There is no shame in being broke, theoretically. But that hasn't stopped me from feeling horrible shame at how broke my family is.
Then I feel guilty for feeling that shame. After all, if I feel angry at myself for not earning more, I must also be angry at my husband for not earning more. Yet, in reality, we are both in the same boat: eminently employable adults with great resumes who find ourselves, along with a flood of similar people, unable to secure a steady income in this post-2008 economy.
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Get started with a free financial assessment.
I've worked as a journalist and a marketing copywriter, and have watched the number of available jobs shrink as the applicant pool grows. Both my husband and I—a videogame producer and a writer—have expanded our definitions of "jobs we'll take" until we're so overeager it's surely painful to witness.
In the meantime, until I find something steadier, I've been freelance writing and working at my children's daycare co-op. My husband takes freelance assignments, works part-time for a car service and began his own produce delivery company that's still establishing itself.
I have reached out repeatedly to friends at places like Google and Pixar, asking for information about jobs I see listed, only to have them say things like, "Why would you want that? It's a mid-level job you're overqualified for."
Thanks for that, I guess. I still need the gig.
How Do You Tell Your Kids You're Broke?
The hardest part is watching my kids. At ages 2 and 4, they're still so young they can't tell the difference between shopping at Goodwill and shopping at Target or Nordstrom. But they do notice that all their school friends go to the same dance class on Monday afternoons. When the other girls stroll down the street in their tutus, I feel awful.
"That's why Mommy's going back to school this summer," I told them, thinking I was handling this all extremely well and finding a teachable moment amid the tears.
I explained that ballet lessons cost money, and I needed to make more money, and the best way to do that was to switch my job. To do that, I said, I needed to go back to school. (I'm going to become a special ed teacher.) This was a sore point between me and the girls: They like having me around and the idea of my going back to school upset them mightily. I was trying to draw a line between the "what" and the "why." You want what your friends have? Your mom has to start wearing pants that zip.
A few days later, a friend and fellow school parent said she'd run into my daughter on the playground. When my friend asked, "How are you?" my daughter reportedly stuck her hand on her hip and said, "Well, I'm not taking ballet class because my mom ran out of money, but she's going to go to school and I will not see her all day, and that's not fair. Also, one time, my sister went to school but I didn't because I had a fever, and that was not fair, too."
Now my friends know I tell my kids we're broke. And now all the moms will know, as they walk their daughters down the hill, why I'm not joining them. Not having money is as unfair as getting sick when someone else is well. It feels awful, but all you can do is get better.
My Kids Aren't the Only Problem
I find myself losing friends because I am tired of explaining things, or sick of hearing complaints. Years ago, I read an essay by Anne Lamott in which she described breaking up with a friend because she couldn't bear hearing the friend boast about her (well-deserved, but annoying) good fortune. I didn't get it.
Now that I've heard my friends whine about having to spend money on, say, a large dental co-pay (when they have! dental! insurance!) or claiming they're so broke right before getting on a plane to fly back east for the holidays (and then to Hawaii), I get that sometimes you just can't hang around certain people until you feel a little less angry at your own circumstances. It's not kind, it's not rational and it's not fair, but that's the sitch, and I honor it so I don't start kicking out people's tail lights.
I find myself grateful for the friends who know how bad it is and just help by being quietly supportive.
I also find myself grateful for the friends who know how bad it is and just help, by having us over to their much-larger homes, by letting us contribute in the ways that we can, by knowing where we are and just being quietly supportive.
For Everyone Out There Like Me ...
My friend Heather of Terrible Mother wrote a heartbreaking piece for Salon about the time she took her kids to a soup kitchen. People read essays like that (and like this one) and say, "Why did you have kids if you were only going to fall on hard times?" (Oh, comment section of the internet, you are truly the weirdest place on earth.) I read it and am grateful I'm not the only struggling mom trying to balance my checkbook on a razor's edge.
I continue to do the best I can for my kids. For now, that means finding less expensive classes through parks and rec, and feeling extremely grateful I live in San Francisco, which provides so many low-cost options for us. It means taking advantage of the library, free days at the museum and negotiating the public school system, which is not nearly as painful as I had been led to believe.
It means sharing my struggle with other parents and hearing, through word-of-mouth, about other ways to get by. It means trading childcare when my husband and I both need to work. It means studying Johnny Funcheap as if it were the Talmud. It means learning to love camping. (That last one is a challenge.)
Then there's the real worry that I am not saving for college, because everything goes into our day-to-day existence. Whenever I tear myself away from the intoxicating scent of my 2-year-old's hair, I tell myself she needs more than my hugs. (Note: There's no danger of my not hugging her an insane amount. Just a little bit less, while I go to school.)
In the end, our kinda-crazy, hand-to-mouth existence will, I hope, make for great stories and a resilient spirit. And that's an inheritance in itself.
Amy Keyishian has been a staff writer for Cosmopolitan Magazine, a freelance writer for Glamour, Self, Maxim and other magazines, and now blogs for LearnVest as well as Recipe.com and Kveller. She lives with her family in San Francisco.