Monday, March 30, 2009

Portrait: Portland, Oregon

Three weeks ago, my fiancé and I were standing in our kitchen talking about the fact that money had become a huge topic for us. We made a solid six-figures, but there was never enough, we always wanted more, we wanted to save more, etc.... For some reason, we always craved more. The constant need for more felt heavy, almost making us sick with greed. Although we’d only been out of school for less than two years, we had quietly joined the rat race. MORE! and BIGGER! and BETTER! constantly pounded in our heads every day so much that we felt sick about it.

I literally said a prayer afterward that we might once again be grateful for the things we do have instead of always asking for more.

Seven days later, he told me his firm was closing their doors in 30 days. His last day of employment will be the day of our wedding. Three days later, I got a similar notice from my company.

All in one week, we got just what I had prayed for. Suddenly, everything we have is a blessing. The fact that we have heat is such a luxury, we haven’t used it in a week and just stay bundled up at home instead. We are so grateful for our old college cars, instead of eyeing vehicles with a hefty car payment. His birthday was Friday and instead of getting him some flat screen TV or taking him out to an expensive dinner, we were grateful for the friends that came over to have BBQ hot dogs and potato salad on our porch. And as cliche as it sounds, we are incredibly grateful just to have each other.

I’m hardly wearing make-up – saving what I have for our wedding day. We are taking public transportation. We are getting creative in a limited kitchen. We downgraded our phone plan, our TV, Internet and are finding free entertainment at home. We might have to move to another state. We will probably have to move out of our home unless a job offer comes fast. We had to un-invite 100 people to our wedding reception and instead, we’re having 20 people for dinner following the ceremony. It might be a short trek to another job, but it might be a long, long haul that we have to buckle down for.

A couple weeks ago, I had mentioned to him that I felt like the “economy” hadn’t touched us. Until the next week, when it did. We are still in relatively shallow water, and call me crazy, but I feel somewhat refreshed. Lighter. Stressed, yes, but suddenly the rats around us have gone ahead and left us. Maybe the feeling with be brief, but for now, I feel like we’re free from the race. Until further notice, we'll be stuck on a less flashy journey that is much scarier, but slow enough for us to notice the things we otherwise wouldn’t have thought twice about, and to really, truly feel grateful.

Portland, Oregon

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Portrait Update: (A Silver Lining) Singapore

I wrote a while back about my uncle, whose is suffering through a second relapse in his long battle with cancer. He could barely afford the treatment, and it broke my heart that my childhood hero had to battle the financial demons along with his illness. I see how weak, how sickly, how gaunt he got. I see how his eyes take on that look, which suggested he no longer wanted to fight. I see my 75-year-old grandmother quietly weep as she sees her youngest son suffering, unable to eat, or talk, his speech and eating abilities both seriously compromised by chemotherapy.

But I also see how material possessions don’t matter – what makes him rich is not years invested into his business, but the relationships he’s forged with his family and friends. I see how love is the glue that holds us all together, even in the face of death. ‘For Uncle Andy,’ says my youngest sister, who saved what she could from her pocket money so she could contribute to Andy’s Fighting Fund, as I’ve come to call it. I see courage as he tries everyday to be normal – to whisper now that he can’t speak, to eat as much as he can stomach despite the blisters and the pain, to smile even though the tumour is pressing down on his nerves, making it a challenge to emote, to express.

We just got a call from his doctor today, and Andy’s tumour has shrunk by fifty percent. There is a good chance that if he continues the treatment, the tumour might eventually shrink to a point where medicine is able to contain the growth, and give Andy the time that he needs to do what he’s always wanted: to bring my grandmother on a trip to China, back to her hometown.

“Don’t stop smiling,” Andy told me one day. “I never wanted to, until the day I realised I couldn’t any more. Keep smiling, niece.”

And that’s exactly what I am going to do.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Portrait Update: Good News, Detroit Michigan

wrote a while back about my mom, the provider of the family, losing her job after 25 years. She was applying weverywhere for a position but no one would hire her. She rarely even got an interview. Well...someone she used to know through work called her recently to tell her he had mentioned her to a company he knew that was hiring. I'm not sure what he said but he must have said something amazing, because not only did she basically get the job on spot, they even offered her a higher salary than what she wanted. They're giving her more money, insurance, and the time off she needs. Its really pretty amazing.

Just when you think that things can't get any worse, the stars align and everything just works out. Something inside says, everything will be ok. My parents are saved this time, and I hope one day one of us will make a recommendation for someone else to save them. Don't even
burn bridges. Be a genuinely nice person, and people will remember.

Detroit, MI

Portrait: Phoenix, Arizona

Everyone always says that it will never happen to you; you will never loose your job. And then it does.

In seven months.

I can understand loosing one job in a lifetime, but two in less than a year? I still don't quite understand how a young, married, college educated professional, who played by all of the "rules", could loose two jobs in the space of 7 months, through no fault of her own. Some days it sill doesn't seem real. I wish the Universe would play this game of life by some fair rules, instead of cheating and making me suffer the consequences.

