Another anonymous reader uses the Notes space to tell her story of financial struggle—and perseverance:
I was born with a very rare genetic disorder. I received a brand-new lifesaving treatment just in time, long before it was FDA approved. When it finally got approved, when I was around four years old, it had a sticker price of $300,000 per year. And I would have to take it my entire life.
So my parents did a very prudent thing: My mother went back to school and got a quick teaching degree so she could qualify for the kind of generous health insurance you used to only get with a government job. Because of that decision, my family managed quite well. However, I knew from a very early age that financial security had to be a top priority for me.
My parents trained me from very early on that I would need top-of-the-line health insurance, plus extra cash for high co-pays. That meant I would need a certain kind of job and that I could not hope to make a career out of writing or music or acting—the things I really loved.
The obsession with financial security has marked so many of my decisions. I chose a less prestigious college that offered me a scholarship. I graduated in three years, taking extra classes and putting my high school AP classes to use, just to relieve the cost to my parents, who were paying what the scholarship did not. Instead of majoring in creative writing (my passion), I got an English degree with an eye toward law school.
And then, at age 21, I won $65,000 on Jeopardy (really). But ever wary of the astronomical health costs I would bear for my entire life, I did not blow it. Instead, I used a lot of it to go to a state law school in my hometown. During law school I lived with my parents and took the free city bus to school.
I graduated from law school debt free and remained in my low-cost-of-living hometown. Still, after I began earning a good salary, I saved and saved and saved—not because I worry a big expense might come down the road, but because I know the big expenses are coming.
I max out my $6,500 out-of-pocket limit every year. I max it out on the first prescription. The drug company reimburses me for a portion of that, but I have to float $6,500 every year. As a result, I never blow what I earn.
I just turned 29 and bought a very modest house. I’m still in my low-cost-of-living hometown. I had to dial down some higher aspirations because I know they could be financially disastrous and impact my health.
Yes, I work a boring job, but it is secure and pays well enough that I can build up a very large security fund in case the worst happens. But I still do the things I love; I write, I act, I play music. As much as I would love to be a starving artist or live a bohemian lifestyle, I know I could never do it financially. I’ll continue to be conservative with money my entire life.
Reader Lisa elaborates on that quote in bracing detail following her story of financial struggle and triumph:
My wake-up moment? When my husband passed away unexpectedly. I was 41 with an 11-year-old to raise and no family within 450 miles. He had left no life insurance and no will. I was employed, Thank G-D.
Through my employer, I carried the biggest life insurance policy on him that I could get: $4K. I had to borrow another $5K from my family for his headstone and funeral. We had a little equity in the house ($30K?), but that was our only asset besides a cheap paid-for Subaru.
Dying intestate [“the condition of the estate of a person who dies owning property whose value is greater than the sum of their enforceable debts and funeral expenses without having made a valid will or other binding declaration”] in Louisiana with Napoleonic Code in force meant that half of all of our assets belonged to the bloodline: the two adult stepchildren and our 11-year-old-child—not to me, the wife. The good news, I guess, was that we didn’t have any assets anyway.
But then I learned even more about what not understanding probate laws can do—I tried to refinance my home to a lower not but couldn’t do that in Louisiana without getting a “tutor” appointed by the courts to intercede in the decision for the 11-year-old (that cost $2K in legal fees). Louisiana law assumes that the surviving parent doesn’t have the best interests of the child at heart, so you have to assign a tutor. There’s more, but I won’t belabor it!
I was lucky enough to take the opportunity to begin educating myself and had amazing support from my community. I read personal finance books and blogs, primarily—amazing people who share their knowledge online (earlyretirement.org is one of the best examples). I took legal classes to understand the law re: probate and property in my state. I worked part-time for Jackson Hewitt for a season so I could understand tax laws better (because that was the biggest expense each month!)
Social security for my child helped; I saved almost all of it for after-school help, braces and college. My employer—a public television station—was gracious enough to let me get off during the day to take my child to the doctor, or pick her up from school. The other staff members at the station helped me do things at the house, like fix the ceiling fan or the dishwasher. Gifts from my amazing father-in-law were saved for her college.
Getting financially educated and not worrying about keeping up with the Joneses,(e.g., driving a cheap car, selling the house once my child turned 18, downsizing to 1500 square feet of living—then to 700 square feet of living space) … well, it worked. Sixteen years later I now have a net worth in cash of $400K and two pensions from employers I can tap for about $20K a month someday soon.
I’m still employed at 58 and grateful for every paycheck that comes. My daughter received enough merit scholarships to go to a private college for four years. She still had to borrow money, but not as much as her peers. (I begged her to go to a public college, but she went against my wiser wishes … 18-year-olds can make those mistakes and the parent can’t stop them). I’m still making payments on one of her loans, but she has the rest.
What’s the lesson I learned, that I noticed the author of the wonderful story still hasn’t figured out? What you “do” for a living doesn’t define you. He assumed that because he is a talented writer that he had to choose that for a career. He assumes because his wife can be a film editor, that she can’t do something else.
I know lots and lots of talented people who still work regular day jobs for the benefits. Then they practice their art/craft/etc on weekends, at night, you name it.
There seems to be a terrible price exacted by the ego thrill of chasing the artistic career in this country. I saw it while working in public television for awhile and with visual artists hoping to make a living with documentary filmmaking. I tried to help them raise money for their projects, with some success, but seldom for a lifetime.
The artists who “made” it? They viewed their art as a business, in true Shakespearean fashion—if it didn’t please the masses, who would drop in a pence or two for admission?—then they stopped doing it. The idea of following your “passion” and the money will come? How foolish and tragic an idea for those who are not independently wealthy. Joseph Campbell [of “follow your bliss” fame] didn’t intend for this to happen, I’m sure, but the consequences in attitude in our country have fed a lot of debt and liberal arts college graduate despair.
Thank you to the author for his honesty and contribution, and to The Atlantic for publishing this piece. I have my own small effort to help women understand that they can live frugally and well and be happy! (moneyinreallife.com) We started a book club and I bring a finance book every month (this month is Singletary’s 7 Money Mantras—“If It’s On Your Ass, It’s Not an Asset.” The Millionaire Next Door is another attitude-changer we study). But what I am doing will never match the impact of your story and your publication. So I have shared it as widely as possible with my social network.
