Downward spiral

A few days ago I had to make a call I dread making….a call to the Internal Revenue Service. Like many Americans I have a healthy fear of the IRS but unlike most Americans my fear is not based in fiction but reality. Thanks to several years of self employment the Spousal Unit and I owe a chunk of change, aside from the time they levied our bank account, overall they have worked with us. Though I must say having your bank account levied even temporarily is no fun.

Anyway I got a notice in the mail the other day which was strange because I had recently spoken to them about our account. So I placed the call and after waiting 40 minutes to get a human on the phone, I got the worker who clearly was offended that his colleagues had been working with us. Despite the hard proof in front of him that in the seven years we have lived in Maine, our income by and large has been reduced greatly, he asked why did we owe?

Now on second thought that is a seemingly innocent question and as I have done in the past I explained how we ended up in Maine and all the things that have popped up that have created this debt with the IRS…but Mister Man was not having it though in the end the reality is that at present we owe more than we even earned last year meaning there is not a lot he can do since the reason we got the notice was more due to a computer error than anything else. Shit, even the IRS computers recognize when a person can’t pay….

But in retelling the story to my husband I was reminded of a story I read a few days ago, basically the data shows when folks are laid off from good paying jobs it can take years to earn what you used to and in some cases you never earn what you once made. While we were not laid off when we moved here, in fact it was family issues that brought us here, the fact is in 7 years aside from one year where the Spousal Unit came close to earning what he once made when we were in Chicago, the other years have been a downward spiral.

Funny thing is when people lose a good income, your bills don’t suddenly get reduced (wouldn’t that be nice!) instead you have to figure out how to keep a roof over your head, food on the table and pay off that bitch Sallie Mae, and her distant cousins Visa and Mastercard if you were a member of the middle class as we were for many years.  Of course many in the educated middle class end up going the route of my husband and join that class of consultants and freelancers…a group that even now I think is not reflected in the unemployed or underemployed numbers. Folks who can still pretend at least on the surface that life is good even when they know deep in their hearts they are leaning on Visa and MasterCard to subsidize the income they really don’t have….no while everyone loves to believe we can pull ourselves up by the bootstraps the truth is one you get knocked down financially, you need a lot more than bootstraps to get up and avoid the financial death spiral.

Guest post: What Is This? Bizarro World?

Today’s post is brought to you by Deacon Blue of Holy Shit from Deacon Blue, he answered the call I put out a few weeks ago to hear from folks who are being impacted daily by this crazy economy,what follows is raw and open and a place I think many of us are in if we were to be honest. Thanks Deacon for being so open and sharing with us.  If anyone else wants to write about their struggles with the economy, I would love to have a guest post…hit me up at blackgirlinmaine@gmail.com.

My dad spent his entire career in blue-collar work, as a union electrician. There is no doubt that he spent most of that career, and all of my truly formative years, in the middle class.

I have a college education that I’m still paying for (and that my mom and dad helped pay for as well), a white-collar career, and I would call myself anything but middle class. In fact, I think this year I officially started skirting the “poor” category.

Oh, hell, who am I kidding? I’m on a state health-care plan now because my income has dropped so low. My family could, technically, qualify for one of those food cards that replaced the food stamps of old. The main reason I haven’t taken advantage of that is that, unlike with health-care, I still CAN afford food, and I’m not about to take from a program that other people still need more than me.

I find myself fearing at times that my dad, who has owned multiple houses in his life (and for some years has owned at least two, renting out one of them) must think I’m sort of idiot slacker. And he’s made enough hints and mentions that I must be doing something wrong with my spending or budgeting.

It irks me. Sometimes because he’s right. But mostly because he just doesn’t get it. And frankly, neither do many of my peers, some of whom are in similar straits as myself.

As I look back, I can see where shit started to fall apart for the middle class. After World War II, the middle class was created. Men and women (mostly men) who worked good paying jobs and got family benefits and eventually retirement benefits. They were able to buy homes, invest money and send their kids to college.

And then it began to fall apart, as more and more, those college educated kids found that they weren’t doing the jobs they supposedly got educated to do, and weren’t getting paid like their parents were. No, instead of defined work hours and hourly income, decent benefits, and overtime pay, we got salaries and some very fluid and changeable benefits. We had to work past normal work times, often with no compensation at all (except maybe “comp days,” which don’t exactly pay any bills). We were expected to give and give and give, but nobody compensated us adequately for what we did. And as the economy has globalized and now as the economy has begun to flounder, we are also expendable…or held hostage to our jobs, expected to do EVEN MORE, with even less compensation.