In March I was working as an engineer for a national construction company. When I graduated from college less than 3 years before, construction was THE industry to get into in Phoenix. Not to mention, the company was great and I liked working there. Then the call from the HR person came on a Thursday morning and all of a sudden, I'm laid off. No job. No income, only two weeks of pay for severance. Fortunately, my husband and I were in a good spot in our lives and had wisely saved up money, and suddenly very thankful that we had been able to save the small amount we had. We tightened our budget tremendously and figured we had enough savings to get us through this. The unemployment payments helped, although they didn't cover much more than groceries and gasoline. My unemployment was only going to be temporary and short. I would soon find another job and we'd be back to normal in a few months.

My plan of getting a new job entailed a career change. I had been looking into it for a while and this seemed like a sign from God telling me now is the time to do what I wanted to do. It took 3 months of job searching, interviews, submitting resumes online, to get my new perfect job, a job I loved doing. And it came with a salary cut of over $15,000. "That's alright. I'm new in this field. It'll be fine. It meets our budget and that's what matters", I thought, dealing with the initial sting. We kept our tight unemployment budget to make sure we were putting money into savings again. Less than four months into my new career, my perfect new job, the economy imploded and I lost my job. Again.

You start to question everything you did at your job(s). Did coming in to work a few minutes late here and there matter? I stayed later to make up for it every time, didn't I? Surely those times when I stayed late working on projects and didn't bill it to my time card evened that out. Didn't it? Did my bosses just put on a show when they appeared to like me and my work? Was it my work that just sucked? If that's the case, why wouldn't someone say so? You would think that would come up in the periodic employee reviews. It couldn't have been a personality conflict; everyone was super nice to me and genuinely appeared to like me. Or was it all an act that I was completely oblivious to? Especially when I feel like I read people well?

It takes some time to really answer those questions in truth toward yourself. Coming in a few minutes late didn't matter. My work was the best I could do and completely fulfilled the needs and wants of my bosses, even exceeded a lot of the time. And everyone really did like me.

It was the second lay off that really hit me. The first time I had a plan, with steps, that was completely obtainable. I had a goal I was working toward and I knew that it would be attained in a short amount of time. I even knew I was going to be happier with the new career. The second lay off was completely unexpected, out of the blue. You don't think that your brand new dream-job will end in less than four months. It doesn't even enter your thoughts in the tiniest way. Suddenly you're faced with these questions: What do you do when you've exhausted your meager savings with the first period of unemployment? What do you really do when you've found a job you love and now you don't have it anymore? How do you tell your friends, AGAIN, that you've lost your job again? And when they respond, "Seriously?" what do you say to that? Like I would really joke about this.

So, I'm on to searching for another job, after a few months out of the workforce. I just could not make myself look for a job for a long time. I floundered and seriously did not know what I wanted to do. I did not know how to make my dreams become a reality.

In all of this, I am extremely thankful that I have a husband who still has a good job. That I have a husband who supports my employment decisions because he just wants me to be happy. That we were able to keep our house. That we have both been healthy during the time of no insurance. That I have a support network of friends and family that care about me and are willing to help in whatever way possible.

I've come to accept and be happy that I'm now starting my third career in a year (and now a fourth). It's been a long journey of really high highs and extremely low lows in the year since my first lay-off, but I've made it through. While the economy doesn't look stellar even now, I am confident everything will be ok. I have to be optimistic about life. It's just not worth living if you don't think anything good can happen even during the not-so-good times. I firmly believe God is good and that He has a plan and will take care of me.

Phoenix, Arizona

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Portrait: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

My husband and I are both creatives (he's a graphic designer and I'm an ex-scenic painter/set designer, now interior decorator). We didn't start out like you and your husband. We met in college and were immediately best friends and roommates. Six years later we were married. I keep trying to reinvent myself career-wise, while C held a good salaried job with some wonderful, returning freelance clients. I eventually found some stability working as an interior decorator for an ikea nearby just as C was offered a full-time position as an art director of a growing NY hedge fund. For the first time we were completely flush. We could buy anything we wanted, see theatre, eat out. It was bizarre and amazing. We saved so much money, knowing it would eventually end. We saved money and bought a house. We saved money so I could get pregnant, have a baby and take a year off. We thought it would be no problem for me to take my experience at Ikea and find a job doing displays or decorating somewhere else. C would work another year or two at the hedge and then we'd talk about starting a design studio together. We dreamed.

