I’m in a special education classroom when I hear the news. They’ve had the first presumptive positive case of the coronavirus in Maine. We talk throughout the day about what that will mean as we wait for news from the superintendent. Will schools close down?
While I am a school employee, I am not a teacher. I am an educational technician. I don’t make enough to cover the expenses for my family, and I’m not contractually paid all year, but rather during the months I work. My husband works in life insurance and investments. His job is hard even without the chaos a pandemic promises to bring.
Even before COVID-19 arrived, we struggled to pay the mortgage, to cover the rising electric bill, to make the monthly payments for my daughter’s braces, and to juggle the million other expenses that are simply part of living and raising a family. Somehow, we’ve gotten by and felt the comfort of knowing we are not alone in this struggle.
My family is like many others ― we live paycheck to paycheck with a bit stashed away in retirement. A small safety net is the only thing that separates us from financial devastation. I think about this every single day of my life in the best of times.
This is not the best of times. Navigating this new world with even less is a new reality for many of us.
“You need to buy a few things so you can stock up,” my aunt advises via text. I know she’s right, but we budget and cannot spend more than usual — because like so many other families in the same financial situation, there is not much extra money. We do not vacation. We hold credit card debt. We stress over trying to contribute to our retirement and college funds. This is what life is like.
We accept it, but when something comes along that adds even more pressure to our already-overloaded lives, we feel an overwhelming sense of dread. The powerlessness is unbearable.
“A small safety net is the only thing that separates us from financial devastation. I think about this every single day of my life in the best of times. This is not the best of times.”
But I still go to the grocery store. Standing there, I am first struck by how little is left of certain things. As I begin filling my cart with some essentials and some canned goods, I do the math in my head. This is something I have learned to do in every situation ― adding some items, putting some things back, picking up cheaper versions of items, all while evaluating what we really need versus what is a luxury.
I’ve become quite adept at this skill and have even taught it to my children. “Buy the store brand” and “Look for the cheapest one” are my two most-frequent shopping requests for them. However, on this day at the grocery store, there are no cheap versions of many of the things we normally buy. Other people, probably also feeling the pinch of this pandemic, have already bought all of the lowest-priced things and left behind the versions I never buy. Words like “organic” and “gluten-free,” along with more expensive price tags, flash before me, and I feel hopeless.
Ultimately, we can use my retirement savings if we have to, but there isn’t much there. Luckily, we aren’t worried about the stock market because we didn’t have the money to invest in it. I do worry about my husband and his job. While he can still work, I’m not sure what work remains for him.
Sure, people need life insurance right now, but he can’t go meet with them. The loss of income for the families he serves will affect what he earns, too, since his job is based heavily on commission. We cannot live on his base salary. In truth, there isn’t much of a base. We’ve had to draw from our retirement fund to live during hard months in the past, which is part of the reason we don’t have much left in that fund.
I also stress about my health. I have asthma, and therefore I’m considered high-risk for potentially experiencing serious difficulties if I end up contracting the coronavirus. Now, each cough or mild body ache I feel causes panic. In the grocery store, I turn down a different aisle when I see someone and I limit my trips in order to avoid contact with other people. I have come to fear people, even as I miss them.
If I get sick, what will it cost? Even those of us with insurance often pay monthly medical bills if a kid breaks an arm or someone needs surgery. It took me over two years to pay off my daughter’s surgery when she fell from a zip line and hurt her wrist. Once that bill was paid off, another one sprung up in its place. With such precarious financial footing, many families will be pushed to their limits if they get sick and need care, especially if they are also in a high-risk group.
Still, I consider myself am lucky: I am home with my kids, and many paycheck-to-paycheck families are worried about child care. With more and more restrictions on what can remain open as we try to contain the spread of the coronavirus, child care options are limited, so many parents are forced to stay home. Often, this means working from home, too. These parents who are juggling work while caring for their kids must now try to help with the online learning program kids are participating in from home.
This is what it is like for so many of us now. We’re trying to balance the needs of our children, the shifting of income we thought we could count on, the fear of sickness and what it will cost, and the budgets we had set up that will now be stretched to the limit ― and possibly beyond. How will we continue to pay bills, juggle child care and work and live on such limited ― and now vanishing ― funds? There are so many reasons to be stressed and worried right now, and it’s already taking a toll.
“We’re trying to balance the needs of our children, the shifting of income we thought we could count on, the fear of sickness and what it will cost, and the budgets we had set up that will now be stretched to the limit — and possibly beyond.”
I cried on the way to work on Friday. It was my last day for at least six weeks but I didn’t know that at the time. As I cried, I made contingency plans in my head and promised to remember them and make notes when I got to work. They swirled in and out of my head before I got there.
We will make it though. We will. I have to believe that, because I have no other choice. This is also what it means to live paycheck to paycheck: finding reserves of optimism amid financial chaos.
It will take a lot of shuffling finances and pushing things off that we really need and tabling projects that we already couldn’t afford, like fixing our leaky roof and the broken dishwasher. This is the reality now for so many families who were already living paycheck to paycheck. What’s worse ― we’re finding we may have to confront the fact that the paychecks may stop coming altogether or might be much less than they were before.
I promise myself to do a million simple things to cut corners ― cut down on hot water use by showering less or washing the million dishes a family of six generates with cold water or shutting off lights or eating less myself so my children don’t have to, but I don’t know if it will be enough. We know the struggle that we ― and millions of others ― have been through to survive with what we have, and we will make do. We’ll make it through this. We always do. We have to.
Nicole Johnson is a freelance writer whose work has been featured on The Washington Post, Redbook, Parents, Ms., Scary Mommy, Your Teen For Parents, Yahoo, MSN, and Vox Curbed. She is the creator of Suburban Sh*t Show, a site where she discusses the real and raw truths of motherhood, midlife, childhood dysfunction and marriage. Nicole is also a fiction writer and mother of four.