How to Survive a Recession: Notes from the Broken Dog Days of Summer

By Maggie Wells on 4 September 2010 5 comments

This year was particularly trying for my family and I'm sure a good many families of Wise Bread readers. This summer was particularly relentless for this homeowner. I don't even think we should use that term. I own a mortgage and it really owns me, more or less. But when the pipes cracked and the septic tank simmered at the brim under a rotted lid threatening the peace and tranquility of homeownership this summer, I started reassessing just how lack of employment, the high cost of student loans, living, offspring, the car that decided it needed a thousand dollars dumped into it, and homeowning were going to factor into my attempts at frugality.

I felt like a fraud writing for Wise Bread. Yeah. Who am I to dispense any advice when I can't even use my own toilet? So I took a little break in an effort to not feel like a fraud and reassess if there was some turn I could have made in the last year to better the situation. The process of sitting in the comfy chair in the living room staring into the abyss of the cool sage green wall with a legal pad and pen actually did help.

There were a few things I could have planned for better and a few things I could have anticipated, but in the end I don't think my choices yielded more than a couple of hundred dollars extra with better planning. But I didn't get poor me, whiny about it. My mortgage is still getting paid. My kids still have food to eat, and we are doing a hell of a lot better than many neighbors. I am grateful.

A big difference in this summer is there was no vacation. OK — technically we went away for a three-day weekend, but that was it. This gave me time to really see my community for what it is. These are predictions and solutions for surviving the national recession and individual malaise that comes with it.

Get over that American uber alles mentality

Nationalism is not productive and there's nothing joyful about watching Rome burn when you're a Roman. By this I mean we'll fare much better if we put more energy into the health and well-being of our local communities — with an eye and heart to how the global community is doing — than if we were continue perpetuating the mantra that America must be No. 1. I think we get bogged down in thinking we should all be millionaires by now. We get that look in our eye best expressed by Prince's song "Pop Life": "they put your million dollar check in someone else's box..."

We aren't as badly off as we think we are

Is a fifth of our nation underwater? Was our capital destroyed by an earthquake? My kids and I just viewed the 1992 film Baraka the other day and as the segment of dire poverty begins midway through the film, it was good to remember what real poverty looks like. We are not living on the streets and we aren't picking through a landfill for food scraps. I'm not working as a prostitute and they aren't begging in the streets. We have health insurance from my husband/their father's job.

Get over the myth of the nuclear family

If we can keep in mind that the whole reason we live nuclear is that suburban developers sold us on the idea to sell houses, we'd be better off. Cultures around the globe know that you need to be tied to your family and society. I need my neighbors and community, and my neighbors and community need me. The smartest thing I've done in the last decade was moving three miles from my mothers.

Kids need access to grandparents — biological , adopted, or faux. So many struggling families I know are too far away from their extended families. Women spend nearly as much money on daycare as what they make. Moving back to an extended family and community model of living could change that. Co-op day care and family watching children both have great merits, and it's not a one-way street. My mothers watch the kids every Saturday and then I'm available to them for errands they cannot do.

And it' s more than childcare. We can share vehicles. (Between the two households, there's a car with great mileage, a car for snowy days, and a truck for hauling.) We share groceries. We share baking and cooking. (My mom and I tend to bake or cook trays of things and we always give the other a tray of something we've made.)

I consider my friends in this family equation too. The only way we had any vacation this summer is when one friend got a hold of free passes to the aquarium, and another let us stay in her house while she was gone, and still another bought us breakfast and shuttled us to and from the aquarium so we didn't have to pay for parking. We have let people stay with us for short bits and done as much reciprocity as we can think of.

I am over the myth. I need my mommy and my friends. They need me, too.

Sustainable is a good word, not a bad word

It means more than just growing organic crops so you don't kill the soil. It means research. Everything I do now makes me think of this word. How many extra-curricular activities can my kids reasonably sustain? How much square footage of a house can be heated economically so I don't run out of cash? How sustainable are my habits and hobbies? Where I live in the mountains, it's common for neighbors to announce they are going 'off the mountain' and take orders for things that anyone needed from the civilization of boxed stores 90 minutes away. It's always gratifying not to be able to think of anything.

