Thursday, August 27, 2009

Lessons of a Tough Economy

If you're like me and probably 80 percent of the population, you've had to make budget cuts to make ends meet lately. In my case, it seems that every time the 'ends' are just about to 'meet', somebody or some Thing comes along and moves the 'ends' further apart. There goes any hopes that my finances are about to turn the corner and let me breathe a bit. Perhaps the worst side effect of this Mess we're in is the increased stress and the poison it can inflict on our physical bodies. Stress takes its toll for sure. The background noise in our mind increases as the ego, disappointed that its needs aren't being met, creates and runs movies of scenarios, what if's, etc in an endless loop. We feel helpless. Friends call and invite me out to eat, go bowling, movies, a beer, whatever..and I have to politely decline because there's no discretionary income left for Fun. I work in the auto industry as parts manager of a Saturn dealership. That being said, my salary is not what it used to be. Over the last year or more as the economy slowed, I was in denial. Whatever deficit existed in my budget, I compensated for with my credit cards. Before I knew it, I was buying gas, groceries, even paying some bills with them. I've had 3 surgeries over the last 3 years, 2 of them major, and the co payments that my supposedly good health insurance didn't cover (probably $18,000 all told..) all went on my cards. And on top of that, I took in a 17 year old roommate who'd been kicked out by his alcoholic dad and tried to point him in the right direction. I couldn't reach him and I failed, but not before I paid for a rebuilt engine and transmission in his car so he could drive to work, then discovered on my credit card statement over $9,000 in charges and online purchases in ONE MONTH that he'd made without my permission. So he's gone, and my new, more responsible roommate is moving out of the country in 2 months. Stress. Long story short, last November it came down to paying my credit cards or paying my mortgage. I called the bank with my largest card balance ($48,000) and told them of my situation, that I wanted to be proactive about it and work out a payment plan. I'd had the card and kept a significant balance on it for over 10 years, so they'd made plenty of money at my expense. They pretty much told me "we can't help you, have a nice day." So I decided to stop paying them and enrolled the card in a debt re-assignment program and it has since been turned over to collections and charged off, but my phone still rings constantly with threats from debt collectors. I contacted Hope Now and they helped me put the heat on my mortgage lenders to modify my $200,000 in mortgages on my now $100,000 house. My 1st mortgage lender was quick and painless about it, converting my shady adjustable rate loan to a 30 year fixed at 6.3 percent loan with minimal paperwork. Finally after I threatened to stop paying them, my 2nd mortgage lender converted my loan from a 10.25 balloon down to 5 percent fixed rate, but is dragging its heals on finalizing the modification, and even though I've made 3 of the new reduced payments, their system still shows my old loan as 'delinquent, >60 days' and has reported it as such to the 3 major credit bureaus. So between my credit card charge off, and my 2nd mortgage, my credit is shot for now. I intend to start fixing it next month with the help of a specialized company. As I type this I have $1 in my wallet, a maxed out American Express card that I'll be paying late this month, and a check card linked to my account that currently has $7 left in it. My car has 1/4 tank of gas left in it and I can probably raid the kitchen cabinets and squeak by till payday which is still 6 days away. I always seem to run short lately. If you visited my humble home, you wouldn't find extravagances such as big screen TV's or anything's all basic needs that I'm fighting for right now. I'm grateful that aside from the credit card that's been charged off, I'm able to pay my bills. They may be late, but they get paid, somehow. Despite the stress, some good has come from this mess. I've learned to appreciate the value of a dollar and be frugal. I've learned you can always get just a little more peanut butter or mayonnaise from the empty jar if you are patient enough. I've learned to squeeze the hell out of an empty toothpaste tube to get a few more brushfulls from it. I've learned that store brands aren't so bad, and often better than the pricey national brands. I've learned that I'm not that bad of a cook, and have enjoyed experimenting and coming up with new creations, the leftovers of which become tomorrow's lunch. I've learned that I really don't miss cable TV all that much; the new antenna I tossed up in the attic and my converter box (Thanks, Nick) do just fine. I've learned that the slower, cheaper internet access isn't that much slower, if at all, than the Turbo Speed for which I paid dearly. I've learned the value of reading and appreciate good books over cheap coffee made at home, instead of that $4 caramel macchiato. If I do go out for coffee, I just buy the cheap regular stuff and doctor it up. I've learned I don't have to pay extra for New Releases and just pay $1.00 for plenty of movies that I've not yet seen. I've also learned to appreciate my local library, they have free movies too as well as books. I've learned to enjoy the many parks that are near my home. Being outside, whether walking or biking, does wonders for my mood and helps me to appreciate nature. I work many long hours at my job and am happy to do it, feeling fortunate to be employed. Every day that the key fits the lock here, that's a good day! I have over 2 weeks of vacation that I will lose if I don't take it, but I can't afford to go anywhere, and being busy at work keeps my mind off of my situation; the interaction with customers and co-workers helps me feel needed. I suppose that in lieu of a whitewater rafting vacation in the Rockies, one could set up a Slip n Slide in the back yard with Alka Selzer and raincoats and just Pretend, or failing that, just dump the Alka Selzer in the toilet and flush 3 times, and see how long you can stay 'on'. Obviously the tough economic times have forced me to be even more creative. I have learned who my real friends are, and re-classified many others as acquaintances. I find it foreign to be the one in need, when my entire life I've helped others out, often putting myself last. It's been quite the adjustment. Every day I stand up out of bed in the morning and say out loud "Thank you", happy I made it through the night and happy for the opportunity to hang on and try to turn things around. Then it's off to work, where I put on my Game Face and try to cheer everyone up, and in turn, myself. We're all in this boat together, I'm just hoping that Real Soon somebody finds the plug and puts it back in! If you're in a similar situation yourself, try to stay positive, as within, so without. I know it's very hard, and I can't imagine people with families and single parents having to deal with this mess. It's overwhelming, but I'd like to think we're at the bottom of the valley now, and it's time to start climbing back out. It's got to get better! As with most things, I feel Humor is the best medicine.

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