Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas on the Dole

This is it—the thing I thought never could happen: my second Christmas on the dole.

Last year, the whole experience was new. Instead of moping, I decided to savor that Christmas as a once-in-a-lifetime holiday month off work—something busy professionals never experience.

Enjoy every minute, I told myself. By Christmas 2010 you may be working in some far-flung locale—far removed from family and friends, maybe even having Christmas dinner alone. I determinedly decided to wring every drop of Christmas cheer out of the 2009 holiday season.

But Christmas 2009 got up-ended by illness, My body, exhausted after 11 months of unrelenting work stress that culminated in job elimination, could take no more.

Antibiotics put me on the right track for a beautiful Christmas until I sprouted golf-ball-sized lumps and the worse itching ever—an allergic reaction to the antibiotics.

No wonder I had little zest for Christmas after that. As I coughed my way through decorating the tree, I even found myself teary-eyed as I hung beautiful ornaments given to me by former co-workers.

Or, was my emotion just the reality of my then-fresh on-the-dole situation?

Unemployment was still a quirky novelty in December 2009—a sociological experiment to observe and dissect (Christmas presents had been purchased while I had a paycheck; lack of funds for gifts were not a real concern last year.)

Thankfully, I've been healthy this year. No nasty infections zapping my Christmas mood. Perhaps my wellness comes from getting adequate rest or maybe it is because I no longer mingle with germ-ridden co-workers. I haven't been sick once since last holiday's cough fest.

So, time to enjoy Christmas 2010.

But, when on the dole, what is "Santa" to do? Why joyfully give gifts of course!


My Christmas on the dole is not that different from previous years. And, no, I am not talking about buying with plastic (an absolute no-no for those of us on the dole).

Several years ago, most of my friends and I stopped exchanging gifts. Because we all had good jobs then and could buy what we wanted or needed, we decided our gift to each other would be getting together over the holidays without stressing over a gift exchange.

On the home front, some Christmases ago while we were all three still employed, my parents and I, by choice, changed our gift-giving approach. In order to participate financially in some causes we believed in during the season, we set a price limit on our gift giving to each other. We so enjoyed the challenge of finding great gifts for little money, that each year we kept cutting the amount. About six years ago it finally got down to a mere $10 per person.

Does that sound dismal and cheap? It's not, really. It's more fun than you might imagine.

Here are the rules:

  1. No more than $10 per person in actual money can be spent.
  2. You may give away anything you already own without including its value in the $10 total. (Some call this re-gifting. I call it getting Great-Grandma's cut-glass bowl decades sooner than I expected.)
  3. A "buy-one-get-one" deal at the store doesn't count as spending money if the giver actually needed the "buy-one" portion and simply gave away the "get one" part. (This works great on fancy food items.)
  4. Homemade items (candy, spiced nuts, potholders, etc.) don't have to be counted in the dollar amount, although in the spirit of the law we refrain from giving each other gifts that require buying expensive components not already on hand in order to craft the gift.
  5. Some pharmacies give away a gift card with a new prescription. (Target, for example, hands out a $10 gift card. Some stores give as much as $25.) Those gift cards can be used without being factored into the total cost.
  6. Modest gifts "purchased" with credit card reward points are allowed without the cost being included, but common sense should prevail to stay within the accepted bounds.
  7. Thrift-store shopping and garage-sale buying are encouraged but only if the item is useful or needed. No dust catchers or frou-frou just to be adding to the pile.
These days, the fun comes from our yearly contest to see who can give the most creative and appreciated gifts while spending the least money. Everybody agreed I won the year I gave my mother a gift certificate to her favorite charity thrift shop! Believe it or not, the store manager said it was the first time he'd ever been asked to do a gift certificate.

I have to admit my mother and I are pretty competitive. For instance, Mom called tonight pretending to be worried about her Christmas shopping, but we both knew she was gloating over her shrewd gift gathering: she and my father have 17 gifts wrapped and waiting for me; they purchased everything they thought I might want or need, but had only spent $20.14 total (Sometimes you can't hit it right on the button.)