That’s how this reader describes her husband and how trapped she feels because of his financial recklessness:
I concur with so much in Neal Gabler’s article. I often say, “We are one veterinarian visit away from disaster.” In truth, we are closer than that: Our elderly dogs need medical attention that we cannot provide.
My husband hid our financial instability from me. I had no idea that he did not pay our mortgage for 11 months. He explained away the cars coming by taking pictures of the house by saying, “We’re a couple of months behind and the bank is trying to scare us.” I had no idea we were being evicted until a marshal came to the door and served me with papers.
I also have no idea where the extra $1200.00/month that should have gone to the mortgage went. Meanwhile, our roof leaked so bad that when it rained I had to run around moving all the furniture; the rats gnawing in the walls kept my daughter and I up every night; I served potatoes for dinner 10 out of 12 nights because we had no other food; there was a hole opening up in the boys’ wooden bedroom floor that I covered with duct tape to keep bugs out.
My husband drank heavily and kept to himself, hiding the missteps he had made financially. I had no idea that he owed every check-cashing place in town. I just knew that when the electricity guy showed up to turn us off, or the water company came to shut off the water, my husband managed to “save the day” every time and come up with money. He had signed up for every disreputable credit card that he could find on the internet and never paid a dime on them.
We have been renting a trailer with our three, now teenaged children, for almost five years. I have had issues finding work, since not too many employers want to hire a 55-year-old woman (you can count on one hand the interviews I’ve actually been called for over the past five years.) The last young interviewer actually asked me if I was healthy enough to do the job (cashiering.)
My husband’s love affair with check-cashing places, disreputable internet loans, and credit cards has continued since we’ve been here. He’s an adult and I can’t stop him. I’m so angry that we no longer share a room, or even words. My daughter and I share the master bedroom. I’d leave him if I had the means.
I do not cultivate friendships because I am so ashamed of our lives and how stuck I am. Two of our kids suffer clinical depression; one is on medication. Aren’t I supposed to be able to help my children? Aren’t I supposed to be a strong enough woman to get away from a dead marriage?
My bank account balance right this minute is .10, and my savings that I valiantly keep trying to “get going” is $4.39. One step away from disaster.
That’s the core sentiment of this reader’s note. Patricia adds, “I didn’t fully realize that widows were a target [for greedy men], since people think you struck it rich.” But let’s start from the beginning:
I don’t know if you are still accepting people’s down-and-out financial stories, but here goes. Mine begins in 2001, when my husband died in a car accident on the Garden State Parkway, coming home from work. The police came to tell me, and from there it was my job to break the news to my daughters and his parents.
It took a while to take care of the finances. Thank God he had life insurance; he left me $200,000. Everyone would think that’s a fortune, but it was only two years of his income, and I stretched that money for 14 years.
He had opened four credit card accounts in my name I didn’t know about, and he owed around $20,000, so my first step was to pay that back. He died without a will, the house was in his name, so I had to hire a lawyer and go to court to fight for financial control of the house, since legally it would be inherited by the children. That cost around $10,000.
I’m not even mentioning the expense of the funeral and burial, so as you can see, the “fortune” I inherited was eaten away. The complete mess of his finances and legalities kept me from being able to move on. And if you are getting the uneasy feeling that my husband was up to some shady stuff, you would be correct, but I digress.
It took me three years to feel like I was human. I won’t even go into the Prozac that people told me to take because you better get over it quick; nobody’s got time for people who are bereaved, especially as young as I was.
While all this was going on, I went back to my substitute teaching career. It was 9/11, my first day back, subbing for a teacher who lost her father in one of the towers. I had been teaching in that school district for years, mainly special ed. I scrambled to take the Praxis [a teacher certification exam] and secure a teaching position. I aced the test and was interviewed by the school I was already working for. But they went with a young, fresh new face, and I ended up subbing for her when she went on her honeymoon and maternity leave.
I started substitute teaching for other school districts and went on more interviews only to be passed over for wives, husbands, sons or daughters of other teachers or administrators. I finally gave up after I was told by another teacher that I would never get a job because I was too old, even though I had excellent references and everyone said I was a gifted teacher.
I had no choice but to try and got a full-time position with benefits, so my kids could get health insurance. I got a job in graphic design for $9.00 an hour. In the eight years I worked at that job, I got three raises, and by the time I left, I was earning $9.60 an hour.
After that I got a job working minimum wage in a dementia unit. It was within walking distance from my house, so I promptly gave my 2006 Honda Civic to my oldest daughter (it was paid off, but I couldn’t afford to repair it). I never owned a credit card after the death of my husband.
I live in New Jersey, with some of the highest property taxes in the country, so this impoverished me even further. When I got the house refinanced, the agent offered me a home equity loan of $100,00, which I flat out refused knowing I could never pay it back. I sold the house ( at a bargain price because the economic crises forced me too; I guess I lost over $100,000) and bought a condo for cash in a dodgy neighborhood, so now I don’t have a mortgage.
I could not give my kids a college education. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, since the jobs are gone.
The one thing that saved me throughout those dark days was Social Security. Unfortunately Reagan needed to fund his Star Wars program, and he did it by taking away Social Security for widows once your child is 16. Then the child loses it when she is 18; it used to be that children would continue receiving it until they got out of college.
I gave up dating years ago. Basically every horny man within a 20-mile radius was after me when my husband died, including the local cop, who waited six weeks to ask me out when I was walking my daughter home from school. I didn’t fully realize that widows were a target, since people think you struck it rich.
Now no man wants to date me, since I am making minimum wage, don’t have a car, and live in a bad neighborhood. But I am more than okay with it. I am a practicing artist and I paint and draw, and in the evenings I go out for a run. I basically buy a minimal amount of groceries and walk everywhere. I got rid of cable long ago. There wasn’t a chance in hell I was going to be anything but poverty stricken, since this is the norm for widows.
One great thing about being middle aged is that you are essentially invisible; people, especially men, don’t notice you anymore. It’s like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility, which I use to my advantage. Widowed people are invisible in this society anyway. And we can’t really afford to go out.
I am one of the lucky ones, since I stayed out of debt before the financial meltdown. None of my friends did; they are either upside down on their mortgages or trying to get refinanced and all of them got home equity loans, most of them are in very bad marriages, but they can't leave because of finances. Which just makes me glad I am single.