Then J was born. She was amazing, but she didn't sleep, didn't eat well, couldn't be put down. She was five weeks old when C was laid off, his hedge being one of the early implosions. We had savings, so much more than most. C was so qualified and talented, he'd find another job in no time. Five months later there was finally a job, though J had gotten easier to care for, as she discovered the world. We were still tearing through our savings, so a couple months later, I
started looking for work. We played with budgets and possibilities. It was pretty unlikely that I would be able to find a full time job that would pay enough to cover childcare and our shortfall, but I had to look. Something was better than nothing, right? I looked for four straight months. I networked and emailed and searched. We tightened our belts even further. I recently found a job as an design assistant for a local interior designer and I love the work. The pay is good, and my boss is interesting and understanding. It still isn't enough, but we're almost there. We have to hope that the occasional freelance client will help us keep afloat as our savings dwindles and no better paying jobs are in sight. We're not as concerned as we used to be. We feel confidant that something will turn up.

Here are the good things to come out of our circumstances. For the first five months, of our daughter's life, both of her parents were with her, learning her personality, caring for her. We also cared for each other. We're still struggling with parenthood and all it's complexity. And we don't know the future. But we have to hope that things will start to get better, just like it has for us. Slowly and surely.

Philadelphia, PA

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Portrait: Lee County, Florida

Lee County lies on the Gulf coast of Florida, about half way between Tampa and Miami. It saw a development boom a few years ago, but last year Cape Coral, a primarily residential area laced with canals, led the nation in home foreclosures. More than three quarters of the homes sold in Lee County as a whole last year were in foreclosure or close to it. Though the county attracted urban planners, construction workers, and home-buyers five years ago, it now has the highest unemployment rate in the state of Florida.

John Hawkins is a 55 year-old heavy equipment operator. He moved his family from Long Island down to Cape Coral four years ago to work in construction, clearing and grading land for housing developments. He worked for the same company all four years until this past Thanksgiving when he was laid off. He is pictured here at one of the sites he worked on, where many homes remain unfinished or vacant.

John and his wife have three children, and while she works part-time, their financial situation is growing dire. He describes job hunting:

"I go to the career center here in Fort Myers, which is a frustrating experience in and of itself. You stand there at 6:30 in the morning and there's a line in front of you of 30 or 40 people. The doors don't open until 8. I spend the whole day there because I'm not fluent with computers, I have to seek help. I fill out applications for jobs all day, some of which I'm qualified for, some of which I'm not. Then I go home, only to not get any replies,".

One of their sons has moved back to Long Island to find work, and their 16 year-old daughter has taken a part-time job at a movie theater. John himself is studying to qualify for new classes of licenses. He is pictured above with the handbook he is using to gain a license to drive a bus.

"What I'm trying to do is invest in myself while I have this time," he says of the effort to give himself more of an edge on the job market. But he believes his family's future in Florida is uncertain.

"I've even begun applying to trucking jobs out of state, but I want to wait until my daughter graduates in June. It's up in the air where we go from there...if it doesn't get better, who knows? If I don't get a job in the next two months, we're not going to be able to make rent".

In 2002 Amy brought her family to Fort Myers, a city just east of Cape Coral. They came because Amy was an urban planner and Lee County was one of the fastest growing counties in the country at the time.

They soon realized Florida's climate wasn't good for a respiratory condition Amy has and planned to move to North Carolina. In 2006 she left her job in preparation for the move and to care for their new daughter Evelyn. The couple soon found they were unable to sell their house for what they'd paid for it. Additionally, they owned eight other properties in the county, all of which had depreciated greatly. Before they knew it, the family was facing foreclosure and had to declare bankruptcy.

Amy's husband Rick is a car salesman and now works 10 hour days, seven days a week, to make ends meet. They've moved into a rental home, but don't know how long they will stay there. They are being enticed to stay in Florida because of the incentives offered through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, a part of Obama's stimulus package.

"I believe in the NSP program because there's a lot of people here, myself included, who are in the construction industry that don't want to have to take unemployment, they want to work. But there's no work, so what do you do in that situation? You create work," says Amy.

The program allows local governments to redevelop foreclosed properties, and offer them to low to middle income families at reduced rates. The hope is that it will create jobs again in the construction field and help families get homes they can afford. It has already spurred an upswing in home purchases in the area in the last four months.

While Amy realizes staying in Florida is not good for her health, she feels they have the best opportunity here now.

"I've got to do what's best for my family. Where else can we go where my husband can make $60,000 a year and we're going to get a mortgage?"

-Lee County, Florida

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Portrait: Divorce, Connecticut

I know most women won't argue with me when I say that even if you can't find it on a map, divorce is a state. Its a location, or, really, a dislocation. I should say upfront that it isn't my divorce, and this isn't my story. Its my mother's. My mother is 62; she was married for 28 years before things fell apart. She is beautiful, strangers say it, but she is alone in the big house that she and my father built as their dream, back when their kids and their marriage were young.

I don't want to talk about my dad, about their divorce. Any divorce after that many years, with children, and the economy... Marriage is hard and my father was constantly not getting the types of jobs he wanted, chasing a financial dream that he couldn't reach. I guess sometimes people reach for something other than their spouse to make them feel successful.

