Thursday, October 28, 2010

Unemployment Diary: Dispatches from the New Middle Class

You can't swing a dead LOL cat in the internets without hitting some article about how to slash your spending.  Case in point via Google:

Search Term:  cut your family budget
Search Term:  cut your family spending
Search Term:  how to cut your spending

I admit I didn't read all those links, but I am ever so grateful for those articles that don't begin with the sage advice to give up your daily double mocha latte skim with low-fat whipped cream, chocolate shavings and a splash of vodka.

I mean, honestly.  When is the last time I could afford one of those?  And as for the Vodka?  Shit, how do you think I'm coping with all this painful budget cutting?

But while so many of those "helpful" tips appear to be written by people who've never experienced the joy and the pain of long-term unemployment, it's true that cutting cutting cutting is where it's at.  When I'm not slashing our spending or trying to raise cash, I'm cutting coupons.

Just call me Lisa Scissorhands.

Some items cannot, however, be cut.  Take auto insurance, for example.  By law we must have it here in Georgia.  So we did what we could - we upped our deductible and cut benefits.  We're losing our discount though because we've had to eliminate our renters' insurance and my life insurance policy.  And can I just tell you how losing that life insurance policy irritates me?  I can't even fall onto my fainting couch anymore and wail, "But I'm worth more dead than alive!"

On top of which, the fainting couch was sold at a yard sale six months ago so I'm truly at a loss for dramatic gestures when the going gets tough.

Anyway, I popped into the insurance office to make our payment on the very day our auto insurance would be cancelled.  It was there that I've had one of the most humiliating and frustrating conversations to date.

Young woman, gainfully employed by our insurance agent:  So you just want to pay your auto insurance?
Me, unemployed but showered and wearing lipstick:  Yes.  That's right.
Her:  But what about your other policies?
Me:  We're going to have to let them expire.  We can't afford them.
Her:  Why not?
Me:  Because I am one of those long-term unemployed people you hear about.  I've been out of work since last December.
Her:  And you still haven't found a job?
Me:  No.
Her:  Why not?
Awkward pause while I think about this.
Me:  I have my theories.  I've applied for all kinds of jobs - about six to ten jobs a week, at a minimum.
Her:  Wow.  And you still haven't found a job?
Me:  No.
She looked at me suspiciously and cleared her throat.
Me:  You don't know of any openings anywhere, do you?
Her:  No.

I left wishing I still had life insurance and that fucking fainting couch.

The other thing that makes this period of financial difficulty more trying is the fact that our kids are still living out there in the world of expectations.  See, I can hide from it most of the time, but they're out there with their peers with the iPhones and the movie tickets and the Facebook statuses about going to Six Flags, the corn maze, haunted house and later out for Chinese and it's only Saturday! and the new clothes purchased not at Goodwill, but a real mall.

My chirping that this is all just a fun character building exercise only goes so far.

I didn't let Sophie try out for cheerleader because it's incredibly expensive.  When she asked to try out for basketball, I relented.  She got cut during the first round.  "It's because I'm short," she harrumphed.

"I'm sorry, sugar.  I'm really proud of you for trying though."

"I hate genetics."

"I should have married a taller man."

She looked at me, her face like thunder.  "Not funny, Mom."

I guess not.

A day later, she asked for money to buy a spirit shirt at school.  "They're only fifteen dollars."  She preemptively answered my question.

"I don't have any money."

"Can you write a check?  The t-shirt people are only going to be at the school today.  There won't be another chance."

I thought about this.  In the span of twenty seconds I visualized our bank account, consulted my mental calendar, fretted about the state of the economy, cursed the company making the shirts because they couldn't come to the school a couple of days later and closer to payday, felt guilty about marrying a short man so that my kid didn't make the basketball team, remembered that I'd already denied her a new band shirt (Nate's old one was fine), didn't buy class pictures, band pictures, or give her money for the book fair.  Finally I calculated the overall risks.

"Fine," I sighed.  "But this shirt better not end up costing me forty-eight dollars when I get hit with an overdraft fee."


"Nothing," I replied and handed her the check with a silent wish that the t-shirt company would be slow about making their bank deposit.

A couple of days later, I was in the laundry room.  Sophie came in carrying her new t-shirt.  "Don't forget you have to turn this inside out to wash it," she reminded me.

I closed the washing machine lid and took the shirt from her outstretched hand.  "I won't forget."

"Okay.  Thanks.  You're sure you'll remember?"  She started for the door.

I opened the dryer and bent down.  "The shirt cost me almost fifty dollars.  I'm pretty sure I'll remember."  My voice was absorbed into the warm towels.

But it's not all bad.

Sophie:  Mom, they're doing a thing with 4H where you fill a shoe box with small gifts to give to a kid for Christmas.  I want to do it.
Me:  Okay.  But you realize that you might be one of those kids who doesn't get any gifts this year?
Sophie:  I know.  So what, I've gotten gifts every other year.  I'm going to go wrap that shoe box.  When can you take me to the Dollar store?
Nate and I drove through the Publix parking lot.  A middle-aged African American man sat on a bench near the Bruster's Ice Cream holding a hand-lettered sign that read "Please Help.  American Vet, homeless, hungry."

