In the last 24 hours I've had three experiences drastically change how I feel about personal finance in America - one of them major, one of them minor, and one... calling it a stretch would be generous.
Last night, my wife called me from her hotel in upstate NY. That's a long ways from our San Francisco home. She said, "It's worse that I thought here."
Let me back up a bit. My wife has a white-collar job in the military. She asked to be deployed to help with victims of Hurricane Irene as that was a requested need. I was surprised to hear about a military deployment to Hurricane Irene months after the fact. I didn't really take the need that seriously. It seemed that Vermont got all the news stories, not New York (though there's not a large distance there). I had figured that by this time everyone had reached safety. This clearly wasn't going to be like the deployment for Katrina that I've heard so many stories that I won't repeat in this space.
What's so bad in upstate, NY? It turns out it is a personal finance nightmare. There are people who don't have houses because they were swept away by the river. Some of these people didn't have flood insurance. (Dear FEMA, you require me to buy flood insurance when I already have it, and others don't have to have it at all? Really?!?!) Many people lost their jobs because they were literally washed down the river as well. My wife explained that these people are in the worst kind of pickle - no home so they can't get a job... no job, so they can't get a home. I've never really thought of this predicament. Two thoughts immediately came to mind:
- Where's the emergency fund? It kills me that over and over again, people don't seem to have an emergency fund set up. They don't realize it until something that they can't control and devistates them - like a hurricane or a flood.
- What about and extended stay hotel on credit cards? I know it's not a good situation, but getting income is key and if a place of residence is required, get an extended stay hotel and use that. You need to stay somewhere. In times like this, it's probably worth even looking to cash out some those Roth IRA and 401k savings. The kind of thing is a financial set back, but you are able to live.
I'm waiting to hear more details about the pickle, because it seems solvable especially in extreme cases that effects the whole community. I'll be waiting for a couple of weeks until my wife gets back. Then I'll be able to ask her in more detail.
I do believe she is coming away with a new appreciation of sound personal finance. Though in some ways she may think my site is more of joke now, as I don't cover these extreme situations - the ones where people need the most help. I honestly don't have a lot of experience with such situations, so I don't know if my advice would be helpful. I'm better off at handing the "problem" of having maxed out your 401k too early in the year (we should be so lucky).
There's hope though. I think people are learning from these experiences. And I don't think they are learning from just having it happen it to them, but the media is doing a decent job covering it. Unfortunately, there's also a lot of people learning about how unemployment works from first-hand experience. I was there once and I didn't want to go back. It directly lead to the creation of this website. This whole thought of hope came to me in the form of that second, minor experience that I mentioned above. I was watching an old episode of Clark Howard and he said the following in a clip on a radio show:
"I used to feel I had to convince people why they should be smart with their money. I don't have to do that as much any more. The mood of the country has changed."
When I first started writing about why MonaVie was a scam, a lot of distributors said, "Big deal, it's only $125 a month. I know my finances and I can afford that." I would love to be able to audit them and find out how many of them have a year of expenses in their emergency fund. I'd like to know how many have their retirement all squared away. The $125 per month, per person in a family of four turns out to be $5000 a year (there's some bulk discounts). I think people are now starting to take stock of what that $5000 a year would mean to them. We are talking aftertax money too. That's like giving yourself a $7500 at work. Who wouldn't want that?
I'm cautiously optimistic that America seems to be getting it. Perhaps America is as smart as my dog after all.
This brings me to the third experience - the Sucker Punch. I was watching the movie last night (scantily clad women fighting with swords is the kind of thing you can get away with when your wife is 2500 miles away) and while the long middle part of the movie dragged from too many fight scenes, I thought the ending was fantastic, perhaps one of the best I've seen. I don't think I'm giving anything away with this, but I'm going to leave you with the final sentence:
"You have all the weapons you need - now fight!"
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