The divorce took a lot of time and money. It was final right after Lehman crashed; the financial ramifications and the court system meant somehow that my dad takes crazy vacations to the Turks and Caicos and my mom, for a while, was working two jobs. She keeps saying he needs work, if only so she can get alimony, but she knows about the vacations.

I know how much worse it could be. My friends and their parents, all over the country, are losing their jobs. People are losing their homes. My mom has her house and a job. But at 62, she has this terrible pain in her heart and she doesn't have health insurance, not that that would fix it.

That house isn't going anywhere. She keeps hoping upon hope that it will sell, but no one has the money for the mortgage these days, not in what used to be hedge fund Connecticut. No one will rent it, and she doesn't have the money for other options. She is going to start taking in boarders.

Because they own the house outright, she is stuck in a mausoleum to their marriage. The same pictures are on the walls. The house is still both of theirs by law, but she lives alone in it, and as long as its still theirs, he has say over what she does with her home. He isn't supposed to show up there anymore, but he owns half the place, and apparently hasn't forwarded all his mail. She is divorced, but he is still in her life. She walks around this house filled with years of memories and so much pain. Thanks to the economy, even though she isn't his, her home still is.

- S,
New York, USA

Monday, March 9, 2009

Portrait: Phoenix, Arizona

I am a 27 year old mother and wife. I love my husband and daughter as much as any wife and mother could. They are amazing and make me so happy. They fill my life with love, laughter, friendship and hope. Because I love them so much I am incredibly fearful about our future.

I am the sole provider for our family. My wonderful husband stays home with our daughter, just over a year, and he’s so good with her. He quit his job when she was just 3 weeks old and has been a stay at home Dad ever since. We did fine on my income alone for about a year, but I am in real estate. Enough said, right. My income has decreased by about 60% and although we were very smart with our money when times were good I don’t want to slowly eat though our savings only to end up broke in a year or two. We have cut back our over head as much as possible to try to live within our new income level and although we’re doing just about everything humanly possible, we’re still not quite there.

We got rid of our cable (both computer and TV), our cell phones are at the lowest plan (we don’t have a home phone) and we’re on the savings plan with our electric company - only doing wash and running the dishwasher between 9pm and 9am and on the weekends. We got rid of our Netflix account so all we have is 1 TV channel that comes in and movies to watch, we now buy our dogs the super cheap food (which isn’t all that good for them, but hey we’re all sacrificing) and we get all our baby’s clothes from friends and family hand me downs.

We get our meat and diapers at Costco, we shop with coupons and buy what’s on sale, and we do not eat our at all unless we have a gift card to do so at no cost. We only water our yard and plants once a week, the baby gets a bath every other day, and I shave my legs before I shower in an attempt to save water and lower our water bill. I no longer buy the nice razors for myself but the crappy disposable ones that give my legs a rash half the time (probably because I use them a week or two longer than I should), I only wear mascara on my top lashes (which I have decided I like anyways) and don’t wear make up at all on my days off to make it last longer, and I no longer buy mask for my face but instead go into our backyard and cut off a piece of one of our aloe vera plants, which works amazingly well, and put that on before bed.

I buy the cheapest hair spray I can find, I haven’t had my hair cut in about a year (my husband cuts his own), and I use super cheap shampoo/ conditioner which leaves my hair feeling “oily and gunky,” but it’s 1/3 of the price of the name brand I used to buy. We try not to use the cars more than necessary in order to cut down our gas expense. My husband tries to walk a lot more and find ways to entertain himself and the baby without getting in the car to go joyriding or off-roading (which they used to love to do).

The only debt we have is our house, which is great except that it is over $100,000 upside down. It’s so discouraging as we put 10% when we bought (didn’t do the crazy $0 down, 100% financing) and we own $100,000 more than what our home would sell for today. We own everything else we have outright and we still can’t seem to get our overhead low enough to let my husband stay home with our baby girl. As disappointing as that is, it’s not the end of the world. He’s been looking for a job and I have been looking at day care facilities. We pray that he will find something, anything, soon and that he’ll have weekends off so our daughter only has to be in day care 3 days a week. This would be okay - we would adjust - we’d all be fine.

However, my company is looking to do layoffs again. They just can’t make money selling houses in this market – the costs to build a home (purchase the land, raw material, labor etc) is more than what the market will buy it for so they have to slow their production and get rid of some of us as there is not enough to sell to keep us all employed. It makes sense, financially, for the company to sit on the side lines and let the inventory around the valley get bought up. They’ll get back into the market when they can make money on their homes again. You can’t blame them - no company can consistently lose money month after month and stay afloat, but for me it’s the end of the world. If I get laid off we lose our healthcare. This, more than anything else, scares the crap out of me. I have been looking, any applying, for other jobs that offer less than I make (even making 40% of what I used to) just in case, but I haven’t had much luck. My husband has also been looking and applying to jobs I find him (we don’t have the Internet at home anymore so I have to look for him at work) but that isn’t going well either. There was recently a job fair here in Phoenix and 10,000 people showed up for 400 available jobs. It’s not hard to do the math and realize that there are a lot of other folks who will take whatever they can find too.

