Friday, February 13, 2009

Portrait: Atlanta, Georgia

It's hard to post about your financial woes in a time where there are people losing their homes, their lifelong memories, their ability to feed their children - but here's my story.

I got divorced about four years ago. I had to do some accounting before I decided if I could leave my marriage. But I realized that I could scrape by on what I was making. Fortunately, we had no children; so I only had to pay for myself. I paid all my bills, including a pretty hefty car payment and even budgeted $100 a month for cable TV and Tivo. I squeaked by on $25 a week for groceries and only used my credit card once for tickets to an Andy Williams Christmas concert for my mom's birthday. I was very proud of my self-efficiency!

I met my boyfriend about a year later. He was the Vice-President and a mortgage broker for a small up-and-coming mortgage company. When we first started dating, he was driving a Lexus. We'd go out on the weekends and he'd pick up the tab for drinks and fancy dinners. I told him tearfully and sincerely one night early in our relationship that I wasn't just interested in his money. He laughed and told me that he didn't have as much as it seemed.

That really proved to be true when the bottom fell out of the housing market. His company hadn't played the subprime game and was truly invested in ethical lending practices. And it cost them what could've been a ton of money in commissions. He said he knew the market was in trouble when a representative from one of the banks came to his office one day and offered him a loan product where a customer could get 100% financing on a home loan just one day out of bankruptcy. He asked the guy from the bank if he thought that was a responsible lending practice.

I didn't realize it at the time, but he wasn't closing any deals, wasn't making any money and was trying to maintain his lifestyle on credit cards. In the midst of all this he had completed his MBA, using student loans, thinking that it would be money well spent as he tried to grow the mortgage company. And I had moved into his newly bought condo with him and his two cats. After living together for about a year, he finally admitted to me that he didn't have enough money to pay the mortgage anymore, and so I started paying for it all, instead of just the half I had been paying. After about a year of this, he sadly left his mortgage company to look for another job where he could actually make some cash.

After he left the mortgage company, he took a job working as a recruiter, serving as a middle-man to place job seekers in open positions that were contracted to the recruiting company by employers. What an unfortunate time to be in the business of hiring. He worked there for a year and couldn't place anyone in a position. Companies weren't hiring. He hadn't made any real money in over a year and a half. He was forced to file bankruptcy because he couldn't cover the huge credit card debit he had accrued. Then he was laid off in September.

For the past six months, and really for the two years we've been living off my $60,000 a year salary. Fortunately, we live in a great condo that has a fairly reasonable mortgage payment. And paying off my car in June has helped tremendously. But we've had to cut back. We used to eat out two or three times a week at least. Now we're able to go out on the cheap once every two weeks - every other Friday on payday. We've sold his BMW (he totalled the Lexus) which has saved us an insurance payment and $100 a month for a parking space at the condo. He's quit going to his cooking club which cost a considerable amount each month. We've stopped going to the movies. We mostly sit around the house with the cats and watch TV every night.

I can't complain compared to the situations others are in. We have everything we need. We still pay all the bills, feed the cats, and drink too much. We have cable TV and broadband internet. I changed jobs about a year ago and my company pays for my public transit to work. (Previously, I was driving an hour each way to work. If I were still doing that when he got laid off, we never would've been able to pay for the gas.) There's no money for intangibles like new clothes, but that kind of thing has never really bothered me. But I still find myself feeling resentful of people who haven't been touched by the recession. I've been responsible with my money all my life. Why am I here, when others are still able to go out to fancy dinners and buy BMWs? But then I try to take a deep breath and give thanks for their fortune and well-being.

I try not to think about it, but I don't know what we'll do if I lose my job. I work for a major media company that's still in pretty good shape at the moment. But these days, there are no guarantees. It will be seven years before the bankruptcy is off his record, which affects his job search. Someone called him the other day about a position and then had to decline when they found out about the bankruptcy. It's more stressful than I acknowledge. I feel like all we have is balancing precariously on my shoulders. That's why I have to be able to afford drinking.

Atlanta, Georgia