I read this week that close to half of American households would be unprepared for an emergency that cost them $400. I had a mixed reaction to this news.
I felt thankful that I’m not among them, but I felt a shiver of empathy for them — because I was one of them not very long ago.
Back when I was working in politics full time, I made a nice living. After I became experienced and well-known in my political circles, I didn’t make less than six figures in a year, sometimes substantially more than that. I was comfortable and I bought what I wanted. I had plenty of money.
About 10 or 12 years ago, I started getting out of politics. I’ve talked about this before. I lost respect for what I was doing. I came to believe it was wrong, both pragmatically and philosophically. But it was hard to turn the money down. Slowly, though, I “sabotaged” my way out of politics.
That’s when things turned ugly.
I was going through a bad time personally. I had been engaged twice and backed out each time. Both relationships ended badly, but one left me very depressed. I lost interest in solving the problem of where I was going next in life.
Even though I had a nice pile of cash built up, I went through all of the money. After too many years of virtually no income — and no direction — I was broke. Even now, it’s humiliating to talk about. My ego didn’t deal well with it.
Three things saved me.
First, my cats and dogs needed me. People think I rescue animals — and that’s true as far as it goes — but they rescued me during those dark days by giving me a purpose. They needed me. I wasn’t going to let them down.
Second, someone forced me to take a job that I considered beneath me. I’m embarrassed to admit that I felt that way, but I did. My pride didn’t like the comedown from political consultant who dealt with the rich and powerful to being a part-time college employee helping students in computer labs. A friend who was chairman of the department at the time called and essentially shamed me into accepting the job. I hated it — and I hated dealing with my crushed ego — but it got me out of the house and I started making money again. Not much, but a bit.
Third, I fell in love. I started thinking that I might have a future again. I started wanting to become someone again — to be prepared to take care of a family and to make a woman proud of me. That’s the oldest motivation in the world for a man — and it worked for me. Even though the relationship didn’t work out, it left me feeling just a little bit of hope — that a woman was going to love me and that I would have the family I wanted so badly. I’ve held onto that hope — and drifted between hope and despair about it — but there have been days when that’s been enough.
During the worst of my days — maybe six or seven years ago — things got so bad at times that I didn’t know how I was going to eat. A local fast food joint had chicken breasts for $1.99, so I got through many days when I scrounged to find $2.17 (including the tax) to have a meal that day. (The cup of water was free.)
Those were dark times for me. I was humiliated but I didn’t want others to know how bad things had become. I was so embarrassed that I didn’t know how to ask for help in climbing out of the hole I’d dug for myself.
I got one reprieve during those days which demonstrates just how freely the money had flowed in my better days.
During some of the bleakest days, there was a Sunday afternoon when I was looking for something in a drawer which I hadn’t opened for quite awhile. I didn’t find what I was looking for, but I noticed a thick bank envelope among the piles of old political papers.
The envelope contained $5,000 in hundred-dollar bills.
It still had the cashier’s bands around the stack. I had cashed a check at some forgotten time and there had been so much money flowing through my hands at the time that I’d simply stuck $5,000 into a drawer — in the absentminded way that you might lose a 10-dollar bill instead.
There are other horrible things that happened during that period, but you get the idea. It was tough on me in every way. It deflated my ego and it left me emotionally defeated in a way I’d never experienced before.
A Facebook friend happened to ask a question over the weekend about how many people had enough cash to get them through six months if they had no income. I didn’t reply, but I found myself realizing that I could do that. I would live frugally — as I already do — but as long as I had no unexpected emergencies, I could make it six months.
And in that moment, I was grateful for the terrible times I had gone through, because I learned a lot about myself. Most of all, though, I went through enough that nobody can really scare me about hard times anymore.
Yes, there are a lot of things that would scare me. Some forms of medical emergencies would frighten me. News about terrible things in the lives of the few people I care deeply about would frighten me. The collapse of the economic and social order in this country — which I expect to happen — will frighten me if it happens before I’m ready.
But you’re not going to frighten me again by telling me I’m broke. I can deal with that and come out stronger.
I live really cheaply right now. I’m not in the lap of luxury. Three years ago, I bought a cheap foreclosure in a mixed neighborhood. It’s not where I’d move a family, but Lucy and the cats don’t care — and I don’t, either. There’s no ego involved — and I appreciate being able to hold onto my income while I pay a mortgage of $155 a month for a house that will be a nice rental property one day.
I listen to my friends talk about their huge cable bills — several hundred dollars a month, in many cases — and yet I curse my $65-a-month Internet bill. (No, I don’t have any television service or even own a television.)
I don’t want to live this way forever. I want a far nicer house. I’d like to upgrade to an Acura again one day. I’d like to be able to take nice vacations to the Caribbean and Alaska again. I’d like to visit Europe and Asia.
But I’m never going to be broke again.
The period of relative poverty and humiliation I went through was a blessing. I learned that a lot of things didn’t matter as much as I thought they did — and I learned that I could climb out of a deeper hole than I thought I could.
I’m not where I want to be yet. Honestly, I need help in achieving some of the things I want to do — and I have no idea where I’m going to get that help. But I have faith it’s coming.
This past week, my roof started leaking in the room I use as an office at home. I had a handyman come over and make the repairs on the roof. We found a few other things he’s going to repair this coming week.
It’s not that expensive. It’ll end up being about $500. I hate to spend the money — because I’m cheap and don’t want to spend what I don’t have to spend — but it was no big deal to pay for it. I didn’t have to give it a second thought or figure out where to borrow it. So when I read that about half of American families can’t afford a $400 emergency, I was completely certain that I’m no longer one of them.
I hated what I went through, but I’m grateful for what I learned through that pain. I’m counting on those lessons to help me get back to the income and lifestyle I once enjoyed. There’s still a lot I want to achieve.