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It’s the time when scheduled appointments are picking up because it’s the end of the school year. Aside from the ballet performance and it’s multitudinous rehearsals, Miss T is due to graduate from middle school and then my daughter will be a high-schooler. It’s more of an adjustment for me than for her. Am I really old enough to be the parent of a high school teen? Apparently I am.

Tara with sash and certificate from Honor Day

Thursday we attended a Native American honoring ceremony for all the Portland 8th grade and 12th grade graduates. It was lovely, and held in the beautiful Native American Student and Community Center on the PSU campus.

Tara was not sure what to anticipate for the evening, though she acquiesced to my urges and humored me by attending with a good spirit. I told her on the way that it would be the more interesting graduate ceremony, even though the one with all her class mates next month would be more fun.

“Why do you say that?” she asked.

“I expect tonight will be filled with Indian tradition that we are unfamiliar with. There will probably be drums.”

“Drums? Really?”

“Well, at my brother’s graduation there were drums because many of his classmates were Indian.” My brother graduated from Chiloquin High School in Oregon, where I knew Modoc and Klamath families.

I had guessed correctly, but it was easy to guess: drums play a significant role in many ceremonies. An evocative, pleasant-smelling smudge was lit in the background and the drums began. We stood for the Presentation of Colors, in which elder men presented the flags honored. They marched/danced with the drums, in a line around the entire room, headed by the Eagle Staff (upon which there was an actual mounted eagle head). At the end of the parade was the POW/MIA flag. The last flag makes me curious, and I’d like to know more about why this group is particularly honored by our Indian group. Likely the relationship comes from the importance of the military in Indian communities, as the modern expression of warrior service.

We all filled our plates with baked salmon and many excellent side dishes. While we finished up our feast, the speakers began. One of the senior graduates was Rebecca Kirk, a young woman who sang an extraordinary song for us, blending an indigenous language (I don’t recall which) with some soulful English chorus. She beat a drum as accompaniment.

Introductory remarks were followed by a stirring keynote speaker: Louie Gong. Mr. Gong described his ethnic background as Coast Salish, Chinese, Scottish, and maybe something else, I can’t recall. He was raised on a reservation in northeast Washington by his Indian and Chinese grandparents. He is a teacher, activist, and artist. He spoke to finding his true self amidst people who try to define him by what they see. He spoke about trying to fit in, and the difficulties of doing that when his background didn’t match those around him. He struggles with frustration of being known as the “Shoe Guy,” when he wants people to know the powerful work in activism that he does.

I thought it was a good message for my Tara, who had felt out of place all evening because she is distinctly blonde, and of course the room was filled with dark-skinned, black-haired people. I know what she feels. I always want to belong, and yet I so rarely find a group of people that feel like “home” to me. I anticipate that some of Louie’s message sticks with her, and I am grateful to him for choosing that particular topic.

The graduates then filed up to the stage and were presented with a sash and certificate. Students remained in front until every person was lined up, then the entire room got in line to shake hands and congratulate every student. It was truly an honor to them. I hope my girl felt support from some of those many hands.

In January we did our taxes and got another shock: Mark owed thousands. In 2007 he had panicked, watching his stocks fall, so he gambled and took everything out of the previous investments, and put it all into banks. Hindsight will tell us all that it was an unfortunate move. Investors will know that when you pull stocks out of one place to buy something else, it’s counted as income. Though Mark never saw a penny of it, the IRS saw that he “earned” about $140 thousand in 2008 by selling stocks. In his despair at seeing banks fail and all his savings evaporate, Mark did not remember to hold anything aside for paying taxes.

Catch up to our story if you like, by reading Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, and Chapter 5.

24)       We did manage to talk the IRS down from owing $46 thousand to owing $18 thousand, but what’s the difference when we have nothing to pay it with regardless?

25)       I was thankfully spared from owing taxes, because of my incredible loss on selling the Massachusetts home.

