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Living With Less


The Engineer
Less than 24 hours after Patrick, 45, got a raise, he was fired. As far as he and his co-workers knew, the telecommunications company in New Jersey where he'd worked as an electrical engineer was churning out record profits. Apparently, the parent company did not have the same balance sheet. A conference call broke the news. "We timed it," says Patrick. "Three minutes to say, 'Well, the effects on the telecommunications industry finally caught up with us and we have to do some layoffs. Sorry for it and I thank you for all the hard effort you put in. You'll be contacted by a manager.' It wasn't until 3:30 p.m. that they came around and tapped me. I actually thought I'd gotten away with it." He sort of laughs. "I felt betrayed. I felt like my soul was ripped out. As soon as the announcement was made, my e-mail account was shut down."

The loss of his $60,000-a-year job couldn't have come at a worse time for Patrick. He'd asked Marie, 42, a public-relations manager, to marry him in September after a whirlwind year of dating, emptying out the five-figure balance in his bank account to buy her a three-carat diamond ring. They'd already earmarked his year-end bonus, which he estimated would be about $10,000, to help pay for their wedding next summer. And then there's the house. He was halfway through moving into the $400,000 five-bedroom Victorian, the first house he'd ever bought. In addition to a $3,000 monthly mortgage, the house has come with unexpected expenses, like the $1,600 they just shelled out to fix the alarm system. He's estimating heating bills will be a minimum of $65 a month. "Right now I'm wearing a turtleneck and sweater," he says. "It's probably mid-sixties in here because I just don't want to crank the heat up." They drained the twelve-foot fish tank, which was too expensive to maintain, and canceled the gardener retained by the previous owners. "One good thing about winter," says Patrick, "grass doesn't grow."

With two months of severance, Patrick feels as if he's working against the clock. "You immediately start to figure, Okay, what can I not spend money on? No dry cleaning. No cable TV."

The mental stress is also taking its toll. He has yet to tell his family that he was laid off. "I didn't think about it until now, but I've lost sixteen pounds," he admits. All of which has prompted Marie to begin a desperate campaign to restore his spirits. "It's funny," she says, laughing. "What do you do when you're laid off? You spend money. I took him to Peter Luger's. He'd never been there before. I called up that day and said, 'Do you have any reservations?' They said, 'No, I'm sorry.' I said, 'Okay, listen to me -- my fiancé just got laid off ...' I told the woman the whole story. She got us in at 4:45 p.m., then we went to see that play I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change."

Perhaps inevitably, the uncertainty is straining the couple's enviably sunny relationship. Says Marie: "One friend whose husband was laid off said to me, 'I'll tell you right now it's much harder on us than the person laid off. You will want to give all the advice and they have to do it themselves and you have to keep your mouth shut.' Of course, I didn't listen." Her strategy would have been to tell everyone. Give your résumé to people on the bus. Answer every newspaper ad. "Last week, we were out to dinner at a cheap little place," Marie recalls. "Two guys next to us were talking engineering. I was about to say, 'Hi, I lost my job. Do you know of anything?' Then I saw the look of horror on Patrick's face." His trip to the employment office -- Marie called up and impersonated him -- was both annoying and humiliating. As Patrick has repeatedly explained, he needs to handle his job search in his own way, which means calling industry acquaintances and headhunters.

Marie had suggested a modified wedding, but Patrick will have none of it. The deposit is staying on the band, the photographer, and the banquet hall. "To go to a justice of the peace and make it a purely functional thing rips my heart out," he says. What to do with the house is a bigger issue. "I've begged Marie not to talk about it because basically I uprooted everything I was familiar with. My job is gone. There's nothing about my life that has a sense of continuity or routine to it anymore. The only thing I can count on right now is that I've planted my roots down into this house, and I'd like to make a stand here."

The Dot-Commer
In August 2000, Sara left Chicago for New York to work at Razorfish as a writer for $60,000 a year. They even tossed in $2,000 to cover her moving expenses. She found a bright one-bedroom in Park Slope for $1,375 and was ready to get used to her new (and rather comfortable) life as a New Yorker.

Then the spring of 2001 rolled around, and the Internet bubble began to deflate. "I survived three rounds of layoffs before they got me in May," Sara, 28, now jokes. "I was actually fine with not working there. I had planned to quit anyway, because I came to New York to write for magazines, but they were paying me so damn well that I kept putting it off."

Though she was forced to cash out of her 401(k) ($4,000), things weren't so dismal. A week later she found a job writing and editing at a start-up weekly magazine. Soon enough she was pulling in a comfortable $5,400 a month. However, when fall came so did September 11, and suddenly New York was a very different city. In October, Sara was told that, due to financial strain, she'd have to be cut back to three days a week. "That's when I knew I had to get out of Park Slope," she says. "I'm moving to Cobble Hill, where I'll be paying $1,000."

She's also taken a part-time night job, making $10 an hour writing TV-trivia questions for a Website, which has cut into her social life considerably. So far she hasn't been able to bring herself to cancel her cell phone or cable, which total about $80 a month. "But I'm much more exacting with money these days," she says, sighing. "I've become that person who pays only for what I ordered when I go out to eat with people. Nobody likes that person -- and now it's me."

