We sat in the understated office with the modestly-dressed receptionist giving us the occasional "yes, we know you're here" smile.
I found the office's shabbiness reassuring somehow. When you go to a financial planner, you want to make sure they embrace conservative spending. At least, that seemed important to me at the time.
56. This was the magical number I wanted to retire at. I had an 18-month-old daughter, a husband who had just been promoted, and two 401(k)s which were heavily funded during both of our twenties as we both had financial success in our respective careers early on.
My husband said 62. That was his magic number.
I was no longer working, taking care of our daughter full-time. Fortunately, due to a geography professor giving us a savings lecture as his value-add to the course, I had put a substantial amount away for retirement. If we didn't count on Social Security (knowing its longevitiy was and is in jeapordy), and my husband continued at the same rate of pay and retirement contribution until we retired, we would have 3.6 million in the bank upon retirement at an annual 8% return on our investments. That was considered modest at the time.
Clutching the fancy binder they gave us for $600, I gave a cheery wave to the receptionist on my way out, kissed my husband as he left to return to work, and thought I would never have to look back with financial concern again.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
In August 2008, six years after our financial longevity had been given the golden seal of approval, my husband drug himself through the door looking weary. If you didn't know him, you would think he had a 3-day hangover. I knew he was past his breaking point.
He had been working full-time, giving full-time medical attention to me as our insurance didn't cover any in-home aides, part-time care to my daughter, and had nothing left to give himself. His memory had become spotty, and for the first time in nine years with his company, he didn't feel he was pulling his weight.
After some discussion with colleagues (in a different state), he determined that he could do contract work for six months and give himself a much needed break before looking for employment again. It was also a good time to transition in his career, as he had excellent references, which included a reference letter from the CEO of a multi-million dollar telecom company, his MBA completed several years before, excellent tenure in all his positions, and was ready for something new.
We would have Cobra insurance for eighteen months, so we figured this would satisfy our medical needs. If we could live modestly, despite the extra draw my medical needs had on our income, we would be fine with a half-year loss of wages.
Then, November 2008 hit.
While some call this a recession, or even Great Recession, we have found that only people not affected directly refer to it that way. For us, it is a Depression, at least of the financial variety. When he began applying for jobs the next spring, no one would even call him back. A year later, still not a word. Another six months after that, one solid lead but it was quickly absorbed in a merger. After that, for the last 2.5 years, he has not even gotten an interview. Not one.
And, it is not for a lack of trying. He went to "workforce" 8 hours a day to apply for work for the reward of $500/month until my disability award bumped us out of the low, low poverty bracket. He applied for positions that were entry level, mid-management, and a few which were in line with what he had previously been doing. Still, even after a $300 resume review by professional resume writers, his gap in employment seems to be the biggest deterrent at this point. As Economix points out, workers out of work for more than six months are stigmatized from the onset, with views like: "they were less productive workers to begin with — and that’s why it’s so hard for them to get new work." Add that the average length of unemployement is rising again, it puts little hope in our coffers.
Now, we have nothing in savings or our 401(k)s, are looking at a lawsuit with our previous medical insurance provider, have a tax bill from 2008 due to withdrawls from our retirment, and still my husband does not have any job prospects in his field.
Between our house flooding in January 2009, my medical disability which we won benefits for a year-ago April, all the medical costs ($4,000 monthly average), and the Great Recession, times have definitely been tough.
He has worked for the Census. He has kept books for small businesses. He has made jewelry. He takes care of children. He tutors. He is now a substitue bus-driver for our local school district. We are fed, clothed, and sheltered, with little room for extra. Only my daughter and I are covered medically due to my disability and the state's coverage for children. We have one vehicle, as the other was reposessed. My wedding ring had to be hawked to cover the electric bill because the grant we had been receiving to help has become exhausted. We can't fix the propane fireplace or the electric stovetop as it is too expensive to call in a repair person.
Above all, we are working harder now for much, much less, and barely making ends meet. Through grants we are paying for some of our utilities and my counseling needs, state programs help with food as well as the local food bank. We utilize every avenue we can to ensure our needs are met: trades for my daughter's activities, low-cost spay and neuter for the cats through volunteer work, and anything else we find that we qualify for. Juggling all of this is much harder than earning a regular paycheck.
But, somehow, we are more than "making due."
We are happy. I would say happier than we have ever been, even the time it looked like we were going to retire as millionaires. I am not saying that the two are intertwined, but for us, this financial pitfall has forced us to buckle down, work together, and get creative.
When something can't be paid, we go with out until it can. We were given a gift certificate for a meal out, and I tell you, that steak tasted better than any other I have tasted until then. The value of what we purchase is measured by a new tool, what is truly needed and will add value to our lives. That is a lesson I don't think we would have managed bumping through life with little thought about what milk or gas costs. Not only that, but the issues that lay behind those costs would remain distant - like dependence on oil and upcycling resources to manage our waste.
We feel if we are ever in a financially viable position in the future, we will have much more compassion and understanding for those who also fall into poverty. When you put our financial position into a world view, it shifts, making our hardships seem novel compared to the hunger of an aching belly or complete lack of medical assistance or even civil wars and genocide.
From that point of view, we are lucky, and we will never forget it.
Losing our financial hold has ultimately made us stronger, more insightful, able to navigate systems (Social Security/Disability, DSHS, FEMA, etc.) and ensure we bless every windfall and dollar earned with ferocious grace.
Through all of this, the best lesson we have learned is knowing we are not alone. The fire of poverty is a cleansing I am now grateful to be walking through. The list of wants seems superficial to what we have gained. By all means we would like to pull out of this slump, but by no means has it been all hardship.
Still, here's hoping to more integrous hiring practices, abundance for all, and a close to unnecessary war spending within our lifetimes. With a collective mindset focused on that, there would be plenty for all.
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Image: Google Images, Census Statistics.