America is a place I would like to leave; it is a cruel country that doesn’t give a damn about the most vulnerable in our society. But unfortunately I am stuck here—another economic consequence of being poor. We bail out banks and then the banks squeeze us dry. It is not our fault. It certainly isn’t mine, that my husband died.
I am just lucky I am creative. I have turned my back on iPhones and shopping of any kind, online dating, or leasing a new car. I am not rich but I am happy and productive and I am able to live a life on my own terms.
I principally want to say thanks for your reader stories on financial insecurity. It reminds me of just how plain lucky I am. It is too easy to feel holier-than-thou, but many decisions I’ve made were done with no more or less foresight than your contributors. Neal Gabler's article was excellent. I cringed at the cost of upholding some of his values, but was appreciative of his candor; and saddened (though not surprised) at the awful comments.
Several worrisome recurring themes are present in your readers’ stories. I just cannot believe that secondary educational costs and the consequent debt are sustainable. And somehow finding means to support independent journalism seems imperative to me. Lastly the whims, the slings and arrows, of corporate careers seem only to worsen, with more and more victims falling by the wayside.
These stories almost provide me an understanding of the success of Mr. Trump’s presidential run.
Our next reader, Ben, hasn’t completed college yet and is struggling to find a job. This line is pretty gut-punching: “I had hoped to find my way to something resembling a career before my kids were old enough to notice that their father was a failure, but it’s looking more and more like I won’t meet that deadline.” Ben’s full story:
I grew up working in a family business. When my dad retired, he split the business up among his kids. I was a little too young and a little too ignorant to keep it going for long, and after four or five years it fizzled out. After that I spent a couple years doing freelance writing/other stuff, but most of that work dried up eventually as well.
I settled into a stable but dead-end retail clerk job for three years, but I’m topped out at barely-surviving levels of income in my job and have started looking for other work. This is my first real job search, and I’ve discovered something terrible: I’m completely unemployable, at least at anything that pays enough that we could technically survive on it. I’ve sent out a little over 80 applications in the last month or so, and only managed to get around five interviews, none of which led anywhere.
As bad as the realization that I’m soon to be without work is, it’s not the worst part for me emotionally. Worse is the demoralizing process that job searches have become. Recruiters for large companies will call you in for “sure thing” interviews that turn out to be jobs you can’t get. I’ve learned that many of them need to meet a certain threshold on interviews to secure bonuses and will get you in by any means possible.
Interviewers ask questions that reward liars and punish the truthful, but it doesn’t matter; your answers aren’t important if the next guy has a degree. Ditto work experience.
The worst are online assessments, by far. I have dozens of hours clocked taking complex logic and multitasking tests. I’ve aced them left and right, but the purpose of them isn’t to make sure a person without a degree is smart; it’s to make sure the degree-holder that HR demanded isn’t stupid.
And these aren’t great jobs, either: $25-30k a year with no or shitty benefits, in a lot of cases. The bachelor’s degree they want isn’t related to the work; it’s just something they can expect to get so it’s something they ask for. It’s the new high school diploma.
I’m looking into completing my bachelor’s, but that’s terrifying in a different way: How do you afford college if the best job you can get is Lyft? If I sink myself into $40-60k worth of debt to get a $30k-a-year-job, will I ever be able to dig out?
Update from a reader, Amanda, who points to some potential help:
Ben’s story immediately made me think of Mike Rowe’s foundation, as he seems to be exactly the kind of person Rowe is trying to target with his foundation's “Profoundly Disconnected” campaign. They’re currently taking applications for a scholarship program for the purpose of, in Rowe’s words, getting people the training they need for jobs that actually exist. I myself went the college route, but I appreciate Rowe’s efforts because, as Ben’s story illustrates, going to college to get a job doesn’t always make sense.
All recipients of the scholarship money have to sign the “S.W.E.A.T. Pledge” (Skill & Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo). From the list of 12 points:
1. I believe that I have won the greatest lottery of all time. I am alive. I walk the Earth. I live in America. Above all things, I am grateful.
2. I believe that I am entitledto life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Nothing more. I also understand that “happiness” and the “pursuit of happiness” are not the same thing.
3. I believe there is no such thing as a “bad job.” I believe that all jobs are opportunities, and it’s up to me to make the best of them.
4. I do not “follow my passion.” I bring it with me. I believe that any job can be done with passion and enthusiasm.
5. I deplore debt, and do all I can to avoid it. I would rather live in a tent and eat beans than borrow money to pay for a lifestyle I can’t afford.
That’s what these two readers went through. The first:
Neal Gabler’s article needs to be shared and sent from one end of the country to the other. The worse thing that happened to me in recent years was outsourcing. My entire industry up and died over the course of one year; all the work went to Canada. I was decimated. I had no savings, my wife wasn’t making anything, and there were no jobs—none that I could find.
I went into a downward spiral of fear, panic, extreme sadness, and a feeling of absolute destitution. I couldn’t sleep much. I cried all the time, trying to hide it from my wife and daughter as much as I could. They still knew.
Though I hadn’t even been inside of a church in 30 years, I wound up going one day, sobbing to the reverend after service. I was lost, and I knew it.
Emotionally, spiritually—we define ourselves by our jobs, and now I had none. I pounded the pavement, making calls and calls. Eventually I got lucky and caught a break—a small firm that led to better work, and then better.
But the damage took years for me to overcome mentally. Four years later and I just got over the fear of looking at my bank account. And I still have no savings for my family. My wife makes better money now, but we’re not that young anymore. I live in constant worry for our future, knowing we aren’t prepared, and having to use most of the money we make now just to stay just a little ahead of the bills.
The other reader whose religious faith was deepened:
I have just gotten through your cover story and certainly agree that the middle class, poor, and some of the upper classes are in a financial mess. I watched as my income stagnated over the years. My own downfall came when I lost my job of over 26 years, obliterated my 401K, and bought a franchise business in 2006, which never made a dime (all my customers were losing their jobs and homes). I went bankrupt in 2009 and had a brain hemorrhage in 2012, which almost took my life, disabling me. I will always believe that this happened as a result of stress and worry over finances.
At that point, I had barely two extra dollars to rub together. I distinctly remember lying down on the floor in my bedroom and literally surrendering to God.
One of my blessings is not having had a credit card since 2008 … and no credit card bills. My hospital bills were forgiven. By God’s grace, I was able to keep and refinance my house and through social security and a small pension (remember those?). I am making it.
