Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

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.

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'Best to Be Prepared for the Worst'

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.

A reader writes:

I’d like this to be anonymous, please. Tomorrow, it will have been a month since I tried to commit suicide.

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.

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.

Hugh Kretschmer / The Atlantic

A reader, Les, takes stock of our series so far:

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:

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: