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.
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.
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.
Expect the unexpected. Accidents, illnesses, breakage, layoffs and various hardships are a normal part of life. Save up for them when times are good instead of assuming the good times will last forever.
Stop justifying overspending. If you live in America, you live better than the vast majority of people on earth. You probably have neighbors living (and saving) on less money than you take home. Read about people who live very frugally. Do they seem like they’re suffering?
Don't be a martyr to family. Your children aren’t going to live in benighted penury if they don’t go to private schools or die of embarrassment without a fancy wedding. And as much as we might want to take care of loved ones who can’t get it together, normal people can’t take on such a burden. What’s more, such people will often resist your attempts to help. Call adult social services in your county instead. Do what you can only after you’ve taken care of yourself.
Be flexible. People who are perpetually underemployed or short of money are almost always what I call the not-willings: not willing to take certain kinds of jobs, not willing to live in cheaper digs, not willing to move where their prospects would be better, etc. Being inflexible about working is especially bad because a long stretch of unemployment—six months—makes employers less willing to hire you. Working at anything impresses employers more than sitting around collecting unemployment. It also gets you out of the house and keeps you in the habit of showing up on time, meeting deadlines, dealing with people, and accomplishing something every day.
Be proud to be frugal. Do you hate going to your in-laws or parents for money? Wish you could leave a no-good spouse? Have you ever wanted to tell your boss, “Take this job and shove it”? With enough money saved, you can tell them all to piss off. While I’ve never put it in those terms, my money has allowed me to leave jobs I didn’t like—and I’ve never had to swallow my pride to ask someone for money.
Some hacks I haven’t seen elsewhere:
Expose yourself to hardships like the Stoics. For example, stay in very basic accommodations on vacation. When I visited San Diego, I stayed in a small room at the YMCA with no TV or private bathroom. I saved money, of course, but when I came home, my simple 800-square-foot house felt like a palace.
Work different shifts when your kids are young. My brother and his wife did that so they didn’t need to spend a lot on child care.
Sell your house in a hot market. I did so in the Denver area and moved to a cheaper one in Indianapolis. Financially, it was a great move: I have a nicer, paid-for house in a better neighborhood and a lot of cash. And I love Indianapolis— friendly people, light traffic, a short commute to work, and I’m close to beautiful parks. I did a lot of research before moving to make sure I would have good prospects in a growing city and that I was moving to a good area. (For example, Indianapolis offers handy people with a little cash and modest income to homestead an abandoned property in up-and-coming neighborhoods.) Do your homework and also look for reasons NOT to move before you take the plunge.
Educate yourself online for free. I’ve learned more about critical thinking and the scientific method online than I ever learned in college—and I have an engineering degree (from a traditional university). I’m now learning database programming from free online videos instead of going to college. Why should I pay tuition and leave the house to take courses on someone else’s schedule when I can learn how, when, and from whom I want on YouTube and Stack Overflow?
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.
We fit Gabler’s description of financial peril pretty much to a T. My father raised me as a single parent from age 4 to 9; my stepmother provided a second income for a few years but then left her job to raise my two stepbrothers. My dad put himself through night school to become an architect when I was very young. We moved to Florida for his work just before its housing bubble burst and he was left scrambling for a job to pay for a new four-bedroom house that we perhaps didn’t need as a family of three.
Throughout my high school years we bounced from rental house to rental house as the owners we rented from kept being foreclosed on, incurring huge moving costs for my family. I didn’t find out until I applied for college financial aid that my family was on food stamps.
Extended family members told me my dad was struggling to keep the lights on—and indeed, our electricity was shut off once when I was in high school. Yet in my senior year we lived in a three-story townhouse with an elevator. When I got my financial aid package to an Ivy League, I got the largest package they offered because my father was now supporting a family of five on an income of less than $60,000.
I worked for a newspaper the summer before I started college and never saw the money I earned because it went to a bank account my father controlled and he “never got around to” transferring it to my personal checking account. Every semester was a scramble to cover my (relatively small, for Columbia) tuition bill in time for me to register for classes the following semester.
My father eventually resorted to lying to me about his ability to reimburse me when I covered parts of the tuition bills myself (I worked all the way through college) and convinced me to take out a student loan in my final year that he said he would pay back, only to never mention it again once I graduated.
Whatever bitterness is detectable in my tone here comes not so much from having to pay for these things but being repeatedly lied to about the reality of the situation. No matter how many times I asked my father to be straight with me about his finances, he kept promising to visit me in New York and to help me pay for life expenses only to never fulfill these promises.
