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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Mean Green

Money. That was mrtl's suggestion for this week's Monday post, and I'm late as usual, but I do find it a very interesting topic, and it's been on my mind a lot lately. Specifically, what's on my mind is how difficult it is for some families to make it. I have encountered so many couples and families in the past few years, in which all of the adults are working hard, and they are losing homes, cars, even lives, because they don't make enough money.

Bankruptcy. When I was a child, that was almost a dirty word. I didn't know anyone who'd declared bankruptcy, or if I did, they weren't open about it. Now attorneys compete for bankrupt clients. My office before the one I have now was located in a building owned by an attorney. On the outside, he had hung a huge vinyl banner, urging the general public to declare bankruptcy before the laws changed. Judging by the traffic in his office, his banner was effective. Some people were just waiting for a sign.

About a year ago, I accepted a client who was just released from a psychiatric hospital. She had a history of PTSD; she had suffered most traumas that people in this culture can imagine. And through half a lifetime, she had held it together. Until she and her husband entered bankruptcy proceedings. That was the last straw. She is one of the working poor. She and her husband have "good" jobs, relative to their education levels. They volunteer in the community; they are raising their children well; they are faithful church-goers, and try to live out their faith. The decision to declare bankruptcy did not come easily to them. They find it shameful. The find it morally wrong, although they did choose the option that will maximize payment to their creditors, and allow them at least a chance of keeping their home.

Their story is very common. Many of the people you and I know are one partner's job loss away from major financial crisis. Because we try to keep up with a culture that's gone absolutely mad for things and stuff. For houses and vehicles that are way more extravagant than anyone needs, or even truly enjoys. (And how on earth will we heat those houses and drive those monsters in the coming winter?!)

My client and her family were not more careless with money than most. They weren't Suze Orman, but they weren't spendthrifts, either. And now they are cut to the bone. Cable and internet are gone. Dinners out are gone. Clothes from anywhere other than Wal-Mart are gone. Vacations, gone. In a formerly middle-class household where two good people go to work every day, and work OT when they can get it.

One of my client's greatest heartaches through the summer was that her wonderful children didn't get a vacation. Not even a weekend at the ocean; not even a day at an amusement park, not even a couple of hours at a Firemen's Carnival. These are the kids who also got nothing for Christmas or their birthdays last year, and said they understood.

At the end of the summer, my client's husband came home with great news. His employer had given him four tickets to the State Fair! She was so happy! I was so happy! Rain was forecast for the day they were going, and as the day approached, I prayed and prayed for sunshine. Prayers answered, it was a beautiful day.

When my client came in, she told me this story:

We got there, and then we realized that the tickets got us in, but that's all. We couldn't ride anything, or play anything. We had brought a little money for hot dogs and drinks. We couldn't disappoint the kids again, so we took part of that money and bought some ride tickets. We put the kids on one ride, and while they were on it, we stood there trying to figure out what in the world we were going to do. We stood there praying for guidance; I was so discouraged.

Then out of nowhere, these two well-dressed men walked up to us, and they asked us if we would like to have their "ride-all-day" bracelets. They had three of them. We asked them "how much?" but they didn't want money. They wanted to give them to us. They had come with their church group, which had gotten a discount on bracelets for everyone, but they and one of their friends didn't want to ride anything, so they just came looking for someone to give them to. It was perfect, because my husband doesn't like to ride rides.

When the kids got off their ride, they couldn't believe it. They were so happy! We had thought we'd get to put them on one more ride -- they were mostly four or five tickets each! -- but we stayed all day, from noon 'til about 7 o'clock. When we were ready to leave, my husband reminded me that he had 20 ride tickets left. I said to my daughter, "Let's pray and ask God to show us who to give these tickets to." We looked at everyone we passed as we went toward the exit. Finally I saw this young mother with a baby in a stroller, and a toddler, and a pre-schooler, waiting in line for tickets. She was looking in her purse like she was trying to come up with just a little more money. I walked up to her and said, "These are for you." She looked at the tickets, and looked at me, and she burst into tears, and hugged me. I knew I had found the right person for those tickets.