I recently saw a news story about Queen Elizabeth's Christmas traditions. Surprisingly, royal family members buy small gifts to exchange. But, this year, in a cash-strapped economy, the queen will be celebrating what she calls her "credit-crunch Christmas," requesting no gifts for herself or Prince Philip. She's asked for all would-be gifts to be donated to charity instead.

Perhaps I'm not broke, I'm fashionable. I must be a trendsetter if the Queen and royals are following suit. (After all, the Queen lives off public funds herself.)

I've spent only ten dollars each, but my parents have 14 gift bags to open this year. Some bags even contain five or six items. And, there are even some expensive name-brand items among them.

This Santa has only spent twenty dollars for her entire gift-giving season!

I did make one Christmas-on-the-dole concession: not mailing Christmas cards. I dislike skipping this tradition, but postage cost me more than sixty dollars last time, and I can't justify that cost even when using stockpiled, discounted cards purchased two years ago at an after-Christmas sale. I'll be hand-delivering cards this year, which may be a nicer plan anyway since it means I'll be spending time with them, too.

The real irony?

I've celebrated a lot of past Christmases, but so far, 2010 is my favorite—yes, even rising to the top over many "perfect" childhood Christmases. Most holidays of my executive career have found me stressed out planning employee parties and desperately trying to finish some year-end work project so that I could take the actual day of the holiday off work. I remember one horrible Christmas in which I worked 90 hours in one week just to be able to take Christmas Day off. Many Christmases found me ill-tempered from fighting mall crowds to buy expensive not-well-thought-out gifts that ultimately got returned even before I could pay off the credit card bill.

And, I can't tell you how many Christmas cards have been addressed at 1 AM one stressed out night during Christmas week because I ran out of time.

But none of that for me this year.

As I looked through those Black Friday sale advertisements in the newspaper, I wondered if anyone really needed a cupcake maker or a fruit dehydrator and exactly how many sweaters, DVDs or PJs would be received before a person's closet overflowed? And, then I remembered, because of my life on the dole, I didn't have to get up at 3 AM to go to insane sales, and I'm able to drive past those long lines in the post office parking lot without a thought. Better yet, I don't have to worry about my credit card bill in January.

Like the rest of the world, I don't have a clue what 2011 holds. I don't know if I'll be working a traditional job or running my own successful business. I don't know if I'll be living in my own home or living with family. I don't even have a clue what geographic region of the country I might be in to celebrate Christmas 2011. (But, look on the bright side: I might live somewhere a white Christmas is at least a possibility—something I've never seen in my home state.) But, for now I am practicing carpe diem as I savor every moment of this delightfully, unstressed holiday season. I'm enjoying visits with family and friends. I'm keeping the reason for Christmas in my heart. And, this Christmas 2010 on the dole may be the best Christmas of all.

# # #

Just for Fun: Don't let the Dole be the Grinch that steals your Christmas! Remember, without presents or feasts, Christmas came to Who-ville just the same.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

One Year Later: Lessons Learned From My Life on the Dole

A year of living on the dole.

A year with no job.

A year of doing without.

A year of learning.

It’s been a year.

In some ways it’s been the longest year of my life. Yet, in others, it seems to have flown by.

That frenzied, harried, stressed-out working woman who stared out from my mirror has been replaced. Sure, she had lovely, expensive, salon highlights in her hair, name-brand professional clothes and a well made-up face, but those workplace trappings did little to camouflage the stress lining her face.

Now, a new woman looks out from my mirror: A woman who is unashamed of her hair streaked with grey; a woman wearing sweats (more days than not), yet fresh faced from a full night’s sleep. Yes, this woman looks years younger than the other one. This woman cannot afford expensive tubes of trendy moisturizer, but there’s something better that comes from peace and rest, and no cosmeceutical company can quite replicate that look.

Yes, it has been a year.

And, while I don’t appear to be the same woman on the outside, I’d like to think I am not the same one at heart either.