The future is bleak and uncertain, but I choose to be hopeful. We are willing to do whatever we need to in order to take care of our family. We have lots of love in our lives and good family and friends. Everyone says money is just money and it’s not what really matters in life. With the way things are going I think a lot of families, just like mine, are going to put that saying to the test. We’ll all find out, very soon, whether we can be happy with love and friendship alone.

Phoenix, AZ

Portrait: Chatsworth, California

I live in the San Fernando Valley and have seen business close up around us in the past 6 months. Currently, we have lost the Linens ‘N Things, K-Mart, On the Border Mexican restaurant, Circuit City and Applebees restaurant. And those are only the big name chain stores. We have had many little places disappear. A friend of the family had to close their car dealership that had been family owned and operated for over 50 years. Things will never be the same because many business will not come back if/when the economy picks up.

My husband is currently unemployed having lost his job in the entertainment industry in Oct. His unemployment is up in April and we will file for an extension. The company where I work as an Office Manager is doing poorly and we already had a small wave of layoffs that I fear will be bigger next time.

Currently we are renters and two weeks ago decided to make an offer on a townhouse. This was something we thought long and hard about and the deciding factor was that the mortgage payment would be the same as what we are paying in rent. I realize that the economy is tenuous but both my husband and I are tired of renting and being at the whim and mercy of a landlord who can raise your rent when you go month to month. My husband is in his early 40’s and I’m in my late 30’s and we feel that we are ready to take the next step in our lives. Because of the FHA loan we are able to put only 3% down.

We are currently debt free, a fact that I’m proud of and realize how incredibly lucky I am able to say that. I know that will change with the purchase of the townhouse but we are ready for it and aren’t going into this situation blindly or getting in over our heads. The townhouse complex where we live was selling townhouses for $430 back in 2007 and the one we are buying (as a short sale) is listed at $285. We could have been those people who went for it in 2007 and got upside down before they knew it but we waited and though I feel bad for the people who are selling this unit for way less than they paid I don’t want to keep our lives on hold any longer. I know having my husband out of work isn’t the best time but we got a home loan no problem (our credit scores were both in the 800’s so that really helped).

I’m grateful for what I have because I know so many people don’t and are in horrible situations. God forbid I lose my job, we can still make the payments on my unemployment. It helps to have my sister in law living with us as a renter. Because we are debt free and don’t have kids we can do this and I really feel weird saying that we are trying to buy when so many people are losing their homes. I feel in a way that I’m benefiting somehow from all this misery but there is part of me that thinks what were people thinking when they bought a townhouse for $430? How much higher did they think it would go?

I hope all works out for us and everyone else struggling to make ends meet. People say things will get better and I pray that it happens sooner rather than later.

Chatsworth, CA

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Portrait: Boston, Massachusetts

I moved to Boston, MA 5 days after graduating college in 2003. With a small loan from parents, without a job , not knowing anyone and hoping things would just work out. And somehow magically it seemed they did. Almost 6 years later I had a great job at an investment firm, a wonderful boyfriend who I lived with, awesome friends, a brand new car which I financed myself and a rather strong sense of pride that I'd made a good life for myself in not so much time.

I was laid off from my great job at the beginning of December 2008. It was a shock to say the least as my boyfriend and I had planned to stay at our jobs for the following year (2009) and then live out our dream of moving to Florida to be closer to some of my family and finally never see snow again. At first I was ok with no working, then as a month past and we moved into a new apartment I started to panic a little more each day. I was incredibly lucky to recieve a severance package that was very generous from my former employer so I knew I had a certain amount of time before the money ran out. I would estimate I applied for over 300 jobs, anything I seemed vaguely qualified for. 3 people called me back, I went on 2 interviews and was offered just one job. At a hospital, with slightly less pay, more responsiblity, no hope for a bonus, and not nearly the benefits. I took the job immediately because who knew what would happen? I've worked there for about 3 weeks, and the things I'm learning and the people I'm meeting could not be more interesting. It has me considering going back to school to do something in healthcare. Something I would have never considered if I had just lazed around at my former incredibly easy job.

I consider myself extemely lucky to have found employment in this economy but it wasn't easy. 2 months of waiting for the phone to ring to hear about a job you're not even sure you want is never a good feeling. Many of my friends have lost their jobs, almost everytime I go to a restaurant around here there is another one closed right next door. Bars are empty, shopping malls are empty, restaurants are empty. We don't really go out that much anymore, instead we have friends over or go to their house. In times like these you really realize what's important and it certainly isn't how much money you make, what you have, where you live, or how much your bonus will be. It's who will be there to help you and listen when everything you knew is different.

