Recently I have become, if not complacent (I don’t imagine I’ll ever be complacent again), a bit more at ease with our situation. We have a home and I’m employed. We don’t have much – in possessions or cash- but we manage to make it through the month without too much deprivation. We can’t afford yearbooks but did get the textbook fees paid before they were fatally overdue. Our planned vacation is 4 days of camping not a trip to Disney World. We don’t eat out but we can afford groceries. So all in all we are somewhat content.
But we’re like the 63% of Americans who are one paycheck away from disaster. And we don’t have credit cards to bridge the gap or a retirement plan to raid (BTDT). It doesn’t take much to shove us back over the edge into the abyss of anxiety and want. In our case it was a one-two punch – a broken molar that required a crown that the insurance (with its $3,000 deductible) wouldn’t pay for and unexpected and urgent car repairs. The cost of these two emergencies is the equivalent of one-and-a-half paychecks – paychecks that are already slated for the payment of regular monthly bills like car insurance and utilities and expenses such as gas and food. We use the money I earn. As it is I’m lucky if we end the month with $50-$100 left in my checking account just enough for odd expenses like field trips, new shoes, or a visit to the vet.
This spring I was thrilled to be offered a professional development opportunity that would earn a small stipend and I immediately started day dreaming about getting the air conditioning fixed in the car, or installed in the house. Or maybe I’d be able to order propane on the cheap end of the cycle and fill the tank this summer instead of paying the higher fall/winter costs. I happily put in the 30+ hours of work which ended at the beginning of May. When my molar broke I quit daydreaming – no air conditioning (it’s bad for the planet anyway) – instead the stipend check would pay for my crown. And then the car went from being our daily transportation to an unmovable lump and I mentally started negotiating a payment plan with the dentist and reallocated the yet to be received check to the mechanic.
Only the check hasn’t arrived so my entire paycheck went to the mechanic and the dentist bill goes unpaid, as does the electric and phone bill that the paycheck would have covered. And the refrigerator is nearly empty and the cupboard offerings are slim. This weekend’s camping vacation will be cancelled and I’m scouring the house for things to sell on eBay and staying awake nights worrying about unpaid bills.
Yes, we’ll survive this just as we’ve survived everything else. I have a paycheck coming in ten days and the stipend will arrive at some point. We may be hungry but we won’t starve or be thrown out onto the streets and the kids will eventually forgive me. In the end the damage will only be to my barely recovering credit rating, my self-esteem as a provider and our emotional well-being. It’s a reminder of just how close to the edge we – and millions of other Americans – live. A reminder that although the Great Recession is over and the recovery well underway it’s still too close for some of us.