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15 Families Hit Hard Recently: Time to Adjust Expectations?

This article was written by in Economy. 21 comments.

CNN Money is featuring stories of 15 households that are facing dire financial straits thanks to the economic downturn. Even a rebate check this summer won’t go far to help these families. While some better decisions may have helped them prepare for the direct effects of a recession, hindsight is always 20/20. Here are the some of the highlights from the featured stories:

Suzzanne Cromwell: A $250 commute

Suzzanne is a 39-year-old program coordinator from Massachusetts. “Sadly, my husband and I were priced out [Cambridge] when we decided to buy our first home almost two years ago. We decided to move to Lowell, about 10 minutes shy of the New Hampshire border… I will most likely need to leave my wonderful job as program coordinator due to the rising cost of gas. It costs me about $250 a month to commute to work…”

Billie Romero: Pocketbook strain hits home

Billie is a 32-year-old nurse from Louisiana. “We have two kids we are TRYING to keep in private school. [Like] most working couples, we want the best education for our children, because not just ‘the rich’ deserve private school. We want to be able to buy a home AND pay the bills.”

David Martorano: Waiting for the bust

David is a 37-year-old physician from California. “I am a physician renting in Pacific Palisades, where my practice is located… I have been a holdout from purchasing for the past two years because of my belief that the market is at least 20% inflated… People are still lining up to purchase entry-level properties, and paying absurd amounts, up to $700 per buildable square foot… When I ask them why, they still say it’s the Palisades and it can’t go down.”

Tracey Feller: Relocation disaster

Tracey is a 37-year-old purchasing analyst from Alabama. “I accepted a job in February 2007 that required relocation… we were sure that our house in Three Rivers, MI would sell. Not the case… our home in Michigan is set to got into foreclosure April 11 and we also fell behind on our home in Alabama, but were able to work out a repayment plan with the lender.”

RJ Hernandez: Subprime surprise

RJ is a 27-year-old vice president of business development from California. “As a single, 27-year-old executive and first-time homeowner who got a subprime loan (which resets in 2010) and who got laid off from a project management job after three years to find himself now working for a subcontractor working for senior management, let me tell you — these are strange days…”

Shannon McCauley: Burned by fuel cost

Shannon is the 28-year-old owner of Smokin’ Stokes BBQ & Catering. “Our in-store sells have dropped almost 50%… There are so many less people eating out these days. We have opened credit card accounts just to pay our bills, and those are almost maxed out… We are in our late 20s with a 2-year-old child and a mortgage. We are at the end of our rope. The answer is obvious: CUT FUEL COSTS NOW.”

These are just a selection of the stories, but the theme is clear. If a recession is prolonged (which I don’t think it will be, but I can’t see the future) many people are going to have to change their expectations. Private school may not be an option for the kids. It may be time to trade down to a more affordable house. Will fuel prices go down? Probably, but what if they don’t? The good job in the good location may be out of reach thanks to commutation. The dream of having a Full House like The Brady Bunch or Eight is Enough may be replaced with Two and a Half Men.

What other expectations will the “typical American” consider changing if faced with a new reality of recession?

America’s Money: In their own words [CNN Money]

Published or updated March 21, 2008.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

While I agree gas prices has risen, I don’t think the impact is as big as people make it out to be. I think the bigger issue with rising gas prices is the fact that it inflates the price of everything we buy, due to transporation. Also, I don’t really feel sorry for people who buy too big of a house, or live above their means without saving for retirement and emergencies.


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avatar 2 Anonymous

I have to agree. My wife’s commute is over $300 per month in fuel and she is a teacher. We hardly feel the pinch because we got our finances strait over two years ago. We bought a moderately priced home and have no debt except for the house. If people would stay away from the debt trap these hard times would not be so hard.

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avatar 3 Anonymous

As unpleasant as it may be, we need times like these to bring things back to “normal.” When everything is going perfectly and people have access to such easy money, it will clearly create bad habits.

