In Backstory

Backstory Part 3: When life gets tough stop complaining and figure it out!

Lesson 3: The Fallout. When life gets tough stop complaining, roll up your sleeves, and figure it out!

As much as I like the other lessons explored to date, this is probably my favorite. 2011 and 2012 were a couple of really crappy years. My work was inconsistent, we had no way of paying back our mountain of student loans, and we didn’t have enough money to live day-to-day.

Not having enough money to live on, and having to rely on charity, was a hard lesson. Not having a clear path to success was incredibly difficult. Scrimping and trimming every last bit of fat from our budget wasn’t fun. But, these few really difficult years taught us far more than all the years we spent in higher education. It was during these years that we became adults. We accepted responsibility for our situation, and we began working our butts off to find a way out!

The substantial loans we accumulated during law school went into repayment in July of 2011. I had just finished the bar exam and had hope that, when the results were posted, I would pass and be able to find a job.

During all the nonsense that was my life, Katie wasn’t idle. After leaving law school she applied for lab technician jobs, but it turned out her undergraduate degree wasn’t very marketable (more on marketable undergraduate degrees in a future post). After several weeks of rejection, she became frustrated and began applying for anything she saw available. She worked odd-jobs, waitressed for a day, and was generally rudderless. Finally, she remembered one of her many talents: she is a gifted floral designer. She had taken classes during high school and college, and had arranged flowers for several weddings while we were undergrads.

She found an open position with a florist near our home. A few weeks later she said “I can do this myself” and decided to start and run her own floral design business from our home. Being 100% supportive of my intelligent and capable wife we began work.

We converted a small room off our garage into an office where she could meet with clients. We bought a cooler, work-bench, and after a few months she earned enough money to buy a delivery vehicle. Although her income was good, we were not disciplined financially during this time and we were not nearly as wise with the money Katie earned as we could have been. We spent what she made and didn’t plan ahead or reduce our reliance on student loans.

By 2011 she decided flowers weren’t lucrative enough, and that they didn’t provide a satisfying level of value to clients. She hated the wastefulness of spending thousands of dollars on something that would be dead in a week. She decided to use her connections in the wedding and events industry to pivot from floral design to another of her artistic talents: photography.

We fondly remember 2011 as the “black hole year.” I struggled to find work and took the bar exam. Katie spent the year selling one business and building another. The hustle was constant and the rewards few.

Finally, in October of 2011 Katie landed her first few weddings as a photographer, and I found a contract position that would bring in some money. During 2012 Katie’s photography business was successful. She photographed dozens of weddings, built a brand and reputation, and took care of many of our expenses. I spent 2012 hopping from contract job to contract job, trying to find something worthy of my education that was stable.

We were barely making ends meet, but we were learning and things were getting better.

So, what did we learn?

We really learned how to budget:

We cut every unnecessary penny of expense from our lives. Our rent was $1,200 a month, and our total expenses were $1,600 a month. We spent no money on entertainment, we never went out to eat, we didn’t buy gifts for each other. The $400 difference was spent on utilities, transportation to work, and household items we needed. We took full advantage of both food stamp benefits and state healthcare. Speaking of…

There’s no shame in doing whatever you need to do:

Government programs aren’t the most efficiently run, but they’re there for a purpose. That purpose is to help otherwise responsible people make ends meet when they have no other alternative. My only regret with government programs is that we didn’t take advantage of them sooner. I would advise anyone who qualifies to use these programs to do so.

My only caution is that you don’t get used to spending all the benefit money provided each month. Continue to budget and use this resource wisely. Don’t get sucked into buying low quality, easy-to-prepare food just because you have benefits available. Stick to healthy fruits, vegetables and proteins.

Also, any balance remaining on your account carries over after you’re no longer eligible for benefits. These “saved up” benefits can really help with the transition to full-time employment. Once our eligibility ended we were able to make our remaining balance last for an additional five months!

It’s the small things that matter:

Looking back, this time was a blessing. We focused on what was really important: friends and family. Through our hardships we built lasting relationships with others. When I wasn’t working or applying for jobs, I was able to spend a lot of time building my relationship with my son. During this time we were as financially poor as we will ever be. But, even as poor as we were, we felt rich because we had a healthy and happy family, we had enough food to eat and a place to sleep. I had skills which I knew would eventually allow me to provide for my family, and we learned lessons about financial responsibility that we may never have learned if we hadn’t been forced to.

These financial lessons (which we have been and are currently applying) will be a tremendous benefit to us throughout our entire lives.

If you work really hard, things eventually work out:

By the end of 2012 we were finally climbing out of our black hole. Katie’s business was thriving and I landed a contract job at Nike. The contract was only supposed to run for 6 weeks but it was extended several times to the point where I was there for nearly 6 months!

We knew our current hustle wasn’t sustainable, but these breakthroughs gave us enough money and time to rebound and plan our next steps.

Next week: the rebound.

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