I always believed in the American dream. My parents lived it practically verbatim. My dad started his own business at 32 and he worked long, hard days to bring home a steady income. It paid off. 30 years later, that business is still here and because he pushed to make it so successful, he’s had enough money to leave that one to the employees in a buyout and start a different business. One less difficult on him physically. Less wear and tear on the old guy.
I did not grow up in the lap of luxury though.
The business really wasn’t stable and successful until I was a teenager. We grew up on Ramen and cheap Mac & Cheese and hand me down clothes. My younger sisters were the ones who grew up a little high on the hog, especially the youngest one. And that’s okay. I appreciated a lot of what I had.
Trick is, both my parents grew up in poverty and didn’t get opportunities to do much. So they struck out to give their kids a better life. They tried to show us we had more opportunity than they did. And they love to shop. My mother had tons of clothes and as a result, when they started having the money, we had tons of new clothes. Just because it wasn’t until I was older didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy all the stuff.
But then I grew up, married my first husband, had my first child. My expectations of a husband came from my father. He was a very hardworking man. Unfortunately, this husband was not. He refused to do whatever it took to support us. It fell on my shoulders to do the heavy lifting. I didn’t like that much but I was young and a little naive, to be certain.
I often worked two full-time jobs to maintain the house we purchased. And he would spend money on fast food and insist on having babysitters watch our daughter. He finally find a job delivering pizza but couldn’t be bothered to take any responsibility at all for the finances, our house, our kid. It was hard.
We divorced and I was a single mom for a while. Those are some of the most insecure times of my life. I have moved back in with my parents at least three times in the last 15 years. And I am totally grateful they were willing to let me. I lost my job twice as a single mom and couldn’t find work because I hadn’t finished school yet. It was heart wrenching and difficult.
Then, I ran back into my best guy friend from high school and he soon became my second husband. He was great. Doing everything he could to help us scrape by. Started his own business when he was 25 and it was very successful for a long time. I thought we were set. Just like my parents, we would soon have the American dream for ourselves.
Life is unpredictable.
I’m sure this is not news to you, but here’s what happened. Four years later, his business folded. He worked a very specific niche market and when the downturn happened, we were hit hard. I had always had some part-time jobs, but now we had no main source of income. At the time his company folded, I was working full-time. We were stable and he managed to find a decent paying job before it folded too. So, despite the setback, we were going to be okay.
Then the Friday happened. It was the first Friday in February of 2009. We both lost our jobs on the same day. Within months we had dried up our savings, trying to just maintain the house payments. On the brink of bankruptcy, we decided to sell our house and figure out the rest later. Luckily, we were able to sell and come out a few thousand dollars ahead. But we had nowhere to go. We had two young children and about a month before we sold our house, we found out I was pregnant. (He’d been fixed. Thought we were in the clear. The universe thought otherwise.)
Now we were homeless with children. The only thing we could maintain the payments on was our tiny car. I was so scared, I can’t even begin to explain. But my gracious parents let us move back in with them. It was supposed to be temporary; however, as we all know, the economy and everything else was slow to recover. Thus, we waited and a temporary stay turned into two years.
At the end of that stay, I was working a steady full-time job again and my husband had found another one to match his skill set. So we went off looking to buy a house. That’s the American dream right? Buy a house with the lovely white picket fence and have 2.3 kids? We had the kids, now we needed the house.
This time, we were careful. We didn’t spend anywhere near the amount we were approved for. We looked in slightly less desirable places. And we found a wonderful little bungalow in a fairly safe neighborhood with a payment we thought we could afford. So we bought it and moved in. Again, we were on the comeback trail.
Well, a few things happened. We discovered my husband has psoriasis and Celiacs disease. Which affected the budget tremendously. We were just trying to get him well. Then, I was in a debilitating car accident which left me with extensive nerve damage. By this time, he was the only one who had a job and things were just getting tighter and tighter financially. The noose hung loosely around our necks as we pushed forward.
Now, we discussed the five-year plan. And we knew things were going to be tightly budgeted and despite our very careful planning and forethought, it still wasn’t enough. With my continued medical care (still ongoing) and his continued medical care (still ongoing) and attempting to acquire a diagnosis for our son (on spectrum) and noticing our daughter exhibiting similar traits to our son, we just couldn’t figure out a way to make it work.
I went through jobs like a person changes shirts. It was difficult with my condition as some days, my nerves on my left side simply refuse to respond. Can’t move, can’t work. Not many employers are sympathetic. After going through almost a dozen and a half jobs in three years, I decided I would stay home and make a go of this writing thing. But that left us terribly financially strapped.
My family again came to the charge and gave us a loan to pay off all our outstanding medical bills and some others we just couldn’t pay. It was an awful moment. But I remember my dad looking at me as if he understood the situation (let me be clear…we did not at that time and do not at this time have credit card debt) said in his condescendingly helpful way, “Now you just have to figure out a way to not live beyond your means.”
In my head, I went crazy mad. Live beyond our means. Since when is getting into medical debt living beyond our means? This debt was incurred trying to keep us healthy and functioning. How dare he assume we were living beyond our means. And I went straight home on this anger and had a very long session of talking it out with my husband.
This is what this all means.
Security is an illusion. The American dream is unattainable for anyone below the upper middle class at this point. Living in poverty is only something you can change and it has nothing to do with whether you purchase an iPhone or the latest television. Whether you have mounting credit card bills or not.
At closer inspection of all we had done, we realized one simple thing. This loan had only staved off the inevitable. On the brink of bankruptcy for the second time in less than ten years under completely different circumstances either time, and we were talking about doing the same thing over again. Our medical debts would rise with the care we both needed again and it would be a downward spiral because we couldn’t afford the treatments and we would be right back where we were now in maybe 5 years time…most likely less.
I’d already filed bankruptcy once, during my divorce. The ex had filed a year or so earlier and caused me to be the sole debt holder. An asshole move to be sure, but it felt horrible to file for bankruptcy. And in that moment, in that realization, I was right back there, feeling nauseous at the thought, the world spinning out of control.
How in the world do we fix this?
What a question. We were insane for a moment. The definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Then, with clearer heads, we realized we had to make a drastic change. To be able to live within our means meant doing something off the wall and crazy. We discussed selling the house again. It was a high sellers market at the time.
But if we sold our house, I didn’t just want to buy another one we couldn’t afford. My house had been taken away from me three times in my lifetime and I didn’t want that to ever happen again. The solution – we bought a fifth wheel with the profits from our house sale. We own it outright and no one can take that away from us because now, we are practically debt free. Now, even though we are in a smaller space, we are mobile. We can travel. We can live without fear of something devastating us.
That is as secure as life gets. And now, while I sit here on my hot spot thinking about all the change of the summer, I have to be frank with you. I feel like the American dream is unattainable and viably dead for most of us at this point. Security is an illusion we all chase but never really achieve. I know something worse may happen. But I know I don’t worry so much about that anymore. And that’s as secure as I can ever be.