26)       Eventually the stay on foreclosures was released. We chewed our fingernails. In April 2009 we received our foreclosure notices.

The paperwork that went into our response was tedious, but we were willing to play their game for a chance at a new agreement. We began hearing stories about how people had their interest rates reduced to 3%, or had the amount financed reduced from $400 to $300 thousand – huge benefits offered to those who were willing to work with their lenders and to pay off their debt somehow. We had hope, and pressed on.

Part of our requirement was that we had to call a credit counseling agency. I called one of the numbers listed in the Wells Fargo paperwork. I talked with a wonderful woman who asked a million questions and gradually began to lose her assurance that she could help us. “There is no way my company could get you better rates than what you have,” she said. “You are managing your finances very well.” Hm. Small amount of good my smugness did for me at that point. But regardless, I had talked with the credit counselor. I had upheld my end. What would Wells Fargo do for us?

27)        We had been asked for budget spreadsheets and copies of taxes and pay stubs on three separate occasions. We had been asked for letters explaining why we wished for a mortgage modification. Finally they responded that we had been approved on a trial basis. Rejoice! They came up with a new, lower monthly rate, and said if we paid that new amount for three months in a row, they would consider installing it permanently. They had reduced our obligation from $1624 a month to $1185. We were thrilled. Now we could afford everything on my salary alone.

We paid $1185 in May, June, and July, and then called Wells Fargo. They had stopped the foreclosure process, and our house would not go up for auction. Whew! But that’s all they could tell us. “Keep paying that same amount,” they always said. “We will contact you as soon as we get to your case. We can’t guarantee it, of course, but the $1185 you have been paying will most likely be your payment from now on.”

Months trickled by. My student loan forbearance with Direct Loan expired, and they requested that I begin paying another $210 a month in addition to the $223 I am already paying in student loans to Sallie Mae. And, in the time since I had last reviewed my account, I saw that the amount I owed in student loans had climbed to over $80 thousand. Why, again, did I go to school? What an idiotic thing it seemed to me. What a fool I was to buy that classist ideal that school is the path to a better life. Well, not from what I have seen. I put that portion of my loan back into forebearance.

28)       When my tax money came in, I paid off a credit card, and paid off Mark’s student loans.

29)        Mark got a job in July, after 13 months of unemployment and no unemployment compensation.

Finally we didn’t have such bitterness when hearing news about unemployment benefits extensions. We had applied for food stamps, medical care, housing assistance, heating assistance, and were turned down for everything because I make too much money.

Finally we didn’t have to listen to all the ignorant comments from people intending to help, saying, “If you haven’t found a job, it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough.” Or “Lower your sights and you’ll find work.”  And, “Apply to 10-20 jobs a day. Unemployment is a 40-hour-a-week-job.” And our favorite, “Have you tried looking outside your field?” Thank god there are people who have had an income through all this, and have had no reason to understand what it has been like for suffering families. But still, if you think you’re helping someone by saying those phrases to them, you aren’t, so shut up.

30)        With the new lowered mortgage payment, and second income, you’d think we’d finally be in a comfortable place, but it didn’t work out that way. Suddenly, we had the option to take care of more responsibilities, and all of them cost money.

Milda and me

We scheduled dentist appointments for everyone. We took both of our clunkers to the shop so that they would pass emissions tests and we could renew our tags and drive legally again. Both cats went to the vet. I paid off a loan from my 87-year-old grandmother (I HATE owing money, and especially hate owing people I love). I started getting the mental health therapy that was long overdue. Bought our kid new clothes that she desperately needed. Paid off another credit card. We continued our pared-down lifestyle of no cable, no home phone, very few dinners out, no splurging on little things that catch our eyes. We ate tons of food from our small but unexpectedly productive garden.

31)       The last week of September our final paperwork from Wells Fargo finally came through! But we were confused with what it said. Rather than the $1185 we had been paying, they had finalized our bill at $1536. And even though we had been making payments on time since May, the money had been held in a separate account, and not paid against our debt. Their records showed that we had not paid for months, so 1624 x 7 months = 11,368 + 207,000 still owing = a new financed amount of $218,000 at 4.625% = $1536 a month.

