More Americans than ever are no more than one financial emergency away from poverty. More of them than ever are living hand to mouth, sometimes with as little as two weeks leeway before they would, in fact, be homeless. How close to it are you? How much of a financial storm could you weather before you too joined the ranks of the invisible homeless? How many people do you know, right now, that are in fact, technically homeless, even if they aren’t sleeping in cardboard boxes or under bridges?
Being homeless is everyone’s worst nightmare. It’s that state in which there is no stability, no security, no knowledge of what tomorrow will bring. It may mean you are “temporarily” living with friends or relatives, living out of your car or van, or living in a travel trailer. You may still have an income, still have a job…but your ability to afford a home has vanished for many reasons.
For the former middle class, this is humiliating, embarrassing, and absolutely horrific. It’s tantamount to admitting that you are a failure, a ne’er do well, and incompetent. You don’t want anyone to know, preferably not your employer, your friends, and your family. That doesn’t change the reality though, or that horrible panicked feeling inside as you try to cope with the problem and find a way out.
Most of all, it isn’t easy. Nothing about it is easy, not the daily chores of eating, bathing, and staying comfortable, nor working towards resolving your problem. The money problems that sent you away from your last home haven’t miraculously vanished–they are still there, still wanting to suck away your soul and bare your humiliation for the world to see. In addition, foreclosures and evictions don’t make prospective landlords look favorably at you in terms of renting either, making the acquisition of new digs that much harder. Prospective employers also aren’t among those you want to know that you are homeless–it’s bad enough you can’t pass a credit check, let alone adding in “I’m homeless and I really need this job.”
If you have kids, the fears can be tenfold, as it seems that everything is conspiring to separate you from them. Ex spouses, other relatives, and the government all become potential enemies in a fight to keep them, but at the same time, you also want what is best for them. You are torn between knowing they are with you and wanting a safer environment with more stability for them, and feel guilty about failing to provide them with security too.
It seems everyone wants to point their finger at you and blame you for some wrong doing, for some failure, and whether you did make a mistake or not, it isn’t relevant at this point. You don’t want to be homeless, and you will do whatever it takes to resolve the issue. You don’t have a lot of options either, it’s not like there is any kind of a government program to match homeless people with vacant housing, or give them a headstart in finding a job and a place to live. There are a few private charities out there, but as the waves of homeless continue without end, there is precious little aid to be found.
You are feeling like you are stuck up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
Obviously, avoiding this state is critically important, especially for those who look at its possibility daily. How can you really work to avoid it?
Most of the most conservative inclined people of the world would say “work harder, spend less, save more.” Great advice, but as hard as you are working, as little as you try to spend, and as hard as you try to save some money…it isn’t happening. Instead, you are no more than one or two paychecks from homelessness.
First, don’t delay in seeking assistance. Don’t wait until you ARE homeless–it may be too late then. Apply for whatever you can qualify for, whether it is food stamps, medical assistance, or even food from a local food bank, to make what little you do have go as far as you can. It isn’t easy either, but it’s not as hard as being homeless will be. Apply for subsidized housing if you are renting or already in foreclosure–the waiting lists can be long. With a little bit of help, you may be able to stretch that two week leeway into a few days more each month. Ask at the welfare office about programs to help with utility bills and other needs that you may have. There may be a local or regional program that can help you.
Resist the temptation to borrow money, especially from high interest “payday loan” companies. These loans can eat away at your income faster than a cancer, leaving you holding the bag. Borrowing money may seem like a short term solution, but often it turns out to be a whole new problem. Pay as you go, and be honest with people about why you may delay things like doctor appointments. Ask if there is a cash discount–many offer one, especially in doctor and dentist offices where they are left with unpaid bills by many clients. Shop around for services when possible. Sometimes, changing which office you go to for a doctor or dentist can save you a considerable amount with no change in the level of care. Do the same for prescriptions, and ask your doctor if there is a cheaper version of the drug on the market. (Walmart and many other pharmacies offer a long list of prescriptions on their $4 program for many things.) It’s one thing to pay more for a reason, it’s another to pay more for no difference at all.
Become a minimalist in terms of being a consumer. Use the excuse of being environmentally concerned, it makes it a greener idea for your friends and your kids. The latest in gadgets, gizmos, and accessories isn’t really necessary, and the same can be true of a lot of stuff in our houses and apartments. Use the public library–they have movies, books, and magazines and don’t charge for their use. Cut your cable bills to a minimum, play board games with your kids, have friends over for card games instead of a night on the town. Shop thrift stores and yard sales, buying used items when something is needed and reducing your impact on the environment and your wallet. Re-evaluate how you regard your wardrobe, as well as that of your kids, and look at it from an environmental point of view as well as budgetary one. After all, how much of the stuff in the closets is actually worn regularly? How many shoes does one person really need?
Most of America lives somewhere that a car is essential, at least part of the time, especially for commuting to work. That means you need to take care of your car. They aren’t cheap, between licenses and taxes, insurance and upkeep, adding in the high price of gasoline can really stretch the budget. Save the car for essential trips, and when possible, walk or bicycle. Make it fun, make it part of how you are working to preserve the environment. Bicycles don’t have to be the latest model or an expensive bike–simple bikes work fine for local riding and running errands. Add a basket on the front and a rack on the back, and you can likely do many errands and shopping trips on the bike, sparing your wallet the fuel impact of using your car. Don’t neglect the maintenance either–skipping regular maintenance is a fast track to a big repair bill, and that may be the financial disaster that breaks your “camel’s back.”
It’s a lot of tightening of the belt, a lot of grim austerity and reality checks as you realize how close you are to that ultimate financial disaster. That does not mean that you are forced into a situation where grim expressions and miserable feelings need to be first and foremost in your life. Misery is a great way to attract disasters, it seems, so its the last thing you wish to encourage! Sometimes, a tough situation can be minimized a great deal by simply changing your perspective.
You aren’t on the brink of disaster and trying desperately to avert it. You are on the brink of discovery as you re-evaluate priorities and explore a new lifestyle and the ideology of minimalism. It’s about having fun being creative at cutting costs and engaging the people that matter the most in your new endeavors. It’s about honesty too, as you give up the idea of “keeping up with the Joneses” and live within your means.
Don’t just bury your head in the sand and pretend that it isn’t going to happen to you. It has happened to people just like you many times in the past few years, and it could be you in the coming year. Embrace reality, hang onto it, and work towards achieving financial stability again. Being rich may not matter, but none of us want the opposite either. Be pro-active, seek solutions to each problem that you face.
If you are fortunate enough to avert your own disasters and restore your cushion of stability in your bank account, remember that not everyone is so lucky too. Sometimes, the best way to “thank your lucky stars” is to pay that fortune forward and be considerate of those who have hit the bottom of the economic ladder. That may mean a financial donation to a local charity that helps the homeless, working in a soup kitchen or food bank as a volunteer, giving a hand out to someone who needs it, or even letting a friend who has lost that battle grab a hot shower and a meal with you each week. Do something and make the world a little brighter for someone.