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At the end? Write yourself a new beginning

I've managed to thrive after bottoming out financially.

By Donna_Freedman Sep 30, 2009 12:42AM

Not that long ago I had about $130 to my name. I was struggling to balance a handful of part-time jobs with re-entry into college after 30 years away from higher ed. 


Going back to school terrified me. But my life was already turned upside down: I'd left a long-term marriage and run through most of my savings to support myself while I dealt with health problems and also to help support my adult daughter, who is disabled. Why not throw college into the mix? As scared as I was, I knew if I didn't do it then I'd never do it.


Fast-forward to now. I managed to get through both logic and algebra, was accepted to the University of Washington on full scholarship, was awarded short-term alimony and was hired part time to write for this blog. I paid off all my divorce debt, started a Roth IRA, and have been able to help family members who are in financial trouble. 


I don't say this out of self-aggrandizement. I say it because my colleague Karen Datko and I were asked to share our experiences about bottoming out, as a response to the current economic chaos.


You can read Karen's article here.


Here's mine:


What looks like the end of the world can actually be the beginning. 


Stability is a story that we tell ourselves so we feel good about staying right where we are in our lives. Security, whether it's a marriage or a bunch of stocks, doesn't always last. Sometimes it's taken away and sometimes we decide we can live without it.


To paraphrase Shakespeare, some people seek change and some have it thrust upon them. After the past few years I can say that sometimes, change really stinks. But I can also say that you might be surprised by what happens next.

Here today, gone tomorrow
It would be naïve in the extreme to assume that people who've just lost their shirts will automatically develop a taste for shirtlessness. It would be insulting for me to chirp, "Gosh, look on the bright side: At least you've still got your pants!" 


But what I can say is this: Stocks have been and always will be a gamble. Maybe you've been a winner for years -- generations, even, in the case of inherited wealth. So lately the bottom line doesn't look that good? Well, whoever promised you that things would always go your way just flat-out lied.


Myself, I'm no high roller. But like many other people who have retirement accounts -- mine is from my newspapering days -- I'm steeling myself for the next financial statement. Although I chose the dullest, safest investment route, I know that I lost money. Who hasn't? There's not a thing I can do about that now. The money is gone. 


And the economy is tottering -- but I can do something about that, namely to make the smartest financial choices possible. If I had a ton of capital, I'd be looking to buy a foreclosure. I'd love to have a home of my own, and rents are going up, up, up in Seattle. But like most of the people I know, I am severely under-capitalized. 


So I'll keep doing what I'm doing -- namely, living frugally while I finish school. Afterward, too. This may be easier for me than some of you, because I have had prior experience with being broke and as a result I don't need a lot to make me happy.


What really matters
Years ago, would I have chosen this level of asceticism? Well, no. Money does make certain parts of life easier -- rent checks, medical co-pays, groceries, those sorts of things.


But there's nothing like a good scare, or even a big loss, to help you realize what's really important. I spent almost three months living in hospitals while my daughter fought a rare neurological disease that nearly killed her. My possessions were several T-shirts, a pair of jeans and a pair of sweatpants, a denim jacket, a Tupperware bowl, a cup, and a spoon, knife and fork.


My sleep was fragmented. I did my laundry in a hospital basin. I ate a lot of spartan meals. And it was all enough. The only thing I really wanted -- really needed -- was for my daughter to survive.


She did, and these days I'm thankful for "enough." I'm even more thankful that I have enough enough -- so much enough that I can spread some of it around to family and community.


The never-ending story
What I've learned from the past few years is this: No matter how things change, I have the ability, and the responsibility, to change right along with them. 


In the past I was well-fed, gainfully employed and still miserable. In the past few years, I've found that rice and beans, freelance writing and a library book can make me happy. 


Maybe I had to go through the tough times to make me appreciate the good times. Maybe we all do.


That's not to say that I'm unsympathetic to others whose 401(k) plans have sputtered, whose jobs are in jeopardy, whose bills are outstripping their paychecks. On the contrary: I'm very worried about the ability of many Americans to hang on until things get better. 


What I'd like them to realize is that this, too, shall pass -- but it's not the only financial crisis they're ever going to have to weather. The only thing we can predict about the economy's ups and downs is that they'll keep happening. And the only thing we can change is the way we react to those ups and downs. We need to take control of our financial lives and prepare for more good scares or big losses. 


And we need to remember that while change is scary, sometimes it's not the end of the story. It's the chance to write our own sequels.


Published Oct. 8, 2008

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