Recently, I asked readers to send stories about living on vastly reduced income for this, the latest installment in DoubleX’s occasional series on life in the Great Recession. Your responses were simultaneously harrowing and inspiring. Many of you, for example, told of the shock of finding yourselves turning to food banks; of learning to take home slightly moldy produce, cut away the bad parts, and make a decent meal of what remained. This meal turned out to be a pretty good metaphor for your more general strategies of coping with a prolonged economic slump that has left more than 25 million people either unemployed or underemployed: Some of you wrote about what you’ve given up, others wrote about what you can’t bear to part with, and others considered how the economy has changed your relationship to material goods and even each other. Here are your stories and advice.
The Things We Left Behind
So many people are so financially strapped that those of you who were able to sell your biggest possession—the house you could no longer afford—actually turn out to be the lucky ones. Others packed up and walked away, or were removed. One woman whose family business is going broke sued their mortgage provider over a paperwork error, a snafu that has proved to be a blessing. “If we weren't in a house that's involved in a lawsuit, we'd be homeless,” she wrote.
Many people have also shed their second largest possessions; Cars. The wife of an unemployed salesman said this: “I was forced to give up my beloved Mustang I waited 25 years to buy. I insisted that the bank come and pick it up because it was too stressful driving it, thinking they'd repo it while I was at the store.”
After the big things were gone, people wrote, they started assessing everything else. One woman who is the paralegal for her husband’s solo law practice said that before the bust they were making $200,000 a year. Now their income is $25,000. “We gave up cable TV, eating out, movies, date night, and steaks,” she wrote. “My husband gave up his martial arts lessons, I gave up my gym membership, buying art supplies, buying clothes or getting my hair done. Our youngest didn't get to be a cheerleader in high school because we couldn't afford the $2,000 it cost for uniforms and cheer camp. She wears hand-me down clothes and doesn't go out with her friends because there is no extra money for ice cream.”
A single mother of two children still in day care who has had to take a 20 percent pay cut from her administrative job at a university wrote this: “I lost 40 lbs and I’m still wearing my size 18 pants because I can’t afford to spend money on clothes for me. We moved to a smaller apartment to save money and I don’t have a bedroom, so I sold my bed. I now sleep on a mattress on the living room floor. I sold my laptop, dressers, computer monitor. The most heartbreaking was selling my standing KitchenAid mixer. I used it all the time and I miss it a lot. This year, for Christmas, we are not going to buy a tree. We’re going to use butcher paper and glitter and make a paper tree and stick it on the wall.”
Then there are the intangible sacrifices. Pamela, 70, whose aviation technician husband was involuntarily retired from his job a few years ago says that they can no longer afford to travel. This hurts, since their families are several states away. “I have not seen them for four years,” she wrote. “Mom is 93.”
What We Can’t Do Without
Not everyone can become an ascetic and renounce all worldly goods. Pamela, who now cleans houses three days a week to supplement her Social Security while her husband does handyman work, wrote that she still indulges in some luxuries—“but a lot less than before. I have acrylic nails which I maintain at $17 every three weeks.” A minister who had her pay frozen and who is married to a mortician whose pay has been cut (could it be that people don’t think they can afford to die?) echoed other readers when she said that although one of the first things to go was cable TV, “We got Netflix instead.”
Freelance writer K. Schipper and her husband used to make a good living writing for trade magazines in the building industry, but when their income took a nosedive, she discovered her limits. She did away with the second car and takes the bus a lot, but “we bucked up and paid up when both the washing machine and the dishwasher died.” She also couldn’t give up the newspaper, but when she’s done with it she passes it on to a friend who can’t afford it.
A man who with his wife runs a computer repair firm said that since the downturn they have fallen behind on their bills and run through their retirement savings. But, he wrote, “We still go out on date night to local restaurants, and we tip well. If you want to make yourself feel better and make a direct positive impact on someone else—tip well.”
Don’t Try This Without a Safety Net
People wrote about the humiliating realization that they not only qualified for government assistance, but needed it in order to avoid going hungry. Here’s the story of one woman who at the end of 2008 went on maternity leave from her job as an architectural drafter, only to have her husband’s position as a mechanical draftsman disappear the same week. She applied for the federal Women, Infants, and Children program so she could eat, but the welfare payments—she notes she graduated form college with honors–filled her with shame: “My baby was due any day. Her gorgeous crib and layette seemed a sick joke. I didn't deserve this baby.” The baby arrived anyway, but when her maternity leave was up she no longer had a job to go back to. She and her husband went jobless for more than two years, during which time he started drinking, then left the state to look for construction work. Upon his departure, she discovered she was pregnant again. “I don't think I can explain how demeaning it was to go down to the social services office and apply for food stamps and Medi-Cal,” she wrote. “I sometimes had to hear from my own mom about her disbelief that a child of hers was on government assistance.”