But I am careful with what I have. My faith has got me through this life and I refuse to worry, and I nip it in the bud if I start to slip. What did worry ever bring me that is good? I could come up with $400 in an emergency, or even a couple thousand through some hard saving. I am not always frugal; I can’t live that way. Still, what is a vacation?
Yet, I am grateful and hopeful and I will always need grace. Speaking of which, pray for me: my car is 16 years old ...
Not all of the reader entries for our “true money stories” are ones of financial woe; fiscal conservative Lori Miller offered various tips with the kicker “with enough money saved, you can tell them all to piss off”; another reader described how her sex work was both lucrative and empowering; and a “Financial Independence Obsessive” detailed her track record at length. The opening anecdote from this next reader, Chris, is a great illustration of how his parents instilled fiscal responsibility at a young age—and, as you’ll see, he carried those values into adulthood:
I’ll never forget my first lesson in personal finance. When I was 12 years old, I wanted to go to the movies with my friends. They were all going unchaperoned, and I couldn’t stand the thought of saying no because an adult had to be there. I asked my parents, and they said, simply, “If you don’t need an adult to go with you, you don’t need an adult to pay for you.”
It was simple; it was easy for me to understand; it stuck with me ever since. If I wanted freedom—true freedom—then I needed to be able to pay for it.
When I was 14, I got my first job, as a camp counselor. I got to keep half of my earnings, but my parents took the other half to put toward my education. They sacrificed to put me through private school, but I needed to have some skin in the game as well, even though $400 doesn’t really go so far.
When I turned 16, I wanted to drive. My grandmother sold me her car for a dollar, so that was squared away, but I lived in a city with astronomical car insurance rates. If I wanted my license, I had to pay my fair share, so I spent my summer job money coming up with $1,200 for insurance. When I was 16.5, I got into an accident and had my first lesson in unexpected expenses: $500 for the deductible and a premium that rose to $2,600 a year.
I went to a top tier university—one of the ones that has conspicuous wealth, and one of the ones where, when I said I couldn’t afford to get the newest, most advanced gadget, my classmates encouraged me simply to put it on my student account. How could I, though? My parents were already paying for my education; wouldn’t it be dishonest of me to charge something to a credit account for which my parents couldn’t even see the line items?
My friends often went on extravagant spring break trips, while I worked over my spring breaks. A student group I joined traveled every year, and we did get to go to far off lands, but I was only able to go because I saved all of the money I could scrape together to pay for it myself.
Many of those friends are wildly successful, mostly due to a combination of natural ability and drive as well as some good breaks, but many others are not so successful, even with that natural ability and drive.
When I got my first job, I was thrilled, but my pay was pretty average for my location. It’s been five years since starting that first job, and my coworkers and I have all done relatively well. As I got to know them more, most of whom were my age or a couple years older, I saw them spending lavishly; they got top tier apartments and nicer cars; they ate out five nights a week and bought their lunch every day; they went on at least one foreign vacation a year.
I found myself thinking, those coworkers must make a ton more than I do! But I learned a few things about them along the way. First, they all made roughly the same as I did, and their pay has tracked roughly with mine. However, half of them contributed nothing to their 401k; the other half contributed 5% or less. None of them established emergency funds; all of them financed their lifestyles on credit cards. Many of them want to make the next step in their lives—starting families—but are hamstrung without financial reserves in case of emergency. They will eventually get there, but later than they want.
All the while, I was saving 12% of my income for retirement, and though I couldn’t save much, I forced myself to put away at least $200 a month toward savings, increasing that number any time I got a raise or bonus. I didn’t go on vacations, and I cooked for myself most of the time (developing some pretty awesome cooking skills!). Every so often, I challenged myself to be more frugal without sacrificing my 20s, and it has paid off without question.
Today, I am married with no student loans of my own, and my wife and I are working on paying off hers. Together, we have multiple credit cards, but we use them strategically. We put all of our expenses on them and pay them in full at the end of the month, meaning that since we get a minimum of 2% cash back, we are always earning a 2% discount on our purchases.
We bought our first home last year, for less than half of what the bank approved us for. We have modest cars, which we financed only because the interest rates were lower than recent inflation rates, and we carpool to and from work most days. We have taken a few vacations, but only because we earmarked savings to do so. We save 16.5% of our take-home pay in Roth retirement accounts and dedicate 17.5% of our take-home pay toward building emergency reserves. Each time we have gotten a raise, we allow a little bit for ourselves and put the rest toward our savings.
By the time we hit 30 years old, we will have six-figure retirement reserves.
The part about surprise expenses is absolutely reality to us. Last month, my car was hit while I was at work and the person who hit me didn’t leave a note. The insurance deductible was $500, and due to a variety of reasons, we realized it was best to buy a new car. (The dealer gave us a reasonable trade value on it.) To keep payments reasonable, we tossed in an extra $2,500.
The next week, we took our dog to the vet for an ear infection, only to learn that she had cancer. The next week, she had surgery. In the past three weeks, the vet has cost upwards of $2,000.
And, almost on cue, we discovered that we had an infestation of yellow jackets, the lawn mower broke, and the dishwasher quit. After all was said and done, we wound up with $6,000 in unexpected expenses in just over one week.
Thankfully, we had been given sound advice and had planned for just this sort of series of events. We absorbed some of the cost into our monthly budget by sacrificing some of our typical expenses, and the rest came out of our emergency fund, which will take about four months to repay.
The point of all this is to send the message that it is possible to build a nest egg. It feels daunting when you are fresh out of college and with debt, but you start to see results after a while. The first milestone is a positive net worth. The next is knowing that your retirement is on track. The next is knowing that a job loss wouldn’t mean your ruin. And on and on until you realize that your hard work has given you what you always wanted: your freedom.
Well, I had a plan, I had a history of and was going through a severe downward spiral of depression brought on by a lifetime of abuse, chemical and hormone imbalances, Februaries, and a devastating final blow to my family’s financial survival. At this point, I had been bouncing around on meds with my PCP [personal care provider] but really needed a psychiatrist, a specialist, but I couldn’t get an appointment for three months with the only psychiatrist I called that was taking new patients. And the rest of THAT story makes for another story about our healthcare system, but for now: finances.
I’ve never been good with money. I liked to have experiences, not things. I literally haven’t owned an entertainment unit in ten years. I can’t stomach spending the money on it. Concerts, trips, kids activities, preschool tuition—that was important to me.