Boston, MA

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Portrait: Atlanta Georgia*

Chanda Williams was an office manager and event coordinator at an Atlanta restaurant. In October, after struggling through a slow-down in business, the restaurant was bought by a larger company and her position was eliminated. She has been out of work since.

Williams lives in East Atlanta with her husband, a maintenance worker at Emory University, and their 3 year old son Che. Their home is cozy and scattered with toys, and looks out over a partially wooded backyard that this morning is blanketed in snow. The house is owned by Chanda's mother, a fact Chanda considers a blessing that allows them to continue to stay afloat.

"I have a bachelor's degree and I can't even get secretarial work," says Chanda. "My fall-back has always been waiting tables, but I have a friend who is a manager at a restaurant, and he told me they put an ad on Craigslist for servers. They got 200 responses in the first day and half of [the applicants] had masters degrees".

Since Chanda is home most of the time now and they've lost her income, the Williams have taken Che out of daycare. Coincidentally, two of her friends with children also lost their jobs recently, and the three have teamed up to create their own daycare network.

"It forced us to build a community," says Chanda.

The three mothers each take turns watching the kids, giving the other two time to job hunt and run errands. The solution was a welcome change for Chanda after a period of being home with her son seven days a week.

"I didn't realize that working part-time was keeping me sane, because it was a break and it was making me a better mother. If I have the day away from him, then the time we have together is so much better".

Chanda Williams, 27
Atlanta, Georgia

*cross-posted on
Faces of the Recession where new friend and photographer, Andy Cook shares stories gathered while he drives around the United States meeting people who have lost jobs or been impacted by the recession. Andy will be cross-posting his stories, here, weekly. For more Faces of the Recession, go here.

Portrait: West Des Moines, Iowa

We laughingly call it The 12 Year Plan. That’s even the name of my blog. You see, my husband and I switched roles so he could go back to school. His dream is to become a doctor, and we are now 5 years into that 12 year plan. We’re by no means ahead of the curve – we are much older than most of the other med students, and we have 2 kids. People always get that look when we talk about medical school. I know what they’re thinking – “Oh they’re going to have it MADE”. Well, I certainly don’t think that’s the case, but we hope that eventually this very long road will mean that there’s enough to pay off our student loans, send our children to a state college, and save for retirement – with no room to breathe between any of it.

I currently work part-time from home and care for our two young children. When we moved to Iowa for medical school, I was able to keep my job but had to transition from full-time to part-time. I was also able to keep some of my benefits - meaning we now pay more than $600 a month for health insurance. I still feel lucky to have both my job and health insurance. We now live partially on student loans and partially on my salary. After I made the transition 18 months ago, my bosses made it clear that I shouldn’t consider this a permanent solution. My company is coming up on the end of another fiscal year and I am preparing for the worst. We’re already understaffed, and I do the work of two people, but I know that ‘part-time with benefits’ means I am the most expendable person.

We have some money in savings, and have worked hard to pay off our credit cards and other debts. As a student family, we do what everyone else is doing – shop with coupons, buy clothes & shoes only on final clearance, and drive less.

If the axe falls, I probably won’t look for another job. My husband starts his rotations in August, and his schedule will be completely inconsistent for the next 5 years. I also don’t see the financial sense in trying to get a full-time job so that I can pay $1,000+ a month to put our kids in daycare. This means we will rely completely on student loans, which will give us an income of about $20,000/ year. I know it’s not much, but hopefully it will keep a roof over our heads and some food on the table. This is more than a lot of people have right now, and I feel blessed for it. Our families are very supportive of us and we know that if we had to, my kids and I could move cross-country to live with them while my husband does his rotations. It is a scary time, but I know we will be OK. This too shall pass.

West Des Moines, IA

Friday, March 6, 2009

Portrait: San Francisco, California

Sonnet for the Survivors of the Second Coming

You have to, it's all come tumbling down before
and too hard to fear an inevitable dark. So be brave,
see boards that split will frame a door, and
bricks rocked to rubble still build up starts. Know over
and over the break is day, so pick yourself up
and follow the long ticktock, what's crumbled like a bone resets.
Rust can wash away like sin, like tough luck,
like your last lost love regrets.
If choking time shadowed, dust yourself off and
blow across the life you knew, too old or undersold:
A life well lived will leave you lust sore, and of all
the lives that run a course, few have been too bold. We love, fall.
It won't ever be as it was then. You can, will
start all over again.

San Francisco, CA

Portrait: Parker, Colorado

I live in a typical suburban area, where there are more stay at home Mom's then working Mom's. I see these SAHM's standing on the corner of my neighborhood relaying the latest gossip they heard at the nail salon, gym, or hair salon, as I drive home from work. You see, I don't fit in here. I am not a SAHM. I am a working Mom. My political views don't match those of my neighborhood, town, or even county. In our local elections, if you put an (R) after your name, you are sure to get elected, even if no one knows who you are. I am not against the SAHM's in my neighborhood, however, I feel that they are against me. How can she go to work everyday? How can she leave the care of her child up to someone else? Truth is... I intimidate them. They are jealous. I am my own person. I am not dependent on anyone else.

