Friday night my boyfriend, Chris, came home with good news. The official letter was signed, sealed, and delivered; his job is finally permanent. No longer is he a probationary employee. After a period of two years of unemployment, the letter confirming his status might as well have been made of gold. Because for a while there, things were looking bleak…I was starting to wonder if he would ever find a job.
About a year after coming to California from New York to start a new life with me, Chris lost his job. It was well paying with good benefits, but it was not a good fit for him personally. I knew it, Chris knew it, and apparently his boss knew it too. So just days before his probationary period ended, Chris arrived to work one morning only to be abruptly given the news of his termination. Just like that, he was on his way back home.
He was never happy at that job, so it seemed like a blessing in disguise that he was let go. Initially it seemed like an opportunity to regroup and find a better fit for him personally and professionally. But what we did not expect was the downturn in the economy, which made what was supposed to be temporary derailment seem like a permanent ban from the rails.
Months of looking for the perfect job became months of looking for something decent, which soon gave way to months of looking for anything and everything simply to have income to pay the bills. And by that point, the pressure was on us both to make due.
Suddenly I found myself in the position of being the sole bread winner for the two of us. Fortunately, we do not have children or a mortgage, so those were not added concerns for us like they are for many unemployed families. Though for me personally, being widowed suddenly just seven months before meeting Chris, I found it extremely difficult to shoulder any additional stress beyond what I already was contending with from job stress and unresolved grief. I had to rise to the occasion nonetheless and do what was necessary to keep us afloat, regardless of my often emotional, high-strung, internal state.
To help make end’s meet, we made changes and gave up things we did not need. The first luxury to go when he was on unemployment was eating out on the weekends. Namely, NY style pizza, which we enjoyed every Friday night was cancelled until further notice. That was a small sacrifice really, but what came next kind of hurt.
As debt collectors started calling more frequently, it became evident that we could no longer live in the apartment we had. I loved that apartment. It had crown moulding along the ceiling, two-toned colored walls, new white cabinets, granite countertops, and a washer and dryer. The kitchen was so big that it was a joy to cook in and I loved to experiment with recipes I’d seen on the Food Network. It was nice, but it came at a high price. I could not shoulder the cost alone, so we moved to an older, granite free, townhome that was more affordable. It’s a nice place too. We still live here. I can’t complain, but giving up that last place was hard for me. It held countless memories from which I was ambivalent to walk away.
Once we settled into the new place, we figured it would not be long until Chris finally landed a job. He continued to apply for anything and everything, he took everyone’s advice about how to deliver the perfect interview, and he followed up with interviewers after meeting them. But still, nothing. The phone never rang and his inbox was vacant. Jobs simply did not appear. Likewise, after a while, neither did the unemployment checks that we so desperately relied on to stay afloat. The Stimulus Plan helped us receive support longer than initially thought, which was a huge blessing while it lasted. But when the help stopped, financially things became downright scary.
Chris and I stopped spending any money on anything that was not an absolute necessity. Of course cat food was always a priority, but food for us became all about cost. I started spending a lot of time on coupon blogs learning the bargain shopping ropes. After a short time, I became a virtual pro and was able to purchase food, household items, and personal care products for next to nothing by stacking manufacturer coupons with store coupons on discounted or sale items.
My goal was to spend no more than $40.00 per week on everything we needed. It became like a game to Chris and me. We got so good at saving money that we often high-fived as we reviewed the receipts. It was actually kind of fun…that is, until summer came.
As a public educator, I am only paid for 10 months out of the year. I do my best to save money to get us by during August and September when I do not have any income, but last year, with Chris’s unemployment having stopped completely, I often dipped into savings just to get us by during the school year. So by summer, I had just enough money saved for two months of rent and car payments. Utilities, food, household, and entertainment expenses had to be cut entirely or paid for creatively.
Fortunately my coupon skills taught me how to stockpile food when sales were particularly good. We had plenty of Mac & Cheese, cereal, soy milk, pasta, and pasta sauce to sustain us for the entire summer. To reduce utility expenses, we never ran the air conditioner when it was hot, we cancelled Chris’s cell phone, cancelled the landline, and turned in the cable box.
No cable meant no TV reception, so for entertainment, we rented movies from local libraries for free and watched movies on our laptops from Netflix. To generate extra income, I sold all of my designer handbags and clothes on eBay. I also sold my wedding china and anything else of value that might help line our pockets a little longer. Selling my possessions was hard, but it got us by. In the end I decided that possessions could be replaced once the financial strain had passed. Besides, I loved Chris. He came into my life at a critical time after my husband died. I was willingly committed to him. And what’s more, he needed me. Part of me felt secure knowing I was needed. I tried to focus on those things and keep my eye on the big picture when it seemed like he would never ever ever find work again.
And just like that, things shifted once again. Finally, the clouds parted. Chris landed a great job in October, just when I began to feel like I could not handle the stress any longer.
His job pays well, has great benefits, and is a wonderful match for him personally and professionally. Though it was really hard giving up my possessions during the two years he was out of work, it taught me just how resilient I am when needed. Further, it taught me how to live within my means and quit whining about things that don’t really matter.
Life is short. It is meant to be enjoyed.
Money is nice, but it is not everything. It’s not a cliché…it really can’t buy happiness. We both learned a lot about ourselves during the time that Chris was out of work. The letter ensuring that he will have a job tomorrow, is just a bonus. Circumstances change. Now I know we have the chops to handle whatever comes next and still manage to find the fun in it along the way.