Economic Recovery? Not Around Here

Dear Mr. Dad: I lost my job more than a year ago and have been unable to find another. My wife works part time, but doesn’t bring in nearly enough to cover our expenses. We have no health insurance, burned through the little savings we had trying to stay current on our mortgage and other bills. Now we’re faced with having to take money out of our retirement accounts to make ends meet. I’m so embarrassed by this whole thing that I can barely face my children. What can we do?

A: I’ve been (and still am) in almost the same situation and I definitely feel your pain. The good news is that you already took the first step: acknowledging that there’s problem. The bad news is that you’re in for a bumpy ride. Here are some steps that should help.

  • Buy some throat lozenges and get rid of any weapons you have around the house. I’m only half kidding. This may be the most frustrating and infuriating experience of your life; you’re going to do a lot of screaming (hence the lozenges), and you don’t want to do anything to hurt yourself or someone else. Believe me, it’s tempting, though.
  • Ask for help. Start by talking with your mortgage company about refinancing your home or modifying your loan. But be prepared for an exercise in twisted logic. My lender told me that I made too much money to do a loan modification but not enough to refinance. There were other options available, but I didn’t qualify because I was current on my mortgage. Apparently, being a responsible adult and paying my bills meant that I couldn’t get help. Defaulting, however, would have made it a lot easier (try to avoid this).
  • Look into the Making Home Affordable Program. This actually encompasses two separate programs, HARP (Home Affordable Refinance Program) and HAMP (Home Affordable Modification Program). The rules can be complex and seem designed to exclude as many people as possible. In my case, conveniently placed loopholes made me ineligible for any program. Check your eligibility here: makinghomeaffordable.gov/
  • Apply for insurance through healthcare.gov. But hurry: If you don’t make the February 15 deadline, you may have to wait until October to enroll. Ready for more twisted logic? My income was so low that I wasn’t eligible for Obamacare and had to enroll in Medicare. But then Medicare denied coverage because I have money in IRAs. If I take it out now, I have to pay penalties.
  • Apply for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps). Check your eligibility here: snap-step1.usda.gov/. Also look into local food banks.
  • Ignore the media. Every day there’s a new story about the booming economy and dropping unemployment numbers. I’ve seen precious little evidence of that. Plus, those statistics are carefully manipulated to exclude all the people who have given up looking for work, who are working part time for economic reasons, or who are under-employed. According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics—the agency that calculates the “official” data—the true unemployment rate is roughly double the official one.
  • Use your situation as a lesson—if you can talk about it without scaring your children. Being in horrible financial straits (which, hopefully, won’t go on too much longer), made me a lot more sympathetic to homeless people and others who access government benefits.
  • Get past embarrassment. You and your wife worked for many years, and a lot of the taxes you paid has gone to help people in need. Now it’s your turn, and there’s no shame in getting the help you deserve.

Okay, Folks, Take It Outside

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I sometimes fight when our children, eight and ten, are present. We know we probably shouldn’t argue in front of them but things are sometimes so tense that we can’t stop ourselves (I recently lost my job and we’re facing possible foreclosure). How damaging is it to argue in front of children, and how can we stop?

A: You’re right: you probably shouldn’t argue in front of your children. Some studies have found that kids whose parents fight a lot may become depressed, anxious, or withdrawn. They may also imitate their parents and pick fights with siblings, friends, and even other adults.

That said, it’s completely unrealistic to think that you and your wife should never argue at all. Disagreements are a natural part of even the best relationships. In fact, not having any arguments might be worse than an occasional flare-up. Small quarrels are good for letting off steam—and given your precarious financial situation, you’re producing enough steam to supply your whole neighborhood with electricity. Keeping it all bottled up will eventually lead to a huge explosion. Exposing your kids to small amounts of conflict—along with the same number of make-ups—demonstrates effective problem-solving skills and shows that fighting with someone you love is not the end of the world.

So your challenge isn’t really to step arguing at all, but to find ways to handle your disagreements constructively. One excellent approach is to agree that when you see that an argument is in danger of turning ugly, you’ll stop and give yourselves time to cool off. Come up with a secret word or phrase that either one of you can say that signals it’s time for a break. If you’re able to postpone the argument for a bit, chances are that one of three things will happen: You’ll be able to discuss things more calmly, you’ll realize that the issue wasn’t as big a deal as you thought, or you’ll forget what you were arguing about in the first place.

Of course, despite your best intentions, you’re never going to be able to stop yourselves every time. Here are some things to do when your kids end up with front-row seats:

  • Fight fair. No yelling, no swearing, no personal insults, no threats, no door slamming or vase throwing, and certainly no physical violence of any kind, ever.
  • Damage control. Talk to your children about what they saw. Don’t go into details or lay any blame. Simply tell them that you and mom disagreed and lost your tempers, but now you’ve made up and everything is okay.
  • Don’t pretend things are fine when they aren’t. Your kids are old enough to understand that you’ll all need to make some sacrifices for the good of the family. But don’t panic them—they need to know that no matter what happens, you’ll be there to care for them.
  • Reassure. Children often blame themselves for their parents’ conflicts. Let them know it’s not their fault.
  • Explain. If possible, tell your children how you resolved the issue. For example: “We disagreed on where to spend the holidays, but compromised by going to grandma’s on Christmas Eve and to Aunt Mary’s on Christmas Day.”
  • Have some fun, either as a family or in smaller groups. And make sure your kids see you and their mom are genuinely happy and in love.

Finally, if your fights become more frequent, more aggressive, or if either of you can’t control or manage your temper, get some professional counseling.

Failure to Launch

Dear Mr. Dad: Our 27-year-old son lost his job and moved back in with my wife and me. While it’s nice to have him around, it’s been six months now and he shows no sign of moving out. Part of the problem is that my wife and I have very different approaches. I want our son to get his life back on track. But the other day I discovered that my wife has been giving him money every month. She’s even been paying some of his credit card bills for him. This has led to a lot of tension around the house—between me and my wife, and between me and my son. What can we do?

A: Boy are you in a tough spot. Actually, you’re in two tough spots at the same time. On one hand, you’ve got an adult child who is waaaaay too old to be living someplace where he isn’t making a rent or mortgage payment every month. On the other hand, you’ve got a wife who’s actually encouraging your son to keep doing exactly what he’s been doing: freeload. Fortunately, there is a solution. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be easy.
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Unemployed Expectant Parents

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m almost eight months pregnant but my boyfriend and I are having relationship troubles. We’re both jobless right now, which is a strain. Plus, I get the feeling that he doesn’t want the responsibility of being a dad and wishes he was still single. He denies it and insists he loves me and the baby, and I know he is actively looking for a job. But I’m afraid. How can I be sure he’ll stay with me and be a good and responsible father and partner?

A: I wish there was a simple answer to your question. Unfortunately, though, relationships don’t come with a warranty, and the truth is that there’s no guaranteed way to make sure your boyfriend will stay or, if he does, that he’ll be the “good and responsible father and partner” you’re looking for.
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