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Postcards from the recession: Got knocked down, got up, and then got better

Though I wasn't a voluntary casualty, the truth is, I live in a happier place now.

March 13, 2011|By Ann Brenoff

Two years ago, I felt the full blunt force of the recession come crashing down on me. I lost my job of 18 years, writing and editing at this newspaper. With a tap on the shoulder and a summons to HR, I became just another casualty in the economic collapse that has reduced our nation's workforce by 8 million jobs.

From the beginning, I decided I wouldn't waste an ounce of energy being angry at what happened to me or blame anyone — including myself. I kept my eyes focused on the target: Keeping my family afloat in what is arguably the world's most difficult economic time. And I have succeeded, patching together a quite respectable income from multiple sources. I write for dozens of publications both in print and online; I juggle public relations and marketing clients in between, and I get to go to work in my bedroom slippers most days.

Still, the recession changed everything for me. And for you, the still-tethered to an insecure daily job, it probably has not.

I am living the effects of the recession while you are just observing it from the sidelines. Everything about our lives — yours and mine — is different. You take vacations involving airplanes and hotels; I travel on miles and house swap. You dine out in restaurants for convenience as much as pleasure. For me, meals out are generally things that other people buy me. You probably don't even double-back home if you forget the grocery coupons on the kitchen counter, and I suspect you don't know that Ralphs has eight-hour specials on Thursdays at which you can find some great manager's deals in the meat aisle.

I also doubt that you wait for LivingSocial to run a $39 dental exam special to get your teeth cleaned. Heck, I'd bet no one has even told you that thrift stores are the new Bloomingdale's and that if it's fame you want, well, CNBC featured me showing where I found a 100% cashmere sweater with the Saks label still in it for just $5.

Barter? I do it all the time. It's how I get my son coached, my closets organized, my websites built and the dog groomed. I live in a world where everyone knows that February is $5 foot-long sandwich month at Subway and only fools enter Macy's when it's not a One-Day Sale.

And herein lies the rub: It's not that I can't afford to pay for all those things. I just know better now.

Without question, the recession changed my life for the better. Just for the record, I'm not someone who, when life deals them lemons, necessarily knows the recipe for lemonade. And I sure didn't become a recession casualty voluntarily. But it's where I live now, and I'd have to say it's a happier place. Truth is, my conspicuous consumption never really made me feel that great anyway.

Today, I'm proud of my kids for asking for tap water instead of whining for soda. I've learned you can take cooler showers and wash the clothes in cold water and the world won't end. Today, I wouldn't think of buying a new car (they depreciate the minute you drive them off the lot) or taking out a car loan (never borrow to buy things that depreciate) or automatically assume that I need to replace every appliance that breaks. I've learned how to snake my own clogged drains, and I negotiate with the carpet cleaner and the window washer. We wear sweaters instead of turning up the heat, and if the house is too hot in the summer, we just head for the beach and bring a picnic dinner along with us. I'm watching the sun set over Santa Monica Bay while you are sitting in traffic trying to get home before the kids fall asleep. You tell me who comes out ahead in that scenario?

Sure I spend money; I just spend it more wisely now. And the difference has been huge. When purchases become about need and not want, their value sharpens. I no longer define myself by what I have but what I give. One thing I am proud of giving is support to those who have lost their jobs and are struggling to find their way in a recession that fired a cannonball through the middle class while Washington fills potholes and calls it a stimulus package.

You with daily jobs only know about all this from what you've read. You are still hoping to remain a voyeur as the rest of us experience this vast cultural change. But I suspect you are watching nervously as your pension plan dries up, your company no longer matches your 401(k) and you spend more for employer-supplied healthcare "benefits" that diminish a little more each year.

And yet the word "union" still scares you. It's baffling actually.

Oh, and there's one other big thing that's changed in my life. I have become a saver. After decades of living paycheck to paycheck no matter how fat an income I earned, I've actually incorporated savings into our family budget for the first time. What am I saving for? My retirement, of course. And the irony isn't lost on me that I needed to lose my job in order to be able to retire from it one day.

Ann Brenoff runs Ann Brenoff PR & Marketing and writes for various online and print publications.

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