I was laid off from my last steady job in December 2007. That month is now marked as the beginning of the current recession. I was fortunate in that I had just been accepted into graduate school, and was beginning evening classes in January 2008. More school meant that I had access to student loans, and evening classes meant that I was still eligible for unemployment.
Unfortunately, my student loans were meager at best. The financial aid office used my information from the previous tax year to determine how much they should lend me. There had been a drastic change in my income during that time, so they miscalculated. I protested, but they combated me with bureaucracy. I was defeated, but I was able to get by okay because I had both student loans and unemployment checks. I wasn’t wealthy, but I could afford food, rent, my car payments, and the occasional night out.
After six months, however, my unemployment ran out. I had been looking for a job the entire time, and I’d had some promising interviews, but my lack of experience held me back. Without the extra $347 per week, I was unable to pay for many bills. I had also had some health problems that led to many medical bills. At the same time, my rent increased from $600 a month to $700 a month. They notified me two months in advance because the law requires that they cannot instate more than a 10% increase without 60 days notice. I was unable to find a less expensive living space. Even Section 8 housing costs more, so I can’t really complain.
Last week, I lost my cell phone on the bus on the way home from work. I was upset, but cell phones are replaceable. It would take me a day or two to replace it, though, because I only had about $45 left from my previous paycheck, and I wasn’t sure how much it would cost. I walked to my apartment from the bus stop, and left on my door was a note from the electric company. They notified me that I had 24 hours to pay $488 or my electricity would be cut off.
I had stopped paying my electric bill shortly after my unemployment ran out in June 2008. I got a job again in March 2009, and resumed payments then, but as of today I have not fully caught up. My sporadic payments were not good enough, and this was the first realization I had of that.
Last April, my car was repossessed, and that sent me into a deep depression. I was able to get my car back, but have not yet snapped out of my funk. The electric company had sent me a letter indicating that a disconnection was in my future, but since I had been paying them, I (however ignorantly) assumed that I was safe. The 24-hour notice caught me completely by surprise. With only $45, I had no (legal) way to obtain the money to pay by 5pm the following day. And I had no telephone, as I gave up landlines years ago. I couldn’t even call to beg, complain, or make arrangements.
I was able to retrieve my cell phone later the following day because it had been found on the bus by a woman who lived about a mile away. Unfortunately, it was about 2 p.m. before I had it back in my hands, and the credit department employees at the electric company will only talk to you between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. I spent three hours on my freshly-retrieved cell phone trying to speak with someone who could help. Everyone I spoke to told me to call a different phone number. Eventually, I would end up on an automated phone system that would do one of two things: it would ask my ZIP code, then tell me to call back between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., and then it would hang up on me; or it would ask my ZIP code and then tell me that there was no one available to talk to me, then it would hang up on me. This went on for three hours.
I called back in the morning and was able to talk to speak with someone in the credit department. She was no more helpful than the recording –she asked for my ZIP code, told me there were no appointments in my area, and told me to call back another time.
My power was cut off, and I am typing this now from a café. I still do not have enough money, and don’t know when I will. I can be late with my rent next week and be hassled about that, or I can be late with my car payment the following week and be hassled about that. Or I can live in darkness indefinitely, which unfortunately seems like the best option.
Along with my disconnection notice came a notification that I would be charged both a disconnection fee and a reconnection fee. Poverty is tremendously expensive.
I am mostly worried about food because I cannot cook, refrigerate, or freeze anything. I also do not have money to buy a lot of food. There is a food bank available to me, but it mostly provides dry goods like pasta and soup mix. Right now I have bread and peanut butter, which will do for now.
I am also dreading the cold shower. I lived in a rather rundown apartment for six months, and lived without hot water that whole time. My bathing habits went out the window because there were several mornings when I just could not bear to enter that freezing, freezing shower.
I have other things to focus on in the next few weeks, namely my rent, my car payment, and my insurance. I am also applying for better jobs in hope that my brand-new master’s degree will open me to better money-making opportunities. I will be expected to begin payments on student loans in December, and I’ve already been hit up for money on a short-term loan I took out last March. My payments will be at least $450 a month, which obviously I don’t have. I plan to declare bankruptcy, but bankruptcy will not save me from the federal loans. I have no family, so no one to live with, and even if I did I am quite stubborn and determined to take care of myself. If I can’t take care of myself, then what on earth is the point?
I live in a rather unpopular area, so I don’t really live within walking distance of places I can just hang out. I also have no friends close by, and I am not very neighborly. My car is still nonfunctional, and my student bus pass expires in a matter of days. I will then be forced to buy a $90 bus pass so that I can continue going to work for my meager pittance. I am sure that I will eventually become used to the darkness at home, and I will be able to make appropriate lifestyle changes to ensure that I stay somewhat healthy during this time.