Ok, yes, I concede that 4.625% is a great rate. However, we previously had a great rate of 5.875% that was fixed. Now we had an adjustable rate and the amount financed had jumped drastically! Months of fear, anxiety, and paperwork all amounts to this? A savings of 88 dollars a month? Yes, we defaulted on our mortgage, but we were under the impression that this “Making Home Affordable” plan at Wells Fargo was going to, er, help make our home affordable.

With Mark’s new job we could possibly afford the new payment plan (if we made a few more cuts), but we were furious. We had been abused. I saw it as a breach of contract. Mark called to ask what happened, and was told that the people who first worked up our paperwork had made a mistake by using our net income rather than our gross income, and the $1536 was the absolute best they could do. I called someone else at Wells Fargo, and she said if we don’t like the new terms, don’t sign the new contract and send it back with a letter explaining why we won’t sign it. So we sent it all back.

32)        Then we wrote our congressmen, the CEO of Wells Fargo, President Obama. We’re hoping for a couple of form letters from someone, but so far haven’t received even that.

cc: President Obama

33)    The IRS called and said, “Enough dilly-dallying! You must pay!! $300 a month, and that is our final offer.” So, I guess we must pay.

And here it stands.

November 13, 2009, we have two reasonable incomes and are as broke as can be. How is that possible?

  • Mortgage – 218,325.79
  • Sallie Mae – $57,570.70
  • (Direct Loan Student Loans – $19,487.35) – in forbearance till April 2010
  • IRS – $18,461.60
  • Discover Card – $14,125.37
  • Chase Visa – $4,737.38

That leaves a monthly amount of $289 to take care of: utilities, school clothes, food, phones, home&auto insurance (we have no health insurance), internet access, etc.

You try spending only 289 on every expense for an entire month for a family of three. It is not POSSIBLE. When my forbearance expires, it will drop to $79 per month available to live on. I don’t know what we will do. Wish us luck.

Here’s a quote I caught this morning, and I’m going to take courage in it: “Despair is for people who know beyond any doubt what the future will be. Nobody’s in that position. So despair is not only a kind of sin, theologically, but it’s also a simple mistake.”

Chapter 4

My story of how we arrived at this fearful point is a long one. (Sorry!) I am sure that for many people, financial insecurity is not the result of one factor. In our case, it was a dreadful chain of events filled with bad luck and bad choices. I’ve chosen to tell it in chapters. Today (October 2009), we are in negotiations with Wells Fargo that began around October 2008, and progressed significantly around March 2009, yet today remain unresolved. Will the three of us be forced to leave our modest little fixer-upper home? Right now, no one knows.

Catch up to this part if you like, by reading Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and Chapter 3.

Unable to sell my Massachusetts home the Spring of 2007, I found a renter. I asked for a rent that was reasonable for the blue-collar community the house was in, but didn’t come close to matching the mortgage amount.

12)       The problems with my renter began immediately. She was almost a month late for her FIRST month’s rent. After a few sporadic payments, she stopped paying altogether. She eventually stopped answering her phone, and when I called her workplace, they told me she was no longer working there. I began researching how to evict a tenant in Massachusetts.

We were living at The Uncles outside of Portland while we looked for work. Mark’s unemployment check went to rent at The Uncles, and the mortgage payment, and I continued to rob my 401K to make up the difference. We spent the summer of 2007 just trying to make ourselves get up and be productive each day, and not succumb to fright or despair. Mark couldn’t take the daily reminder of his perceived failure, and took off into the desert for awhile.

All summer I filled out applications till they made me numb. I was invited to only a couple of interviews, and was not offered a position.

13)       In September I got a job with the VA. Not related to my degrees, but it was at least employment. In October, Mark got a job.