Me:  Heartbreaking.
Nate: I know.

We left the grocery store with our purchases.  I'd written a check for $25 over so I could buy some gas.

When we got the intersection by the Bruster's, the man was still on the bench.

Nate: Mom?
Me:  I know.

I stopped the car and fished the cash out of my pocket.  I gave Nate the $5 bill and he climbed out of the car, walked over to the man and handed it to him, then waited while the man wrote something down on a piece of lined notebook paper, handed it to him, shook his hand and thanked him.

Nate walked back to the car and stared out the window at the families sitting at the picnic tables eating their ice cream cones.  "Those people all just watched me like I was doing something wrong," he whispered.

"I know.  I saw."

We drove away and didn't say much for a while.


People, be kind to one another.  Try to remember that whole walking in another's shoes thing.  Okay?


  1. This article is giving me a big lump in my throat & tears in my eyes, Lisa. Often, the closer to the ground we get, the more compassionate we become. And you have a sweet, sensitive boy. Wonderful.

    "Me, unemployed but showered and wearing lipstick:" is one of the best descriptions, ever. I can soooo relate...

  2. Your post tears my heart apart. Your courage to share your story, your reality, and your sense of humor applied to balance the woe, touches me deeply.

    I love you, Lisa. xo

  3. That last part was beautiful - you must be so proud of your boy.

  4. It is such a true observation that those article are clearly written by someone who has no understanding of what families with money problems really go through.

    I think America would be a much better place if everyone, at one time in their life had to endure things like coming home to find the power or water had been shut off, or living for weeks at a time on dried beans, ramen and oatmeal.

    The story about the shirt really touched me. After my divorce, I went through some very difficult financial years - there were many things the boys didn't get to do because the money simply wasn't there. Last week I was helping Dylan look for pictures of himself that he needs for a digital graphics project, and we found a picture from a school trip he went on to NASA with the young astronauts program in the fifth grade. He is the only child in the photo not wearing a NASA shirt and lugging a bag full of souvenirs from the gift shop. It took me three months of panic and scrimping to even pay for the trip. The memory of that just broke my heart.

    I wish I had some platitude that would bring you comfort, but sadly I don't.

    Take comfort in the fact that you are loved, both at home and on the inter-tubes.


  5. Ya know, none of this makes sense despite the reality of it. How a wealthy country can go broke is beyond sane reasoning.

    Goofballs accept the Tea Party dumbness, Repugs want to let the wealthy have their way and the Dems can't quite figure out how to manage a diverse population.

    I guess I answered my question.

    Give to your children all the skills you can muster, they will indeed need them for their own survival (which you are already doing).

  6. Your children are lovely, and that last line from your son really struck me. I once saw a homeless woman with a young child on the corner outside a church that was just letting out. The church-goers walked right past them. I could never figure out how. I mean, who were they passing the tray for, if not for this mother and child?

    I seem to remember something about a manger...

  7. Thank you so much for writing this, Lisa! I really think we are becoming two separate societies of the "haves" and the "have-nots," with the "haves" more often than not completely unaware that "there but for the grace of god ..."

    With my car all but dead, I can't tell you how many people have *helpfully* informed me of "a lot of great deals on cars at 0% right now." As if (A) my credit was not a big black hole, and (B) I had two pennies to put down as a down payment.

    But my all-time fave article was one on Yahoo about a woman who got out of $500,000 worth of debt in 1 year. Her secret? Pay 3 times the minimum payment on her credit cards!

    Oh! If only I'd thought of that!

  8. I really hope your situation eases up soon Lisa.

  9. Oh, Lisa. This makes me ache for all of you. Your family is lovely, and you're a wonderful mom, raising amazing kids.

  10. Those that do the "How to Save Money Tips" haven't a clue what life in the real world is like. The ones that really get me are "Brown Bag your lunch a few times a week and save." What about those that carry their lunch everyday?? How will that tip help them?? Or the "Cut out the Double Expresso Triple Lowfat Latte and save". You can't save anything if you don't buy the expensive drinks in the first place. All of those seem to be aimed at those that work in offices and don't know how to cook or prepare any meal or drink themselves. Also don't know how to wash clothes and have everything dry cleaned.

    On a different cost cutting story, I heard a polician say recently, "We've already cut everything to the bone because of tax cuts, now we will have to start to amputate"!!!

  11. hope you find a job soon.

    Sitting here trying not to cry.

    Nate is such a caring boy. You can be s proud of all three.

    No matter how much we cut stuff and go with out eventually we cannot cut anymore.

  12. i so get this post, and the comments. we have had our trying times as well. it always seems, however, that they work out. they will for you as well. take special care. i am so proud of your son. what a man he will be.

