RIGHT: Elaine Ash, May 2011
I have $49.78 in my pocketbook. Money in my checking account is to cover rent and that’s it. Tragedy time? Not really because my largest client (corporate healthcare) is late with my check, and it’ll get here sooner or later. But I’ve been dipping more and more into savings to tide me over as the wait for Accounts Payable grows longer.
It was Wilkins Macawber, a character created by Charles Dickens, who calculated happiness and misery in monetary terms,“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
With Dickens nagging at me, the hammer really came down when I saw a lead story on Yahoo last week about a new book called The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, by Brianna Karp. At the age of 23, Brianna lost her job and moved into a travel trailer that she inherited after her father’s suicide.
(Doesn’t the girl in the picture bear resemblance to Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City? Carrie HOMELESS? Gulp! )
I was so moved by Brianna’s gumption and self-reliance in the face of harshly reduced
circumstances, that I e-mailed her and she responded by friending me on Twitter. As the child of a mentally ill parent, Brianna had to grow up fast and be strong or be squashed. These “forced coping abilities” enabled her to endure trying and even torturous times, serving her well during her homeless stint. I was truly amazed by this young woman. Like her, I have coping skills and I’ll never, ever go hungry. (Think Scarlett O’Hara shaking a turnip defiantly at the sky.) I also have other things in common with Brianna.
Six years ago I lost my job in advertising. The company decided to move out of state and pink-slipped the whole bunch of us. There was solace in numbers, but in the months following, I thought I was the only person finding it hard to get a job in California. Little did I know at the time, but it was part of a trend—small business fleeing the state, jobs hemorrhaging overseas, lower-paying jobs gobbled up by third-world labor abroad and right here at home. I left my beach-side “executive-apartment” home, as the ad called it, on the westside of Los Angeles and moved to a tiny guesthouse in the burbs, 40 minutes away.
My place is clean, quiet and space-challenged. Just outside is a well-tended flower garden and ample backyard. I park my car practically at the door and all utilities and internet are included for $700. a month. I rent an additional storage unit for $61. per month and the landlord insists that I rent a post office box for my mail at $70 a year.
All my work is freelance and internet-based. I can’t afford health insurance, but I’m an avid believer in holisitic and herbal medicine, so I treat myself for everything from viruses to whatever. I pay $46. per month for accident insurance through Adventure Advocates, plus $166. per quarter for a supplemental accident policy through Farmers. If I contract cancer, God forbid, I’m on my own. But if I fall and break a bone, I’m covered; for emergency room treatment, too.
With expenses this low, I can afford to save as well as splurge on the occasional trip to cover newsworthy book events like the Edgar Awards in New York City. My big yearly blast is three nights in Vegas at summer rates which are a fraction of high season. This summer I’m hoping to stay at the Wynn, arguably the glamour destination in Vegas, for 3 days at $139. per night. I pack my own coffeemaker, snacks and sandwiches. I don’t drink or gamble while I’m there, but I luxuriate in the gorgeous room and take advantage of all the free stuff a glam place like the Wynn offers. This summer, with the price of gas and business hiccupping along, I might need to skip it. Right now, I’m playing it by ear.
Why Am I Telling You All This?
Because more people are joining me in tenuous situations every day. It was Brianna Karp who really made me want to speak about it. Brianna has written the definitive twenty-something’s story of homelessness. She will see the country’s economy rise again, even if it takes ten years or more. But what about people 40 and above? It’s so embarrassing! We were supposed to have it all. We were supposed to be able to retire comfortably after a lifetime of prime economic boom. Where are the voices of the tenuous 40-year-olds, or those at 50 and 60? Well, we’re still only whispering.
What’s the Plan, Stan? Right, Brianna’s author photo
What’s going to separate the homeless from the housed in the coming years? For many, it’s going to take extraordinary skill to stay steps ahead of the Grim Reaper of Homelessness. For me, initiative and adaptability are the surest bets to keep me fed until small business in this country rises again.
One small step for me, is to embark upon a Pay-As-I-Go plan which means I don’t dip in savings as a tide-me-over but instead make the money I have last as long as possible until a paycheck comes in. If that means staying home to conserve gas and eating whatever’s in the frig until check time, so be it. I swore off take-out and the gym membership ages ago. Something very old-fashioned has taken hold in me, just as it’s sweeping the country: If the money isn’t there, it doesn’t get bought. Period. It’s an echo from the days when people saved first and spent later—the old cash-is-king notion.
A few hours later…
I just returned from the post office. I got a completely unexpected tax refund of $860.02 and a hundred bucks from one of my clients. Normally, I would be dancing and I am dancing, but the larger picture is that it’s going to take a heck of a lot more than $860.02 for me to feel safe and as though I have enough savings to really tide me over should business stay as bad as they say it’s going to. Truth to tell, $860.02 is just about what I’ve pinched and bled out of my modest savings over the past 6 months—savings that are supposed to be there as an emergency fund should I fall sick or have well, an emergency.
So 100% of the refund goes to savings, the hundred bucks goes into checking for the upcoming cell phone bill (I no longer have a home phone) and I’m going to continue my experiment of hanging on to my $49.78 as long as it can last.
I could write more about this topic, but I’d like to see the level of interest. If you are intrigued by Brianna Karp, and the threat of homelessness on a very personal scale, please leave a comment.—Elaine Ash
Brianna’s site: http://girlsguidetohomelessness.com/
THANK YOU to the fabulous Lathea Williams at Harlequin!