I work. I work hard. I work in the construction industry, and we tend to feel the economic crisis more so then others. When you can't get bank loans, you can't build a building. If you can't build a building, you definitely don't need anyone to design that building for you. If you don't need a design, you don't need me. I work for a small consulting firm, and we are weathering this crisis very well. In fact, some say, we are on top of the wave right now. Thank you to President Obama for releasing a stimulus package that is creating projects in my state. Thank you to my Governor for accepting this stimulus money, and realizing what it can do for the local economy. These are projects that I get to work on. These projects are what is keeping me employed right now. I just keep hoping that wave doesn't crash into the rocks anytime soon.

I go to work everyday. So does my husband. By doing this, we can afford to send our 2 year old goes to "school" everyday (as she calls it). We can afford to go to Vegas for the weekend to celebrate a friend's birthday. We can afford the luxuries that we want. I can still put away money every month for my daughter's college education. We are STILL investing in the stock market. We are not behind on our mortgage. We have small manageable debts for car loans, student loans and the like. Does that mean we aren't concerned with the economy and our finances? Absolutely not. We watch where our money goes. We use coupons. We wait for big ticket items to go on sale before purchasing them.

I don't fit in here.

Lately, it appears as if the gossip circle is getting smaller. I do have one friend that is a member of the circle. She has relayed to me that a couple of the SAHM's are having to go out and find jobs to help support the family. Their husbands have been laid off, required to take a salary cut, or work reduced hours. The other SAHM's are helping out by watching their kids for them while at work. I am starting to look less intimidating to them. They are becoming more independent.

So the economic crisis - how is this effecting me? I haven't changed the way I live my life. I have always watched where my money went. I have always made sure that I can afford the things that we have with the money that we make. However, remember? I don't fit in here, but I may be starting to.

Parker, Co.

Portrait: Fairfield, California

By most standards, I have it good. I have a part-time job that brings home a little bit of money and a feeling of pride when I can go home and show my husband the little bit of cash I earn being a hostess. My husband is Active Duty in the US Air Force, and we live on base, so we don't have to worry about foreclosure. His job allows me to stay home with our two kids every day that I don't work. When I work, we are fortunate enough to have family nearby that have no problems watching the children whenever. The four of us are healthy, as are our friends and family.

Every night, though, I worry. Some nights I can't sleep because I'm too worried to close my eyes. I desperately want to go to school and become a nurse - start a career - but I'm so afraid of the debt that getting a four year degree with rack up. So many people tell me not to worry, that any money I can make after I get my RN will help defray loan costs, and then when I go into the service as an officer, that will help even more.

But it doesn't stop me from feeling like there's a shadow waiting to swallow us whole.

That's probably the worst part of this recession for me - the fear. The not knowing. I hate it so much. It paralyzes me, makes my skin crawl. Some days I feel like we should go ahead and rob Peter just to keep Paul as far away as possible.

Every day I pray that there will be a light at the end of this tunnel, that the silver lining is close at hand, but there's this tiny voice that tells me I shouldn't get my hopes up.

Fairfield, California, USA

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Portrait: Hollywood Hills, California

My nanny friend complained to me this weekend that her bosses were ignorant elitists. Unaware that 99% of the world does not live the way they do.

I guess I'm in the 1% only I choose to not have full-time help. So I hang out with nannies. I live by celebrities. I live in a big house with spectacular views.

I've never been so lonely in my life.

I used to live in a state that is very green and most houses have wrap around porches there. We used to sit outside and people would just stop by. Community, family, I never felt so rich in my life.

But my dad drank and gambled that all away. So I know what it's like to have the re-po man come to you in the night. I know the panic attacks that set in.

There is a balance between scraping by to pay rent and having so much you choose to build up walls to keep everyone else out.

I am trying to find the balance here and have been scaling my fancy neighbor's walls for awhile now begging someone to lend me some eggs or olive oil to help me feel the richness I once did while living a more modest life.

I think this economic slump we are in, while horrible yes, can hopefully open us up as a whole to re-examining what we value.

Los Angeles (Hollywood Hills) California

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Portrait: Lexington, Kentucky

I am the girl you want to be.

I have a secure job at a company that is well-placed to survive this economic crisis even though we are tied to the construction industry. I have medical, dental, vision and short term disability that will kick in during my maternity leave this June. My husband owns his own business which is thriving. When our daughter is born, she will go to work with my husband so we won’t have child care expenses. Our cars are paid off. We refinanced our 5 bedroom house in a desirable school district in early January at a good rate. We are in the process of installing hardwood floors throughout the entire upstairs.

I am the girl who doesn’t sleep well at night.

