Ten years after the Great Recession, my family and I are still living with the fallout. We lost our jobs, home, health and, for a short time, my emotional sanity. While life has gotten somewhat better, I’ve developed an acute case of the gimlet eye toward the future. I’m a worrier by nature. Some people do Cross Fit. I fret. The country’s financial collapse was like gasoline on fire, leaving me permanently scarred. Yet, looking in the rearview mirror of the crash, I try to use my experience as a lesson for what lies ahead. And there is always something that lies ahead. As the wise philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “It’s deja vu all over again.”
This article first appeared on Salon.
Nothing lasts forever according to divorce lawyers and economists. Even white-hot economies overheat. It’s not a matter of if, but, when another recession hits. Here are 11 ways to prepare for when it does.
Be a Pessimist. It’ll Do You Good. Once the eternal optimist, I made a career choice based on hope, passion and Oprah. I thought living my best self meant leaving a stable job to become a magazine editor. It was the heady bull stock market of 2005 when I gave up a tenured college teaching job with health insurance, a pension and summers off to be with my children to write about homes and gardens. Here was my Optimistic Mathematical Formula for Living: Everyone was living in spectacular homes and gardens. I loved to write. I loved home decorating and writing about homes and gardens. I, too, could live in and write about spectacular homes and gardens and get paid for it. Therefore, I was living my best life! Yay for me! Enter 2008. Buh-bye, Mr. Bull. That year wiped out my job, checkbook and best life chakra. Belief in unfunded dreams is something you have to recover from. Sure, life can be a drag if you go around thinking the worst is going to happen. However, as one speaking from painful personal experience, isn’t it better when you’re pleasantly surprised?
Remember: Your Day Job and Passion Aren’t an Either/Or, But a Both/And. In case you were totally bummed by Tip #1, take heart: you can have your cake and eat it, too. You just have to make sure you can afford the ingredients. My husband had the misfortune of working for a major brokerage firm that severed ties with thousands of employees three months after I lost my job. Two weeks before Christmas. With no severance package. My editorial job was gone and so was my husband’s. We thought we had been bold and brave in our choices to start new careers that promised good fortune in intangible and tangible ways. Now we were unemployed and uncertain about our future and that of our children’s. Ten years later, we both have steady jobs while my writing career is doing quite well. I have a newly-published book that is resonating with readers. Turns out they’ve led reinvented lives, too. Does this mean I’ll pursue a full-time writing career? Not a chance. I’m keeping my day job. Honestly? I could win the lottery and you’ll find me at my office the next day.
Heed Your Personal Warning Signs. Full disclosure: life got so hard that I tried to drive my car in a lake. In the course of ten years, we had moved six times, my husband and I lost three jobs, my son and daughter were diagnosed with life-altering chronic health conditions requiring daily, sometimes hourly, medical care, my father and mother-in-law died and my mom had a stroke that sent her from her home to an expensive assisted living facility (is there any other kind?). Oh yeah, and the American economy collapsed. My dog died, too. Those who knew of my situation would say to me, “You are so strong!” I wondered. Did I have an option? For a long time, I didn’t think I did. Then the lake incident. That’s when I asked for help, both professionally and from family and friends. Actively solicit support. Don’t struggle alone. Shouldering the burden of stress is unsustainable. You ain’t Hercules. When the next recession hits, you’ll be fortified.
Don’t Forget Your Loved Ones. Strengthen relationships when the going is good. Consider it as emotional insurance for later. My mother used to say that when money troubles came through the front door, love went out the window. Lucky for me, I grabbed my husband at the window sill. Mike was suffering from the effects of a “mancession,” a phenomenon of professional role reversal for husbands and wives as an outcome of our country’s economic hard times. More wives were becoming alphas to a growing number of beta husbands, or at least that’s what the national pundits said on television while pointing to pie charts. Mike could’ve offered his own biting evaluation of how my job choices contributed to our mess, how my writing career was poorly timed, but he didn’t. We approached our crisis from different perspectives. I was the take-charge and Mike was the take-time to figure out a problem. After facing our differences head on, we pre-empted marital demise. Same for your children and extended family. Level set where you are, not where you hope to be with each other. Everyone brings different skills to a problem. Better to identify them now than later when you’re in the trenches.
