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.

I took a Nap and Summer Arrived

It has been an unusually wet Spring. So the yard is lush beyond anything I've ever seen this time of year. And what is usually a Spring job of weeding and clean up has become overwhelming. I look at the work and then think, I need a cup of tea and a nap cause it's a jungle out there. We live in an arid climate and this part of the valley has very poor soil. It's mostly clay that, once dried out, is like brick.

I have one tree that MUST be removed this year. I put it off last year due to the poverty of paying off the new roof on the little house. This year it has to go. But it's one of those trees that will need to be cut from the top down a little bit at a time. And this kind of tree cutting will require a cherry picker or as some call it, a bucket truck--the kind of vehicle used by utility companies with above ground cables to attend to. The kind of tree removal that a friend with a chain saw can't do because if any of it comes down in the wrong direction, it will crash down on the greenhouse roof of the little house solarium or on the new roof of the little house. It could take down my chain link fence, or the wooden fence or the neighbors fence or garage. It's a big job, but somebody's got to do it and soon.