After wearing down my trust for years, my father put the final nail in the coffin when I had a medical scare. I received a diabetes diagnosis just as I separated from a domestic partner whose insurance I was sharing, and I called my father crying because I couldn’t afford good enough insurance through New York’s market to deal with what was sure to be a slew of new expenses. He told me to get whichever plan I needed to ensure coverage and he would split the cost with me.
But after I bought the plan, he reduced his offer to $100 a month (for a $360/month plan). Not even that contribution ever materialized. Thankfully, the diagnosis was erroneous, but I kept paying for that insurance until I got a job with a better plan, which took nearly a year.
The result of all this is that I am extremely thrifty, religious about saving despite my high living costs in New York, and pretty much totally unwilling to go to graduate school or pursue a creative career path in the manner Gables describes, because I have seen what debt does and want to avoid it at all costs. Knowing the chronic difficulties of accumulating wealth in the African-American community has made me even more cagey about spending.
Thank you for the article. I’ll be sharing with my dad. (I’ve already shared with my social network and encouraged them to come to me for budgeting advice. ;)
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.
Even after a Master’s degree, I didn’t earn enough at my primary job to cover rent, bills, and educational debt, so I took on a second job in my 30s. And that job was escorting. I had sex for money over a period of seven years.
And I make no apologies. Per hour, it’s still the highest wage I’ve ever earned. Rarely has a job been so uncomplicated or a transaction so forthright. I have self-defense skills—a must if you’re doing something as potentially-dangerous as independent sex work—but I never had to use them. Nor did I feel demeaned by the work or by my clients; if anything, it felt like I was taking advantage of them. I was paid ridiculous sums to do something I already enjoyed. Frankly, my only regret was that I didn’t think of it sooner!
Today I feel a great deal of freedom and relatively little financial worry, but that’s largely because I’ve said “no” to the things we’re supposed to want—home ownership, children, marriage, shiny consumer goods—and said “yes” to things we’re supposed to avoid. So I can’t help but wonder: Who made the rules that say owning a home is better than renting, new cars are better than used, and an exorbitantly-priced private-school education is better than a public college degree? Who benefits from our continued belief in these rules? Clearly, it’s not us.
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.
I was working as a contractor for a big tech company and shelling out $40 a month for birth control pills, since the contracting company only offered us a few horrible, high-deductible, high-premium plans and I wasn't eligible to stay on my parents’ policy. To save money, I stopped using birth control.
Weeks later, I started a new relationship and suffered a couple of pregnancy scares. Ironically, Plan B costs the same as a month of pills.
A year later, I was making $25,000 in a salaried position, and my new health plan almost completely covered IUD insertion. I made the leap and had the procedure done.
But little did I know, my company had just switched policies and my procedure had taken place on the one day of the year we were between policies and without coverage. I got a bill in the mail for $1,300. At the time, I was stretched thin between expensive rent, high public transit costs, and my broke boyfriend, who was in grad school halfway across the country and needed my help with groceries and student loan bills.
As I paid off the IUD procedure in small monthly increments—it took me almost a year—I suffered terrible side effects: weight gain, mood swings, cystic acne, depression. I had the IUD removed six months before I finished paying it off.
Even though my fiancé and I now make a combined $85,000 and are in the best financial shape in the history of our relationship, I haven’t used birth control—or visited a doctor—in years.
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.
My husband worked in Pittsburgh on the business consulting side of Arthur Andersen. The responsible parties worked in Houston on the accounting side of the Enron project. No matter. The SEC went whole hog after everyone and everything.
We, like the author, borrowed from my husband’s 401k for a life event. In our case, the adoption (which we hadn’t anticipated, but we discovered we were diagnosed with infertility) cost the entire lot. We were both 34, so replenishing the 401k seemed absolutely plausible over time. My husband was on the cusp of making partner.
Then, literally in a span of weeks, he had to pay back the entire sum for the adoption ($25,000) and was unemployed.
I don’t think my husband ever emotionally recovered from the pain and humiliation and helplessness of having the rug pulled out from under our feet. I know we never really financially recovered either. We had to borrow money to pay off the money we owed and then use credit to piece together life until he started a new job.
Then, ironically, I got pregnant.
Years later, in 2008, his world crashed again because of the economy. We were underwater on our house and had to short sell it. Business consultants and hundreds of other professions have literally no job security. We have no unions, we have no pensions, we have no voice.
Oh and Arthur Andersen was exonerated from any wrongdoing in the Enron scandal years after it was put out of business.
The fact is, no matter how much you plan or try to do the right thing, there are disasters that will crush you financially—but you still open the door to your lovely house and drive your car and put on your suit and hope that the shame of your situation is never discovered.
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.