Live only up to your own expectations

What if we all got off our collective butts and did what we said we wanted to do instead of what we think we must? What if we didn't care about that look our parents give us that says "Why didn't you become an accountant or a corporate lawyer?" That would look amazing. I bet it would feel amazing, too. What if we stopped blaming others for our predicaments? What if we stopped waiting for someone else to fix it?

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Guest's picture

This is a great perspective piece and really has some good concepts in it for those of us contemplating the same things that the author does.

Great stuff.

I agree wholeheartedly on all points!

These types of articles can do a lot more for the "average American Joe" than "three ways to save on your cable bill".

Guest's picture

Summers are always bad for my husband the teacher - We get thru due to slick manouvering....This summer was harder than most - we actually qualified for unemployment insurance, and I have been getting my social security since last year. But we did get health insurance from an employer....

We have used this time this summer for cleaning up/cleaning out, and have had several yard sales at various locations & we have some more to come. We did pawn some of my instruments (they go in & out of pawn) - and I have been leaning on the freebies. (I get something almost every day in the mail.)

We do have our boat - which is our vacation location. Our apartment is small, but that + the boat slip fee = normal city rent here. And we have spent quite a few long 4 day weekends there.

The landlord of the apartment offered to give us new wood flooring in the living room/hall areas - & hubby spent a lot of time clearing out to get ready for that. Now the floors are in & they look lovely - and we are trying to figure out how to re-do the space....

We also took advantage of cheap Hollywood Bowl tix to see some world-class music & performers at the Hollywood Bowl - (who we couldn't afford to see indoors!)

Hubby went to the free local municipal putting green & driving range a lot. And we took walks in the park.

Oh, I also was mainly "shopping in my own closet" & restricted my thrift shop shopping heavily (whereas we were MAKING DONATIONS.) Recycling books up at a used bookstore for credits & getting "new" books that way. Also discovered a couple of new book-sharing shelves for paperbacks. Still lots of books to go!

We played music with a buddy of ours at a few coffee shops & sometimes even got free coffee! And we made our meals on the boat instead of eating out...

And still we had a nice summer....It can be done.

Guest's picture

I want to thank you for the consistently great articles that you write, the encouraging words to motivate your readers, the way you share your life with us. We all have crappy depressing days. We all feel like phonies from time to time. That's being human. You're one of the most inspiring humans that I know. Please keep up the writing - I never fail to learn or smile or think from reading your words.

Guest's picture

I think the bottom line is that we need to quit making decisions that are purely financially motivated and make more decisions that are socially motivated. We just moved to be closer to our kids and took a big financial hit but we have never been happier.

Love this article, very well said.

Guest's picture

This is one of the best articles I've read since becoming a regular reader of Wise Bread. I too agree with the author. We decided not to relocate purely because we know we need help with our two boys. Looking back, that is/was one of the best decisions we made.

We live well below our means (learned to do this through 2 recent layoffs) and are planning to buy a home (well below what we were "approved" for) this year. Choices that were hard to make initially when all our friends/family were buying mega homes during the bubble. However, now we will be able to not only buy but keep our home (even on income 50% less than what we make now if that ever happens).

For us home ownership is not worth blowing our net worth or having to live beyond our means. We like having savings at the end of the month and have taken into account any potential rise in heating/cooling (rent in our area is the same/more than many mortgages in our area). This is another benefit of being close to our parents, they share with us the "real" costs of home-ownership in our area.

Another choice we made was not to bog our kids down with so many extra activities. We found that by taking ownership of their free time and not having every minute planned...we could live a slower paced life. My boys really aren't missing out on much and when they do participate in activities, it means more to them.

The only area left for us on your list is to make career changes. We both "fell into" our careers. Our goal is for me to go back to what I have my degrees in and for hubby to pursue his passion. Thus the possible initial dropping of our income. It makes sense to us and will allow us even more free time to enjoy our lives together.