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For richer and for poorer

Wall Street wives are finding that they must defer dreams and fancy things. Sometimes that means buying scratchy toilet paper.

October 25, 2008|Geraldine Baum | Baum is a Times staff writer.

EDISON, N.J. — Mona Mond had a plan -- and it didn't include Wall Street going haywire and giving up a three-bedroom house with a half-acre yard for a small apartment.

She'd married a man with a career on Wall Street, and at the very least she was going to live in a house, preferably brand new, with a Jacuzzi in her bedroom and a pool in that yard. There'd be a maid -- and no skimping, no worrying that any day Amar, her husband, would lose his job.

The Monds would retire early with $10 million to $12 million in a rock-solid retirement account that would spew off enough interest to keep them going until . . . well . . . they actually got old.

Because that's how it goes during good times on Wall Street.

But now there are no sure bets -- "the Street" is besieged by instability.

"I'm so angry," says Mona, who is 32 and about to have a second child. "We are living so tight, and we feel so limited. I wanted a big nice house. . . . This was planned."

With the implosion of Wall Street, Mona's plan has been upended along with so much else in the world financial capital in New York. Families of thousands of Wall Street employees, whether they're high-flying fund managers, traders, computer programmers or secretaries, are being forced to adjust to withered expectations.

For those who still have jobs, their income is still substantial but likely this year to be smaller, and families are cutting back on their spending and their dreaming.

Over the last year as Lehman Bros., Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch and others were swallowed up by other banks, thousands of jobs vanished and billions of dollars were lost. With experts predicting more layoffs, some are just giving up on Wall Street.

Carlos Alvarez has not been able to find a job on Wall Street since he left Credit Suisse last spring with the hope of making more money as a trader. He is taking a position with a company near his home in northern New Jersey. No one is happier than his wife, Fran.

"I never liked the whole Gordon Gekko greed image," she says, referring to the Michael Douglas character from the film "Wall Street" whose mantra is "greed is good." "I can see how America can feel like Wall Street is the bad guys. But I never felt we were part of it."

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About 185,000 people work in the securities industry in New York -- the hard-core Wall Street world of investment firms, banks and hedge funds. The average income is about $365,000, although top-flight managers typically make many millions more. (In New York's broader financial community of banks and insurance firms the average is $228,000.)

It's hard to have sympathy for people who make that much money when the average New Yorker makes $85,000. But beyond the tales of fat cats having to make it on $250 million when they used to get by on $1 billion, there are stories of families reeling during this downturn. Many insist they are as much a part of Main Street as the denigrated Wall Street.

In interviews with several Wall Street wives whose husbands' big earnings are in jeopardy, they describe the pain of walking through malls and boutiques -- how it hurts knowing they can't grab a few things for themselves that might catch their fancy. They tell themselves this will pass. Wall Street shrinks during tough times, but it always comes back. But what if it doesn't this time?

Many admit to being in the dark about their husbands' prospects at the bank or for finding new jobs -- if it comes to that. They're keeping up on Wall Street's woes, obsessively watching the news crawls. But the devastation hits home, they say, when they witness their husbands' panic attacks in the middle of the night.

For months, Mona has anxiously awaited daily calls from her husband while he is at work. They live in Edison, a comfortable suburb in central New Jersey and a 90-minute commute by train from her husband's office in Manhattan.

For the last two years, Amar, 36, has run a technology unit in the capital markets division for Lehman Bros. until it went bankrupt and was bought in part by Barclays. He's still there, adjusting with the change in management. His salary at Lehman's was $400,000, including a bonus and restricted stock options. Amar's base salary, about $200,000, remains the same, but there are no reports yet on what will happen to 2008 bonuses and options.

During their daily calls, Mona is usually out with their 3-year-old daughter, Karen -- doing errands or dropping her at the Little Geniuses preschool in a strip mall.

"Is everything all right today?" she asks. "Do you have meetings?"

At the same time she's thinking to herself, "He called about the meeting because something's going on, maybe layoffs?"

Usually, he's distracted while they're talking. "He's always looking at numbers, millions and billions of dollars, going up and down. The amount gives him some kind of reason to go on," she says. "He wants to do right for the company, but he's stressed all the time, and when he comes home he never smiles."

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