My Mind On My Money and My Money On My Mind by Roberta Moore

On the news last night, following the $700 billion dollar bailout talk, it was mentioned that 25% of Americans are struggling to pay their bills every month.
Let me raise my hand and say hello, I am one of those Americans, and my actual debt is a miniscule fraction of this bailout… but it is a real, day to day, emotionally and psychologically draining financial struggle.
I think that a huge part of the frustration and anger on the part of so many Americans at the entire notion of a bailout is that we're being told that the government has to do this to "protect us", to protect the U.S. as well as the now deeply interconnected global markets from failing... they have to do this so that we can stillget credit. That is, so the banks will still loan us money, give us mortgages, give us credit cards at 8-25% interest (what a bargain!). Leaving aside the fact that the government doesn't even actually have this money and is just raising the debt ceiling on our national debt to cover these bad investments -- the kicker, the part of this bitter pill that is so goddamn hard to swallow is that we the American people are so desperate for bailout ourselves.
I'm gonna lay it out here, my friends. This is where I am at.
My husband and I both went to college. Heck, I even got a graduate degree. We have good jobs making good money. We do not live in the most expensive urban market -- not by a long shot. In fact, we live in an area that has seen a huge swell of relocation from the Northeast specifically because of the affordable housing.
My husband on his own qualified for and bought a home he could afford to pay for on his salary. A few years back, we got married. We had some debt, but it was small and seemed manageable.
We had a kid. I took four months off of work to be home with him. We had saved up some money to cover our expenses during this time, included the $800 a month co-pay I had to make for Cobra for the last month when my FMLA leave ended. It was not enough. We went a bit more into debt. I went back to work, paying basically 1/2 of my salary now for childcare, upping my insurance co-pay to cover my son, and starting to pay for life insurance
A year and a half later we got pregnant again, and had another kid. I took four months again. We went further into debt again. I went back to work, because even after taxes and health insurance and dental insurance and life insurance and social security and daycare, I was still bringing home $300 a month. And if I stopped working and we went on my husband's insurance, his co-pay would be raised by $400 a month. We would effectively have $700 less a month to get by.
As it is, after we pay our mortgage and child care and debt and car loan and equity loan and bills and make a single trip to the grocery every month, we have about $200 to live on. For everything else.
What is everything else? Gas, any more groceries, medical co-pays, dentist bills, car taxes, anything at all unexpected like the dryer breaking, the dishwasher breaking, the laundry machine breaking (it has not been a good year for our ancient appliances), or three trees falling in the yard while you are out of town, being out of town to begin with and taking any kind of vacation, clothes and shoes, a car breaking down, a hockey season for your kid. When you can't really afford gas for the month, the change from $25 filling up your tank to $50 filling up your tank is no small matter. Even in a month where not a single “extra” expense like a car tax or a dentist visit occurs--we end up putting gas and groceries on a credit card by the end of the month to be able to feed our family and get to work.
I think our current economic situation was pretty neatly summed up this summer. I got my cost of living increase raise. It amounted to $60 more per month that I bring home. Daycare had their annual cost increase. It amounted to $90 more per month that we pay.
Every single month we go deeper into debt. And every month the amount of our minimum payment to cover this debt increases.
And so it goes--what we earn is increasingly less and less of what we pay. And with 2 kids we are in a particular double bind: with one child, day care is less expensive per month than in home care. With 3 children, in home care is less expensive. With two kids--day care and in home care in this area are pretty much the same amount. And the non-choice of my "staying at home" would mean, as I noted, $700 less per month in actual funds we would have. When you cannot afford gas and groceries every month without using credit, having $700 less is simply not an option.
I know I am not alone.
And yet no one is trying to bail us out.
So this is the big dark open secret middle America is facing. As I’ve talked to people about it, what keeps coming up is the guilt and shame aspect of not being able to make it in America these days. Specifically perhaps for the middle class, there is a very real sense of self-blame when our income doesn't meet what we pay out, when we rack up debt, and the next month have even less to cover the bills because we owe more in debt, and the quicksand just keeps pulling us in deeper the more we struggle. We're ashamed to be in our 30s, 40s, 50s and not to be able to make ends meet, to have to buy food and essentials on a credit card. We feel a heavy burden of guilt -- how did we get ourselves into this mess? -- while also feeling isolated, because it seems like folks around us are all managing better.
I'm not going to give myself a total out here, you know. I'm aware that I have made poor choices at times, like putting Christmas gifts on credit cards or continuing to go to the beach the last two summers when we really couldn't afford to. But I am also aware that if well educated, well paid, solidly middle class folks like my husband and I are struggling so hard and can't in all honesty afford the children we have -- shit is bad, folks. Really bad. And way worse for many than what we face.
The part that had me crying in public over a bowl of rice today was realizing that economically, my family would be better off if I died. Not emotionally or psychologically better off, but definitely financially better off. Now don't get too worried -- I have no inclination to off myself, I love my children, my husband, my family and myself even far too much (and I rather suspect my life insurance would be invalid if I did anyway) but I've insured myself for a quarter of a million dollars. $250,000. Not that much in the big picture, I suppose -- compared to say my lifetime earning potential, or the AIG and Wall Street bailouts but... that amount would, even after taxes, pay off our entire home mortgage, all of our debt, and there would still be a decent amount to send 3 kids to college.
So dear reader I'm trying, today, I'm trying really hard not to think too long or hard about what it would mean for my family if I got hit by a car today, because thinking for very long that your family might be better off if you were dead is really fucking depressing. Sorry to end on such a sour note. It's just really, really, really fucking hard to have been treading water for the last couple of years, to feel yourself going under and to be watching the US government throw a life raft to the yacht next to you that sprung a leak.
Roberta Moore is a 30-something working mother, feminist and writer who would love for someone else to do her dishes. She currently resides in Durham, NC with her husband, 3 kids and 2 cats.