In this three-part series, part of a special feature on resilience in the September issue of Health magazine, our writers share their personal experiences of overcoming adversity.
I'm the sort of person who had a savings account by the age of 6. So whenever I heard of someone with money problems, I'd think, "People, it's not that difficult: Spend less, save more."
Then my sister and parents, reeling from a failed restaurant venture, declared bankruptcy within months of each other. I'm close to my family, so I started sending checks—even as I secretly condemned their lack of foresight.
Well. Soon enough, my own savings drained away. I couldn't believe how quickly everything slid downhill. I maxed out my credit cards. I couldn't pay my mortgage, so the bank started foreclosure proceedings. I'd get a bill and fearfully toss it into a drawer. My electricity was turned off and all the food in my fridge spoiled.
After a few crying jags, I knew I had to take action or curl into a permanent ball. I kept thinking of this Buddhist proverb: "If you have a problem that can be fixed, there is no use in worrying. If you have a problem that cannot be fixed, there is no use in worrying." It can be fixed, I thought. I just have to find the solutions.
I took on extra work. Next, I negotiated payment plans with the credit card companies and whittled expenses to the basics: food, shelter, and health insurance. For a year and a half, I quit buying clothes and shoes (I have plenty, and so does everyone else). No takeout, vacation, cable, or restaurants. Happily, I didn't miss the stuff I thought was essential (well, except the vacation).
Having a plan made me feel productive and showed me the way out. It also helped to let go of my judgment of people with money struggles. Even the most responsible person can be brought down—and quickly.
I'm not one of those people who calls a setback a "gift." But a crisis can reveal hidden depths of character. Who knew a penny-pincher like me would come running with a checkbook to help? But I did, and I'd do it again. Though maybe this time I'd call a financial adviser first.
*The author's name has been changed to preserve her anonymity.