Before marriage and kids, I went to the notorious Art Institute (my second try at college—depression got the best of me my 1st time and I dropped out three years in). I got a fun, creative, and inspiring $70K education that has yet to bring me that salary in one year. After college, I worked for about a year-and-a-half before I was laid off five months pregnant due to the financial crisis in ‘07/’08.
My husband’s career, meanwhile, was steadily elevating. No college. Zip. But he took care of us enough to have another baby 2-1/2 years later and buy a house with a mortgage that was just $50 more than the apartment we were renting (which was a shit-hole). Things were looking UP for us, but I think the real downfall started then.
With no savings of any kind (we scraped pennies together for the 3% FHA down payment), we slowly dug our graves. We maxed out our credit cards on new floors and defaulted. We took credit at furniture stores and defaulted. Soon, my loans went into default (they wanted over $600 a month even considering our income).
Now we had kids, but we weren’t dead! We have lots of friends, lots of fun stuff to do, and now our kids had social lives, too. Soon, I NEEDED to go back to work for my sense of self-worth and for all the things we wanted to do. I refused to place my kids in one of those daycares that hires 19 year olds for $9/hr (you know, the ones you hear about on the news for forgetting a kid on the bus after a field trip or locking kids in closets). Also, interestingly enough, I’m a terrible classist it seems. If my kids were being minded by someone, the least they could do is enrich their young impressionable minds. My kids would be baby Einsteins!
Private preschool tuition for two, new/used mini-van with the buttons and computer panel, dinners and drinks and concerts and blowing off steam with friends, and finally, last year, our $5,000 medical deductible finally became too much to do. I was working but still making the base $36K/year that I made before I even went back to college in 2003. Let that sink in. I worked as an assistant, with no skills or experience and made the same amount after I went to college, had my own business, built up a portfolio, business contacts and reputation. I obviously failed that test.
Now, March 2016, I was just let go from my job (financial instability of the small businesses for which I continue to work), filed our taxes and was expecting a big return—one that was desperately needed. We were two months behind on every single bill payment, including the mortgage and car. We seemed to owe everyone and their mother $200, like we manufactured Benjamins in our garage. I wasn’t earning my sweet $2200 a month anymore, so we planned on this refund taking us through the next two months, giving me a cushion to find another job.
Well, to my surprise, the government had other plans. Uncle Sam came to collect on the federally backed Sallie Mae loans I’d be unable to keep up with. They took the entire refund before it ever hit our account.
My heart sank. I saw us losing our house, our car, my daughter, with 2-1/2 months left of Pre-K, would have to be pulled from school. I wanted to vomit. I wanted to die. I put the final nail in our coffins. We had nothing. We HAVE nothing. We couldn’t get an apartment for what we pay for our spacious home if we lost it.
My plan? My plan was to drive into oncoming traffic or just slam into the freeway median or drive off a bridge. I have life insurance through my husband’s work, after all. It had to be an accident so that my kids would never suspect my intentions.
Shame. I was so disgusted with myself I couldn’t think of anything except “disgusting piece of shit,” which is actually what I wrote over and over in my journal before and during the first part of my holiday in the cuckoos nest.
So, it’s been a month. With a lot of help from my personal financial advisor (my mom—yes, an almost 40-year-old woman needs her mommy to figure our her finances … shame), we have put together our total debt and planned our escape from this uncharted level of hell.
Trying to get well emotionally while also demolishing the house of lies of our financial situation is very hard and it’s tempting to let the depression wash over me so I don’t have to feel. But, I can never go back there again. Our children are still young and they don’t have to ever remember this time, right? Except for when we tell them about the time we used credit like it was a God-given right as an American, and it destroyed our lives, marriage, and almost destroyed our mommy.
Our latest reader story of fiscal conservatism in the face of uncertainty comes from an African American woman in Birmingham, Alabama:
I was born in January of 1973 out of wedlock to a single mother who already had two older kids. My mother and father were surprisingly cordial to each other all my life until they passed in 2008. Neither had a high school diploma, but my father was a very smart man. My father took financial responsibility for me but not my two half sibling, so basically my mother struggled all her days to make ends meet.
I lived with my mother in public housing (ghetto) in the state of Alabama. She was a CNA [certified nursing assistant] and we lived paycheck to paycheck. If she was able to save any money, an emergency would come along to gobble it up.
One of the emergencies that has stuck in my head for 30 years and set me on my current path was a flat tire.
Yes, a flat tire. I’ll never forget I was about 13 and my mother's old Ford Pinto (green) got a flat tire. The puncture was on the side of the tire and it couldn’t be patched, so it needed to be replaced, but she didn’t have enough money to buy a new one. She had to call around to family members to borrow the money for the tire. She made promises to pay back the cash on payday.
I made a promise to myself never to be in the situation of having to beg or borrow money. In my mother’s household there was always an emergency. I learned there will always be an emergency when you don’t make enough money for day-to-day living. Those early life lessons have made me into a penny pincher. I started working at age 15 and have never stopped.
I got accepted into every university I applied to. I stretched myself thin working while in college to cover basic needs that my family couldn’t help me with, like food. I got scholarships and financial aid to cover most of the costs of a college education, but because of financial illiteracy (and family illiteracy), I got into student loan debt and credit card debt.
My father and I sat down on his front porch after I got my first job out of college and he told me how to budget. (I was too embarrassed to tell him I was already in debt when I graduated.) This is advice from a man that never went to high school but also never went homeless or hungry:
1. Use one week of your salary to pay a car note and insurance.
2. Use two weeks of your salary to pay rent or house note.
3. Use one week of salary to pay your monthly bills.
4. Twice a year you’re going to get an extra two week’s pay—save it for a rainy day.
My response was, “OK daddy, but how can I save a dollar when all I got is a dollar?” His response was, “Spend 80 cents and save and tithe the other 20 cents.” If you can’t pay for it out of what you have, don’t get it.
And he meant every word he said. There weren’t any rich family members or grandparents available to bail me out of financial trouble. And neither he nor my mother had access to lines of credit, such as home equity loans. But my mother sometimes used payday loans to stretch her money to support her household. Payday loans would put an enormous strain on her that translated into stress for her kids. Watching my mother struggle was hard for me. I grew up with a since of lack, uncertainty, and a feeling of insecurity. We had love and respect but no money.