Here are some of the life lessons I’ve learned:

Life’s too short to turn yourself into a stress hairball. Ironic, considering health insurance worries that dog me. (My premiums go to $400 a month in February and if—and that’s a big if—I can get insurance at all, it will become $1,200 in June). But, job stress and unemployment stress are two different beasts. Doing-without-stuff stress is not the same as stress associated with navigating office politics, hidden agendas and interpersonal minefields. I hope I never feel that way again. I want to work—I just don’t want to let job stress consume me anymore. I think I know a lot more now about work/life balance.

Lesson learned: Even though jobs are hard to come by, I’m going to try to choose wisely next time.

Life’s not about having (or buying) stuff. I’ve spent the past two weeks cleaning out closets. Simply put, I have too much stuff. Even though I haven’t purchased any nonessential for more than a year, I still have too much stuff. Consider:  Ten half-used moisturizer tubes and 20 (or more) little hotel-type shampoo bottles. Fifty half-used lipstick tubes? Really? I don’t have enough lips to use that much in a lifetime.

And, let’s not even discuss clothes, shoes or purses. Too much. Too much. Too much.

Donating stuff to charity, trading at the used book store to earn credit for a friends’ son’s birthday gift and tossing the ratty-looking stuff is far more liberating than marching through stores grabbing up stuff.

Lesson learned: I am never going down that path of mindless consumerism again.

I’ll never have the same easy relationship with money ever again. I never was a spendthrift. Possessing some measure of frugality, I always worked to find the best deal even when buying something expensive, such as my car. (That car is now seven years old and if I got a fabulous job tomorrow, I’d still keep driving it.) Even in the old days when I overdid the eating out, at least I used coupons. But, there’s a huge difference between being frugal with a good income and paddling like a maniac to keep your head above water.

In the future, my nest egg will need to be double or triple what it is now to make me feel any measure of financial security. A huge mortgage even when I can afford it? No, I don’t think so. Every purchase will be thoroughly considered—not just the small ones. And, wastefulness? I hope it never again enters this house.

I’m not sure I’ll ever feel 100% job security again. Sure, it was incredibly naïve to feel as secure as I did in my pre-dole days, and I was probably an oddity in my generation. Experts say Gen Xers never felt job security the way Baby Boomers did, claiming they were scarred from watching their company-loyal parents get downsized in the 1980s. But, my parents weren’t downsized—Mom was self-employed and Dad worked 35 years at his government job before retirement. I never felt, or even saw, insecurity. I worked hard. I worked for a large company. I got promotion after promotion until I reached the top. I felt my job would be around forever. I was wrong. Naïveté, I will miss you.

Lesson learned: Never, never again will I believe I am so bullet-proof it can’t happen to me. 
True friendship is priceless. When you’re in an influential position and have money to socialize, it’s easy to attract new social acquaintances. But, are those folks true friends or the fair-weather variety? Worrying about whether I would lose my job, it never occurred to me to worry about losing people. While the fair-weather social acquaintances have fallen away, true friends stepped in to show me how priceless they are.

Lesson learned: Next time, I’ll figure out who the real friends are a lot sooner and I will treasure them more.
The joy of the treat is worth savoring. Whether it’s a much anticipated free haircut or a birthday dinner out with friends, everything is better when it’s a treat, a break from everyday routine. But, if it all comes a bit too easy, then nothing is special—nothing is a treat. There’s no anticipation.

I used to wonder why turn-of-the-century children got excited about a mere orange for a Christmas gift. But, in those days, oranges were rare and special—a treat meant to be savored. Not having everything your heart desires makes doing something special just that—special. There is an incredible joy that comes from savoring the moment—preserving the feeling so that it can be remembered long after the moment has passed.  

Lesson learned: I’ll never again let treats become commonplace. I’ll keep some things as special things to be savored.

Life on the dole has been challenging for me but never horrible. While some unemployed friends are down to their last $10 and others do without health insurance and home heating, I’m not missing anything critical. Admittedly, being without a clothes dryer has no appeal, and cold showers while the water heater was out was not my favorite part of this adventure. And, it’s entirely possible I’ll be paying into the distant future tiny installments on the bills for the ER, casts and physical therapy for my tumble down the stairs. Sure, income is limited, but I’m not poor or even broke.

