02 November 2008

The upside of a recession: a lesson from experience

I used to make a good living. I was an editor and a manager with a stable job and a mid-range salary. Probably could have finished out my career without much challenge. Sure, I was bored. Probably would have left that job for something a bit more challenging eventually. My great plans got sidetracked when my life fell apart. My husband went rogue, became erratic, and--dare I say--dangerous. Enter the lawyer. Got a divorce. Lost my house. Tried to hang onto my life, but harassment by the ex led me to the inescapable conclusion that the only thing to do was disappear.

So disappear I did.

Quit my job. Moved. Moved again. Moved yet again. I'm no gypsy, but I realized it was going to be more difficult to track me down if I kept on the go. Maybe it was overkill. At the time, I didn't think so. Went back to school. In three short months, I went from stable life, stable job, decent mid-class income in a city that I loved to no life, no job, and no income living in a place that I consider to be slightly better than a pig farm. I haven't really seen much improvement in any facet of my life in the past eight years. Granted, I have chosen to pursue this degree thing and so what has happened to me in the past decade is my own doing.

The point is, my life took on a very different economic reality when I went from earning an income, putting away money in a retirement fund (which is virtually non-existent given the events of the last year) with full health benefits, to scared to freakin' death that something terrible might pop up in my health before I finish, scared to death that my car is going to give out, scared to death about the repayment of these student loans. I can work myself into a real panic if I think about it too seriously.

There is an upside. I have learned that more than 50% of my spending in those days was unnecessary. I have learned to do without things I don't need. Oh, I do have my splurges, but they don't come daily. They come monthly. I don't need matching table linens and curtains, knick-knacks, collectibles, dinners out...the list goes on and on. I will never waste money the way I did back then. In reality, I won't ever be able to even if I wanted to. My life is cash-strapped to the end. And yet, I still choose to pursue this schooling. I must be insane. Or I'm just too afraid to allow those student loans kick in.

My point is this. America may actually find itself in my shoes. Americans may find themselves without that disposable income for long enough, spending patterns will change. Attitudes about spending will change. The average Joe will see the need for a healthy savings account. This cavalier attitude about carrying such great debt with an unfailing belief in our ability to meet the minimum payments will not be something that just I sweat, but that most American's sweat.

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