Saturday, May 16, 2009

How To Survive In Difficult Times On Very Little

I came undone taking care of my mother during her dementia. She had given all her life savings in the last months of her days in Santa Barbara to a scam artist. And for the first time in this very smart and frugal woman's life she was buying cheap costume jewelry thinking it would up the odds of her winning the jackpot. Same with The Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. I started getting magazines I'd never read and didn't want because she kept adding to the number of magazines she subscribed to each month in a desperate desire to strike it rich. This was not the woman I'd grown up knowing. Maggy would never have done anything that crazy. She'd been saving her whole life to retire owning a house that was paid for. Never once making a purchase on a credit card she couldn't pay off that month. She drove an old, but well kept car that got good milage. And she worked into her mid-seventies. This silly behavior would have been mocked by the Maggy I knew.

Then I got the call from her that made it impossible to ignore this change of behavior. She called to tell me she'd won $500,000,000. I started to say something but before I could get a word out she said, "And I'm giving you a million." There was an uncomfortable silence while I searched for the right way to ask the question "How did you win five hundred million dollars?" I said, "Thanks Maggy. That's really generous of you." Easy does it. This is important. Don't spook her.

Then she said she was sending in the last check for the taxes on her winnings... Oh shit! I said, "How much are the taxes on FIVE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS? I tried very hard not to shout, but I was shouting in my head. Don't spook her, say nothing to shut her up. Remember she is stubborn and secretive.

"So where are you sending the money?"
"To Canada. I won the Canadian Lottery!"
"Have you already sent the money?"
"Did you write a check?"
"No, I sent it in in money orders."
"How much did you have to pay?"
"It was less than you'd think."
"Could you send it all at once?"
"No. This was my last payment."
"So, How much was this payment?"
"Only $30,000."
Silence. Cough cough, breath holding, waiting for her to say more.
"So when do you get your winnings?"
"Christopher is going to come get me with the check. Then I get to pick the place I want to go to have the winner's photos taken. I'll be in the paper."
I bet you will. "Who is Christopher?"
"That's a stupid question."
"How could I know who Christopher is?"
"Well he's the representative of the Canadian Government." Oh crap, oh crap... We're fucked now.

And by the time I exercised the joint signature on her Salt Lake checking account, she only had $28,000 left. At the end of the first three years of her very slow death by loss of brain function, we were living on my credit cards. And every month I got offers for more credit cards with 0% interest for six months, no fees, bla bla bla. "Come, transfer balances from your other cards and make one easy payment." And that is how we survived until I could no longer make my minimum payments. Maggy qualified for Medicaid and then we got a little in-home health care. I slept during the hour that the home healthcare worker was with her.

And then I crashed for good. Twenty four hours in the ER for round the clock observation and two weeks in the looney bin isn't cheap. Then when I got out, I couldn't find my way around the block. What once had been as familiar as my own hand was an alien landscape. I was heavily medicated. And thus began the real agoraphobia. I could no longer work at all. I found shopping torture. I moved through my days like a zombie. And once a month I had to go to the shrink and get my meds checked. But after the bankruptcy and into the ensuing poverty I learned how to eat very cheaply but fairly well. I discovered the used meat section and the used mushroom section and the used baked good section and the... Whatever is about to expire gets deeply discounted. It's put on sale before it ends up at the shelter or food bank. It isn't really called "used meat." It's called, "reduced meat," and "reduced spinach" ... I can buy a half priced pork loin and cut it into sections, wrap very carefully and freeze. I do the same with chicken thighs, and split breasts with ribs in. Bread is divvied up and frozen, bagles too. Once in a great while, glazed donuts. I pay full price for my frozen blueberries and pineapple, but once in awhile I buy frozen peas marked down. I splurge on organic milk. I know it's crazy for a carnivore woman to care that her milk is organic, but it tastes better and comes in cartons, not plastic. I buy a lot of fruit and eat fruit salads. I almost live on salads in the summer.

I will no longer walk in a store without a shopping list. There are no shopping sprees, no impulse buying anymore. Everything but underwear and shoes comes from thrift stores. This is not shopping in the trendy little consignment shops or slightly used couture. No this is thrift store shopping. No more expensive high heels or sandals. A new pair of Teva sandals every summer. That's it. Oh, and I pay for the occasional matinee movie date.


Liberality said...

I hate that those crooks got away with ripping your mother off. You didn't get the money back is what I'm assuming here.

Thank you for coming by to cheer me up earlier. I was feeling pretty low but I'm better now. I came home, blogged about it because it was eating at me, and then had a good cry and took a bubble bath. Now I'm all good to go again.

You should put a paypal badge on your site and ask for donations to help you out. After all, you are blogging/writing and have readers who would help you out if they could.

Utah Savage said...

I opened a paypal account and then couldn't figure out how to set up the widget. I've thought of advertising too, but can't quite get around to it.