Lesson learned: As my grandmother always said, “Remember there’s always somebody worse off than you are so just count your blessings and don’t complain.”

Money cannot buy life’s important things. It can’t buy time with Mom and Dad. It can’t replace their TLC while I was injured. It can’t buy a visit with a friend. It can’t buy a snuggle from my cat. Maybe I can’t go out to eat or to the movies with friends, but I can still visit with them in my own house or theirs. In fact, having a job used to limit severely my time with family and friends, making them complain they never saw me. Now I have time for those I love.

Lesson learned: The best things in life really are free.

I already have everything I need. I may no longer have everything I want, but I have everything I need (and then some). I have a warm home, good health, loving and supportive parents, loyal friends, healthy food and some money left in the bank. I have more than most people living on this planet. And, most importantly, I have a thankful heart.  

Lesson learned: Money is just a tool that makes life more comfortable. Don’t make it more important than it has to be.

Yes, it’s been a year.

A rough year that often felt like an emotional rollercoaster.

A year that’s left me feeling refreshed and rejuvenated to begin again.

A year of lessons learned.

A year I would not trade for anything because it made me who I am today.

I have made it through the year. Yes, my life on the dole is still a work in progress. But, I like the woman I’ve become. And, I like the woman I’m still becoming.

#  #  #

Photo Credits:
Friends: Source Unknown

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Break, Broke, Broken Revisited: This Time It’s Personal

“Did you hear something pop?” asked the paramedic.

“No,” I replied. “I couldn’t really hear much over the screaming.”

“Screaming?” he asked, looking all around. “Who screamed?”

“Me,” I admitted sheepishly.

These days I can’t seem to catch a break. Well, Okay, maybe this time I did. Sort of. You see, apparently appliances are not the only things that can break when times are tough financially.

Remember what I said in my August blog post, “Break, Broke, Broken”?: “Stuff may be broken, but I am not.” Well, just a month later, I almost was.

Confession time: I have a history of epic-level klutziness—the kind of stories you trot out at parties to make people laugh.

One incident involved a dark Halloween night, a winding country road, an Angus bull (2,000 pounds worth) and a totaled Toyota. The good news is, I didn’t get a scratch in the accident.

Another fiasco was a fall at the nursing home in front of no less than 100 onlookers—an event later requiring surgery and months of physical therapy. (Embarrassment trumped pain as I realized I, the young person, was on the ground being loaded onto a stretcher as the frail, elderly folks stood over me, watching solemnly.)

Thankfully, in my latest klutz attack, my foot and ankle did not get broken. Although, in all truthfulness, an actual break may have hurt less and healed faster than the torn ligaments I now have.

And, worst of all, I didn’t even get a good party story out of it. You’d think if a person has to clomp around for a month in a knee-high moonboot, it would be more interesting to relate a tall tale of being chased  by rhinos on a Serengeti safari. Or at minimum, a story of reckless Alpine snowboarding.

September 4th, the Saturday before Labor Day was beautiful in Georgia. It was the kind of late-summer weekend that leads a woman to daydreams of beautifully weeded flower beds, immaculately cleaned living quarters and super-purged closets. It was the kind of day when accomplishing that mile-long to-do list seemed possible.

But, my first thought was, I’ll quickly get the laundry chugging so it’ll have plenty of time to line-dry. (Dryer’s still broken.)

Apparently I wanted that laundry done a bit too quickly. As my mind focused far away on the to-do list, my body flew over the last step of the stairway.

It’s amazing how time slows in an accident. At some point in the endless freefall, I tossed the laundry hamper sideways, thus making room to land face down in the foyer as some woman screamed loudly very close to my ear.

My right foot lay at an odd angle beneath me as I sprawled less than a foot in front of my new water heater. (Okay, I love my new water heater, but falling down to kiss its feet is a bit much.)

Yep, klutzy is my middle name; I admit it.

As I rose carefully from the floor, I watched a big blue goose-egg emerge on the top of my foot.

