Or am I?
I've thought for a long time about this blog post. What I would say. What I would feel comfortable divulging about my life. What I would feel comfortable divulging (in a roundabout way) about the lives of some of those related to me. Whether or not I should even write it to begin with.
Why am I so hung up about it? It's about money. It's not pretty. It's not a nice quilt. It's not a pattern for a baby hat. It's not a delicious new recipe to try. It's not about anything comfortable and cozy and fun. It's about the hard reality of not quite having enough. It's not something we always discuss with our friends, or even our family. I know I don't feel comfortable letting on that maybe I can't quite afford something, unless it's to someone that I know (or suspect) might be in a similar situation. Or someone who has been there in the past. Someone who will understand and not look on me with a (however well-intentioned) pitying eye when I say that no, I can't afford to meet you for coffee. If you're not one of those people, I'll come up with another excuse – the baby is sick, I have to work…something.
There are so many people struggling right now and I don't for a moment think that I am any different than any one of them. This is just my story. And I almost feel bad for sharing it because I know there are tons of people doing so much worse than we are. And yet, I want to. Because when you see me walk down the street, you don't notice me. I look like everyone else. I look normal. I look like someone who has a relatively comfortable life. (And trust me, I do realize that in the grand scheme of things, I do.) It makes me wonder how many of the people that I think are doing so much better than us are, in reality, not.
This is my life.
I had a comfortable childhood. We were poor, but I didn't know it. I always thought we were middle-class, though when I mentioned that to my mother, she laughed. We had food, even if on a few occasions it came from the government in white-labeled cans with black line drawings of green beans on them. We always had a roof over our heads. It was usually warm. I had toys to play with and books to read. I, like most children, wanted more than I had, but who doesn't? My parents were divorced and my mother worked more than full time to support us. (My father was better off than we were and was always there for us. I don't want this to sound like he wasn't around – he was. I just didn't live with him.) I had homemade dolls before that kind of thing was trendy and was somewhat embarassed by it. (This is something I sincerely hope never happens to my little girl! She has plenty of homemade toys, I just hope she is proud of them!)
I lived in a crappy part of town and went to a not-so-great elementary school. Middle school was a step up and our town only had one high school, so there you go. I was smart and I was lucky enough to get a half scholarship to the college of my choice. I took out the maximum amount of loans I could get and I worked a lot. My parents covered whatever was leftover. Looking back, my mother covered more of my expenses than I probably should have allowed, but I couldn't see any other way. I worked all through college, often close to full time, and during summer breaks I usually worked two jobs – one during the day and another in the evening. I had little free time, but I was young and resilient and energetic. It didn't matter.
Then my senior year, my mother had to declare bankruptcy. This, for me the student, meant that I was now considered an "independent" student, as far as finances are concerned, and allowed me to take out even more student loans. This was good and bad – bad because, well, more loans, but good because it allowed me to finish school. I literally would not have been able to without those additional loans.
So I graduated with a degree in art. (Practical, I know.) Got married. (It was a very DIY affair.) Moved to Oregon in 2001 at a time when the economy was terrible and at its worst in Oregon. My husband was in grad school and I desperately searched for a job. I remember applying for a position as a barista at a drive-through coffee shop and in the interview the hiring manager told me they had received literally hundreds of applications in the few short hours the position had been posted on Craigslist. I didn't get the job. I looked into unemployment, but since all my recent work had been while I was a student, I didn't qualify. Jobs in graphic design were scarce and very low paying. We're talking about $7-8/hour. No lie. I finally found a part time job as a bank teller. It was horrible. I hung in there for about a year and then quit because I couldn't stomach having to sell people credit cards who were worse off financially than I was. It was unethical and I just couldn't do it.
I continued to look for work while we racked up credit card debt just to buy groceries. I finally decided that I would go to grad school and enrolled in some preparatory classes. I also started volunteering at the university library, which thankfully led to a (low) paying position, at least briefly. Husband graduated and we moved to Texas so I could go to school.
There, I racked up more student loan debt, taking out loans to live on. We managed to pay off a good chunk of our credit card debt, but not nearly enough. Then in 2004, I got divorced and was out on my own. Scary, but it had been my choice. I had my student loans and my credit cards to live on. I had to live with a roommate "under the radar" because I couldn't get an apartment of my own. It only took me a month or two to find two jobs that I could work around my school schedule and for several years I did just that – worked two jobs, increasing my hours whenever possible, and went to school full time. Finally, in the summer of 2007, I graduated with my masters degree and was fully trained (heh) to be a librarian of some sort. Unfortunately, one of my jobs was dependent on my student status, so I was down to one job. Not to mention, M (boyfriend at the time…now husband), whom I was living with, contracted meningitis that summer and while he is now fine, could not work for a time. So me and my one part time job were stuck with all the bills. Plus, now we had thousands in medical expenses for M's hospital stay since his job didn't offer health insurance. Luckily, most of the hospital bills were taken care of by the charitable arm of the hospital because were were so broke. The rest took years to pay off.
I did eventually get another part time job to add to the one I already had, which lead to an actual full time job-with-benefits! A first! I had health insurance! A retirement plan! A decent paycheck! It was awesome! M was working a decent job then too, so we were living a perfectly average lifestyle. I could buy a pair of shoes if I wanted. We bought each other birthday gifts. Went out to dinner occasionally. Paid off credit cards. Bliss.
It lasted about a year.
Then my job came to an end. It was a grant-funded position and we did not get our funding renewed. Several of us lost our jobs, not just me. Then M's job came to an end. Almost immediately before these two events, we found out we were expecting! Oh, the timing… So there we were, unemployed with no real prospects and me with a belly full of tiny baby. Using a newly paid-off credit card, we rented a UHaul and hightailed it out of there.
To be continued…