When Staying Afloat Takes All You’ve Got

alice“It takes all the running you can do just to stay in the same place.”
– The Red Queen, Alice in Wonderland

I receive piles of stories from readers, but yesterday’s reader mailbag really stuck with me for a while.

I’ll quote an excerpt here, so you can read it again:

So I sit here writing this at a very challenging job that I enjoy the bulk of, but zaps the life right out of me, and leaves little of me for my 2 young children, ages 6 and 2. (I am a paralegal.) I enjoy the majority of what I do, but there is so much of me invested in this, and I feel over-worked. I am currently the only paralegal for 2 very busy attorneys, and I only have a helper to answer the phones for about 20 hours per week. This all leads to my question.

I am a single mother for the majority of the past 2 years due to a nasty divorce. My ex has left me emotionally, logistically, and financially alone to raise these children, the older one of which has Autism. If he shows no interest in them, how hard should I pursue him for the nearly 5 figures he is behind in child support? Yes, he has been Court-ordered to pay, but manages to “hide” his income, and tells people that he has no work. And yes, I really need the financial assistance. I have cut expenses to the bone, and before my last, meager raise, I was receiving food stamps, to my shame. I have moved to a cheaper place, but can’t take on a roommate, as 1. The place is too small, and 2. Not many people can live with an autistic child.

I already pay approximately 25% of my income on nursery school and after-school care. I just can’t face taking on a second job. I am exhausted already, the babysitting fees would be sky-high, and I already feel as though my children don’t get enough of my time.

I receive a variation or two on Callie’s story once a week. After a series of misfortunes and challenges, a person finds themselves in a situation where they’re doing everything they can to simply bob along with their head barely above water.

These emails get to me more than any other ones I receive. It’s not too hard to feel the challenge of the situation that Callie is going through in that email. Those situations often feel inescapable and leave the person feeling hopeless and helpless.

Most of my advice to people in these situations follow the same lines.

My Thoughts

Keep in mind that the only way out of this situation is a very challenging short term

I really like the way Dave Ramsey puts this phenomenon: “Live like no one else so you can live like no one else.” If you want a better life than you have now, you’re going to have to do some uncomfortable things in the short term. My suggestions below are not meant to insult you or demean you – they’re meant to put you in a better place in a few years so that you’re not going through what seems like an endless cycle of struggling.

Cut your spending – and by that I mean really cut it

So often, I get emails from readers who tell me that they’ve cut spending to the bone, but after an email exchange, I find that they still have cable television, they still have home internet access, they still have a cell phone plan, and so on. If you have these things, cut them. If you need to call someone, use your land line. If you need to watch television, use the over-the-air signal that’s free. If you need to use the internet, get comfortable at your local library.

The argument that “I need X for escapism” isn’t a good argument, either. There are countless ways to “escape” from the challenges of your life that don’t involve pouring money down an endless monthly bill.

Cutting your cell phone, your cable, and your home internet will save you $100 to $150 a month. If you start putting that towards your debts, you’ll find that they start disappearing just like that.

Swallow your pride

If you think you won’t do something because that’s what “poor people” do or you’re afraid of someone seeing you do something, check that at the door right now. Pride is one of the biggest obstacles to overcome on the route to success.

You should be taking advantage of every single opportunity around you (that you’re eligible for) to save money. Use food stamps. Use your local food pantry. Use WIC. Get welfare payments. It doesn’t matter whether you think they’re “right” or not – these programs are out there just sitting there waiting to be used, and if they’re not used, they go to waste. Use them.

Along the same lines, do your clothes shopping at Goodwill (I certainly do). Hit free entertainment in your community (like community concerts and the like – we certainly do). Eat at home exclusively and prepare your own meals as inexpensively as you can – and if you don’t know how, now’s the time to learn. Get ahold of your energy company and see what energy efficiency improvements they’ll help you pay for so that your energy bill goes down. Clean out your closets and sell everything you don’t use regularly.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, this sounds terrible,” ask yourself if doing this for several months while getting your head above water is worse than the constant state of fear you’re in right now, a state that has no end in sight. It is your choice, no one else’s.

Stop worrying about what other people think of you

If some vague concern about what people you don’t know or barely know will think of you because you’re doing something that indicates you might not be rich is holding you back from making a change in your life, stop it. The opinions of people you don’t know are (1) not important at all and (2) often not what you expect them to be. If I see a person at a food pantry, do you know what I see? I see a responsible and focused person who has had some hard luck and is trying to improve their situation.

What goes hand in hand with that? Don’t be afriad to ask for help

I understand the social desire not to ask friends and neighbors for help, but you should start with some of your closest friends who know what you’re going through. Other great places to ask for ideas and assistance are people who work with the agencies mentioned above – WIC, food pantries, and the like. Don’t be afraid to ask your pastor for help, either – almost every pastor you meet are in that position because they desire to help the needy.

A final suggestion: look long and hard at your social network

It’s been shown time and time again that we do things that reflect what our closest friends do. Our income is the average of the income of our closest friends. Our spending habits match those of our closest friends. Your career dedication often mirrors those of the people you value the most. If you’re surrounding yourself with people who engage in behaviors that are beyond your financial means, spend some time shoring up the relationships in your life that involve people who don’t spend money to have a good time.

Just remember, at all times, you’ve got to live differently if you want to make a different life for yourself. The techniques and approaches and things you’re doing now have left you in this painful situation. In order to break out, you’re going to have to make some real changes.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.