This is not good, I thought, as I hobbled to the phone to call Mom and Dad (again).

“Call 911 this minute!” Mom instructed. “It’ll take us at least an hour to get there.”

“Is it gonna cost me if they come?” I asked, my on-the-dole persona flipping into instant alert.

“Just call them,” she snapped in that tone of voice only a mother is legally allowed to use—the kind of voice that instantly makes you feel 12-years old again and mentally adding the “or else” part even if she didn’t say it.

I called 911.

Five minutes later: two paramedics, two EMTs, two firefighters and three shiny red trucks arrived. Must’ve been a really slow morning in my semi-rural community, I thought.

In the middle of the chaos, neighbor Lynn burst through the front door in time to hear a trip to the ER was necessary. Still worrying about money, I actually did put six highly-trained emergency personnel on hold while calling to have my mother check the insurance plan book to see if I could afford an ambulance trip. (We have the same carrier.)

I could not.

Yes, that’s right. In the midst of total chaos and excruciating pain, my chief concern was price. I am, after all, living on the dole, and I just paid for a water heater, too.

Fortunately, Lynn stepped in to offer to give up her Saturday morning to drive me to the ER so that I could save the ambulance fee. Where would I be in this dole adventure if it were not for family and friends, I asked myself for the thousandth time?

Still, trust me on this, you do not want to have an orthopedic accident on a Saturday morning of a three-day weekend when your orthopedist won’t be back in the office until Tuesday. Let me explain the effects of this long weekend succinctly: “Ouch! Ouch! OUCH!” (for 72 hours straight in spite of heavy-duty painkillers).

Still, I did “catch a break” this time—the foot was not broken, but, I badly tore the ligaments, necessitating weeks in a cast.

Very funny, Doc. Wise cracks thrown in at no additional charge.

It’s a good thing that through my ongoing klutziness over the past 12 years, we’ve become friends or I might, in my pain and drug-fuzzed state have needed to hurt him for that one.

Oh, and just to make things interesting: Did I mention this foot in the cast is my driving foot? How am I supposed to get from Point A to Point B?


Oh, and as if driving me around like Miss Daisy is not enough, she also gets to cook my meals, scoop cat litter boxes, and push me in a wheelchair when I have a business appointment. Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is when your mommy has to help you in and out of the shower? (Thankfully, at least it is a hot shower—glad I got that water heater before this happened). Meanwhile, Dad waters plants, runs errands and takes on whatever else Major Mom assigns him to do—all while remembering not to complain about the haphazard schedule now going on at his house.

It has been nearly four weeks since my fall. My foot no longer looks quite as much like a purple football with five fat sausages attached. More importantly, the pain has lessened to the point where I can now focus on other things—such as money.

Since that plunge down the stairs, my medical bills so far now total more than $2,000. Thankfully, insurance covers a big chunk of that amount. Still, I’ll have to figure out how to pay the hefty co-pays and deductibles. I’m hoping there’s no need for surgery or physical therapy, but the fact that it’s still swollen and discolored three weeks later is discouraging. That unmet annual deductible looms large, but I’m trying hard not to think of that too much.

As I consider my own situation, I wonder how people without health insurance manage? How do they pay $2,000+ for emergency medical care? And, my bills are just for a badly torn ankle and foot. What if it was some life-threatening emergency?

Right now, my insurance is somewhat reasonable, but still a stretch on my teeny-tiny dole checks. But, in April, my monthly insurance cost will skyrocket to an amount larger than my monthly dole check. 

In fact, at some point, the dole check will dry up entirely. I can only hope that the business I’m starting has taken off by then. I was making great progress on it until the fall, but a four-week setback at this point is not a good thing.

Yes, I still have financial worries but throughout my “broken” situation, whether it’s broken appliances, a broken bank account or even now my bruised-but-not-broken body, I’m learning what’s still whole in my life—my family and friends—and to be thankful for that with my whole heart.  

#   #   #

Photos Courtesy of:

Cast & Crutch (not Ariel): 
X-ray (not Ariel's X-ray): http://www.flickr.com/photos/akeg/

Thursday, September 2, 2010

. . . And Then I Took a Cold Shower

It's a dark and stormy night in Georgia.

