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.

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Paying Off Twice Your Student Loan

Earlier this summer, a Canadian reader, Kristen, voiced the “Unpopular Opinion” that she’s “tired of hearing about people’s student loan debt,” given her dogged efforts to pay for her own college tuition without loans and thus forgo “the ‘university life’ that I saw on TV: brick buildings, living on campus, and fun parties every weekend.” But a reader who grew up in poverty, Mary, responded to Kristen that “without those loans that I ‘chose’ to take out [while working as a single mother of three], I would likely still be working for minimum wage and living in poverty.”

Here’s another key perspective from Olivia in Dayton, Ohio:

I appreciate the comments of others from Canada and from Kristen that show how university can be less expensive in that country but still a burden that has to be paid. I really wish I would have walked Kristen’s path, because she is so smart for making the choices and sacrifices that she did. I hope she is rewarded for those good choices throughout her life.

However, I am disheartened by the constant attention to the newer grads. I am mid-forties and graduated during the 1990s. It is my friends and peers who are having an awful time paying these loans, some 20 years later. Why? In the ’90s, the interest rates were at 8 percent … guess who is STILL paying those rates.

Mary in Pennsylvania has a new and crucial perspective to share:

This is in response to the recent reader note “Taking on Student Loan Debt Is a CHOICE.” Guess what? Like Kirsten, I’m tired of hearing about school loan debt, too. But I’m also in the middle of the experience.

Although taking on debt from student loans was a choice, my other options were not realistically viable. See, I was raised in poverty, and I was still in poverty when I started at a community college as a twenty-something adult working in a dead-end job and raising my three kids as a divorced mom. There was no drunken partying until the wee hours of the morning, or blowing off classes that Mommy and Daddy paid for. Try juggling three kids, one of whom was in diapers and child care, a job and a full schedule of college classes, complete with homework and labs. Without those loans that I “chose” to take out, I would likely still be working for minimum wage and living in poverty.

A refreshing reader dissent from Kirsten Campbell:

I know this is an Unpopular Opinion, but I’m tired of hearing about people’s student loan debt. I keep seeing articles about it cropping up on The Atlantic and it has become increasingly irritating.

I’m Canadian, and I went to university in the same city I grew up in so I would avoid student loan debt. My parents didn’t pay a dime towards my degree or the degrees of my two siblings. We always knew they weren’t contributing; it wasn’t a secret that they weren’t paying for our schooling. As such, in grade 10, I started tutoring ESL and later worked retail to save money for school.

While in school I typically tutored 4-10 p.m. every weeknight, then on weekends I worked retail. In the summer, I usually ended up working more retail because my tutoring kids were away or wanted a break. When I got home from tutoring at 10 p.m. each night, I made myself dinner and then started my own homework and assignments. (Yes, after helping other people with theirs, I wasn’t terribly motivated when it came to my own work.)

I worked like a dog. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, but university was expensive, I had to buy a used car to get myself there and pay for insurance, gas, food, clothing etc (except rent) all by myself.

A doctor of disadvantaged patients details her long and arduous path to financial security:

I grew up in a lower-middle class setting: My father was an engineer, my mother a teacher’s aide, then a teacher. I never had to worry about food on the table, much less a roof over my head, but there was no room for extras. By the time I was in high school, we were settled very comfortably in middle class.

Then the recession of the early 2000s hit, the company my father worked for closed down, and I graduated high school and started college, with my parents living on a single income and my elementary school-aged brother still at home.

By nature (and perhaps a little by nurture as well), I was always a frugal person, but knowledge that my parents were borrowing almost $40,000 a year to pay my college tuition kept me on the very straight and narrow. I only ate the two meals a day that were included in my room and board. I walked everywhere. The rare trips into the city were done via public transportation.

After I graduated from college, I attended medical school, and this time, the student loans were in my name.

That quote comes from Brian Brunjes, the local butcher and friend of Neal Gabler, who wrote our May cover story, “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans.” Brian started to struggle after his son was diagnosed with autism, causing his wife to quit her job to care for him and thus leaving the Brunjes family with one income. Here’s Brian alongside Neal in a segment for Wednesday’s NewsHour discussing financial impotence:

From the segment’s transcript, here’s a money quote from Edward Wolff, a professor of economics:

Today, the average family has enough financial reserves to keep going for about three weeks. That’s it. And that’s middle-income.

Here’s another startling statistic from economist Annamaria Lusardi:

[H]ow confident are you that you could come up with $2,000 if an unexpected need arose within the next month? And what we found is 40 percent of families could not come up with $2,000 in 30 days. So it’s important to recognize that, that the financial fragility is just so widespread.

Meanwhile, from our hello@ inbox, here’s the story of a young woman who works in online media and is about the same age as Neal Gabler’s daughters:

Supposedly I did everything right. I worked hard to be the first person in my family to graduate from college. I did so with only $3,000 in student loans. I took several internships and kept a part-time job all while going to school full time. I got a job at a hip company right out of college. Everything went right.

Except the pay isn’t great, because, hey, I don’t have any experience. So I answered an ad on Craigslist for a roommate to save money. By the end, there had been people on my couch running from the cops, multiple cockroaches on my pillow, and my “landlord” saying it wasn’t her problem that I didn’t like bugs. So I moved out. Except the rent and utilities to go to this job cost me half my income.

I end up just making ends meet. And it’s like, why did I work so hard then? Wasn’t college and working hard supposed to get me somewhere? I’m just as broke now as my family was when I was a kid.

A reader recommends a new podcast from Lindsay Goldwert—a journalist and stand-up comic based in Queens—that’s very similar to our ongoing reader series on financial struggles. From her five-minute introductory mini-sode (a word I just made up):

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.

SPENT is available on iTunes and Google Play, but it’s most easily accessible directly from Goldwert’s site.

(The wonderful illustrations are by Christa Cassano)

That quote is from a previous reader contributor, Lori, but it’s echoed in this monologue from the inimitable John Goodman:

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.  

A screenshot from Dave’s class outline

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.

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.