Reporter's Notebook

Your Stories of Financial Struggle
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Spurred by our May 2016 cover story “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans” by Neal Gabler, readers share their own experiences with economic impotence, compiled on this page in an ongoing series. Gabler discussed the response to his piece at The Atlantic’s Summit on the Economy. For expert takes on middle-class insecurity, see this Notes series.

Show 13 Newer Notes

'Widowed People Are Invisible in This Society'

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.

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.

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.

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.

Or other variations:

That tip comes from Atlantic reader and fiscal conservative Lori Miller, who offers a lot more advice in this email:

I read Neal Gabler’s article on the disturbing fact that so few American had even $400 cash to spare. Over the past few years, I’ve had around $8,000 in dental expenses from an accident and a few thousand dollars in house repairs. I had the cash to cover it, plus buy and move to a second home in another state. I sold my first house, paid off the second house and now have $75,000 in cash and another $150,000 in my retirement accounts.

I did this mostly on a secretary’s wage: I left home with $20 at age 18 and never had an inheritance, trust fund, large income or even an allowance as a kid. I’m now 47. I have always been single and have no other significant source of income besides my wages.

Good on Gabler for admitting to his mistakes and wanting to improve his situation. I can offer some tips for him and others like him.

Hugh Kretschmer / The Atlantic

A young reader describes how secretive and unreliable her father has been when it comes to finances:

I’m only 23 and have yet to experience any financial disasters, but I wanted to share the child’s point of view on what’s described in Neal Gabler’s article. He mentions being lucky enough to avoid sabotaging his relationship with his daughters despite his financial fragility. For my family, this has not been the case.

That’s what this reader did, in part, and she’s not ashamed of it:

I didn’t realize how lucky I am until I read Neal Gabler’s article, “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans,” about the financial insecurity that apparently plagues most of them. At this moment I am a 46-year-old single woman who could indeed come up with $400 for an emergency, or even $2,000. But to reach this place of relative security, I broke all the rules and violated just about every norm of stereotypical middle-class life:

  • I never married and never blended finances with a romantic partner.
  • I never had kids.
  • I never bought a home; I’ve rented apartments for 25 years.
  • I never bought a new car; I buy cars directly from previous owners and pay in cash. (The most I’ve spent on a car is $4,800.)
  • I financed college and graduate school on my own with a combination of scholarships, savings, loans, part-time work and careful use of time-limited 0% APR credit cards. Although I’ve proven piss-poor at earning big salaries, I am absolutely stellar at paying off debt, so my credit rating is in the high 700s.

Still with me? You won’t be:

That’s the risky choice this reader made:

I’m in my late twenties. Growing up, I was much wealthier than most of my peers—both of my parents made about $100,000. They covered my out-of-state college tuition, let me stay at home while I took unpaid summer internships and, when I got a postgrad job, helped me pay my half of the rent for the city apartment I shared with a friend. All this to say, even though the deck seemed stacked in my favor, I’ve suffered through my fair share of financially impotent moments.

The worst of it started about five years ago.

That’s how this reader begins her personal indictment of the infamous energy company:

Neal Gabler’s article will stick with me for a long time. I know the feeling of being down to your last $5 while carrying a full load of middle-class debt that was hard-earned.

In the spring of 2002, my husband and I were married for four years, had a modest new home, and had just adopted twin babies from Russia. We watched the nightly news in horror as the Enron scandal started to devour the company he had been with since college, Arthur Andersen. At the time, Lou Dobbs was the host and our hearts thudded as we watched, along with 20,000 other employees, the company go down in flames.

As the Internet increasingly becomes TV and the written word continues to recede, it’s so gratifying to be able to feature long but captivating stories written by Atlantic readers. That’s especially the case for our next contributor (who prefers to stay anonymous because she’s involved in a legal dispute). Her story involves unsupportive and judgmental parents for whom she ultimately comes to the rescue, a heartbreaking tragedy with her husband, and the many sacrifices she made for her children in the face of hardships tied to the housing bubble, soaring student loans, and a dying newspaper industry, where she worked for years. And you can tell she was a professional writer by the quality of her prose:

I winced and almost stopped midway through reading Neal Gabler’s “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans,” it was so painful. And so true: I just turned 60 and am looking forward to an impoverished retirement. I kick myself over and over again for a series of stupid mistakes that was essentially my life. I’m college educated and thought I was pretty smart—heck, I studied economics as an undergraduate—but obviously I wasn’t smart enough to avoid bankruptcy and near poverty.

Some things: I’m an Asian American woman who grew up in a blue-collar household. My father was an auto mechanic; Mom was a secretary who hooked a state job with benefits and good medical insurance, something my father didn’t have even as a union employee.

When I announced in high school that I wanted to go to college, they scoffed. Girls didn’t need an education, they said. They get married and their husbands support them while they stay home and raise the babies. (This was a common belief among traditional Asian families.) “I’ll show you!” I shouted.

Hugh Kretschmer / The Atlantic

Our reader series on financial insecurity has really struck a chord, as your emails continue to stream in. This short dispatch from Amanda is devastating:

My mother died of breast cancer because she couldn’t afford a mammogram, and she was too ashamed to ask anyone in the family for help. By the time her cancer was discovered, it was stage 3 and had spread to her lungs and elsewhere. She had no insurance because she had been fired from her job after 19 years—less than one year before they would have owed her a pension. She couldn’t afford COBRA, and this was before the ACA.

Her medical care and Hospice were eventually paid by Medicaid. A free mammogram not only would have allowed her to see her grandchildren grow up, but it would have saved tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars.

This next reader was also hit with a medical crisis:

The biggest unexpected event happened when my husband had to stop working and go on social security disability due to a health issue. That was six years ago, and he is still unable to work more than a few hours per week. (He’s tried a few times.) Fortunately I have found a job that allows me to work from home, because I’m now a full-time caregiver, but my salary is half what I used to earn.

The cost of medical bills and prescription drugs is like a weight around our ankles. There is one drug that his doctor wants him to take, but at $800 a month it’s not ever going to happen. This is our lot in life for good. His condition is not curable, and unless a miracle treatment comes down the pike, he will continue on as he is now, or get worse.

Aside from the financial stress, it’s taken a toll on his spirit to not be able to provide for his family in the way he feels every man should.

This reader, a self-described “Financial Independence Obsessive,” has an impressive track record—but she’s still deeply worried about money:

Hello! Thank you for this reader series. I should be a classic poster child for upward mobility. I grew up in a working class/poor family, with my parents mostly working retail. They divorced and my mother remarried, creating a large blended family of five children. I grew up acutely aware that my family didn’t make much money, which inspired a lot of anxiety about money and “passing” for middle class.

My family was never homeless, but we were under-housed; we were never hungry, but we relied on free school lunches, WIC, and food stamps. I started work cleaning motel rooms at 14 and saved half of every paycheck from my various part-time jobs until I graduated high school. Being a good student (I graduated valedictorian and earned some scholarship money), I thought that going to college would be an automatic ticket to financial security. Even with my savings, scholarships, and grants, I still accrued $40,000 in student loan debts.