After high school I attended community college for almost free, as we could back in the ‘70s in California. I then received a Cal Grant scholarship and transferred to a UC campus. It was a struggle: My parents were not supportive of my efforts, and I discovered there was a real disadvantage to not coming from a background where one’s parents were college graduates and who could guide one through the ropes of university life.
I went over the two years allowed me by the scholarship to get my bachelor’s degree, but I was extremely proud. I got out of school without owing a penny to anyone, unlike my three children. (More on that later.)
From there I went into journalism and got a job working as a reporter at a daily newspaper in the Midwest. I met my husband, got married, and very soon after had our first child. I quit my job to look after her, reasoning we’d save a fortune in child care. Then we had another child, and another.
Then we found out my husband had a slow-growing benign tumor on the brain stem. After thousands of dollars in expenses not covered by our HMO, living on disability and unemployment benefits, and very generous help from my husband’s coworkers and our church, he died, leaving me a young widow with three young children.
Social Security survivors’ benefits and other government aide programs kept us afloat and in our suburban home. (People who heap scorn on those who receive “welfare” have no idea that many of us are families who don’t do drugs while buying luxury cars and home theaters on the taxpayers’ nickel. Our children attend school right next to theirs and they would never see the difference, either in appearance or in school performance.)
I went back to work part time and we lived frugally but well enough. If we went on vacation, it was on camping trips at state parks and road trips to see nearby attractions. (We could drive to Mount Rushmore in a day-and-a-half and stay at nearby campgrounds for a modest daily fee.) I never remarried, partly because I did not want to lose widow’s Social Security benefits, partly because I’d seen too many friends' disastrous experiences with step-parenting.
That low-budget idyll ended when my oldest was accepted at a private college on the West Coast. They offered her a scholarship, but that didn’t cover living expenses, dorm fees, or textbooks. How could I deny my child such an opportunity to go to a well-regarded liberal arts school?
So we entered the hell that is college loans. I also made my first major error by draining my retirement savings to help her out, then took out PLUS loans for the remainder of the expenses. Then child #2 was also accepted to a private college on the West Coast. I took out more loans, and she and her sister got jobs to help pay for personal expenses.
When child #3 was accepted at a state college in the Northwest, I sold the house, figuring I didn’t need it anymore since the children were all taking off to start their own lives. Unfortunately, it was the beginning of the Great Recession and the crash of the real estate market. The house sold for less than half of its projected 2007 value, though I was lucky it was enough to pay off the remains of our mortgage.
Also unfortunate was that the money accrued from the sale made it look like I had more income than I actually had at hand. The state college said my son was eligible for less student aid that his sisters, so we ended up paying full ride for out-of-state tuition, dorm fees, and other expenses. To my son’s credit, he immediately got a job and paid for most of these himself, but he and I still had to borrow money for tuition, which seemed to rise 10% or more every year.
I know, I should have made my kids pay for their own education, right? But I was looking back on my own experiences in college with my less-than-generous parents, and I swore I wouldn't make my children go through that.
Speaking of which, I made my most recent and, in my opinion, most fatal mistake. While working two jobs to support myself and my children, I began getting pleas from my father to come back and help with my mother, who was evincing signs of dementia.
My relationship with my parents had been poor since college; I’d had little contact with them, especially since they thought I was an idiot for raising my children alone in a “strange” city. (Actually, raising my children in the Midwest was a great decision, since living expenses were relatively low and the public education was very good.)
After my daughters came out to visit their grandparents one Thanksgiving, they reported that “Gramma and Grampa” were living in horrible conditions and really did need help. I went out that Christmas and discovered my parents’ house was piled floor to ceiling with shopping bags filled with junk and unopened mail, and the kitchen and living room were infested with insects and mice. My mother, who’d always done the family bookkeeping, couldn’t even carry on a five-minute conversation, while my father, whose reading and math levels were barely at the sixth grade level, couldn’t tell the difference between the phone bill and junk mail from a mobile phone company.
So I sacrificed what little financial stability I had to look after my parents. I sold off everything, quit my job(s), and moved in with my parents. I used what little money I had saved to clean and repair my parents’ house. I made them both see their doctor for the first time in years, and tests found that Dad had colon cancer and required immediate surgery. (He’d been living in pain for months but had been too scared to see the doctor; I think he knew what was wrong, but he’s always had a phobia of hospitals.)
All this time, I’d been too busy to look for work locally. On the one time I applied for a position and was invited to interview, my mother became ill and had to be rushed to the ER, where they found out she had an infection that had become septic. The employer declined to reschedule the interview. Why would he, with a glut of unemployed people waiting in the wings?
After our mother died, my relations with my siblings—who had done very little to help out—quickly deteriorated. They hired a lawyer and had me thrown out of our father’s house. At that point I was broke, with nothing in savings, and unemployed. My children rallied and helped support me until I was able to find a job and housing. By then they were all college grads and then some—two had gone on to graduate school and are now successful professionals—so at least some of my decisions did pay off in the end.