The Banker
"We've been on fumes before," Julie says courageously. As musicians, she and her husband, Jack, were familiar with the unemployment office. But that was a good decade ago, before Jack threw in the towel and became an investment banker. The intervening years have been good ones. He earns in the vicinity of $400,000 a year, they bought a $500,000 house, amassed a handsome stock portfolio, started a college fund for their sons, and finally felt they had a little breathing room.

"A couple of years ago, we were feeling really flush," Julie remembers. "There was a sense we had a cushion -- we'd sell the stock and we'd have all this money."

Unfortunately, their six-figure portfolio has lost three-quarters of its value. "Jack's looking at, 'I'm going to have to do this job which I hate for another ten years,' " Julie says.

If he's lucky, that is. He switched firms last year, and the company has started to let people go. "It's very anxiety-producing," Julie acknowledges. "Everybody is under pressure to produce."

Thus far, the pressure has affected Jack worse than it has his wife. "He's the one who's not sleeping," she says. "He knows the actual numbers."

Jack has already sold his vintage Thunderbird, which Julie, whose sense of humor serves as the family's missile-defense shield, refers to as "this penis on wheels." The car brought $15,000. "He had to sell it. This is extra insurance -- some thousands of dollars we could use."

Julie is making sacrifices, too, but thus far only around the edges. She let her cleaning lady go, cut back on Halloween decorations, orders more frugally when she gets the family Chinese takeout for dinner, and has stopped impulse-shopping at the Gap.

She also informed her children, and Jack, that Christmas may be slightly less merry this year. She remembers the good old days when her husband spent hundreds of dollars on a set of state-of-the-art kitchen knives and pots and pans. "What do you need this shit for?" she says. "You need one good knife. You don't need the whole Food Network set. I said we're going to have to really watch what we're doing. Jack tends to overdo it at Christmas.

"I don't believe in hiding that stuff," she continues, referring to her children. "They sense it anyway. We have to be sensible and make choices."

Eventually one of those choices may be to forsake private school. Their kids' tuitions cost more than $40,000 a year. "You start looking at the cost-benefit of everything," Julie says. "If your child has a crappy teacher, you say, 'We could have a crappy teacher at a public school.' "

And Julie, a Seven Sisters graduate who hasn't held a real job in years ("I once worked in an office, and the fluorescent lights alone almost killed me"), is seriously thinking about getting a job, or at least starting to look for one. "I think making money would be a bold move," she says. "It would also take some pressure off Jack."

In the meantime, she's drinking more than she used to. "Gin is an investment of sorts," she says. "You can always use those bottles for water or as flotation devices. I'm taking the bimbo, hysterical, laugh-at-it-all approach. The other one is too upsetting."

The Creative Director
On top of everything, the baby-sitter quit. Not that Olivia could really blame her. Three months ago, she lost her $200,000-a-year job as a creative director at a large New York ad agency. She had only a few days to be depressed about it, because the following Tuesday was September 11. Olivia and her husband, an account executive at a stock-photo agency, had just dropped off their 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter at P.S. 234 in TriBeCa. They were outside debating which Democrat to vote for when the first plane hit.

"The good news was, I didn't have to go to the office," she says in her native London accent. "The bad news was, I didn't have to go to the office. I was dealing with their school, community board meetings. It's amazing how much was going on." The two weeks after, she was in no mood to make phone calls about jobs, even though her severance was rapidly expiring. "It seemed so crass to call somebody and say, 'Have you got any work?' So I didn't. Everybody felt like they were in limbo. I was sort of in double limbo."

After making some calls, she managed to score a hard-to-come-by freelance job for a day rate of $1,000. Still, she and her husband have had to take another hard look at their finances -- something they already did last year, when they decided to rent out their TriBeCa townhouse to offset the $7,000 mortgage and home-equity-loan payments. (They sublet a friend's two-bedroom loft down the street.) That leaves their share of a weekend house on Fire Island ($350 a month), piano lessons for their son ($1,700 a year), and Chinese-dance classes for their daughter ($400 a year). But it's child care that costs the most -- $500 a week for full-time help. Cash. She told the family baby-sitter she might have to cut her hours. "In the meantime, she had been asking around and got offered a full-time job," says Olivia. "I think she's smart to take it because she needs it and her husband might get laid off and you've got to do what you've got to do. She's been with us five years," she says. "The kids don't know yet."

They do know that Olivia lost her job. "Mommy got fired," she says, imitating them. "They say it to anyone." Now that "economode" has set in, there will be no taxis, no theater tickets and dinners out, other than the Odeon once in a while, the kids' favorite. "I discovered Target the other day," she says. Ironically, certain expenses have increased at the same time. There are networking lunches. The $86 American Girl doll she just bought her daughter. "One of the aftereffects of the World Trade Center thing is, if they seem to really want something, you give in much more easily now than you would have."

Friends have been asking what her backup plan will be if a permanent job doesn't materialize soon. "My God, it costs a lot of money to live here. Friends in England say, 'Maybe you should come back to England.' But no, that's not how it works. Everything's here: the school, friends. Our life is here. My optimistic theory is that January will be better than December. Next year everybody has to put their budgets back in order. You can't go dark or stay out of peoples' minds. If you want to come out of a recession with a strong position in the market, you have to advertise. I hope I'm right."

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