It was just a day at the fair. My client needed a day out; but even more than that, she needed hope, and assurance that she'll find a way, that if she does what she needs to do, God will make a way. That's what she believes.

38 heads are better than one . . .

Blogger Kitty said...

That was really beautiful and I hate to say... accurate. I now have three friends that have either been through, or are going through, bankruptcy.

I just pray that they all, in their own right, get their day at the fair.

I like that - giving someone their day at the fair...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't commented since the now legendary "Booty Flies" post, but this one got to me. I check your blog every day for new posts, and am often touched by your gentle prose. "There but for the grace of God", I came so close to bankruptcy after my divorce, but after years of working in the credit industry I resisted it, and ultimately avoided it. If your client doesn't already know, the Goodwill is an awesome alternative to Walmart. In fact, even though I can well afford to purchase clothes at better stores, I still shop for my three kids and even myself at the Goodwill. You wouldn't believe how often I find clothes with the tags still intact! I'm amazed at what people throw away. To enlist their help, I'd tell the kids we were going "treasure hunting" and they could spend $1 each on purchases there, if they'd help find clothes. Children's books were only a quarter, and stuffed animals were usually only fifty cents, so their money went a long way. As an added bonus, I'd often find clothing or other items that I knew I could sell on eBay for a tidy profit that would more than offset my shopping trip. I sought out lots of free entertainment options, and fortunately here in the Twin Cities we have a wonderful park system, so warmer days meant a day at the park and we'd head over to the library during the long winters. You can rent videos there for next to nothing along with borrowing books. The good news is those frugal habits have stuck with me. Less than five years later, I'm debt free, I put 10% of my paycheck into a 401K account and my 3 kids dress in quality clothes for less than $300/year. My kids know the value of money now, too-and they all read at much higher grade levels. Later this year, I'm marrying a wonderful man who admires my resourcefulness and who loves me and my awesome kids. It was tough, REALLY tough sometimes, but I absolutely believe God only gives you as much as you can handle. The times when I thought things couldn't get any worse, someone would show up with "tickets to the fair", and made me realize the benefit of letting others help. I'd never been good at that before, but I realized that a single mother living in a city with no family within 850 miles needed to accept help graciously when offered. Thank you so much Susie, for reminding me how lucky I am, and how grateful I am for the lessons I learned.

Amy in the Twin Cities

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're so right about so many people living paycheck to paycheck.

I loved the story of your clients. I heard a rabbi talk about the disaster in NO. He said God wasn't in the hurricane -- God was in the hands and the hearts that came after.

God was clearly at the fair that day.


Blogger Susie said...

Thanks, kitty, I hope they get their day, too. It can be such a discouraging, degrading thing to go through.

amy, thank you. I will pass along your tips (and use them myself!). May your marriage be blessed. Thank you for reading here, and I'm glad you stopped in :)

hi, gina. Your comment reminds me of my client speculating as to whether those two men could have been angels. I sure couldn't say they weren't.

Blogger mrtl said...


This was the most beautiful post. God, Karma, whatever it was that happened to your client, I'm so happy for her and her family for having such a wonderful experience.

Blogger Alyssa said...

That is such a beautiful story. God is so good. :o)

Anonymous jessica_deva said...

Very, very moving. Thank you for your thoughtful post.

Blogger Ern said...

That story was beautiful--it made me cry. And the comments that follow it are also very touching.

I really worry about America sometimes--the fixation on "stuff" has so outweighed the satisfaction of living within your means. Many many families are in the situation you describe.

There is a book I have been wanting to read called "Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America" that is about the working poor.

Thank you for sharing this. I am always touched by what I find here.

Blogger WILLIAM said...

"Some people were just waiting for a sign."

Take this line out of context of the second paragraph and it means so much more.

Beautiful Story

Anonymous lawbrat said...

