I half feel like our whole For Richer, For Poorer series was just a lead up to this, from (new!) APW staffer Liz. Here Liz dives into the meat of the thing: being young, having a baby (surprise!), and not having enough money to eat, let alone pay the bills. (For the record, the situation has improved somewhat, and Liz and her family are eating three squares a day. We don’t have starving staffers!) The amazing thing about Liz is first, how much grace she’s shown navigating through this whole experience. I’ve watched with wonder (and offers to help) remembering my own broke twenties, and trying to figure out how I would have managed with an adorable kid as well. But more than that, Liz is able to tell us what she’s learned, not just how she’s managed. And that’s true grace.
I’m a bit of a pro at being broke. It’s something I’m accomplished in, the way some people are skilled and knowledgeable in playing piano or building a birdhouse. I have a knack for not having money.
We have never been financially comfortable in our short stint of marriage. We’re both young (I was twenty-three when we married), and particularly in this economy but also in general, that spells “broke.” That’s fine, I guess, when you’re both starting out in your chosen fields and haven’t made your way just yet. But, it gets a little harder when you find out—surprise!—you’re having a baby.
During the nine months I was pregnant, we were both lucky to find lucrative jobs. We weren’t in the clear, but we were able to go to an OBGYN and even buy a crib and some picture books in anticipation of the baby. Choosing to leave my job was difficult. I was passionate about what I did and it offered the true breadwinning paycheck, but I already loved my son so fiercely—and I hadn’t even met him yet.
Very shortly after I quit my job, Josh lost his.
We had dealt with unemployment and late electricity payments before, but this job loss, unlike the others before it, brought a special kind of panic. Now we had this awesome little creature relying on us. And he liked to eat.
We did everything we could think to do. Resumes and job applications, temp agencies, and websites for networking consumed our days. I began to focus more ardently on my blog and Etsy shop and Josh started his own business. These things helped a little money trickle in, but nothing that made any sort of dent. Who are these magical people who quit their jobs and start taking pictures of their outfits or knitting toilet paper cozies and can still afford rent? WHO ARE THEY?
Luckily, we had the decency to keep our freak-out moments staggered. I would break down into terrified, shaking sobs in the middle of the day and Josh would somehow keep it together enough to encourage me. Later, Josh would flip out and yell about all of the unanswered job applications, and I would comfort him and tell him something was bound to happen soon.
Friends and family kept us afloat for several months with their generosity. We’d accept a gift from a friend just in time to make rent, or we’d borrow a quick bit of cash from mom so our credit card payment wouldn’t be late. Then, we could use that same credit card to buy groceries. We kept weird hopeful parameters. It’s okay if everything else is late, as long as we pay the things that have late fees. It’s okay if all the other bills aren’t paid, as long as we keep paying the credit cards on time and protect our credit rating. It’s okay now that we can’t afford the credit payments, because the rent is still being paid. Eventually, though, nothing was paid on time. Then, nothing was paid at all. We’d get a bit of cash from a project and use it to turn our cell phones back on—enabling our job search to continue. We’d get a bit more cash and dream of all the debts we’ll be able to catch up on, but then quickly realized that the late fees and increases in interest made such catching up impossible.
I cried so much. I cried because I was angry that our dual job searches were fruitless. I cried because I was sad that I couldn’t buy my son special treats. I cried because I was overwhelmed with happiness by the generosity of friends who sent bits of cash to help us scrape by. I cried because my hopes for easier days stung with sharp unreality.
We were eating fried eggs, ramen or pasta for every meal every day. A check would come in the mail, and I’d rush to the store for a bulk pack of ramen and two-dozen eggs—a grocery bill that totaled only $8 for several days of meals. The rest of the money was spent on the baby. Diapers, wipes, and little cups of mashed vegetables add up very fast. Eventually, I started to realize that the $8 designated for me and Josh would stretch farther if I ate just one egg for breakfast instead of two. Then, simple math seemed to indicate the eggs would stretch even farther than that if I didn’t eat breakfast at all. I told Josh, “I’m just not hungry.”
It was undeniably hard. But there were bright sides. The moments of sadness, stress, guilt—they were real and intense. But, rare. The majority of my time was spent enjoying this unusual opportunity of being with my little family all day long. Optimism prevailed. I could laugh and joke about our situation with friends. I could feel genuine happiness for friends who could afford fancy luxuries that were far out of our own reach. I could shrug off the bills because, after so many months of being afraid of what these people demanding money will do, I realized—we’re okay. Our situation wasn’t ideal, but we weren’t dead or homeless or imprisoned for these late bills. I realized my time and energy were wasted by dwelling on what payments we were missing and who would shut off which utility next. The money wasn’t there. This guilt nagging me, pestering me about my “irresponsibility” in not making timely payments was silly and unfounded. I would pay the bills if I could, but I can’t. So I chose not to think about it, and suddenly, was able to enjoy this weird place of fried eggs and Netflix and wearing my husband’s deodorant.
Friends around me freak out about late payments or complain about not being able to afford a vacation. While I can relate, I don’t know how to convey to them what I feel I’ve learned the hard way—that being without is difficult and scary, but it doesn’t break you. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.
As a result of our hardest points of financial struggle, I’ve gained a new perspective of all of the fear and guilt tied to money. Plus, my relationships with friends and family are bolstered by the love I experienced from them generously giving what I hadn’t earned. I’m humbled. I’m grateful. I’m anxious to do the same for others. My relationship with my husband was strengthened immeasurably as we both faced the same tough time and helped one another through it.
Things are improving but we’re not out of the woods, yet. And that’s okay. I have this new knowledge rooted in real experience, now. Knowledge that we are one of those families that band together rather than being torn apart during difficult times. We can face this stuff. We’ve already done it.
Photos of the past year from Liz’s personal Instagram collection