Almost Homeless: My Family’s Journey Through Financial Hell and Back

When I was very young, I was incredibly aware of how hard my mom worked to make ends meet. Mom put herself through paralegal school when I was in kindergarten, and then when I was in second grade, she put herself through law school. Those were some very lean years. Toast and powdered milk for supper kind of years.

When I was in high school, my grandfather told me one should “aspire to earn your age every year.” It was a comment that stuck with me. While I worked steadily all through college and school, I didn’t start to stand on my own two feet until the age of twenty.

On moving across the country simply because I was 20 and I felt like it …

I had just finished college in New York and made the huge life decision to move across the country with $250 to my name. So young, so the nineties. I wasn’t quite upright with financials and during my first months in Los Angeles, my family made sure I kept my course by contributing towards rent and grocery money. I will never forget the moment when I was sitting in my empty studio and the doorbell rang with a grocery delivery from my mom. I was twenty years old and weeping over bagged lettuce and coffee creamer.

The awkward reality of my impulse decision to move was that I moved without a car. I was able to walk to a lot of places in my neighborhood of Los Feliz, but there soon came the catch-22 of life in LA: I needed a car, but to afford a car I needed a job, and in order to afford a car I needed a car to get such a job.

My grandfather gave me a tough-love talk and let me know it was time to get serious. He was willing to give me one cash gift that I could use towards a car in Los Angeles or a ticket home. He sent me $500, and I purchased a 1983 convertible VW Rabbit from a man who was being deported. The day after I purchased the car, I drove to a temp agency. The day after I drove to the temp agency, I had my first job.

A few weeks into temping I turned 21, and I did some math. I realized that I was going to earn my age that year. Just over it. It was so deeply satisfying to have achieved that. For the next six years that I lived in Los Angeles, I saw my career and my earnings grow in tandem. I was on this amazing path of growth and achievement financially. Every paycheck, I put away money towards savings, gave money to several local charities, paid my bills on time, and had funds to go out when I wasn’t working. (Oh, by the way, I was always working …)

I share all of this because we ALL have a financial back story. We all view money through a filter of our own experiences.

On moving back home to take care of my grandmother …

I left Los Angeles after working over six years in the film industry to become the full-time caregiver for my grandmother who had Alzheimer’s. In a flash I went from making nearly six figures to making zero. You don’t become your grandmother’s caregiver to earn a living. You don’t become your grandmother’s caregiver to have anything to do with money at all. I used my savings to live and to fund my fertility treatments (you can read my blog if you want the full details on that) but then it became clear that my grandmother and I needed, well for lack of a better word, a breadwinner.

My mother decided to leave her job and move two states over to move in with my grandmother and me. We all leaned on each other. For just over five years we managed just fine. Mom worked full-time as a real estate attorney, and I worked full-time as my grandmother’s caregiver. I had started to write online, and through ad-space I was making some pocket money. Then the economy turned and our world turned upside down.

The day my mom found out the company she was working for was letting her go, after assuring her that everything was fine, was one of the worst days in our family. It was also the day before my 32-week ultrasound and days before my baby shower. Mom was so upset at her office that I was afraid for her to drive. I couldn’t find anyone to sit with my grandmother, so we both went to mom’s office to get her. It was a scene right out of a movie: me — hugely pregnant — wheeling my grandmother in her chair — who was chattering away sweetly — down the long hallway of a completely silent office except for the sounds of my mom sobbing.

That was the sound of our bottom beginning to fall.

It continued to fall over the next several months. Mom frantically applied for job after job, and I continued gestating and then gave birth to my son. We were in a complete panic about our financial situation. My grandmother needed around-the-clock skilled nursing care so she was on a dementia floor of a nursing home, and every day my mother, myself, and my newborn son would sit with her. Every night my mother searched for jobs. The clock ticked, weeks passed, my grandmother passed away, and our depression grew to a level I never knew was possible.

And on the outskirts of financial depression, there is the panic. What are we going to DO? I sold most of my belongings, my mom sold her car, and we lived in a haze of fear. We started to see the end of the savings. Time was not on our side and pretty soon we were not going to be able to afford rent and gas money. The job market in the state where we were living was completely stale so we had a serious conversation about moving, and eventually we realized we had to do it.

It got really scary. So scary. We were inches away from conversations about sleeping in the car and finding family shelters. We were almost homeless. And then we were homeless. We thought we had time to get back on our feet. Didn’t we have time? We just needed a chance to catch our breath and get grounded and fight.

On moving north because we had nowhere else to go …

Then a woman who read my blog reached out to me with an offer of a place to stay. A woman who I had never met in person before. She put her arms out as my family was in a free fall and saved us. This is not a metaphor. She saved us. My mother, my son, and I packed up all that was dear to us and drove north to a town we had never heard of for a place to stay.

When we got to Maryland, I applied for public assistance and I continued to write online to try and earn something, anything. My mom woke up at 6 every morning and applied for jobs. I found local moms to connect with and was able to make friends IRL for the first time in years. I started a small web design company with one of my new friends and while our sons played, we worked. My mother and I were determined to turn the corner, to recover, to BOUNCE BACK, to thrive. We knew we probably would never get back to the kind of security we once had, but we just wanted to work.

On moving to Philadelphia because we were bouncing back …

I still get choked up thinking about the day my mom found out she was hired for a job in Philadelphia. It was The Day that put us back on track. Everything got put back into motion that day. We found an affordable home to rent and a friend lent us the security deposit we needed to move in. The owner of the home, upon hearing our story, rolled the first and last month’s rent, which is usually due with the security, into the monthly rent so we didn’t have to pay it all up front. I was soon able to get back to work by starting at a local tech company with a “come back mom” program that allowed me to ease into my hours. This allowed me to earn and then save for childcare so that I could slowly increase my hours.

My family and I have been living happily just outside of Philly for a little over three years now. We are so sympathetic towards any family who finds themselves unexpectedly unemployed or at the end of their savings. We were so lucky to have had many friends and angels help us along the way that we feel like it is our duty to help whenever and wherever we can. We also learned that one of the best things you can do for a family in financial crisis is to listen without judgment. It’s not the time to tell someone how you would have done something differently, it’s the time to remind your friends that they are not alone.

I guess the big question is, “Dresden, do you earn your age now?” No. Not yet. But I am hoping next year I will. And then I will exhale, just a little bit.

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