The thing all this poverty has taught me is that what is now second nature to me, is going to be a real hardship for others to adjust to if they have a similar catastrophe happen. And in these times, it's just a paycheck away or a missed payment or an illness. It's so easy to be reduced to having to get by on nothing.

susan said...

My mother too suffered from dementia toward the end of her life but she hid it pretty well so long as she was in her house. She had her bank accounts but also kept $25k in a strongbox in her closet in case of emergency. It also held her little collection of gold jewelry and coins for her grandson. All of that was gone in the three weeks between one of my visits and the emergency call I got when she suffered a low back compression fracture. I was unable to return to Canada to live but an old friend of ours welcomed her and that's where she contentedly stayed until she died a few years ago.

Your story, like all of them, is poignant but with a strong positive lesson about coping well in bad circumstances.

Fran said...

Wow- rough situation. They seem to know what things to say to get elders to pay.
Glad you stepped in & intervened.
It's rough when the child becomes the parent- especially when they had been strong independent people for all those years.

PENolan said...

That situation with your mom would certainly be enough to finally push anyone over the edge. Sheesh.

I get that cheap meat too.

themom said...

That is a scary scenario. I feel so bad for all you have had to endure and are still going through. I'm with Liberality - set that paypal account up. I will help ya when I can. I mean that.

When I hear of these Nigerian scams (which I get a dozen a day) in the emails, and the people that fall for them - I want to scream. My twin sister was a believer in all things are good and everytime she would get an offer or a "win" notice, I would have to read it all and explain that they were scams. Some people are just to easy of a mark - and the scammers need to be tied up and hung by their toes.

Anonymous said...

Hello Utah Savage

I came across your blog today and your post hit home to me.
I have seen that you have labelled this under "Bi-Polar", which my Mother has.
Instead of being conned into giving away/spending lots of money, she just spends it obsessively without any outside help, along with other strange habits..
I hear your story and empathise. Sounds like you have strong survival skills which I commend you for.
Ironically my last post that I wrote was an ode to being completely broke and living on luncheon vouchers for the weekend... so I am completely with you!
Good luck and thank you, I don't feel quite so alone after reading this.

Freida Bee, MD said...

Utah- I didn't get to finish listening to it, but wanted to listen to the program "Speaking of Faith" on NPR this morning, and they were talking about some similar ideas. Eight people were sharing their perspective on the "economic crisis. One guy was disappointed that there wasn't a more complete collapse of our economy and I heard another saying that others would likely have a hard time adjusting, but she's been in her difficult situation for years.

It's very much a shame that profits are not put behind basic needs. Some of us (especially we bloggers- since blogging's free (knock on wood)) are basically pretty frugal.

I also get Tevas and wear the crap out of them as many months of the year as I can. I just superglued mine, hoping they'l last another year.

I buy undies new, but shoes from the thrift store are fine by me. There's a thrift store here that has written very largely on its window, "Never Buy New Again!" It would be a good practice for others, as well, environmentally speaking.

Utah Savage said...

Susan, I always feel you near. How odd is that. I'm sure you understand and don't judge. Comforting that.

Fran I'm glad to see you. This isn't maybe the cheeriest post, but it is a coming trend for survival. Check out the marked down meat and the discounted bagged spinach or baby bellos. I save a lot and never eat anything pre-prepared with ingredients I didn't want and don't understand the need for. And the farmers market starts soon!

Utah Savage said...

PEN why do I always know you'll get it completely, and have been there anyway?

Mom, the scammers are everywhere and some of them are at the top of the legal economic heap, so if it's all about making a buck or a few billion, count me out. I think bankers should go to jail for conspiracy to defraud us all, with theft, with wretched excess in "executive" compensation, etc.

pplongstocking, I'm glad you're here. Come often and stay as long as you like. I'll make sure I've got you linked on the feed and we're off to the races.

Freida Bee, yes, having been poor for a long time is starting to look like an asset. Soon more and more blackmarket economies will spring up in neighborhoods. I have butter but need salt. Let's see what we can do to strike a deal. Small cash ecomomies of barter and trade. Your labor for my cooking. Something like that.

Have I told you lately that I love you? Well, I do.

Comrade Kevin said...

My family dealt with some degree of that when my grandparents developed Alzheimer's, but our big struggle was taking cars away from them when they were clearly too impaired cognitively to drive. My Grandfather stubbornly refused until the very end, and unfortunately died in a car accident a mile down the road from my parent's house.

The guilt was tremendous, but one wonders if anything save house arrest would have really worked.

Utah Savage said...

I got busted by the cops and turned in to protective services who assigned a social worker to be my mother's advocate. But really it was to make sure I secured the house and yard well enough that Maggy couldn't break out and make a run for it. So the fortress was made long before I hit the wall. But I always had the wad of keys firmly attached to my person night or day, to keep my mother from running...

Anonymous said...

People who prey on kids or the elderly deserve to rot in the most hellish of Hells.