Lightning flashes. Thunder explodes. The cat tries to become one with the carpet beneath his bed. I pull the covers over my head to muffle the house-rattling booms.

Then . . . total darkness.

When the power goes, it's amazing the sounds you don't hear. No air conditioner hum. No air purifier buzz. No ceiling fan swooshes.

I'm reminded of what else I'm not hearing: the sounds of the gas burner rattling on to crank up the water heater located just beneath my bedroom.

Just yesterday, I discovered dampness on the closet floor next to the water heater. Not too surprising—at 23 years old, the ancient dinosaur was the last original appliance left in my house. There had been warnings, but each time I'd seen rusty water, I'd convinced my got-no-money self it was only the pipes.

Four AM: Sleep escapes me; I ponder my finances, the water heater floating to the top of my worry list.

Dang! It perks along just fine for 23 years, but decides to quit now—just when I have no spare funds for repairs?

This month's earlier financial fiasco—air conditioning repair—has not even made it to my credit card statement yet, much less been paid.

Two major home repairs in one month? Are you kidding me?

It's 4:10 AM: I lie sleepless with nothing to do but think. And, the more I think, the more I just want to go kick something.

And, today's there's a cold shower in my future.

Obviously, I have royally ticked off the appliance gods.

Okay, this isn't cute anymore. I've gone from a novel, mildly-annoying-yet-eco-friendly laundry experiment to what's shaking out to be a mega-annoying, primitive lifestyle. I've spent nearly a year maintaining my optimism while being jobless, but this is just too, too much. I didn't sign on for a pioneer gig.

Yesterday, when I saw the dampness and heard that insistent drip-drip-drip sound, I had (again!) phoned my dad. He talked me through checking this and that, but there's no getting around the reality of the coming watery tide on the closet floor if something isn't done.

I consider my migraine-inducing options.

But, really, there are no options. There's nothing to be done but to order a new water heater and pay for installation.

Thursday mid-morning: My stomach churns at the $900 price quoted by two different plumbing contractors as well as a home improvement store. No matter where you go or what brand you choose, the price comes out the same. But, hot water is a basic necessity. Hanging up wet laundry, I can do, but cold showers and stove-heated water for hand-washing dishes? I don't think so.

But, where does $900 come from? I can't find that much spare change in the sofa cushions or sell that many pints of blood.

Wait! The home improvement store offers a six-months-same-as-cash plan. (Just wondering: What kind of place gives a shiny new credit card with a $1,000 limit to a person on the dole? Yes, that's exactly how much they approved. It's September, and my year-to-date dole checks total less than I used to earn in a single month.)

Six-month-same-as-cash is good except . . . same scenario six months hence: spare change, sell blood, etc. I'm starting to feel like Miss Scarlett again. I'll think about that in six-month's worth of tomorrows.

"Would you like it installed today?" the store clerk asks cheerfully.

"Definitely," I reply.

The clerk glances at the oily, unwashed bangs glued to my forehead and says nothing. She dials plumbers and insists the job be done today.

Still, even without counting the financial concerns, as I drive home, I sense it is all a little too easy.

Surely you can't just waltz into a store, put a water heater on a brand-new, instantly-issued charge card and enjoy a hot shower by day's end.

Hours later, the plumber arrives as promised, my new water heater on the truck . Then, as expected, Murphy's Law strikes: The new tank is damaged.

But, it gets worse: The plumber announces there can be no installation today anyhow. Apparently some dummy built my house around my water heater.

Yes, you heard right—the builder constructed this house around the water heater.

Old one won't come out of the closet. New one can't go in. Demolition work ahead.

"The company doesn't allow me to do demo work," the nice plumber explains sympathetically. "You'll have to get a handyman."

Or, he explains, I have another option: a tankless water heater in the garage. Oh, and that will cost around $2,700—new pipes, fittings, vents, widgets and hocus-pocus.

How can I possibly pay $2,700 when I can't imagine where I'm going to get the previously-quoted $900?