14)       School loans came due. I went into forbearance on the greater sum, and began paying Sallie Mae. They required a huge fee for a short deferral, and it was simply cheaper to make my monthly payments.

With two incomes, we were in a position to have our own home. I was sent to Baltimore for training, and while I was there, Mark found a house he wanted to buy. (We love The Uncles, but after 8 months, were ready to be on our own)

15)       We still had faith that the Mass house would sell someday, and made an offer on the Portland house in January 2008. By the last day of the month, we owned it. It was a 1925 home, basement crumbling, roof mossy, stained walls and stinking of dog pee on the carpet, but… it was large and we could afford it! Well, we could as soon as the Mass house sold, which had to be soon. In the meantime, we made two mortgage payments every month.

16)      February 2008, my daughter’s father decided he wanted to move back to California and take her with him. I disagreed with the plan. Since we had no money left, Mark put the attorney’s retainer on his credit card.

17)       Still no communication from my renter, so I hired a Realtor in Mass to put the home on the market in March, and plunked down the credit card once again for a cross-country flight and got the lady out of my house with relatively little pain. I spent a few days putting the property back in order. The electricity had been shut off. She had drained the heating oil and the pilot light went out. The water was off. The toilet leaked. There were mountains of construction rubbish in the back yard. I hired a guy to pick up everything inside and out, and haul it away. I hired a landscaping company to take care of the lawn. $$$$$$$ I went back home about a foot shorter, shrinking under the weight of the world.

18)      June 2008, Mark lost his job. It was a shocking blow. Poverty hit hard. There was no way we could survive in the new home on my paycheck only. I was earning $42 K a year. We put up a clothesline. We washed and reused baggies.

19)      The custody skirmish was over only a few months after it began. We only spent $5000. That was a MIRACLE compared to what had happened to us in California. AND, for the first time the courts ruled in my favor. Barney moved to Cali like he wanted to, but our daughter came to live with me finally. For good.

20)       I asked my family law attorney to recommend a bankruptcy attorney. Both of them were fabulous and I would highly recommend either! I was advised that bankruptcy wouldn’t work for me. My major expenses included $60 thousand in student loans, which I would still have to pay. One of the only things that didn’t cost me much was my car, and they would take it from me. They wouldn’t even wipe out my credit card debt… just rearrange it and put me on a payment plan.

We put our heads down and pressed on. We focused on getting my girl into school for 6th grade, settling in the house. Mark looked for work and tried not to sink into depression. We called Wells Fargo and explained that we were not going to be able to make our payments much longer. They told us that as far as they were concerned, our account was in good standing. We had paid every month, and on time, and our credit was great. “We can only help those people who have been delinquent for three months in a row or more.”

We began giving that statement some serious thought.

Chapter 3

This is a continuation of a brief history of what led up to our current threat of home foreclosure. We don’t have one of those crazy risky loans, and we found this modest home for a reasonable price. The problem mostly boils down to the fact that we managed to lose all our savings for other reasons (notably another home that sold for a loss), followed by Mark losing his job.

Catch up to this point in the story if you like, by reading Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.

my new community, far away from the old one

Viola! I found myself in a Boston suburb in July 2004. All alone, didn’t know a soul there, and was 34 years old preparing to enter college as a sophomore transfer from California. People said, “Wow, you are so brave.” But I knew the truth is that I can go to extremes to run away from my problems. Left my career, ex-husband, and beloved Pacific Northwest behind, in order to start out on a new track and see where it would lead.

7)      As I mentioned in Chapter 2, I put my sophomore year at Brandeis on my credit card because I was scared they would kick me out if I didn’t pay. My financial aid package finally kicked in around November, but by then I had a $17,000 balance with Bank of America. (Thank you Rita Fine ’55 Memorial Scholarship people for keeping me from having a $34,000 balance!!)