Unfortunately, like a lot of women in their 50s who lost professional-level jobs in the recession, I was only able to find a part-time job that pays half of what I made in the Midwest. I shouldn’t even have to mention that the newspaper business, where I started out my career, is done for. Going back to it at this point would be like going back to installing landline telephones for a living.
(When I first moved back to California, I stopped by the offices of a city paper where a friend worked as a copy editor, and I was stunned to find the newsroom a quarter of what it used to be. The huge building was almost empty, and most of the people working there were IT technicians in charge of maintaining and updating the website. I wondered who would be doing investigative reporting or those in-depth features the McClatchy papers had been famous for. Online media is great for “breaking news,” but the best journalism requires weeks of research and fact checking. Investors have no patience for that; they want startups that will generate money quickly while running lean and light.)
I’m still making payments on the PLUS loans, which can’t be discharged by bankruptcy (I tried). I also can’t allow my children to assume payments of the loans; since I took them out in my name, I have to pay them.
When my 2007 Honda Civic with 105,000 miles on the odometer died two months ago, I did not have the $740 to fix it. Again, my children came to my rescue and gave me the money, but it’s mortifying to have to ask them for help again and again.
I had hoped at this point of my life I would be financially independent and looking forward to retirement. Now, I’m just praying my health holds up so I can work at least until I’m 70. After that, I have no idea what my future will look like.
I know this story is very long and don’t expect you to run it, but I felt compelled to share it. I’m sure a number of people will say I was stupid to pay for my children’s college educations and even more stupid to give up my job to help out my parents, who didn’t help me when I needed it. But as Neal Gabler pointed out, it wouldn’t be my life if I hadn’t done those things that made it, such as it is.
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.
We have stripped everything we possibly can in order to keep us afloat. The only “luxury” we have is that our teen son is in a private school for the gifted. Our local public schools are a nightmare, and we were fortunate enough to receive excellent scholarships that cover almost all of the tuition. For the rest, we took out loans. I don’t apologize for that. Education is top priority in this household. My son sacrifices in every other way due to our financial situation. We feel this is the one thing we can give him to get him started in the world.
I never imagined that I’d be in this situation, but life happens and we continue to try to roll with the punches.
Monica is also resilient in the face of tragedy:
Linda and Neal and others, you are not alone … far from it. I am 63, and I, too, am living from one paycheck to the next.
This century has not been good to me. In 2002, my husband died of cancer at 45, leaving his intellectually and physically disabled child with me. I was a public school administrator who, when my child’s medical conditions exploded beyond the control of medical science, took a five-month leave of absence to care for her.
When I did go back to work, it was not as the principal I had been. I, too, needed health leave: I was stressed beyond my ability to cope effectively with the demands of both my personal and professional lives. By 2008, my health had deteriorated to the point that I took an early retirement and consequently a much smaller pension than if I had stayed to 62.
Then the Great Recession hit, the value of my home plummeted by 50%, the job that was to begin in September 2008 vanished, and I couldn’t find regular work because of my age. I survived by having the pension check go to the mortgage and doing sporadic substitute teaching for utilities and groceries.
I did have a phenomenal stroke of luck when I was offered a fellowship to earn an advanced degree in special education in 2009. I don’t know how I would have survived without that opportunity. I began an entirely new career at the age of 59 and became nationally certified in my field at 62.
I was able to refinance the house at a very low rate (I was financed with a local credit union that worked diligently with and for me), created a rental property in the basement, and continue to have hens in my backyard and grow my own or to shop locally for fresh food.
I can’t afford to move (rents are high), and I can barely afford to stay, but here I am because I am surrounded by a wonderful, supportive community. They peeled me off the sidewalk when I fell down a set of concrete stairs breaking bones in both legs in 2015 and brought me meals until I was able to go back to my part-time work (no paid sick leave) two months later.
I love my tiny cottage, I am near my family, and my neighborhood supports one another, so I live a simple, almost comfortable life here. I will never see Europe, or travel the U.S., or do any of the activities that I aspired to for the third act of my life. The mortgage will be paid in full when I am 88. I still awaken in the night and wonder what will happen if there is an emergency.
This reader’s spouse also got hit with cancer:
As a teenager, I guess I was unusual in that I remember subscribing (in 1980) to a couple of periodicals on personal finance and reading them cover to cover every month. I’m not entirely sure why, I simply wanted to understand money. Those magazines were full of articles on 401Ks, IRAs, and planning for retirement and the like. I took that financial education to heart and applied it as I moved into the work force.
