly because of her new job in customer service for an insurance agency and partly because of her own experience. She has recorded a testimonial video for the Life Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Arlington, Va., that educates consumers on making smart insurance choices.
"I wasn't too happy with him when he came home with the news that he did not cancel the policy, but had instead increased it," said Mrs. Mayhle-Rhine, 31, who is now remarried. "But I knew by the tone of the conversation that he had done what he felt was the best thing to do."
More middle class families are facing hard times in a tough economy, which has led to a greater share of their household income being needed for basic living expenses and less money being available for purchases they consider discretionary or nonessential.
Life insurance is often one of those expenses that gets placed on the back burner when other financial needs come to the forefront, according to a 2010 study conducted by LIMRA, a life insurance marketing research company, "Trends in Life Insurance Ownership," which is conducted every six years.
The 2010 study found that ownership of individual life insurance policies had hit a 50-year low and that 30 percent of all U.S. households -- 35 million people -- have no life insurance protection at all.
In its 2013 Insurance Barometer Study, LIMRA found an estimated 11 million U.S. households with children under the age of 18 where the parents have no life insurance.
"There is tremendous vulnerability in those households," said Bob Baranoff, senior vice president of member benefits at LIMRA in Windsor, Conn. "At the end of the day, life insurance is really there to provide financial security in the event something unfortunate or unexpected occurs.
"You never know what kind of curve balls life will throw at you. When people say they cannot afford life insurance, at the end of the day it's a matter of what their priorities are."
Officer Mayhle was killed along with Paul Sciullo II, 37, and Eric Kelly, 41, after responding to a domestic disturbance between a mother and son in Stanton Heights in April 2009. When officers arrived at the house, the son, Richard Poplawski, opened fire, setting off one of the darkest days in the city's history.
Coming home from the police station after being told of her husband's death, Mrs. Mayhle-Rhine said her mind was dizzy with grief and fear about what the future would hold for her and her daughters.
"I remember sitting there thinking I had no idea how we were going to exist," she said. "I didn't have a college education. I'm a stay-at-home mom with two girls. And we had just bought a house in Brookline in January 2009. We had only been in it two months before he was killed.
"I was completely overwhelmed at the prospect of not only losing him but all the financial burden on my shoulders."
There were many people in and out of her house within hours of the news becoming public. One of her visitors was insurance agent Chad Gregorini, who came to inform her that her husband had a $250,000 life insurance policy through State Farm Insurance Co.
"That was huge," she said. "In my head, I was able to think, 'OK. I will pay off the house, the car. I will get a job, but at least the main things will be taken care of.'
"I was able to just put financial worries to the back of my head and focus on my girls and the funeral. Between that and the wonderful people of Pittsburgh who were so generous and wonderful to our families I was able to remain a stay-at-home mom and take care of my kids and focus on what was important."
Mr. Gregorini said he is happy he was able to convince Officer Mayhle to keep the insurance policy in place.
"We talked through it and I offered my concerns," Mr. Gregorini said. "I told him he was in a dangerous job. He was young. He had a stay-at-home wife. He had two kids at home. One of the biggest misconceptions people have about life insurance is what they have through their employer will be enough life insurance if something happens.
"People don't get rich off life insurance," he said. "It's there to help people get through the mourning process and take care of some of the bigger bills."
Today, the Mayhles' daughter Jennifer is 10. Brooklynn is 8. Mrs. Mayhle-Rhine got remarried in August 2011 to Jeremy Rhine, a carpenter, and she now works part-time as a customer service representative in Mr. Gregorini's insurance agency in Aspinwall.
"Obviously through this whole process we got to know each other very well," Mr. Gregorini said of Mrs. Mayhle-Rhine. "One of the things I look for is somebody I can trust and someone with a good personality. It's funny how things come full circle."
Tim Grant: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1591.