How am I doing now at age 43? I am divorced. I have one child (11) and a niece (14) I support. I’ve been in the workforce for 18 years in a stable career. I made about $69,200.00 last year.
$12,586.26 (18.2%) of my salary went to taxes (fed, AL state, Birmingham city, SS, and Medicare)
$11,313.79 (16.3%) of my salary went to pretax deductions (retirement, medical, dental)
$45,299.95 (65.5%) Went to me!
I have a modest house payment of $1,000.00 / month. I pay extra each month to pay it off faster.
I send my kids to public school ($1,000.00 yearly in fees and lunches)
I have a 2015 Camry that I owe about $12,800.00 on. I could have saved more money last year but I wanted a new Camry with a sunroof. My used Prius’ lithium ion battery died four months after the warranty was up and six months after I spent $900.00 in repairs. It was time for an upgrade.
I don’t have credit card debt (thanks to Dave Ramsey [the financial author]). I have $70,000.00 in my state pension and $60,000.00 in my IRA. My daughter has a 529 college plan worth about $4,000.00. I have about $30,000.00 cash in the bank.
Since I don’t have a financial safety net, I need a hefty savings account to make me feel secure. I would like to save more and spend less, but the costs of life keep creeping up. The monthly rates for water, gas, and electricity have increased this year, so that I am paying about $30.00 more per month than this time in 2014. That is $360.00 per year.
I shop at thrift stores for clothing except for underwear and shoes, and those costs have steadily increased every year. I shop at ALDI instead of Walmart but still spend close to $500.00 on groceries. I even take my lunch to work most days.
I learned some hard lessons about the lack of money early in life and during my struggle through college that have stirred me toward financial literacy, security, and peace. I also know that life isn’t predictable and bad things happen to good people, so it is best to be prepared for the worst.
Payday lending works like this: In exchange for a small loan—the average amount borrowed is about $350—a customer agrees to pay a single flat fee, typically in the vicinity of $15 per $100 borrowed. For a two-week loan, that can equate to an annualized rate of almost 400 percent. The entire amount—the fee plus the sum that was borrowed—is generally due all at once, at the end of the term. (Borrowers give the lender access to their bank account when they take out the loan.) But because many borrowers can’t pay it all back at once, they roll the loan into a new one, and end up in what the industry’s many critics call a debt trap, with gargantuan fees piling up.
As Mehrsa Baradaran, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s law school, puts it in her new book, How the Other Half Banks, “One of the great ironies in modern America is that the less money you have, the more you pay to use it.”
Reader Dave teaches at a community college, and he crafted a recent class around our current cover story:
I was engrossed by Neal Gabler’s article and admire his candor. It resonated with me particularly because I have been a freelance graphic artist for over 30 years and I understand exactly the feast or famine nature that such a freelance creative career provides, including the fact that art fees have stagnated (even contracted) over the last 20 years, as publishing budgets have done the same.
My wife has also been a long-time freelancer but our financial situation is much more positive at this point than the Mr. Gabler’s, despite what seems like similar costs (mortgage, college, etc.) and income in a high-tax Northeast state. I credit that to the luck of good health, but mostly to learning the basics of personal finance early on and so avoiding some bad decisions and making a few good ones early on. (Those skills were perfectly described in your recent reader entry “When Self-Denial Gives You Freedom.”)
In addition to my freelance work, I have taught as an adjunct in the art department a local community college for many years. Mr. Gabler’s story was so compelling I decided to devote an entire class, entirely off the course topic, to a discussion of the article and a presentation of the basics of personal finance.
I had no idea if the students (generally 18-25 in age) would be interested at all, so I gave them the option to either work on their projects or skip the class. No one did. In fact, in all the years I’ve taught, it was the first time there was applause at the end of a class. Not for my presentation skills, but for having offered information most had never heard and that they recognized could have an immediate positive impact on their lives and for decades into the future.
Here’s an outline of my class presentation, which contains links to articles, tools (Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook) and calculators (debt repayment, compound interest, inflation, undergraduate loan). This kind of information should be mandatory in every high school curriculum.
I thank Mr. Gabler for the article. There are ripple effects that will be felt for quite awhile, as I intend to offer this information in each of my future classes, until there is a required personal finance class, or as long as someone stays to listen.
Here’s some more specific advice from another reader:
I’m writing to offer a suggestion to Linda Lee, [the struggling former newspaper editor] whose story was outlined here. I tutored on anything writing-related for extra income after college. It was one of the few ways I could command a decent hourly wage for the skills I had as a writer.
Tutoring was very flexible. I was able to do it on my own time even if it was only for a free hour here and there during the week. Sessions can be held in any location (libraries, coffee shops, client homes, remotely, etc.) Getting started is simple, and cash payments at the end of a session are a way to get some extra funds very quickly. Craigslist and Wyzant.com were good ways to find clients. As a veteran (and published?) journalist and editor, I’m sure Ms. Lee’s skills would be in demand.
I passed along that advice to Linda and she replied:
I did NOT get that Civil Service job, and the people in Paris have still not wired me the $2,000, so I’m up for any advice. I had thought of freelance writing, but never thought of tutoring. It’s a great idea. (Better than going to a temp agency.) I really like the idea of someone handing me cash at the end of a tutoring session. Instant commodification.
Another reader, Amanda, previously offered advice to Ben—the unemployed dad without a college degree—in an update to “The Demoralizing Process That Job Searches Have Become.” (If you have any tips on how to make it less demoralizing, please email us.) Here’s how Ben replied to the update, which plugged a scholarship program from the mikeroweWORKS Foundation: “Well, now I know what I’m doing with my Saturday.” We’ll keep you posted on that and other reader developments.
The overwhelming majority of the reader response to Gabler’s story has been positive and supportive. But to balance things out a bit, here’s a strong reader dissent from Adam (a pseudonym), who benefitted a great deal from community college:
Hello! I wanted to comment on the discussion around money and Neal Gabler’s essay. This is a little bit of my own story and mostly a comment on his piece. Apologies if this is off-topic; I had a strong response to the cover story.
Gabler’s essay is out of touch and frankly obnoxious. By his own admission, his financial quandaries are entirely his own fault. He had privilege and opportunity, and made a series of choices that put him in desperate straits. He picked a risky career path in which money comes inconsistently; he then refused to live within his means, squandering his money on status symbols like living in the most expensive areas of the country, private school tuition for his children’s entire educations, and expensive weddings. I have no sympathy for him; he is paying the price of his own snobbery and unwillingness to make pragmatic choices.