After I married, completed graduate school and began working as an engineer, I took on the responsibility to manage our family’s finances. My wife was content to live within the budget we had set that included saving a significant percentage of our income. I started using Quicken to track expenses, I created spreadsheets to fully understand and budget for the purchase of our first home. I set our asset allocations for our investments within our 401Ks. With each raise, I increased our 401K contribution until we reached the maximum allowable contribution every year and have reached that maximum for as long as I can remember. Annual bonuses from work were saved and invested.
We purchased a home significantly cheaper than the amount of a loan that the banks would have loaned to us. We have never in our 26 years of marriage carried a credit card balance and pay off the balance completely every month. We strove to set our budget so that my wife could quit working to raise children when they came along. It turns out she continued working part-time while we raised our children and so we have continued to aggressively save.
Life hasn’t always been perfect by any means. My wife was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 but is now in remission. Our high deductible health insurance paid the lions share of the chemotherapy drugs, but we had no problem paying the full deductible and max out of pocket expenses during her years of treatment.
I imagine that many people would see such an event as a catastrophic financial event, yet we had savings readily available to cover the costs without adding additional stress to her effort to get better. It was a life altering event, but it didn’t alter our financial life.
Now that I am nearing the end of my working career, I feel quite guilty being blessed as we have been and knowing that so many people in our country have followed quite a different financial path, as Mr. Gabler has done. I hope my email doesn’t sound egregiously prideful, but the lessons learned by our grandparents during the Great Depression were lost on the Baby Boomers. I hope that articles like Mr. Gabler’s are a lesson that the younger generations can learn from. I know that I have tried to teach my sons these principles ... only time will tell.
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.
I was fantastically lucky. Within a year I landed a job in my field, and I funneled about 2/3 of my take-home pay toward my loans. This was where the Mr. Money Mustache blog [previously noted here] helped a lot, as well as sharing expenses with my also-employed boyfriend who had similar financial goals. I was able to pay off my loans in about two years.
But ANY setback could have been disastrous, as I kept no emergency fund or savings while I was dumping all of my money into my loans. The specter of the debt was always there, but living like a poor college student or a working poor family wasn’t a change for me.
Now I’m student loan debt-free (I’ve never carried credit card debt), and last year I maxed out my 401(k), IRA, tithed 10%, and also saved about $10,000 in a Vanguard account at age 28. I’m certainly on track to retire before 40, barring disasters.
However, I never stop worrying about having enough money, and I also have immense guilt about my parents still being a few missed paychecks from being destitute. My parents are proud of my accomplishments, but also too proud to accept any substantial gifts from me.
When my partner and I shared that we were buying a house (with the full 20% down—we also put double payments toward the principle for the first year), my renter father was noticeably uncomfortable, and again I felt massive guilt. He hadn’t been able to afford a real bed until I turned 18 and he stopped paying child support, and that haunts me still.
I also have friends my age who weren’t as lucky as I was to land a well-paying job, so I feel anxiety about discussing any money matters at all with anyone. By all accounts I’m doing well, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel like it, or feel good about it unless I am able to give it away.
In contrast, reader Gwen started with a lot more student debt and still has a long way to go:
Thank you for your focus on money lately. Money is paralyzing, but I think opening up about it recently has helped me feel less panicky. I’m 27, paying off over $125k in student loan debt (all from undergrad), pay the same amount in rent as I do in student loans every month (about $800), have $0 in savings, and $2500 in credit card debt.
What hit me most a few months ago was that I’d been paying over $800 a month for over four years toward the student loans and had just gotten to the point where my balance is equal to the principal of the loans. I’ve paid down over half of my credit card debt in the last four months by spending as minimally as possible and not contributing to my 401k, but for now the student loan situation remains the same.
I’d love to get married (and have a wedding) or go to grad school, but I find myself delaying both and adjusting expectations because I have such crushing guilt every time I even think about spending more than $50 on something. I feel like I made the wrong choice about undergrad; I didn’t know I’d need to take on debt going into it, but once I did, I didn’t transfer or mitigate the situation because I didn’t understand the implications of student loan debt. And, like many others, I believed that when I graduated with whatever liberal arts major I chose, I’d be able to find a great job and pay off my debt easily.
I am so ashamed and guilty and resentful when I think about 18-year-old me signing away my paychecks from my 20s and 30s for four years at a private school in New York City and a psychology major.
We are a financially illiterate country, sold the idea that you deserve a house, a new car, to go to whatever college you want, and to take any vacation you want. As sad as it sounds, racking myself with guilt every time I spend money has helped me be more frugal.