Just heartwarming. I'm so blessed by your writings. I read, yet feel at the same time. As with Amy- Goodwill is a great place. So many things you can find in great condition; many with tags; others, like they've never been worn. Here, Tuesdays is when they get 'new' stuff- new meaning new donations are put out. Best day to go for the best finds.

Bankruptcy...its big business for attorneys. I know several people that are going into that field just because its a big money-maker. Its sad that there is such a demand for this field.

Just before I got married...in 1993, my ex said I needed to declare because 'he didnt want to go into a marriage with debt'. It cost $500 to declare, and I had 1,400 in debt. Take off the 500 for declaring and put it to the debt, 900. Because I declared, my name couldnt go on anything. House, cars, NOTHING. 12 years later, I cant get private loans for school because of that. I need to get it off my credit report...supposed to come off after 7 years, but its still there.

Now, I could KICK my own A** for declaring. What was I thinking? Oh, I wasent.

Anonymous kalki said...

Thank you for sharing this, Susie.

Blogger Circus Kelli said...

That is a fantastic story, Susie. The light-hearted part of me says "That story kicks all forms of ass".

The rest of me thanks you for posting it, thanks you for the chills it gave me, and thanks God for all the overtime HE put in that day. Not only could that family enjoy themselves "like normal people", they were able to pay it forward to someone else. That's a total double-whammy of a zippa-dee-do-dah day. :)

Blogger Effie said...

Such a wonderful story--there is hope.....

As Alyssa put "God is so good!"

Blogger Susie said...

mrtl, thanks, I was really happy for them having the experience, too.

alyssa, All the time :)

jessica-d, You're very welcome.

ern, thanks for the book recommendation, that one does look very interesting.

william, yea, that was kind of cool how that line worked out :)

lawbrat, I'm sorry that became such a bad situation for you. It reminds me of a client I had years ago, single mom of 2 boys, doing all the right things but not able to pay her bills. On my advice, she went to a credit counseling place that all here would recognize the name of. It forced her into bankruptcy, because while some of her creditors worked out deals with her, AmEx demanded immediate payment when she registered with the counseling agency. I didn't know that could happen. It was a very bad move for her to try to get help in that way, and of course, I felt terrible for steering her in that direction. She's OK now, though, small business owner, hero :)

You're welcome, kalki :)

CK, you make me smile. I do love the paying it forward aspect.

effie, yes, there is; and we all need reminders from time to time, I think :)

Blogger Nina said...

Very touching, I love it . . . it made my eyes tear up.
Becoming a single parent when my kids were 5, 3, and 1. Their father moving out of state. Let's just say I have been on both sides of the coin.
When you client's daughter is an adult, she will remember "her day at the fair." But most of all she will remember giving the tickets away. I know my children as adults remember the times we helped others and were able to give more than all the times we only had mac&cheese to eat.

Blogger echrai said...

This actually made me cry. Not sobbing or anything, but I'm here at work, wiping away a little tear at the melancholy loving beauty of that.

I'm in a situation where I stand to come out of my slump eventually - I have prospects. Great Expectations. But my friends don't understand why I refuse to go out with them on a regular basis. They don't understand why when we do potluck dinners, I provide the bread. They can't possibly fathom what it's like to not buy new clothes, no matter how ragged and holey your old clothes get for 3 or more years at a time. These are people who in the same day that they complain about not having enough money, go shopping at the comic book store, the yarn shop, and come home with fast food for dinner. They don't realize that there are some nights I don't eat dinner because there are certain things I need to pay. But I look at my situation as different because while I'm building significant debt, I have the potential to pay it off with relative ease. It's frustrating, but I'm so much better off than some. I can't tell you how much I envy my friends who complain, but don't truly know. I hope they never have to.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a frequent reader and commenter but I am ashamed at how closely we live day to day. I spend less than $300/month on groceries for a family of five, my kids' wardrobes are made up of more handmedowns than new clothes (even from Walmart or Target), and the only vacations we have are paid for by my parents. We had a major car repair that had to be made and when we couldn't make our car payment, it was repossessed. My husband and I both work full-time but we just can't get ahead. No cable, no cell phones, no credit card debt. We just keep thinking that next year things will get better. It is hard to live like this and keep the faith but you have to do what you can to make a better life for your kids, to make sure they don't do without, even if they aren't doing everything their friends are. Our children are happy, healthy and well behaved. They are the legacy I'm passing on to the world. They are the imprint I'm leaving in this community and I'm doing the best I can for them.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very, very touching story. I also had a tear in my eye. The kindness of other's and your client's kindness and thoughtfulness is what her children will remember. Do your best and your children will remember that. However, when you use money to buy beer or go to the bar instead of buying Christmas gifts, they will DEFINITELY remember that.