  13. This is why I get so mad at stories that tell me how much the race for a seat in the House is running for one district here in MN. $16 MILLION! Can you imagine what we could do with all that money donated to idiots who supposedly work for US! for a $174k a year job?

  14. Okay pal, you got some tears from me, for a lot of reasons. First - my kids grew up in a neighbourhood that was blue collar on one side of the park and school, doctors and lawyers on the other side. I was single, going to university and working part time retail jobs. Following that it was an unending struggle to catch up.

    My kids never, ever seemed to covet what some of their friends had; they were always grateful for their much smaller Christmases in terms of booty, and larger Christmases in terms of love.

    Today those same girls will give to the homeless, and decided a few years ago that they would rather we exchange one small Christmas gift and take a collection to provide for needier people at Christmas, because it's really not about THINGS is it?

    I'm also teary because of your plea for compassion - as you know it's an "issue" of mine. Church-goers walking by homeless people, disapproving looks on giving handouts... what have we come to?

    I believe in "karma" here on earth. Just look at the children you've raised and the family you are. You will be okay, I know it.

  15. Beautiful.

    What did the man write on the paper?
    The Middle Ages

  16. Thank you all for your wonderful comments. I'm really happy with the way our kids are taking this situation mostly in stride and how they are still willing to share what they have.

    I'm sorry I don't have more time to respond to comments. Have you ever filled out online job applications for federal jobs? Time consuming! Just know I'm really grateful that you're here and I appreciate your compassion and comments.

  17. No words except the following - I would have reported the clerk at the insurance office to her supervisor. Or, I would have grabbed her head by the hair and slammed her face in to the counter three times, really hard, then called her supervisor.

  18. I'm sorry this is happening to you and your family, some of the people in my family, the homeless vet, and countless others. Our country can be better than this!

    That insurance lady probably didn't realise how rude she was to you.

  19. Well I've now been sitting here for 10 minutes trying to figure out something to say.

    I mean I have been THINKING for 10 minutes. (P.S. stop doing that to me :) )

    You have an amazing family. I know you take a lot of strength from them as do I reading your posts.

    Thought about you while I was in Texas last week when I drove past a Dairy Queen!

    Love Ya

    Kitten Toes

  20. The insurance lady doesn't realize how much better off you are than she is. I'd rather have a heart than a job. Tell your kids that they're awesome.

  21. This is just wrenching. Best wishes for better tomorrows.

  22. I am grateful to live in a country that does not have a homeless problem. There also is not as much consumerism. I hope that you find work soon, my dear!

  23. You have great kids. And that wasn't an accident.

  24. By law, we're supposed to have auto insurance here in 'Bama, but a heck of a lot don't

  25. Two things:

    Corn mazes are overrated.

    Everything will be fixed next Tuesday, trust me.

  26. I want to say something that will make a difference. I can't. But please know that I want to.
    You are such a beautiful person and writer and I just know that someday soon the scales will tip and you will be rewarded for your amazing talent. I know it.

  27. There are so many of us in the same boat in this economy and I know the feeling when others make you feel that if you were REALLY looking for a job you'd fine one. They don't understand the dynamics of unemployment...but those of us in the trenches know it all too well. I try to remember it's not that I have no worth that no one has hired me's just that there are so many with more qualifications going for the same jobs...many applicants...few positions...that's the equation in these times. I LOVED your post and I pray you find a great job soon. Not much separates me from the man on the bench and thank the good Lord there are compassionate people still left in the world. Bless you and your family! :)

  28. No words. But I, too, would like to know what was written on the piece of paper.

  29. I love your family. I wish we were neighbors.

    Is Sophia participating in Operation Christmas Child? If so, that is an EXCELLENT organization.

    As for Nate, please tell him that those watching may have looked as though they were snubbing his choice. In truth, it was guilt that they weren't doing the same thing.

    Hugs and love to you and yours.

  30. I know I don't comment all that often, but damn, woman. You've got to stop making me weep.

    I went unemployed with sparse odd jobs for 18 months back in 2003 - amidst the Bush Tax Cut Boon. It was awful. 10 resumes out a week - at least. And nothing.

    I wish you all the best and will keep you in my thoughts.

  31. These things of yours have GOT to reach a wider audience. We need so much more of this kind of thinking.

    And those kids of yours seem to be doing the "character building" thing with wings on.

  32. Okay, Lisa Scissorhands is like a super-hero. And you totally brought tears to my eyes with this post. Please send the vodka over here!

  33. sad commentary and one I see re-enacted to many times a week..excellent piece that was so powerful we need more of this kind of writing..

  34. Heartbreaking but ever so well written, Lisa. Your kids - they are good eggs.

    I grew up lower middle class, but really, we were poor. It was hand-me-downs and all that, but I grew up in the sticks. Most everyone else was in the same boat. My dad was laid off for a year and a half in the late 80s, my mom worked two jobs to pay the bills and my sister was a freshman in college. I have absolutely no idea how my parents did it. Probably the same way you're doing it now. Thank you for being so open.


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