If you look a lot of stories like these, they are created by personal choices. And the gas price thing is a bit exaggerated, in part fueled by the media.

Take the first example, Suzanne. She complains about a $250 monthly gas bill. Ok, that’s fine, but she makes it sound like it this cost came out of nowhere. Two years ago, what was her commuting bill? $175? $200? Gas prices in late 2005 and early 2006 were averaging around $2.85-$2.90.

So if she is thinking of leaving her job because she can’t afford an extra $30-$50/month with the now slightly higher costs are, she can knock herself out. I think it would be far easier to simply find a way to shave 10 or 20 bucks a week from your budget than be all dramatic and say you’re going to have to leave your “wonderful job.”

So sure, economic downturns can be painful, but typically the people hurt most are those who failed to plan for the fact that things won’t always be perfect.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

Its people like Jeremy (C#3) that make too much sense. I totally agree, while gas is up it couldn’t have added that much to her commute to make her leave her job. I’m sure she could cut out some extras somewhere to make up the difference, forget the manicures or eating out, etc.

As for Billie, private school is the problem. People thinking that they neeeeed to spend money on this or that. I went to public school and didn’t have any problems in College or getting a well paying job. Its what you put into it, if your kids aren’t doing well in public school or aren’t leaning then they probably aren’t trying. Nothing will help her.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

Like John, I think Billie and her private school tuition bills are frivilous. A good public school will do just fine, and children will learn a bit more about the “real world” along the way. Private schools *are* just for rich people, or at least they should be. No one “deserves” a private school education, any more than they “deserve” a Lexus or mansion.

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avatar 6 Anonymous

I think has the right take on this

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avatar 7 Anonymous

I understand it is always easy to judge. With that:

My husband and I have been laid of twice (both) in the past 8 years. We were effected when telecommunications went bust in 2001. The layoff caused us to always think our jobs are in jeopardy and plan our finances and lifestyle should it happen again – because it will happen again.

We can live off of one salary, have emergency savings in the bank and I have a list of what can be cut immediately if we had to (cell phones, YMCA membership etc). The mortgage we took is based on only one of us having a job.

I am grateful for the layoffs because I believe most Americans who didn’t experience the recession in the early 2000’s are getting a wake up call right now.

I also saw homes foreclosed because people straight out of college got these fancy homes they couldn’t afford when they lost their job. I am amazed no one seems to remember any of this and it was only 6-7 years ago.

I suspect if your job sector is effect, you don’t pay attention.

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avatar 8 Anonymous

there has got to be more to these stories…..there are details missing….like the escalades they drive or something…

i mean, gas did not go from 0 to 250 a month. it went from 200 to 250….that can’t be the reason she can’t make it or commute to her job.

the only one that made sense was the guy who planned for everything and was conservative.

statements like “we were sure” are indicative of a problematic thought strategy….

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avatar 9 Anonymous

The increase in gas prices over the past 5-10 years is certainly significant. Since 2003 gas has gone up about 65% from around $2 a gallon to $3.30. For a typical American driver (12k miles year at 20mpg) thats an increase of about +$780 per year. For a two car family it could be double that or +$1560. Of course gas prices have been rising steadily since 2000 so people should be adjusting their usage and migrating to more efficient vehicles. But transportation is not an optional expense for virtually all Americans. And an extra $1500 expense IS significant to a middle or low income family. You can only tighten the belt so much.

I agree that private school is a luxury. Most public schools are plenty good. I do not think that all public schools are good though and in some areas they can be pretty poor. So I think those are the situations where people feel they “need” to go the private school route to give their kids a good education. In that case I’d look at moving to a better area rather than pay for private schools, but sometimes moving is not easy or cheap.


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avatar 10 Anonymous

There is a lot of woe is me in the above situations, and not a lot of seriously evaluating what their options.

suzzanne: priced out, what about choosing to rent instead? sell the house, move closer by renting. or get a more fuel efficient car, or car pool with all those close bonded friends they have made in their community.

billie: private school? come one, then home school, at least you’ll get tax credits.

