Squandering Severance

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The day after Culture11 went under, Peter and I had a budget meeting where we agreed to slash our expenses fairly radically.  If there's one thing I learned from living through the 2001 recession, it's that I'd rather have missed out on a few vacations or dinners out that I didn't need to give up, then have to give up eating because I didn't cut expenses fast enough.  Our initial plans cut our grocery bill, eating out, and so forth. But we also set drop-dead dates for further cuts if his unemployment span stretched out--when we would cut out the cable he was using to write reviews, when we would sell the car, when we would move to a cheaper place, and so forth.

This was maybe a little extreme, but something like it strikes me as the only logical reaction to a job loss in the middle of a recession.  There's no telling how quickly you'll be able to find a job, so you want to err on the conservative side.  I'm totally mystified by people like this:

After working for more than a decade in New York ad shops, Chuck Hipsher moved to Detroit in 2005. He took a position at the Campbell-Ewald agency, where he helped launch the Chevrolet Silverado campaign. Raised riding in the back of his grandfather's Chevy pickup in Iowa, Mr. Hipsher, 50, says he was "elated" at the opportunity.

He met his wife at the ad agency, and the two had a $40,000 wedding. Kelly Hipsher, 32, was laid off in October 2007 and found out she was pregnant in February 2008. A week later, Mr. Hipsher's pink slip followed. Two months after that, the out-of-work couple moved to Greenville, S.C., to be closer to family and get a fresh start. Together, they had received about $60,000 in severance. "Now we have $600 to our name," says Mr. Hipsher.

Although their rent was cheaper, Mr. Hipsher says the family continued to spend like before. They moved with three cars -- two BMWs and a Chevy Silverado. They continued to buy cases of $36-a-bottle wine. They spent $250 a month on a cleaning lady, and Mr. Hipsher dropped $50 a week on flowers for his wife. The couple still dined out regularly.

"We were stupid," he says. "You become accustomed to a certain lifestyle. When your world changes and things dictate that you change, you're pretty stubborn to give things up."

He sold the BMWs and voluntarily turned in his beloved Silverado to avoid the repo man. "It was heartbreaking," he says. He replaced the fancy wheels with a Chrysler minivan.

Before the layoffs, the Hipshers had no debt. Today, they owe about $70,000 -- including money borrowed from family members and $31,000 in credit-card debt. To hold off the collection companies that call daily, Mr. Hipsher says he is doing his best but is also considering filing for personal bankruptcy.

After a stint selling new and used BMWs on a lot in Greenville, Mr. Hipsher recently began consulting for free for a small marketing firm, "to stay busy."

In September, a Web solutions company hired him as a marketing director. Between salary and commission, he thought he could match half his old income. But so far, he says he's only received about $1,220. Tight for cash recently, he pawned his wife's $12,000 wedding ring for a $2,000 loan. He has until Dec. 28 to pay back the principal, plus $500 in interest -- or else he forfeits the ring.

Looking back, he kicks himself for failing to enforce financial discipline right after losing his job in Detroit. "That precious nest egg is gone," he says.

I get a panic attack just reading it.  What psychological quirk makes you maintain three expensive cars, flowers, and fine wine when you're both out of work?

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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