In my observation, this is radically different from the predicament of most struggling American families. Many people have never had access to even a fraction of the opportunity Gabler describes, and have poured their blood, sweat, and tears into climbing up from poverty into the lower middle class, only to get knocked back into poverty because the car broke down, the rent was raised, someone got cancer, etc. Gabler pleads masculine pride in telling his wife not to return to work; many families never had the option of a full-time caretaker even when their children were newborns, let alone a spouse staying out of the workforce when the children have gone to college.
This is somewhat of a pet issue for me because, like Gabler, I am from a relatively privileged background—just privileged enough to be exposed to the idea that I should conduct myself like a wealthy person and refuse to consider money in my decision-making. Many of my relatives sank their whole fortunes into sending children to expensive private colleges they couldn’t afford. Why? I have never understood this.
I knew damn well at 17 that my family didn’t have tens of thousands of dollars lying around to send me to school, so I went to community college and then a state university and graduated with no debt. That’s a testament to my incredible good fortune; my parents were able to pay tuition at a state school (it was about $7k/year). I don’t think I would deserve any sympathy if I’d refused that opportunity to send us all into debt just so I could go to my “dream school.” Many of my cousins and former classmates have done this, and I think it’s a preposterous waste.
Maybe it’s the fact that people studied at these “dream school” enclaves that partly explains why they are so out of touch and unwilling to live within their means. At the state university, I went to school with young people who grew up in deep poverty, who were the first in their family to go to college, etc. This taught me a lot of gratitude about my own middle-class background and fundamentally altered my reference point for the class system. I no longer think of rich people as normal and see myself as inadequate; I instead realize that working-class people are much more typical and I feel fortunate. My sympathy lies with the families that are making tough choices about housing and healthcare, not with the families who are making “tough” choices about fancy wedding locations.
Thanks for curating wonderful discussions and keeping comments anonymous!
The movie clip was flagged by another John, from the inbox, telling his story of “rags to riches, living the American dream”:
I have been broke and don’t ever plan on going back there again. I grew up “middle class” because my father was a carpenter and made good money and spent it on “toys”—motorcycles, boats, cars, etc. I had four brothers. I worked for my dad carrying shingles but couldn’t swing a hammer. I got a job at a steakhouse washing dishes and that sucked. I worked in a grocery store bagging food and eventually night-stocking shelves.
My high school had a training program with a community college a few miles away and I certified in welding. After graduating high school I worked welding for a year with great pay. My only experience with a union is that after being hired I was “bullied” into joining the union; the union steward told me to be prepared to strike. Not encouraging for just starting. The strike never came but the business shut down.
I got married, had a kid, started going back to the original community college, got divorced, went to the local state college, got an Electrical Engineering degree, moved out of state, worked three years then got laid off, moved back home, got a job with an electric utility, bought a house, got a live-in girlfriend who loved to gamble and gamble and gamble—but she left with her debt, thank God.
I was deep in credit card debt and had a house payment and a rental house a state away. I took a deep look and decided that debt was the anchor holding me back.
I worked a side wiring job for extra income. I started living within my income instead of overspending for once in my life. I fixed up the rental house and sold it. Paid off the truck loan. Attacked the credit cards and paid them off smallest to largest using the snowball effect. I added 50% to my remaining mortgage for a while then doubled the payment until I had enough in savings to pay it off in full.
I have been maxing out my 401(k) and Roth and saving cash ever since. My work has a pension plan that has been building for the past 25 years. I have sat down and added up all my assets (no debts at all so nothing to delete — woo wooooo!) and they are approaching $1 million at 57 years of age.
What was the one event that made me change my ways? Becoming single the 2nd time and realizing that I was responsible for my own retirement and happiness. I’m not here to “make” anyone else happy as I’ve strived to before in life.
What financial event moved me out of paycheck-to-paycheck living? The realization that things happen and when you need savings to fall back on. The furnace goes out? Buy a new one. The vehicle breaks down? Tell the mechanic to “fix it.” The market tanks? Who cares, buy more dollar cost averaging. Want to go on a trip? Just buy a ticket or hop in the car and go. Want to eat out? Don't look at the prices, eat what you want and leave a big tip without fanfare. Attached is a link to John Goodman explaining why you should have a pile of money.
I’m debt free. I’ve been broke and I’ve been rich. Rich is better.
This podcast [SPENT] will address the age-old question: Why are we so f*****d up about money? Each episode will feature stories from people like you, people who have made money mistakes and lived to laugh about it. Well also have great advice from empathetic experts. We’ll laugh, we’ll cry, we’ll get our financial lives together, one episode at a time.
Our reader highlights a few of the best episodes so far:
The latest one is with Dean Haspiel, a comic-book artist, Emmy winner (he did the art for and inspired the Zach Galafianakis character in Bored To Death), Marvel and DC veteran … a genuine success in his field, and yet he only recently got out of debt and got health insurance, at nearly age 50. His latest endeavor is a free webcomic about an alternative Brooklyn where art is a currency of exchange. As he says wryly, “This is a romantic fantasy.”
The Tiana Miller episode is another standout. Broke and badly ill with multiple sclerosis, Tiana still musters the spirit and energy to perform standup comedy all around NYC. She talks about learning to navigate the health care system alone, having to rely on friends to take care of her, and how illness helped turn her into a professional funny person. (“I was like, why would I get hired at a chandelier store? One of my main symptoms is intense tremors!”) It’s a really emotional episode.
Our unpredictable and overburdened schedules are taking a dire toll on American society.
Just under a century ago, the Soviet Union embarked on one of the strangest attempts to reshape the common calendar that has ever been undertaken. As Joseph Stalin raced to turn an agricultural backwater into an industrialized nation, his government downsized the week from seven to five days. Saturday and Sunday were abolished.
In place of the weekend, a new system of respite was introduced in 1929. The government divided workers into five groups, and assigned each to a different day off. On any given day, four-fifths of the proletariat would show up to their factories and work while the other fifth rested. Each laborer received a colored slip of paper—yellow, orange, red, purple, or green—that signified his or her group. The staggered schedule was known as nepreryvka, or the “continuous workweek,” since production never stopped.
