Monday, March 2, 2009

Portrait: Phoenix, Arizona

My portrait is several years in the making. We are among the lucky ones--at least for now. My husband has a great job--actually two--and we've got income coming in. My husband leaves the house at 4am every day to begin his 14 hour day working for two different employers. Our rent is astronomical (at one point we'd hoped to buy this house at the end of our 2-year lease and part of that rent would have gone to the down payment) and we're moving next month to reduce our living expenses by about 50% total.

In 2006, we lost our entire lives nest-egg when we sold our structurally defective new home back to its builder for around $100k less than its market value. It was that or face foreclosure--and the builder knew it, because the market had begun to sour. After 18 months of trying to hang onto it while we couldn't live in it, we relented and sold.

To add insult to injury, recently the state decided that we owe capital-gains tax on the sale of the home, because we both did not live in it two years (my husband had to work in another state in order to make enough money). They sent us a tax bill for over $25k and will sue us/garnish my husband's wages if we don't somehow resolve this in the next 10 days. I can assure you we won't be able to send them $25k like they've requested!

That same year, my husband's employer went under and we became aware that none of our health insurance claims had been paid during 2006. At the time we were paying $1200/month in health insurance premiums and I had a high-risk pregnancy and a very ill toddler. The company stole our premiums--it was a fortune and we sacrificed to pay for that health insurance that they never funded.

This in turn led to our credit score dropping from about 700 to around 400 because we have tens of thousands in medical debt that we cannot afford to pay. Universal default kicked in and all our creditors raised our rates severely and lowered our limits. We stopped using credit in late-2006 but we are years away from paying them off.

The Dept. of Labor has been investigating the former employer's ERISA violations--for almost three years and we don't have much hope that we'll received any sort of favorable resolution.

Also in 2006, our 20-month old was diagnosed with a serious GI illness and then suffered a stroke in 2007. She needs to have elemental formula (sometimes via a feeding tube, more often orally) in order to stay well and not become malnourished. Our state has no elemental formula insurance protection and our health insurance will not pay for the formula even though the summary plan description indicates that it's covered--and without the formula her other medical expenses would be much greater. I won't even go into detail on her medication co pays, except to say they're in the multiple hundreds per month.

At one point we were paying $1400/mo for her formula. Yes, that's one-thousand, four-hundred dollars per month. I've since been reduced to buying her formula on EBay and from various people I've found online who have extra and sell it off cheap. In my quest to fight for insurance coverage, I've spoken with moms who have to use expired elemental formula because they can't afford anything else!

Our financial issues have also led to my husband and I often neglecting our own medical and dental health, which has led to both of us having some pretty significant health issues and now we're paying the price for that because we don't feel well (me especially) and we're busy paying to treat things we could have prevented. I just have to hope it's not too late and that this doesn't affect us long-term.

The ironic part of all of this is that we are *not* unemployed (praise everything holy). We have what is considered excellent group health (it pays 80% down from 90% in recent years), dental and vision insurance. My husband works for two companies that have promising outlooks even in these hard times.

It is very difficult to work so hard, so many hours per week, and not be able to afford to go out to dinner or even to buy lunch during the work day. My husband brown-bags it daily and our dates as of late consist of getting $1.29 Whopper Jr. sandwiches at Burger King. We have been working our tails off since we got married when we were barely 21 years old. We bought our first home at 22! To have to start over in our mid-thirties is not fun! It feels like by now we'd have some security and we wouldn't have to be trying to dig our way out of a huge debt--it's like we're starting over but not from zero. We're starting over from a big-time negative!

My husband and I have been forced to adopt a kind of a laissez-faire attitude about our finances--we say "it's only money!" and we try to laugh. Because if I'm not laughing, I might be crying. It's not that I no longer care -- I care enough to devote a large portion of my life to carefully budgeting our money and devising a plan to try and get ahead.

We're very blessed in many ways and it really helps to focus on that, because things could be a lot worse. I've been through days where I didn't know if my then-two year old would ever speak or even open her eyes again. Yes, I remind myself daily, it is only money. Some nights I can't sleep because I'm worried (and trying to ignore stress-related heart palpitations) and I just have to think that to myself and shove everything else out of my mind.

Phoenix, AZ