Blogger OldHorsetailSnake said...

Why didn't you warn me this was going to be a hanky post? Dammit.

Blogger Susie said...

nina, you and I so often think alike! I did reinforce for my client how much her children will remember how their family was able to help another family that day. Absolutely, such a beautiful part of this story.

echrai, thanks for adding your perspective. When you do start making the big bucks, you will be SO ahead of the game, because the skills and discipline that you're learning now will serve you well throughout your financial life. Delayed gratification, baby. A very decent way to live.

anon, you are NOT doing anything shameful, nothing to be ashamed of. This whole issue strikes us all more closely than most of us are comfortable admitting. We are doing OK, well-employed and not being extravagant, but we need to be more disciplined than we are. A couple of instances of bad luck -- high medical bills, sudden car expense, etc. -- and we could be in trouble. You are teaching your children well; life is about loving and being loved, not about the stuff.

anon, I'm sure you are right, on both counts.

hoss, I'll try to remember to announce "hanky time" in the future ;)

Blogger ieatcrayonz said...

Susie, no fair! You need disclaimers for posts like these. Sniff!

I love stories like these. The "Pay It Forward" movie was genius. I always think of it when I'm on the giving or receiving end of a random act of kindness.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to go anon this time around.

What a lovely story, well told as always.

For a two week period (a long time ago) my daughter and I lived in my car.

I was glad to own a car, period.

Through hard work, a little luck, and the grace of God we got by.

A wonderful (low cost) event one can do with their children is a good old-fashioned picnic.

Blogger Susie said...

crayoneater, I love stories like this, too.

anon, a picnic with someone who loves you is a joyful thing; doesn't even matter what's on the menu. I am sorry you had to go through that, and glad you had a car. I wish more people, enough people, could understand that nice, "normal" hardworking people can be faced with this kind of life trauma. You don't have to do anything "wrong" to end up in that situation. If the heating fuel prices go as high as they are predicted to go this winter -- I've heard estimates as high as 75% increase -- there will be a LOT of people who cannot heat their homes, and will be faced with some tough choices.

Anonymous SG said...

How awesome was that? Their are angels among us surely.

Believe it or not, but at the end of your post, your comments are an answer to my prayer. If I do what I need to do, God will make a way.

Blogger SRH said...

This was one of the major issues I had with the re-vamping of the bankrupcy laws that just went through. Typically, people do not go happily and willy-nilly into bankrupcy.

I know that my family is about 3 months away from serious problems if either of us lost our jobs.

Anonymous Daphne said...

It is a wonderful story--I only wish the family hadn't had to go through the pain, especially the let-down feeling of walking in only to realize they wouldn't be able to actually participate.

I would add that it seems even worse than "because we buy, buy, buy" we get into these problems. I am careful with my money but with the cost of living--literally rent and food, not to mention transportation--I do not know how we will ever afford children. Or buying a house. Let alone both.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

**sniff** What a great story.

I'm planning on reading Nickle and Dimed too, like Ern; I'm on the hold list at the library. All that happened in NO has got me seriously thinking about poverty and what I can do about it, and I want to learn more.

Blogger Andrea said...

Gah! That last anon was me, and I have been trying to post to say so, and it's not showing up...

Blogger Von Krankipantzen said...

I have totally noticed that people with the least are often the most generous.

