Today is my 12th wedding anniversary. Over those 12 years a lot of things have happened. Some have been very good and some have been very hard but today's anniversary finds us living a Disney sitcom fairy tail (details in part 2). Brian finished his PhD, graduated, accepted a job and packed all of us and moved to Beverly....I wish. No this hillbilly family moved to Buffalo, New York.While we don't live the rich oil gold mine life of old Jethro Clampit quite yet we do have a real true rags to riches story. We are currently living the other American fairy tale that is the life over a hotel. Our kids are the real life Eloise or Zack and Cody. It is glamorous and everything you would imagine and more but it was not an easy road to get here and it would not have been possible with out help.
Six years ago Brian had a great, well paying job as a chemical engineer. We bought a house and had two little girls under 2. Basically, we had the American dream. He worked by day and finished an MBA by night. I led life as a stay at home mom cooking, making forts, Popsicle crafts, and having play dates with friends. It was a good life but Brian was unhappy with his job and I didn’t love all the travel. He had always wanted to be a teacher and was very intrigued by the finance parts of his MBA coursework. The flexibility and limited travel required of a professor seemed like a potential upgrade. So my husband came to me and said "I want to quit my job and go to school full time for 5-6 years". I countered with "is it going to be as grueling as you working and doing an MBA? Will I be able to stay home and how will we eat?" He had a calculated plan that involved selling our house, student loans, and the amazing generosity of his parents buying a house for us to live in (rent free) while he was in school. He promised we would not "sink our ship". Translation: we would not get so far in debt that we wouldn't be able to recover. He was confident, had thought it through, winked a little and lets face it he is devastatingly handsome so I agreed.
So we headed off on a new life adventure. We knew it would be tough but we had no idea what was to come. We put our house on the market in March of 2008 – you know the exact same month that Bear Stearns collapsed and the housing market really began to dissolve. We got one (so we thought) really low-ball offer a week before Brian left his job. The financial crisis hadn’t quite set in and we hung on to the hope that we would still get other offers. We drained our student loans into floating the house mortgage. We tried renting the house out, took out more student loans. We went farther into debt than we had ever planned and still couldn't make ends meet on the grad student stipend and carry the house. Brian was at school all the time as the course work in the first two years proved to be way more grueling than a full time engineering job and MBA. I had started working at nights to make extra money. Our ship was taking on water faster than we could bail it out. We were living on credit cards and paying off a house on student loans. We suddenly knew that if we were going to make it we had to let go of the house. We had to let go of our pride and accept the overwhelming feelings of guilt that maybe we had "screwed up" or were being "irresponsible" and just do what had to be done. We were working as hard as we could and we were drowning. Our house never sold. We foreclosed on the only house we have ever owned in 2011.
With the student loans exhausted to pay for the house, credit cards maxed out, and then a foreclosure on our credit report, we were blackballed from the credit markets and broke. So with no more loans and no more credit we had to have help. Help that as an upper middle class kid you don’t really think you will ever need. We applied for food stamps, WIC, Medicaid for our kids and no insurance for ourselves, we had to ask our parents to co-sign car loans when our only car died. We sold my grandfather’s truck to pay for (some) of preschool one year the rest got supplemented by grandparents. I parented during the day and worked at night and spent most days living on red bull and 2 hours of sleep while Brian did the same. The only savings account we had was my engagement ring and a jar full of quarters that my grandma had given me that was my grandpa’s change jar before he died. Our electricity got turned of more than once, we had to juggle which bills got paid and we ate a lot of hotdogs and Mac and cheese. Only the kids got fresh vegetables and fruit. Brian and I went a lot of years with out any presents on any holidays so that we could get gifts for the kids. What money we got went to bills during the dry season (summer). Grad school sunk our ship financially. It literally did everything we were scared of it doing.
5 years became 6 years and money never got easier. We struggled and still do with the repercussions of what it means to literally go to the very verge of bankruptcy. No one really ever knew exactly how bad things were because we became masters at hiding it. We had one car but lived in a town where it was hip to be green and ride the bus so no one ever really thought much about it. Our kids wore Uggs and North Face coats. No one knew that we had used their gift money from grandparents to buy coats that they wore for 3 years straight or that their Uggs where 15$ used off ebay and one of the two pairs of shoes they had. While I was a master at hiding what was really going on, I also hated being the one that had to use the food stamps card or WIC. We turned down all our WIC help after one of the employees asked me if all my children were from different dads since one was small for her age and the other large for her age. I never set foot in the office again. Needing help, admitting you can’t make it on your own, and then having people judge you is one of the worst feelings I have ever experienced. Working as hard and as long as you physically can and it not being enough leaves you hopeless and beat down. We had an end to our tunnel knowing Brian would graduate but so many people don’t. So many people have no way out.
Our adventure had turned life upside down but there is a silver lining. The understanding, the humility, the grit, and the perspective that we have earned over the last 6 years is priceless. I can stand in line at a grocery store and not judge the person using food stamps because I know how close I am to being there again. I can happily pay outrageous taxes knowing that some of that money does go to families like ours that are working hard to build a better life. I can fully accept that for all our thought out plans things don’t always go the way you think they will. Sometimes you leap and you fall. I can be an example to my kids of never giving up no matter how bad things are going. Most importantly, I have learned to value what I have. I have learned that less is more. I have learned that at the end of the day everything I have is nothing at all and that the people around me are truly all I need. At our house we say “I’ve got you and you have me and that is all we really need.” Sometimes it takes having nothing to make you see you have everything.