Winning images from the annual photo competition produced by the Natural History Museum in London
The Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, founded in 1965, is an annual international showcase of the best in nature photography. This year, the contest attracted more than 48,000 entries from 100 countries. Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum, London. The owners and sponsors have once again been kind enough to share the following 15 winning images from this year’s competition. The museum’s website has images from previous years and more information about the current contest and exhibition. Captions are provided by the photographers and WPY organizers, and are lightly edited for style.
The commander in chief is impulsive, disdains expertise, and gets his intelligence briefings from Fox News. What does this mean for those on the front lines?
For most of the past two decades, American troops have been deployed all over the world—to about 150 countries. During that time, hundreds of thousands of young men and women have experienced combat, and a generation of officers have come of age dealing with the practical realities of war. They possess a deep well of knowledge and experience. For the past three years, these highly trained professionals have been commanded by Donald Trump.
To get a sense of what serving Trump has been like, I interviewed officers up and down the ranks, as well as several present and former civilian Pentagon employees. Among the officers I spoke with were four of the highest ranks—three or four stars—all recently retired. All but one served Trump directly; the other left the service shortly before Trump was inaugurated.
As WeWork crashes and Uber bleeds cash, the consumer-tech gold rush may be coming to an end.
Several weeks ago, I met up with a friend in New York who suggested we grab a bite at a Scottish bar in the West Village. He had booked the table through something called Seated, a restaurant app that pays users who make reservations on the platform. We ordered two cocktails each, along with some food. And in exchange for the hard labor of drinking whiskey, the app awarded us $30 in credits redeemable at a variety of retailers.
I am never offended by freebies. But this arrangement seemed almost obscenely generous. To throw cash at people every time they walk into a restaurant does not sound like a business. It sounds like a plot to lose money as fast as possible—or to provide New Yorkers, who are constantly dining out, with a kind of minimum basic income.
What the Amazon founder and CEO wants for his empire and himself, and what that means for the rest of us.
Where in the pantheon of American commercial titans does Jeffrey Bezos belong? Andrew Carnegie’s hearths forged the steel that became the skeleton of the railroad and the city. John D. Rockefeller refined 90 percent of American oil, which supplied the pre-electric nation with light. Bill Gates created a program that was considered a prerequisite for turning on a computer.
At 55, Bezos has never dominated a major market as thoroughly as any of these forebears, and while he is presently the richest man on the planet, he has less wealth than Gates did at his zenith. Yet Rockefeller largely contented himself with oil wells, pump stations, and railcars; Gates’s fortune depended on an operating system. The scope of the empire the founder and CEO of Amazon has built is wider. Indeed, it is without precedent in the long history of American capitalism.
Young employees want to stand up for themselves, but many don’t know how.
The city-government worker was just getting the hang of his job when a new hire upended everything. She became his mentee, and she asked him if he could put together a manual on how to do her work. He told her okay, but begrudgingly. The manual was a good idea in theory, but he was busy, and he wished she could just learn through observation, as he had.
Over the next months, as he dealt with more immediate deadlines, the worker kept pushing the manual off. His new colleague grew frustrated. “All day, morning and evening, she kept asking me, ‘When will the manual be ready? When will the manual be ready?’” the worker told me through an interpreter.
The manual was a mundane request, but it made him feel confused and powerless. He didn’t know how to communicate to the new colleague that he didn’t have the time and the job was difficult. Repeated over and over, her request caused his anxiety to ratchet up to extreme levels. He hesitated to delegate work to her, which meant that he took on even more. He started having problems sleeping and eating.
Last Tuesday morning, my first unread email was from Influencer Intelligence, an analytics company that works with people who want to hire influencers and celebrities to advertise things.
“Authenticity is the most critical attribute to building influence,” the company’s website reads. The email was about, as emails often are, a recently compiled report about the business of selling things on Instagram, which promised to “tackle the concept of what authenticity really means today.” The PDF’s cover was an image of a beautiful white woman wearing pink eye shadow and putting her hand to her mouth—which was, needless to say, open.
Inside, I found advice on how to determine the authenticity of an influencer: Request Google Analytics information from her (to prove that her numbers “add up”), ask for quantitative results of previous “brand campaigns,” map her audience demographics—all told, fairly standard stuff. The report also suggested the use of “soft metrics,” which apparently entails looking at a person’s Instagram profile and taking note of the tone and frequency of her responses to her “audience,” judging how “natural and authentic the content feels,” and deciding whether the influencer really “lives and breathes what they are presenting.”
James didn’t defend free speech. But in China, the NBA has made a mess that its biggest star can’t be expected to clean up.
Less than two years ago, the Fox News host Laura Ingraham infamously said that LeBron James should “shut up and dribble,” after the NBA superstar criticized President Donald Trump. Now everyone—especially on the right—is on the Los Angeles Lakers forward’s case for disheartening comments he made about the explosive political situation between the NBA and China. Not even pro basketball’s biggest star can get the league out of the bind it’s in. If anything, James is reinforcing it.
On Monday, James weighed in for the first time on the international firestorm swirling around the NBA. The controversy began after the Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted his support of the Hong Kong protesters on October 4, right before the Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets were scheduled to play exhibition games in China. Morey’s tweet was quickly taken down, but the fallout from the tweet—which included lost sponsorships for the Rockets and China’s refusal to allow the broadcast of two preseason games—has continued and even intensified after James voiced his opinion.
People want to cook and eat together. Modern life has other plans.
Right now, a box of food from a meal-kit company is probably moldering in my apartment building’s mail room. I haven’t been down there in a few days, so maybe there isn’t one at this very moment. But more than two years of living in this building has taught me there’s basically always at least one box, forgotten and slightly stinky. When I visit friends, I often walk past a similar scene next to their elevators: cartons from Blue Apron or HelloFresh, waiting to find out if they’ll ever become the dinners they were meant to be.
Forgetting you mail-ordered a bespoke set of ingredients for a selection of restaurant-style recipes is a luxurious predicament to be in, but the frequency with which those meal kits seem to be abandoned points to the very same problem they were invented to fix: Consumer surveys have found that most people who buy meal kits do so in hopes of saving time. As it turns out, it takes time to unpack, cook, and clean up after a meal-kit dinner, too.
Humiliating his own Cabinet secretaries was bad. Putting faithful American allies in harm’s way is far worse.
President Donald Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds stung deeply. “They trusted us and we broke that trust. It’s a stain on the American conscience.” These, according to The New York Times, are the searing words of an Army officer who has worked alongside the Kurds in northern Syria.