Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Portrait: St. Petersburg, Florida

When I was 14 years old I lived in Johnstown, PA and I witnessed the demise of Bethlehem Steele. This would have been no big deal, except that my father had worked there just shy of 3 years left to retire. He lost his job. So did half the town. Our normal childhood life changed drastically. We no longer had Fruit Loops; they were now Generic O’s. My father no longer went to work, and instead for the first time ever my Mother did. He did odd side jobs and eventually he got called back to work. The Steel Mill eventually closed, thankfully years later and by that time my father was able to retire. However, this experience stayed with me throughout my life.

Since that experience molded me into who I am, I have long learned that happiness is not about what car you drive (for me a 1999 Honda CRV with 125,000 miles on it) or what house you own. I bought a modest 1100 square foot 2 bedroom 1 bath house in April of this year, AFTER the housing prices plummeted and since my credit was amazingly good. (Paid off immense debt after a bad divorce in 2003, it was hard, thank god I sucked up the resentment of it all being his debt and just fixed it!!).

I have been on a savings binge ever since the debt reduction and the purchase of our home. My 2nd and current husband is a driver for a moving company for a living and as you can imagine, not too many people are moving right now. When someone loses their home, they mostly seem to gather necessities and leave the rest. They certainly don’t hire a moving company. I work for a University and have a rather stable job. Between his 30 hours a week (something that used to be 55 hrs a week just a scant 3 years ago) and my full time status we are easily paying our somewhat meager bills. (The key to wealth is not bigger stuff, it is lower debt!!)

We took the offered $7500 (http://www.federalhousingtaxcredit.com/) federal housing tax credit this year for the sole purpose of banking all of those funds in the case of emergency. We would love to put in a new fence (one that is not falling down) and repair the air conditioning duct work (that is sad at best) but we will do neither because those things are not assurances that we will keep our house, but savings are. This is an interest free 15 year loan from IRS.

We already had quite a bit of savings, even after the purchase of our house. One big reason we bought last April of 08 was because we could move into a house and pay the mortgage (tax and insurance included) each month for less than we were paying for rent. This allowed us to lower our daily expenses and yet own our home, something that in the past we could not comfortably afford to do. In some ways I am grateful for this bubble burst because something had to give. We are two adult’s working two full time jobs and yet until this economic downturn we could not begin to afford a home. There’s something fundamentally wrong about that.

I’m scared. I try not to focus on it. I try to focus my energies on ways to save money. I try to stay focused on things I can control. I try to work hard at work and maintain my job. I try to save with coupons and the like. I have cut back tremendously because I’ve wanted to have 6 months of combined savings because who can afford to live on unemployment benefits? Not us.

I’ve lived my entire adult life below my means because I’ve never felt that there were any assurances that my world could not change from Fruit Loops to Generic O’s without any notice whatsoever. So much so that I’ve been eating the Generic O’s as though that’s the life I want to build…because when you do that, there’s much less to lose. In my house, we eat 3 meals, but they are not elaborate meals, never have been.

Upon the first inclination of more trouble to come, I shall disconnect cable (luxury), downgrade my cellphone service (luxury) and cancel my pest control guy (luxury?...not sure but bugs never killed anyone).

Most people can’t make those concessions until forced into a corner. I say make the concessions when you can take the savings and save it. It’s a sad sad state of affairs. Recently a fellow college student told me that she was unaffected by the recession. I reminded her, “You are, you’re just in denial”.

I don’t think I’m better than anyone, because my day might be tomorrow. None of us really knows. My town is full of for sale signs and more than that, it’s full of homeless people begging for a meal. I’ve just graduated with a business degree and I have applied for 350 jobs posted in our area alone in the last month. I have not received one phone call back. I’m grateful I have a job and am hesitant to change jobs in this economy. Last man in is the first man out in a layoff situation. I've now decided to stay put and get my Masters and hope that a miracle occurs in the next 18 months while I finish it.

God help us all because we can all go without Fruit Loops...but we can't go without Generic O's too.

St Petersburg, FL USA