Since my student loans were insufficient to cover the mortgage, the credit card payments, filling the heating oil tank (OMG!! New Englanders heat with OIL?!), buying monthly passes on the commuter rail train, etc. etc. Not to mention cross-country flights so that either I could go see my kid or she could come see me, I was constantly broke. Because of her young age, flights for her also required a ticket for another adult, or huge chaperone fees. Because of unresolved custody, my flights usually included a bonus payment to Family Law Court in California for one reason or another.

8)      I was forced to begin pulling out money from my IRA. Twenty thousand here, Fourteen thousand there.

By the end of my junior year, the infallible courts of California had decided that my daughter had to stay with her father as long as I was going to be out of state. I was crushed and angry, and forced with an awful decision: quit school and go dragging back with my tail between my legs so that my girl could have me more often? Or bear the continued separation another year, in hopes that being the first in my family to get a classy degree would be the key to pulling her out of the white trash sludge I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of.

OK, ok, yes. The whole truth also includes the fact that I did not want to go back to live in the same small town as her dad who drove me crazy, and also the fact that I would have zero chance of getting my old job back, so I would have to scrounge around for whatever job was available there.

9)      I chose to stay in Massachusetts.

For her part, my daughter seemed fine with it all. I talked with her about it in kid terms, and – in kid terms – she begged me to stay in Mass. She loved the house, loved her friends there, and seemed to be healthy and happy. Happier perhaps, without her parents’ unspoken animosity charging the atmosphere. Her winter visits afforded her snow vacations for the first time in her life since she was a baby in Vermont. She felt very grown up to consider cross-country flights a natural part of life.

I took advantage of my distress, and piled on the schoolwork. I got myself into a program wherein I worked on both my Bachelor and Master degrees at the same time. I lived and breathed school, every waking moment.

10)       I never did find a renter, but Mark, my Massachusetts boyfriend, eventually moved in and began splitting the mortgage payment with me.

11)       In my last year there, and especially the Spring of 2007, I tried to sell my home but it didn’t sell. Something funky was going on in the economy. The stock market was faltering, real estate values were actually falling, and people weren’t so interested in buying. I heard that one of my neighbors had to move because her home was foreclosed upon. This news was my first exposure to foreclosure. It was disturbing to have it so close to me. I knocked thirty thousand off what I had purchased my home for, three years earlier, and still no one was interested in the asking price. It was a beautiful, new home. What was the problem?

Finally graduated in May 2007 with a BA in Cultural Anthropology summa cum laude, minor in Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence studies. I also had an MA in Cultural Anthropology, with a focus on International Mediation. (Read this awesome profile my friend Dave Nathan wrote.)

For all the sacrifice, and the coveted sheets of embossed paper that apparently heralded my achievements… I was full of fear and doubt. I had so much debt it was staggering to think about it. Approximately $80 K in student loans, $230 K on my house, $26 K on credit cards. No job.

During my last year of school, my daughter and her father had moved to Portland, Oregon in hopes of finding a community that offered more job opportunities. He needed work and knew I would soon be needing work. It was a rare moment of cooperation. Approximately 72 hours after I graduated, I was moving West.

Portland seemed large enough to contain her dad and me together. It was exciting to anticipate my new town, my new career, new friends. I also was lucky enough to have a loving partner who had decided to leave his home state of Massachusetts and try out a new life on the West Coast with me.

Chapter 2

This is Chapter 2 of the story that led to our current state of not really feeling as though our housing situation is stable. Read Chapter 1.

3)      During the 2003/2004 school year I used the profits from the sale of my California home to live on, pay court fees, and to hire an attorney. The GI Bill paid for my classes, which were $11 a credit back then – nice!

I chose my classes so that I had a regular daytime, Monday through Friday schedule, for the first time in my life. It was great to be able to attend morning assemblies with my daughter at Ridgewood Elementary School before she started second grade classes each day, and to be home to meet her at the end of the driveway when the bus brought her home. I was free for weeknight book sales and free to schedule parent-teacher conferences at a normal hour. If for no other reason, being able to participate this way in her expanding life was worth giving up my well-paying job as a weather forecaster with the National Weather Service.