Our latest reader contributor, Scott Shepard of Memphis, Tennessee, responds to the previous reader who once earned six figures as a newspaper editor but is now unemployed, cash poor, and living in her son’s converted garage. Here’s Scott:
Linda’s tale is very nearly the same as mine. After more than 25 years in the newspaper business, I was downsized in 2008. (The managing editor told me privately that I was the highest paid person in the editorial department, so canning me would save the most money.)
After months of fruitless searching for another job, I accepted an invitation from a friend and moved to Taiwan to be an English teacher. A grand adventure, but after more than six years I yearned to be home. (Most foreign English teachers are from South Africa, so as an American I always had more work than I could handle; everyone prefers an American or Canadian.)
If Linda is interested in being a foreign teacher, I’d be glad to give her some guidance. Otherwise, go through the help wanted ads and see what is most in demand, and train for a new occupation. I’ve enrolled at my local community college to learn PC Networking, a field in which I know I can find work.
I’ve been back from Taiwan for a year, doing whatever I can find, from food service to working in a warehouse. I took training to be a forklift driver, but I’m left-handed, and you really have to be right-handed to drive those things. I’ve picked up some freelance work, but not much. I started two businesses that both failed to take off.
When I started at my last newspaper in 1989, there were 13 reporters. Today, there are three. Those jobs are not coming back. The Internet has completely changed the publishing industry. Nobody wants to pay a writer when there are thousands of others who will do it for free—quality be damned.
And increasingly, the best pay for journalists on the web is writing sponsored content, the form of advertising meant to resemble editorial content (though it’s clearly labeled here at The Atlantic, in contrast to less scrupulous actors like the one Fallows highlighted last year). If you haven’t yet seen John Oliver’s detailed look at sponsored content back in 2014, you really should:
And Jacob Silverman recently wrote for The Baffler “Confessions of a sponsored content writer,” centered on his experiences writing for our site. Here Silverman gives some perspective on the economics of the media industry right now:
But my new Atlantic contact gave me the lowdown: the magazine was looking to expand its sponsored offerings, and it would pay obscenely well—up to $4 per word in some cases, a rate that can be found these days only at the glossiest of glossy mags. I had written a few pieces for The Atlantic’s website before, at the measly rate of $150 each.
It’s definitely tough out there, and not just for legacy newspapers like the ones Linda and Scott worked for. From Ken Doctor’s latest diagnosis in NiemanLab:
At BuzzFeed, a 32 percent miss in 2015 revenue and a halving of its 2016 revenue target, according to the Financial Times.
The list of cutbacks — at The Huffington Post, at Gawker, at Al Jazeera, at International Business Times, and at Salon among others — keeps growing. And each round poses new questions for a news business struggling to find a way forward in this millennium. After all, even if the old world of news faded (like its readers) into older age, at least we could point to the cohort of digital-native outlets with a bit of optimism.
I feared this day would come — the new digital news companies bumping into a wall.
If, like Linda and Scott, you’ve also hit a wall and want to share your experience, drop us an email.
Many law school grads can relate to Brandon’s predicament:
To me, nothing summed up my experience better than your colleague Gillian’s July 2015 article, “Millennials Who Are Thriving Financially Have One Thing in Common ... Rich Parents.” My luck, or lack thereof, went even further. Specifically, I began law school in 2006 when the legal market was still booming, but the wheels fell off in the middle of my second year. By then, even the most qualified of my peers at a top-50 law school struggled to secure any legal position.
I don’t blame my parents, pre-law advisors, or anyone for that. Sometimes, stuff happens. And even three years earlier, I would have been fine. But, now being required to use 25 percent of my monthly salary (after taxes) to pay back law school loans has made life increasingly difficult. Unlike my friends who either have no debt, who have financial support from parents, or both, I literally can’t afford to make a mistake or be the victim of bad luck.
I thankfully will be able to take advantage of a public service loan forgiveness program through the federal government and be finished with my loans after five more years (I’ve been part of it for five so far). But I can’t imagine having to spend 25 years paying back loans and then have to pay taxes on the amount forgiven.
It’s a tough path to be on, and it has definitely contributed to me not saving or starting a family. But like I said, there's no one really to blame for that. Stuff just happens.
Our next reader has a whopping $200,000 of law school debt. This line especially stood out: “I’ve been shamed by people at my current work, including my boss, because I’ve admitted to being poor when I look, and my family looks, rich.” Here’s his full story, involving protein powder and a pooch in pain:
I’m 28, white male, an attorney in New Jersey, graduated law school in 2013 and was unemployed / working for free until the beginning of 2015. I went to a great law school but focused on a career in immigration that I ended up being unable to get a job in due to a lack of Spanish proficiency, and it was really strange and stressful to have most of my classmates going into jobs that started over six figures while I had to move back into my parent’s basement and slowly destroy my savings while looking for work.