I watch forlornly as "my" water heater sails into the sunset, strapped to the retreating back of the plumber's truck.

I don't have a handyman. Even if I had money, isn't the handyman a mythical beast? Has anyone ever actually seen or hired one? Still, I do have my ever-reliable, always-on-call "Super" Dad, but it gets kind of embarrassing at my age to keep yelling for my father.

Still—what choice do I have? Once again, I make the call.

Now it's Friday: All plumbers charge extra for weekend installations; two more days of cold showers.

Saturday: Dad removes the closet door and door frame. I hold my breath as he measures. Yay! The old one will come out with a quarter inch to spare. But . . . the new, fatter one still won't go in.

Third day with no hot water: I get an e-mail from a family friend two miles away. She's inviting me to her house for showers. My spirits perk up. I don't go, but the invitation cheers me. Somebody cares!

Off we go (parents now joining this rolling circus) to the home improvement store to choose a taller (slimmer) tank that will fit through that narrow closet door.

It's now Monday: Cold showers and hand-washed dishes for nearly a week.

And . . . that "nice" plumber who came on Thursday now demands an additional $334, even after my father removed the closet door and drained the water heater. The bill leaps to $1,200. (More spare change? More selling blood? I'm starting to envision myself in a chicken suit waving discount coupons for fried nuggets at passing motorists.)

Couldn't this stuff wait until my business turns a profit in a few months? Right now, with start-up costs, I'm still drowning in red ink. Computers, business licenses and supplies aren't cheap.

When I likened starting a new business to taking a plunge in the icy waters of the North Atlantic sea, I had no idea that metaphor would come to life as a cold chill in my own bathtub.

When I dared to exclaim with good humor that I was on board with the eco-concept of line-dried laundry, I never dreamed that soon I would be hand-washing dishes, too.

And, "Romance on the Dole"? Seriously, people?

Forget the eligible bachelor everybody thinks I should find. You know, the one with the good job and health insurance?

Nope, one brawny-can-do-hunky-Carter-Oosterhouse variety for me, please! (Do these heroic creatures actually exist in the wild? Or, are they, like the so-called hireable handyman, merely a fantasy? And if they do exist, there's that whole issue of my current lack of hot water and allure—just two more reasons romance on the dole ain't gonna happen, folks. (Go ahead if you think differently; try shaving your legs when they're covered in goose bumps.)

Once more, my savings account leaks profusely. But, I remind myself how fortunate I am to still have savings. And, I'm thankful I even have a home to repair when so many hard-working folks have lost theirs.

Unexpectedly, I get a sudden break: my mother's Facebook friend whom she hasn't seen in 40 years and who lives five states away tells Mom about a plumber a mere five miles from my house. The plumber's wife is friends with the Facebook friend and knows my grandparents or something. I still haven't sorted out all the connections, but he's a highly-experienced professional with a better quality water heater he'd be happy to install today.

Yes, today!

Even better news: His website shows he's running a special on water heater installation at this minute.

Total cost: $600.

Even the expansion thingie the other guys quoted at $125, this plumber will install for only $35.

Then, my new hero repaired—for free—a little drip under the kitchen sink and told me not to worry about paying for 30 days. (Is it possible for plumbing repairs to make me as ecstatic as that blissful haircut from a few months ago?)

That's right, folks. After days of cold showers, I just saved $600 thanks to Mom's Facebook friend (whom I've only met in e-mails) and the world's most awesome plumber.

Life is not so bleak after all.

After sending a gushy thank-you e-mail to Mom's friend and posting an even gushier note on the plumber's Facebook page, I begin to wonder about the future. What happens next with my finances? Will my new business succeed? Will I ever again have a pay check to deposit? Will things eventually change for the better? And, just how long does "eventually" take?

Things aren't so bad after all, I decide. I have a roof over my head. I have food in the fridge. I have a Dad who loves me enough to demo a closet for me and some really great friends who consistently come through for me. Some way, somehow I will scrape up the money to pay for that water heater.

Sure, a few days of cold showers were a little primitive, but, as far as I know, goose bumps never actually killed anybody.