In essence, we were sold a bill of goods, and now if we say we don’t want to be worked to death for little pay and sometimes no benefits, we are told we aren’t team players. We aren’t hungry enough. We aren’t dedicated.

Welcome to Bizarro World.

Dispatches from the Formerly Middle-Class

Its been a crazy week so while I wanted to write this post a few days ago, I only just found the time to actually sit down and do it. If you are a regular reader to my blog, you know that I regularly write about my financial woes. I know there are some who may wonder why I choose to share so much but the truth is as a member of the class of folks who find myself only hanging by a thread to the so-called middle class, I think there are many more like myself out there. Problem is in America we will talk about any and everything but talk of money is considered taboo…which is crazy to me. Truthfully I would rather talk about money or my lack of money sooner than I would talk about say my sex life but that’s just me.

No, in America everyone likes to consider themselves middle-class, make 35K you are middle class, make 150K you are middle class. When you think about it the question should be what is middle class? Does it even exist anymore? The other day a friend asked me how am I defining middle class? She considers herself middle class despite having a small bank balance. Good question, what it is? Well I could get a technical definition but I don’t feel like it. Instead I will tell you my thoughts on what is middle class and why I consider myself a former member of the middle class.

Growing up, I knew we weren’t middle class as I joke on a good day we were the working class and on a bad day we were simply poor. In layman’s terms when there was enough money to take care of all our needs and the occasional want, that was being working class…never was there enough for a true savings account and growing up we never took a vacation unless you count the occasional trip to Arkansas or St. Louis for a family reunion. Even those trips were done as cheaply as possible, meaning we drove and stayed at a relatives house. I must add such trips were not regular occurrences and play a large part in why I have little connection with my extended family.

No, many times my folks robbed Peter to pay Paul, that meant light bills only got paid when the red notice arrived…for those who don’t know what that is, that means the letter to send to tell you your lights are about to be shut off. I am thankful that aside from the years we were phone-less (before the era of cell phones) we were never without lights and gas. We never went hungry but there were a fair number of meals that I am thankful I have not eaten since my childhood.

When I grew up and started working I slowly moved solidly into the working class when Iwas a single Mama. No vacations but generally after I paid the bills there was always a little left for a treat. At 17, my son still fondly remembers the pizza and Chinese food nights we had as a treat. I didn’t have a savings account but thankfully my bills got paid before any notices came out.

Then I later moved into the middle class, helped out by marrying the Spousal Unit and retuning to school, that meant actually having money in savings, taking vacations that did not involve sleeping on a relatives floor. For me being a member of the middle class meant having more than enough to pay for our needs and wants, stashing something aside for a rainy day though looking back I did not save as much as I could have. It meant when a car broke down it was not a crisis, it meant having access to good health-care, it meant when I needed five grand in dental work, we had the means to take care of it. It meant not thinking whether or not that $100 in the bank was going to last until payday because I had way more than that in the bank account. It meant knowing you were not one unplanned emergency away from devasation, as you either had enough on hand to handle it or access to those little plastic cards where you had more than enough.

Well thanks to the on-going financial crisis, there are more and more folks who used to live in that place I just described but sadly they are no longer there. This piece in the NY Times really does a great job of covering it. While the article focuses on the self employed and since I and the Spousal Unit have been self employed for years, really the piece speaks to anyone who now finds themselves in this brave new world.

Its a world where on the outside we may still have some of our creature comforts of the so-called middle class life, but the reality is whenever we leave the house we know exactly how much money we have down to the penny and we are are watching it, hoping for nothing unexpected to come up. It means I no longer just deposit my paycheck in my checking account but I cash it first and then deposit it because I need cash right away. When you are broke, you do not have the luxury of waiting for checks to clear, its one of the reasons the often ridiculed check cashing joint exist in low income areas. Money sitting in an account, waiting to clear is a luxury those on the edge simply don’t have. Thus the reason the poor will pay crazy fees to turn a paycheck into cash. Despite the fact its insanely expensive. Thankfully I am not quite there and am also fortunate my job uses the same bank I do which makes cashing the check first a fairly painless process.

If any of this resonates with you, it may because while you still see yourself as solidly middle class you know deep dowm you are in financial free fall. Yet do you feel comfortable discussing this your friends? Family? Even in a marriage or partnership, couples are often reluctant to discuss how bad their financial situation is, many times creating even more issues when one partner gets it and the other doesn’t. Thankfully we talk money allot here so no one is going out spending without the other being aware of it.

Once a week, I would like to have a post from someone who is struggling financial and how you are coping in this brave new world. If you are interested in doing a guest post email me blackgirlinmaine@gmail.com