I ended up taking what would have been a dream job at an immigration nonprofit, but I wasn’t paid to do it. My parents supported me, but they insisted I live in a much more expensive apartment than I wanted to and then didn’t help as much as they said they would, so I ended up going into thousands of dollars in credit card debt to pay for rent and groceries. I’m ok now, but only because I got a good job at the end of 2014 and spent the past 15 months paying off cards, bills, and many other debts.
I’m lucky enough that I was able to rely on my parents to help me keep “working,” even if unpaid, because without that job I almost certainly would have ended up long term unemployed—but even that luck didn’t feel great. I ended up buying protein powder, flour, and peanut butter to make high calorie/protein cookies to last me when I ran out of money for food; I couldn’t pay for repairs for my car and put all the gas on a credit card; and I had to delay a surgery for my dog for a year which left her in a lot of pain and distress.
I was also depressed during much of this time, and my long-term girlfriend, whom I was planning on proposing to, dumped me, saying she couldn’t deal with it any more. I went to a therapist, who was very helpful with the depression but also ended up being out of network for my insurance, so I had to go into more debt to pay for the treatments.
I’m out of it now, but my food buying patterns were frankly broken for most of 2015 as a result, and I’ve been shamed by people at my current work, including my boss, because I’ve admitted to being poor when I look and my family looks rich. I’m almost out of my credit card debt and was able to pay for my dog’s surgery but I don’t know how long it’ll take for me to be normal about money and groceries/food/normal daily life things. I also have no expectations of ever being able to afford to buy a home—ever—and I’m lucky because I don’t want kids; I have no idea how I could ever financially plan for a child’s expenses.
I have over $200,000 of law school debt, which thankfully I'm on an income-based plan for and will be able to deal with, so the odd thing is it's my smaller debts/bills that have been the real issue for me. The best advice I have for people going through what I went through, or worse, is to try to keep organized and normal. Mental health is just as hard to deal with as physical health, and if I had recognized that and been more put together I think I wouldn’t have the lasting effects that I have now in my approach to daily life.
The generation that grew up with Rebecca Black’s “Friday” isn’t just nostalgic for that novelty tune—it’s making music inspired by it.
Ten years ago, the most Googled name in the world belonged to a wide-smiling 13-year-old girl everyone seemed to be laughing at. She was Rebecca Black of “Friday,” the calendar-themed sing-along that reached megafame by being, in many people’s judgment, the worst song ever. Amid cheesy production by the ARK Music Factory—a now-defunct Southern California firm that Black’s mom had paid $4,000 to make the song—Black’s auto-tuned voice bleated about cereal, front seats, back seats, and “fun, fun, fun.” In the music video, which featured tweens riding around in a convertible, and on talk shows where hosts quizzed Black about why her song was so hated, she never seemed to drop her grin.
Leagues are seeing the downside of treating vaccines as simply a matter of personal choice.
When the NBA announced Wednesday that Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul was being sidelined indefinitely under the league’s coronavirus-safety protocols, the next question was obvious: Had Paul been vaccinated?
For COVID-19 concerns to interrupt Paul’s brilliant playoff run seemed particularly cruel—not only because the widespread availability of vaccines has made transmission of the virus largely preventable, but also because the Suns had just secured a spot in the Western Conference finals. Even though Paul is one of the best NBA point guards ever, this week’s development was another unfortunate entry in his long history of medical problems during the playoffs.
The television analysts Matt Barnes and Jalen Rose, both of whom are former NBA players, soon reported that Paul had indeed been vaccinated. But all the discussion of his status raised another important question: Do fans even have the right to know, and do journalists have the right to ask, if a player has been vaccinated against COVID-19?
Reducing hours without reducing pay would reignite an essential but long-forgotten moral project: making American life less about work.
The 89 people who work at Buffer, a company that makes social-media management tools, are used to having an unconventional employer. Everyone’s salary, including the CEO’s, is public. All employees work remotely; their only office closed down six years ago. And as a perk, Buffer pays for any books employees want to buy for themselves.
So perhaps it is unsurprising that last year, when the pandemic obliterated countless workers’ work-life balance and mental health, Buffer responded in a way that few other companies did: It gave employees an extra day off each week, without reducing pay—an experiment that’s still running a year later. “It has been such a godsend,” Essence Muhammad, a customer-support agent at Buffer, told me.
There’s no way of knowing how bad things will get in the U.S. In a way, that’s a luxury.
This much is clear: The coronavirus is becoming more transmissible. Ever since the virus emerged in China, it has been gaining mutations that help it spread more easily among humans. The Alpha variant, first detected in the United Kingdom last year, is 50 percent more transmissible than the original version, and now the Delta variant, first detected in India, is at least 40 percent more transmissible than Alpha.