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Just for Fun: Watch Tom Hanks and Shelley Long in "The Money Pit":

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Photo Credits:
Last Shower: http://www.flickr.com/photos/winterofdiscontent/3539751347/







Thursday, August 19, 2010

Romance on the Dole?

Our eyes meet across the crowded dining room of the fancy restaurant where I'm eating the priciest entrée on the menu. Like me, he's alone. He smiles. I smile.
He's awfully handsome. About my age. No wedding ring on his left hand either.
My mind wanders to the possibilities.
A companion. A romance. Even . . .
True love.
My friends would be thrilled. Since I lost my job last year, I can't tell you how many people have told me that I need to find a man and get married. (Well, maybe I could tell you, but it's starting to be a big number you might not believe.)

I am not kidding. People actually say this to me. Then, they reason, I would not have to worry about a job or health insurance.

Seriously, people? You call that helpful advice?
Skipping the fact that marriage-as-a-ticket-to-health-insurance is a really poor basis for a union (obviously!), the reality is that being unemployed is just about the most unromantic thing in the world. I'm not saying romance is not possible, but who in their right mind can focus on being alluring and fabulous when they have more worries than money?

I'm worried about piling up bills, dwindling savings and that %$@*&# broken clothes dryer. Oh, and let's not forget I am working about 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week to get my new business off the ground. When would I even fit in this romance?

Truth is, right now I'm more concerned with how I can shave another $10 off the grocery bill than whether or not my legs need shaving to look good in some fabulous date dress I can't even afford to buy.

Life on the dole doesn't leave much time (or energy) for flirtation.

There's also the whole issue of access. You're not likely to meet eligible, gainfully-employed, fully-insured bachelors when you lack funds for social events. These days unless he's interviewing me for a job or bagging my groceries, I'm unlikely to meet an employed man.

And, let's not forget my own lack of marketability either. What man with a fabulous job and lots of assets would want to take up with an unemployed woman? (Maybe the kind that would require a pre-nup just to go on the first date?)

The irony? I'm meeting more men than ever because I attend a large job search group. This crummy job market has hit men over 40 much harder than women. Roughly 60% of my local group are men—all unemployed like me. But, about 99% are married. The other one percent are my dad's age.

True, the rare single man near my age might darken the door.

But, if he ever did, he'd be unemployed, too, now wouldn't he?
And, so am I, remember?

Even if Mr. Single-and-Wonderful-Yet-Unemployed walks in the door and locks eyes with me and the bells ring and the chemistry steams up the room, then what?

We could use my cents-off coupons to pack a picnic and head to the park or occasionally hit the $1 matinee at the already-cheap theatre, I guess.
But, many of those on the dole are in worse shape than I am. They may have totally depleted their savings, have never-ending bills or be out of health insurance.

Mom used to tell me, "You don't need a man to be poor with—you can be poor by yourself."

Now I get it.

Being unemployed and almost broke is no fun. Being unemployed, almost broke and taking on the task of bailing out someone else who may be in worse shape than I am could be an unmitigated disaster.

Did all those helpful people who suggested I marry for health insurance consider somebody might want to marry me because I still have a roof over my head and some savings? For those who have hit bottom, maybe where I'm standing looks pretty cushy.

My mind wanders back to that handsome fellow in the restaurant. We smile at each other again. Oh, he is obviously interested.


Reality intrudes.

There's no fancy restaurant, no pricey entrée, no interested bachelor.

It was a dream.

That's what I get for being half-asleep while sitting in my very-early-in-the-morning weekly job search group. I knew I should've gone to sleep last night instead of looking at job postings until 1 AM.

I force my mind back to the speaker's topic—job search tips. Then, I do what I always do after those meetings: I go home, do the laundry, empty the cat litter box and wonder when I'll be fully employed again.

Romance on the dole? I don't think so. 

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Photo Credits:
Wedding Cake: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kenschafer/2235114416/Little Girl Doing Laundry: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Little_girl_playing--doing_laundry.png

Note: All photos are for illustrative purposes only--author is not pictured.