Letters + Opinion » Savage Money

Hard Times

You're not middle class anymore. Life goes on.



Crash. Freefall. Nosedive. The terms used to describe what's happening to the American economy abuse us daily. One can picture the economy cartwheeling through the air, grasping for a parachute cord, whipped by the wind. But "the economy" is abstract -- what's really dropping are people. Into bed, where sleepless nights of worry await. Into despair as the second PG&E notice appears in the mail. Into emergency rooms, because without health insurance, that's the only medical care a person can seek outside of the already overburdened Open Door clinics.

The slide from having to not may be gradual -- or a person might slip from weekly Co-op purchases to Food for People in under a month. And, yes, some people might grow pot or have an inheritance buffering them from the recession, but for most people, times are only getting tougher.

Food. Shelter. Health. You have to eat, feed your kids. Rent or mortgage payments need to happen. Seeing a doctor or dentist shouldn't be a luxury -- and yet, there we were Saturday night, my husband and I, hanging out in Mad River Community Hospital's ER having delayed buying his asthma medicine due to lack of funds.

What is poor? People say it's all relative, One person's poor is another's wealthy. I've lived most of my adult life under the poverty line for this country. I've felt it. But clearly, someone from Rwanda or Afghanistan would see my life as abundant. And because we live in Humboldt and pride ourselves on being enlightened, we continuously celebrate living somewhere so beautiful. Even when I lived in a shabby house, I could walk and be in the woods within minutes, discovering trilliums in the spring, watching the blackberry leaves flame red in the fall.

Awareness. Gratitude. Love. Money shouldn't define who we are. But there's something so satisfying about having enough money to ease life's mundane struggles. Take cars. Until Green Wheels prevails and non-automotive transportation is a viable option, most of us have to rely on getting from point A to point B via the car. If you can't afford a reliable car, though, you end up spending months, even years, dealing with side-of-the-road breakdowns, push starts, seizing transmissions. People who haven't lived through that are not aware of the toll such a situation takes. If you have a car that is constantly breaking down, you keep finding yourself in situations in which you're helpless and vulnerable, in which you can't meet your obligations because you can't get where you need to go, making you feel even more powerless -- because people don't take you seriously if you can't meet your obligations. They write you off as a flake or unreliable or a loser, when all it is is your car. Not you. You could be the most reliable person in the world, but if you did not arrive in this world in a situation that enabled you to have enough money, then you get classified into this category that people don't respect.

So what's a person to do? The financial advice columnists make managing funds sound easy: Spend less than you earn, build a savings account and invest wisely. But what happens when a recession forces layoffs and pay cuts, and suddenly what you earn fails to meet life's costs? When your emergency funds have run out, but the bills keep piling up? Invest? My dad continues to believe a yearly subscription to Money magazine will enlighten me, as if the problem is lack of knowledge, not lack of funds. Sure, I suppose I should be setting aside money into a retirement fund -- retirement? My plan is simply to work, work, work, then die in a timely fashion. Whose reality is this? As my friend said in a recent conversation about that magazine, "Nobody ever writes in with the question, 'I've got $3.95 in extra income this month and I was wondering what would be the best money market account to invest in. Or should I just buy myself a latte?'"

Being middle class was great while it lasted. I enjoyed having enough money to pay bills, go out to eat, take the occasional trip to San Francisco complete with hotel room. Buying gifts. Donating to causes I care about. I suppose those of us who have been broke for significant amounts of time before the current recession/depression have some advantages. We're used to buying secondhand. We can eat beans and rice for days on end without feeling deprived. We've already learned that being poor financially doesn't mean we're poor intellectually or spiritually. Lately, I've seen more familiar faces at the Grocery Outlet than in Eureka Natural Foods. You can tell the recent switchovers. Once the deer-in-the-headlights look fades, they'll confide, "I love this place! Did you see the deal on hummus?" As economic conditions continue to contract, I expect more people will scope out the deals there, sacrifice the arguably more pleasant, certainly more gentrified air of the Co-op for what I like to call "food thrifting." Buy local first, of course -- but when you can't buy local, get the best deal you can.

Library. 3 Foods Café. Maker's Mark. Has a better time to support your local branch of the Humboldt County Library ever existed? Go there. If you have a few dollars to donate, great. If not, write letters to your political representatives vouching for the library's importance. We've become so inured to shorter hours, shrinking funds; it's easy to forget to fight for our community resources when our own days are full of challenges.

Sometimes being broke means completely going without, but going out to eat once in a while alleviates stress, creates a welcome break in routine and allows for some all-important socialization. Without fun and friends, our lives are empty. I'm so grateful to 3 Foods Café for offering Recession Tuesdays -- $5 pasta, $3 salads, $2 glasses of wine -- all in one of Humboldt's prettiest, tastiest restaurants. Enjoying an inexpensive meal in such a lovely place lifts the spirits, without post-spending guilt.

And the Maker's? Well, assuming you're not an alcoholic -- and please don't let job loss sadness send you down that path -- a glass of fine liquor, straight, lasts a lot longer than a mixed drink, due to the sipping factor. Gather some friends and commiserate about the economy. You'll feel much better.

First in a series.

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