RJ: a house he couldn’t really afford.

david: boohoo, can’t buy a house in the area he wants because he can’t afford it. i’ll give him credit, he isn’t jumping into a house that he can’t afford.

tracey: not too much detail, maybe the expectations of sale price was too high in michigan. but why would you go into buying a new house in alabama if you hadn’t already sold the old one? even if you thought you could sell the michigan home, then there should still have been some sort of contingency fund to pay for two mortgages at the same time.

Shannon: here’s a choice, bite the bullet, close the shop and save the rest of your finances.

ok, maybe i’m being a little too hard, but these people seem to all have some basic problems in their financial management. Now they can either hope the problems will go away by themselves, or actively try to fix them. I think most of the people highlighted can easily remedy by making different choices. What astounds me is how many people grasp onto this idea of home ownership as making you complete somehow. there are so many people who shouldn’t be buying houses or have bought houses in the first place. i’m 38 and have yet to buy a house. why? b/c the areas i work and live in cost too much and i don’t want to spend lots of time and money on commuting, so I rent. not for everyone i guess.

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avatar 11 Anonymous

They’ve since added a few more people to the list of 15 (currently at 19). A recently added family stuck out as extremely poor planning.

The Taylors: Home builder

Live in Cali, but recently built a new house in Florida and trying to sell their home in Cali for past 2 1/2 years. Says market has ruined their lives.

My questions to them…

You are a home builder, what were you doing with all the money you made from the gigantic housing bubble?!

Why did you build a new primary residence BEFORE you sold your old primary residence?

I really do feel for some of these families that were hit hard by layoffs, rising costs etc., but people like the Taylors have no one to blame but themselves!

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avatar 12 Anonymous

It is so easy to judge others when you aren’t wearing their shoes. I also got caught in the housing crunch. I sold my house and moved 2 days before it was supposed to close. The day after I moved, the loan fell through. Not supposed to be able to happen but it did. 3 more contracts fell through before I finally sold it taking a $75,000 loss but it was that or lose it to foreclosure. I spent my emergency fund and most of my retirement to pay the bills during those 6 months and the equity in the house was supposed to pay off all my bills and replenish the emergency fund. My decisions? Yes, but now moving isn’t an option as I can’t do it financially and even if I wanted to houses aren’t selling. I’m virtually stuck 70 miles from any decent job and trying to work my way back out of the hole. Would I do things differently now? Yes, but I would have to go back about 5 years to change the things that would have made a difference.

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avatar 13 Anonymous

Americans’ sense of entitlement is alive and well:

“All I want is full-time work that actually pays the bills…Something needs to be done in the country.”

“We want to be able to buy a home AND pay the bills.”

Some of the situations are definitely due to bad luck or bad planning. The bad luck may have been unavoidable, but sometimes you can change your luck by planning ahead.

Paycheck-to-paycheck people are getting squeezed. Sad but inevitable. Lesson to learn here: If you live paycheck-to-paycheck start figuring out how to stop doing that before it’s too late.

Finally, it was interesting how many housing-related professions were represented. Home builder, remodeler, and several mortgage industry workers. It really is a dark time for that industry. Sad how these folks rode the bubble but probably lived it up like the grasshopper instead of storing things up like the ant. But just like my own experience, you usually have to get knocked on your a$$ once before you realize that the good times will not last forever and you need to plan for times like this.

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avatar 14 Anonymous

@ Jim: in some parts of the country, even the best of the public schools are very weak. That’s true in my state, where support of education has historically been lackluster. Anyone who lives within driving distance of where most professionals work and cares about the kids’ education relies on private or parochial schools. You probably can get your kids in an OK public school if you move to an affluent suburb, but that will require a) selling your present home (good luck); b) buying a house on the far side of the galaxy (no problem: all those shiny new suburbs are fast turning into instant slums, between the shoddy construction and the soaring foreclosure rates); and c) commuting till you’re blue in the face. The cost of after-school child care (you’ll get home as early as 7:00 p.m. on a good day, if you’re lucky) plus the cost of gas (nope: no public transport here) could end up running almost as much as the private school tuition — especially when you factor in the loss you’d take on the sale of your house plus Realtor’s fees, closing costs, and moving expenses.