Blogger stephlys said...

I have truly been unable to cry since Katrina. Something broke having to take calls from people who didn't know what condition their homes were in, who couldn't go home but were calling to make sure, with all hope, that they had their $8/hr. job to go back to as soon as possible. Something broke and I've not been able to cry even about my own petty frustrations. This story broke my personal levy though. Thank you.

Blogger abcd said...

A very timely post in light of Katrina, and Rita. Not to mention as you indicated how many American's work very hard and can't make end's meet. Other's succumb to "keeping up with the Jones's. All of it is very sad.

Everyone in life deserves a day at the fair.


Blogger Annejelynn said...

hey gorgeous - you've been tagged! Ern got me - and now you're it (if ya wanna play, of course) :)

Blogger Annejelynn said...

I come from a family (mother's side) that paid for everything in cash - no credit EVER! if they couldn't buy it and pay for it in full, they went without - and savings came first before luxuries. So many people today consider unnecessary things to be "necessities" - our society makes us think life will be easier and better if we buy this and have that - it's sad.

Blogger Southern Fried Girl said...

I have been in that position. However, when I was in the position, I was the child and not the adult. No one can adequately understand how terrifying it is to watch your parent struggle to pay your rent on the apartment in an area that is unsafe to begin with. I lived my childhood much better than a lot of kids. I was loved and taken care of. However, those scary nights of "Are we going to be able to continue living here?" have absolutely formed some of who I am today. That was such a wonderful story and I hope that it helps people to remember people out there that don't have it as good as they do. I know it helped me.

Blogger Nina said...

I have Nickle and Dimed in paper back. I would send it to anyone who wants it, now that I am done with it . . . just email me.

Blogger dashababy said...

Loved your post. Loved the comments. Thank you for sharing that story.

Blogger Susie said...

sg, make my day, why dontcha? You can't imagine what an honor your comment is to me, the idea that something written in my humble little blog could be an answer to prayer. Wow. THANK YOU for saying so. And hold onto that, I'm pretty sure it's true for all of us :)

srh, thanks for stopping in. I suspect that makes you in 3 months' better shape than most Americans. We have been living with heads in the sand for a while, now.

daphne, I know there will be a way for you to get your heart's desires; it IS more difficult for those starting out now, than it was when we married 20-some years ago. More things are considered "essential" now than then. And we have always been slooooooow to get the "essentials." I've only had internet for . . . maybe 2 years? Some things we think we have to have, turns out, we can do OK without them.

andrea, see nina's comment, she'll send it to you!

kranki, very true. More empathy, maybe, or an awareness that we can get by on less than many people imagine, I don't know . . .

stephlys, you're welcome. It is a good thing to be able to do.

shoshie, yes, I've been thinking a lot about such things lately, partly a product of seeing so much poverty, and so much NEW poverty . . . I hope you have a day, or a portion of a day, "at the fair" soon, if you haven't yet. As always, good to see you.

annejelynn, you tagger, you! You know, my parents were like that, too, but somehow they never directly communicated that to me, to my detriment in later years. I had to learn the hard way, but I did learn, eventually.

sfg, as a mom, your comment really gets to me. Once you become responsible for another person, there's always that concern, "I have to keep a home, clothes, etc., for her." To go through what your mom went through, and to have the awareness that she's taking her child through it, that had to be SO tough. It is a tricky line to walk, between not having your child "worry" about money, but letting them know it's important to be careful with it. I can tell that you've used what you've gone through in a creative, productive, functional way. That's all any of us can do with the hard times we go through.

generous nina, thank you, I'll bet someone takes you up on it :)

dashababymama, thank you. These comments were very . . . rich, to me, too :)

Anonymous Sub said...

The guy who did the movie (documentary?) about eating for 30 days at McDonald's did another about his and his wife's working 30 days and living on minimum wage. It's quite an eye-opener. I wish the powers that be could and would take this to heart. Unfortunately it takes mucho dinero to run for office and many come from privilege and have no idea what it means to live from hand to mouth.


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