I have $17,000.00 in credit card debt from my first marriage/divorce. Even at my low rate, my minimum payment is $350.00/month. My paid off car has 140,000 miles on it and I’m afraid it will go at anytime. In June, when my daughter is born, my health insurance cost out of pocket will go from $40.00/month to $300.00/month. If anything changes, my situation will go from rosy to rocky overnight.

I am the girl looking for four leaf clovers.

I’m not cutting back on ‘luxuries’ yet. I have my expensive cell phone plan and high speed internet. I still pick up take-out when I’m too lazy to cook. I am still going to prenatal yoga twice a week. I am hoping and praying that the status quo reigns in my life for another year while we weather the worst of this.

So cross your fingers for me. Cross your fingers for all of us.

Lexington, Kentucky

Monday, March 2, 2009

Portrait: Brooklyn, New York/ Central Pennsylvania

In the grand scheme of this economic crisis, I'm doing okay. I have a relatively stable job. And long before stocks plummeted, I was watching my pennies. I was typing everything from a morning coffee to my student loan payments into an Excel spreadsheet every night. It quickly became my pre-bedtime ritual -- enter the 75 cents I spent on peanut M&Ms for an afternoon pick-me-up into those judgemental little cells; feel defeated as an adult; go to bed embarrassed that I was going to have to sell something on eBay to pay my rent later in the month. I was cognizant of every dollar, every dime. But I had to be, I live in one of the most expensive cities in the world and my rent for a small one-bedroom in Brooklyn is half of my monthly salary. So, in a way, those cells probably saved me from myself. I was able to brave my own taxes this year and got myself a decent refund. I'm actually pretty proud of me for not falling apart yet.

Where I grew up, though, is a different story. My family is struggling. Some of it their own doing, but most of it due to the unstable economic climate. And, as some who always wants to be the problem-solver, I am struggling, too. I talk to my mother, a trade school teacher for almost 30 years, several times per week, and try to stomach it as she tells me that she's not sure when her husband will be able to work again. Or how she's been supporting a family of four on her salary for more than a year. Or how my grandmother's husband, at 70, was just laid-off from his factory job. Or how my uncle's hours were cut at his full-time job to a mere 16 hours a week and his children always seem to be ill. Or how little oil my family has left for the winter. They make all of the news coverage real.

I offer what little I have to give -- as a loan, because I know my mother does not want my money. She knows I don't have much more than she. But she doesn't take it. Instead, she asks me if I have groceries to get through the week. I tell her I do, and that I really don't mind not eating out anymore. She knows I like to eat out and I miss not being able to anymore in a city like New York. She will even send me five or ten dollars every few months with a note telling me to treat myself to some Starbucks. She's in a terrible position and she sends me money to go to Starbucks. Because she's my mother and she's only thinking of the little burst happiness she can give me.

Brooklyn, NY / Central Pennsylvania

Portrait: Dayton, Ohio

I grew up in a blue-collar town with blue collar parents. My dad worked so much he missed out on a lot of things when we were little and once I was in school (I am the youngest of three), my mom began working 3rd shift at crappy jobs in order to make ends meet. There were no name brand shoes and going out to eat was a rare treat. I didn’t even know what a college-fund was until it was too late to start one for myself. I got a job at 15 and have been working since.

When I started college in 2002 I thought I was doing the safe thing: get a degree to have a better chance of getting a good job. I even went to a local community college to get my general education requirements out of the way and paid everything in full. Then I fell in love with academia and more specifically, Sociology, and created these far fetched plans of going to Europe for graduate school and then pursuing a PhD in Sociology or Philosphy. I was good at school; always making Dean’s list and throroughly enjoying going to class. It made sense for me to take it as far as possible.

$65,000 in student loans later, I have one year of Graduate coursework under my belt (that’s all I could get my public university to pay for and I’m not about to take out more loans to finish) and a job that is less than thrilling but pays well enough for me to get by. I’m no where near a PhD or in Europe, which is fine, life happened and I met someone worth staying in Ohio for, but the only way I’ll be able to continue graduate school is because I work at a small public university and the tuition is waived for full-time employees. I thank whatever powers that be every day for this job, but this is never where I pictured myself at 24.

I am getting married this year. I had to use forebearance on my federal loan re-payment in order to pay for things for the wedding because I make too much money (before taxes/retirement/benefits), don’t have any dependents and I’m not in school anymore so deferrment wasn’t an option. We are on a $5,000 budget for the wedding and I worry every day my Fiancé will loose his graphic design job due to the economy and then we won’t even be able to spend that. My private-loan company re-payment begins next month because forebearance on it would cost me a jump in my interest rate. It will be $363 a month for the next 20 years. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to afford a house.

Is this the “American Dream”? Most days it feels like a nightmare. I thought getting a degree would mean I wouldn’t have to worry like my parents did about money, but I guess I was very wrong.

(near) Dayton, Ohio

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