A high-school teacher I know who was fired from his job in an upscale district for secretly photographing teenage girls in the shower is now teaching in another upscale district in one of those affluent suburbs. Get the picture? [heh!]

That said, though, I have to agree that most of these tales ring of bad choices, self-indulgence, and…well, yes: stupidity.

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avatar 15 Anonymous

I agree, people will need to set their expectations a bit lower during this time. I dont understand the NEED to buy a house even during these times….

This recession talk has taught me so many valuable lessons about real estate. I honestly don’t know that I want to OWN the home I live in again. I’d rather way low and rent it out. Its all a waste of money.

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avatar 16 Anonymous

Great post! As a financial advisor for young Americans I hear these stories a lot. Bold times can call for bold moves. I just posted something on this subject on a new blog call The post is about moving in together-and not just couples. As tough times hit us all we may need to give up some of the good stuff and tighten our belts for a year or two. Taking in a roommate can be a terrific way to do that. Not just your rent goes down, but oil, cable, electric, even your grocery bill. Check it out. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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avatar 17 Anonymous

Three new stories added today (3/24).

After reading these stories, I am absolutely convinced that carrying no debt other than a prime/above-prime mortgage is the way to go…was a little unsure but not now. Many of the hardest hit in these stories (not all but many) are the ones that carry any sort of consumer debt, be it credit cards, student loans, or a bad mortgage.

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avatar 18 Anonymous

American expectations that could change in a recession:

1. Plasma/wide-screen TVs are NOT necessary. Also in this category of unnecessary expectations are any sort of premium shiny new gadget.

2. Kids/teenagers do not need elaborate cell phones or expensive mobile plans. There could be a “safety” issue for some people – but really, teenagers weren’t dying off in huge numbers before cell phones became widely popular.

3. 2 cars for every family (or at least SUVs). I understand different parts of the country have varying city plans and public transport set-ups, but it is do-able to have one car for a family. It’s ridculous to have more cars in the drive-way than drivers in the house!

Also – expecting your parents to buy a car when you turn 16 is ridiculous. Shows like “my sweet sixteen” on MTV further propagate this notion. I’ve seen this situation many times where a teenager receives a car when he/she is 16, at great cost to the parents, and ends up abandoning it when going to college. When considering giving a car or helping pay for a car for a teen be aware that you might be burdening them with insurance/parking/tickets/gas costs.

4. Gym memberships can be expendable for people who never go, rarely go, or those who can walk/jog/run outdoors.

Just my 2 cents.

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avatar 19 Anonymous

Mostly a bunch of whiners.

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avatar 20 Anonymous

My favorite one is the doctor in Pacific Palisades where people tell him real estate prices can’t go down. Isn’t that illogical? People who couldn’t really afford to buy in the area would have bought when mortgages were easy to come by, then they’ll have to sell or end up in foreclosure, ergo prices have to come down. I would think prices are *more* likely to decrease in the Palisades than in a place less upscale, say Pasadena, where the people who can no longer afford the Palisades will head.

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avatar 21 Anonymous

hello, this is shannon from the cnn story. just wanted everyone to know that cnn does not include anyones full email. they pick out the parts they want to print. which is fine, but just so you know i do realize our only problem is not fuel cost. our food cost are up also and all our vendors have added fuel surcharges on top of that. it also not as easy as snapping my finger to close up shop. my husband and i both work full time at the restaurant.we rotate shifts so that one of us is home with our 2 year old. we would have to get jobs first, and jobs that pay enough to cover our restaurant loan and pay our mortgage plus utilities. we have budgeted our money very well in the past,but when your rainy day funds are gone and bills are rolling in you have to make a decision. we are both college educated and feel that if we pull through the slow cycles, then we’ll be fine once this cycle passes. it is after all a cycle.

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