Facing Facts

Facing Facts

He doesn’t always get up early, but he always gets up. He checks his email and messages. He looks for jobs online, tweaks his resume and applies, for the umpteenth time. He networks, talks to friends, stays in touch. He takes webinars and reads trade magazines, keeping current. He goes on phone and in-person interviews, and has lunch with old colleagues.

He buys suits with a credit card because the old ones don’t fit, hoping to have a job when the bill comes in. I help him color his nearly white beard. Not too much, just enough to knock off a few years. He programs motivational messages on his phone and his computer. He reads articles on attitude, on how to make a good impression, on what “they” are looking for now. He never loses hope, but I hold my breath.

Goodbye, cable TV, On-Star, Ancestry, and World of Warcraft. Goodbye, to the pizza delivery guy, the good hairdresser, and the car-wash attendant. After 17 years at the same company, my husband has been laid off. We have to figure out how to meet expenses acquired on a $130,000-plus-benefits annual budget with $21,600 worth of unemployment. I sell my jewelry to pay the mortgage, more than once. I take cans and bottles in for the recycling money. Groceries go on the only credit card we have, American Express. It’s impossible to qualify for a lower-interest credit card, or to refinance your home loan without a job.

I apply for a government-sponsored mortgage relief program for those receiving unemployment, thinking that by the time the application process is completed, he’ll have a job and no longer qualify. In the middle of the process, the EDD checks stop for six weeks due to a clerical error. We now have zero income.

We visit the EDD office, where in-person claims assistance is a budget-cut casualty. We go home and call the help line: It’s overloaded. We keep trying—for days. Finally, I Google, “How do you get through to EDD?” and try techniques for navigating the phone system suggested by other job seekers. Miraculously, they work. We eventually get the payments reinstated. Now, the program pays my mortgage and will do so for up to nine months. (God bless you, Mr. Obama. You’ve got our vote.)

The government program helps, but we still can’t meet our fixed expenses. Payments on our home equity line of credit are $1,000 a month, and health insurance is $1,400 through COBRA. There’s only one thing left to do: Raid the retirement fund. When I do the taxes some months later, we owe $7,000, thanks to additional taxes and penalties. We already have state and federal payment plans in effect from a previous year’s error.

Our son is graduating from high school this year, but the trip to Greece we promised him five years ago is not going to happen. There’s a senior trip to Disneyland, but he insists he doesn’t want to go. I suspect that’s not the truth, but I don’t press it. We managed to pay for the cap and gown and the fee for him to take the AP Psychology exam, but there will be no printed announcements, or embossed name cards, or professional photos. He’ll be attending community college until we can get the funding sorted out for him to transfer to a four-year school—probably the smartest course of action, even for those who can afford otherwise, but it still feels like we’ve failed him.

And yet, we are lucky. No, the government help is not enough, and the taxes and penalties are harsh, but at least we have the option of incurring them because we set that money aside. Our credit remains solid, although the minimum payment on our American Express bill is impressive. I got a job myself, part-time—no benefits, but it’s money coming in and I can walk to work.

We file our taxes at the last possible moment and discover we have a six-month grace period. A financial planner helps us access our retirement savings in the safest, sanest way possible. My part-time job qualifies me for a low-interest credit card that allows us to shift $8,000 from American Express interest-free for 16 months. Our son qualifies for a fee waiver in community college.

My husband’s search has expanded. He’s open to lower pay and longer commutes. He doesn’t panic. He gains insight from former colleagues succeeding in new fields. He’s proud we’ve held on to the essentials. We are not out of the woods yet, but the trees are thinning.

Denise Shelton lives with her husband and son in Alameda.

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Faces of the East Bay

In the Philanthropic Swim

In the Philanthropic Swim

Rockridge residents John Bliss and Kim Thompson may live far removed the gritty flats of East and West Oakland. But this philanthropic couple see themselves as one with the citizens of Oakland, particularly those who are struggling financially, and they’re leading a campaign to get their “financially blessed” peers to invest in the community like they have by funding city programs to teach kids how to swim.