Save For a Rainy Year, Not Day. This one is pretty straightforward. Save. Then save some more. Repeat. I had three months of savings and minimal debt when the recession hit. It wasn’t enough. Shoot for a year. Better to overestimate what you need. I’m not kidding. Those cafe lattes and Netflix subscriptions aren’t worth it. Trust me.
Shun the Shame. I’m channeling my inner Disney movie when I say to let it go! Of the guilt you’re not where you thought you’d be professionally, romantically or personally. Of the shame you can’t hang with those who spend more in a day than you do in a month (hint: they’re probably more in debt than you). Of financial embarrassment because you can’t afford your child’s field trip or girls night out. You can help out the teacher in return for the field trip. And cosmos are so yesterday. Truth? Life isn’t picture perfect like Instagram. Remember that shame is a paralyzing kidnapper of your soul. And pride is a close cousin. Let go of someone else’s perception of success. Embrace your own.
Chocolate Helps. So does meditation and a nice walk outside. In combination, all three contribute to living a healthy, balanced life. Take time to get in mental and physical shape. Coping mechanisms don’t develop overnight. Work your core now.
Dancing Helps, Too. I decided to ascribe to a saying I once saw on a cocktail napkin, “Trust me, you can dance. Love, vodka.” In the darkest time of my life, I chose to dance. Who cares if I was Tangoing in my 800-square-foot apartment’s kitchen that was the size of my former closet? I was moving instead of constantly sitting in front of my computer completing job applications. Take well-earned breaks. Good enough is good enough. And Tony Bennett is better than Xanax.
Grudges Never Help.Work on your capacity to forgive and forget while you can still pay your bills. For a long time, I held a long-term grudge match with a financial corporate entity who was responsible for my husband’s job loss. Many companies were tone deaf to the realities in which most of their employees worked and lived. Yet, I encouraged my children not to keep grudges. Do as I say not as I do, right? Keeping score is a metastasized anger that leaves little hope for an emotional cure, I’d tell them, but I was beginning to realize I had fallen into the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do category. It wasn’t so much that I harbored ill will toward those who had hurt or disappointed me in some way, real or perceived. I learned to move on. But, hurt my husband? My kids? The deal was off.
I loved the story from Rabbi Marc Gellman who showed children in his temple a hands-on demonstration of grudge-holding and forgiveness. He hammered nails into a board and told them to think of each nail as a bad thing someone does to another person. With each pounding, the kids got upset. Then he pulled out the nails, asking his young audience to think of that as what happens when we say we’re sorry for each bad thing we’ve done. The children smiled, realizing there is something they could do to make things right. Then he showed them the board with all the nail holes in it. How to get rid of the holes? They had no idea. He admitted he didn’t either. The holes would always be there.
I was trying to hammer fewer holes. I kept the grudge tool kit away from view and tried to remember where I had put my compassion supplies, but sometimes I forgot. It was easier to grimace and grudge. Since then, I’ve tried to do better, fret less and judge little. I’ve lost my appetite for such pettiness, both in others and in me. I’ve stopped obsessing about who knows what about my situation. Who cares? They have holes of their own, often irreparable voids from a tragedy or illness or loss of some kind. I got over them and myself.
Home is Wherever You Are. I’m going a little Yoda on you. Home you are, I say. Sure, stuff is nice. The ultra-suede sectional. The 3400-square-foot Cape Cod. Sub-Zero refrigerators. My wake-up call came in far too many emergency rooms for my children. Those Sub-Z’s didn’t matter so much. Stuff is stuff. Radical life perspectives can be a gift. Start now in prioritizing how badly you really need what you think you really need.
Pay Attention. Focus on the GDP not TMZ. Federal forecasting can be spotty. Do your homework. Stay informed. Read the economic tea leaves by following legit business-oriented media. Ten years ago, I didn’t know the difference between a tranche and a trench. Now I do and hope to avoid both.
How rich the irony I was once a home and garden editor without a home. Life is a lot like a remodeling project. We are all renovated. Repairs are necessary, sometimes requiring a complete overhaul. When the next recession arrives, I will be ready. Will you?