What’s less certain, however, is how the virus’s increased transmissibility will affect the pandemic in the United States. Alpha’s arrival prompted worries about a new surge in the spring, but one never came. The proportion of Alpha cases kept going up, but the total number of cases kept going down. People got vaccinated. Alpha became dominant in the U.S. Cases fell even further. The virus had become more biologically transmissible, but it wasn’t being transmitted to more people.
The Apple TV+ series Physical is a reminder that making people hate their body is a thriving pillar of American commerce.
This is supposed to be the season of unleashed, exuberant exhibitionism. Many of us have swaddled our pale bodies in Lycra and terry cloth for more than a year; the theory of Hot Vax Summer is that we’re long overdue to expose them to the cruel light of other people’s eyes. In the music video for “Solar Power,” Lorde basks on the beach in a lemon-yellow crop top, the symmetry of her rib cage its own work of art. “Forget all of the tears that you’ve cried; it’s over,” she sings, shooing away our literal and metaphorical winter of COVID-19. (Predictably, the outfit she wears—$615 plus tax!—sold out immediately.) I watched most of Physical—Apple TV+’s new series about a 1980s aerobics queen-in-waiting—with this in mind, idly running my hand over and over my unsculpted midriff, fighting the impulse to throw on a leotard and sweat joyfully along to “Space Age Love Song.” This is the conflict at the center of American consumerist fitness spectacle: Even when it’s at its most transparently questionable, the promise is almost impossible to resist.
People in the United States no longer agree on the nation’s purpose, values, history, or meaning. Is reconciliation possible?
Nations, like individuals, tell stories in order to understand what they are, where they come from, and what they want to be. National narratives, like personal ones, are prone to sentimentality, grievance, pride, shame, self-blindness. There is never just one—they compete and constantly change. The most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact-checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires. Americans know by now that democracy depends on a baseline of shared reality—when facts become fungible, we’re lost. But just as no one can live a happy and productive life in nonstop self-criticism, nations require more than facts—they need stories that convey a moral identity. The long gaze in the mirror has to end in self-respect or it will swallow us up.
For some Americans, history isn’t the story of what actually happened; it’s the story they want to believe.
This article was published online on May 10, 2021.
Most of the people who come to Blandford Cemetery, in Petersburg, Virginia, come for the windows—masterpieces of Tiffany glass in the cemetery’s deconsecrated church. One morning before the pandemic, I took a tour of the church along with two other visitors and our tour guide, Ken. When my eyes adjusted to the hazy darkness inside, I could see that in each window stood a saint, surrounded by dazzling bursts of blues and greens and violets. Below these explosions of color were words that I couldn’t quite make out. I stepped closer to one of the windows, and the language became clearer. Beneath the saint was an inscription honoring the men “who died for the Confederacy.”
A common ideology underlies the practices of many ultra-wealthy people: The government can’t be trusted with money.
When ProPublica published its report last week on the tax profiles of 25 of the richest Americans, jaws dropped across the United States. How was it possible that plutocrats such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett could pay nothing in income taxes to the federal government? What sneaky sleights of pen, what subterfuge, what acts of turpitude could have led to this result?
The shock stems, in part, from a disturbing reality: Nowhere does ProPublica assert that these men cheated, lied, or did anything felonious to lower their tax burdens. The naked fact of the matter is that not a single one of the documented methods and practices that allowed these billionaires to so radically minimize their tax obligations was illegal.
The extent of the former president’s corruption may be too great for Americans to fathom.
A torrent of newrevelations is filling in the picture of how Donald Trump used, and abused, his authority as president. But the disclosures may serve only to underscore how little remains known about all the ways in which Trump barreled through traditional limits on the exercise of presidential power—and highlight the urgency of developing a more comprehensive accounting before the 2024 election, when he may seek to regain those powers.
Farrow says she witnessed disturbing and occasionally ghastly things for years. Why didn’t she act earlier?
The four-part HBO docuseriesAllen v. Farrow opens with a gliding aerial shot of Manhattan, the camera moving slowly across Central Park: the baseball fields, the reservoir, the dark-green trees, lush summer, fecundity. But the music doesn’t suggest summer splendor; it’s ominous and portentous. We fly past the park, and the camera comes to rest at the grand facade of the Plaza Hotel, with its famous mansard roof, the copper burnished by time to a patina of sea-foam green, an echo of the green park beyond it. It’s a strangely loaded opening to the series: The Plaza figures in the saga only as the site of two press conferences related to the bitter custody fight between Mia Farrow and Woody Allen. But the music and the lingering shot of the building make it seem like a sinister location.