Other than that, I had my doubts.

I wasn’t rich, but up until then, I had plenty. The kind of comfortable life where I could go buy a new winter coat for my kid when she lost hers (that seemed to happen a lot). When I fell in love with some real leather, knee-high boots, I could take them home. We could go to the movies on the spur of the moment. On a particularly lovely Fall afternoon, we took a Humboldt Bay cruise on the Madaket just because we wanted to, and then stop for ice cream at Bon Boniere on the way home. It was a very good life.

After I decided to leave my job and go to school instead, I made serious cuts in my lifestyle where I could. But life can be expensive.

At the end of the school year in Cali I was able to move to Massachusetts. I had managed a painful compromise plan of physical parenting rights. We split her remaining years as a minor, and her father got the first shift. It shattered me to have to share at all, but making the best of it, it meant I could go to school anywhere. I considered living in Brandeis dormitory housing on campus to save money, but just couldn’t bring myself to rent after having been a homeowner for so long. And when my little girl was with me, I wanted her to have a real home.

4)      I took the gamble, which tends to be my personality. Big Chances = Big Gains (or Losses, as the case may be) I bought a house that was shockingly expensive for me, but I wasn’t worried. Real estate was shooting upwards like a rocket. Property values in the Boston area were DOUBLING every 12 months. Besides, this was my fifth home purchase, and I had learned that buying and selling a house was a sure thing. Once  I had lost $30 thousand of my investments…and in that same year I gained $30 thousand in the value of my home. There was no way to lose in Real Estate.

our Massachusetts house

I was a bit surprised to get the loan without a job. But… I put over 20% down, had thousands in savings, had thousands in retirement account that I could borrow against, I had a work history of 11 years of federal service, and my credit score was stellar. So it wasn’t that hard for me to believe a lender would take a chance on me. The lender asked me how I intended to pay the mortgage, and I said “with student loans.” I was serious. And ignorant. Everyone who goes to school gets a loan, right? At great rates right? In my mind it made total sense to get student loans to pay the mortgage.

5)      I planned to rent out the lower level of the house. It was a spacious split level, and the lower level seemed like a decent space to rent. That would definitely help with the bills. But I couldn’t find a renter.

6)      I had some difficulty getting my financial aid into place. I got a threatening letter from the school that said something like, “If you don’t pay your tuition now, we will kick you out!” Having been out in the world long enough to think I had to handle everything on my own, I didn’t realize that the best option would have been to go to the Financial Aid Office and ask for help. Instead, I put my first year’s tuition on my credit card. Nope, not just a semester – the whole damn year. Duh.

Me on campus, Autumn 2004

Turns out, I didn’t get to live on student loans like I had assumed. (You know, there are a lot of assumptions to overcome when a person is the first one in her family to go to college) Turns out, there is a cap on how much a student can borrow. Turns out, owning a home is reflected as wealth when the Financial Aid Office crunches your numbers. Though I had a $1600 a month mortgage payment, the house was considered an asset, and thus reduced my ability to borrow.

My first bout with poverty struck, and it was a blow.

My spending continued to be outrageous, but I wasn’t getting much pleasure out of it. I ate Ramen noodles, but forked out the dough to purchase cross-country flights to continue my relationship with my daughter and to make my California court dates. (Still battling family law two years down the line. Little advice – never attempt to reorganize a family in California) I continued paying my attorney. I had to spend on basic upkeep of the home, landscaping, maintenance, snow removal, public transportation passes, and school books are expensive, even when you buy them used.

Needless to say, I began chopping away at my retirement account, which had recently made it above $100 thousand, but wasn’t destined to remain above. I was selling stocks to pay off credit cards. It just didn’t seem right.

It actually REALLY wasn’t right, as my financial advisor told me later. But… how does a girl learn good lessons without some pain?

One of my many guises

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