Hitting home

Posted 2/2/09

Lori Smith never worried about losing her job, an empty savings account or being unable to provide for her family. “I was close to the top of my …

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Hitting home


Lori Smith never worried about losing her job, an empty savings account or being unable to provide for her family.

“I was close to the top of my field in high-level management with several titles attached to my name — vice president, assistant vice president, associate,” said Smith, a former mortgage finance professional, who asked to remain anonymous. The Castle Rock resident’s name was changed for this article.

Since being laid off in October of 2007, Smith has emptied her savings account. The severance package she received was stretched out over nine months and is gone.

Her husband, who is 20 years her senior, was forced out of retirement and now works as a security guard, making $11 an hour.

In September she filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy and quit making mortgage payments on a 3,300-square-foot, $500,000 house that’s now in foreclosure.

Red Lobster has been replaced with McDonald’s; Hummers with average cars and groceries are bought using “tons and tons of coupons.”

As the nation’s financial crisis continues on a downward turn, an increasing number of Americans are feeling the effects on the family budget.

Such is the case for Littleton resident and newly elected state Sen. Linda Newell. Newell, a single mom of two, was laid of from her business consulting firm in March.

Her senator’s salary of roughly $30,000 is the first full-time income she’s had in 10 months.

“I go grocery shopping less and buy most things on sale,” Newell said. “I know what it feels like to wake up and wonder how I’m going to get three more meals out of my fridge when there’s only one in there.”

Like Newell, Smith has started counting her pennies at the grocery store. Where she used to spend around $600 a month, now she spends less than $250. And the “Grocery Game” has become a saving grace.

The Grocery Game is a Web site that works to save shoppers hundreds of dollars on grocery bills each month.

When you play, you get a weekly list (called Teri's List) of the lowest-priced products at your supermarket matched with manufacturers' coupons and weekly specials — advertised and unadvertised.

“I use the Grocery Game every single week and am slowly stocking up. We haven’t changed what we eat, I just buy everything on sale,” Smith said. She estimates she saves about 64 percent on her grocery bill.

Though her family isn’t on assistance like they were during the Savings and Loan Crisis in the 1990s, Newell’s credit cards are nearly maxed out, and she won’t be able to pay them off until next summer when the legislative session is over and she can get back to consulting.

“I understand what it means to watch the dollars at the grocery store, and struggle to buy clothes for your kids,” said the senator, who brings home a modest income of $2,500 a month.

After signing up for the state’s benefits package, her wage has dropped by a few more hundred — and neither of her two daughters are covered under the plan.

She’s hoping her daughters, ages 18 and 20, can get some sort of coverage from their colleges next year.

Newell also is on the Health and Human Services committee at the Capitol, trying to help find solutions for many other Coloradans in her financial position.

Smith is in the same boat.

After having carried all the family’s insurance, she’s now covered under her husband’s plan, and only one daughter has health insurance through employment at Starbucks.

Unfortunately, for Smith, she has a pre-existing medical condition that requires her to see a specialist every eight weeks. Each visit costs her roughly between $200 and $300.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 18 percent of Coloradans lack health insurance. About 37 million workers across the country were uninsured in 2007 because many employees simply couldn’t afford their share of a health insurance premium.

As for college tuition, Newell is hoping for scholarships and financial aid.

Newell who calls herself “financially prudent” says she’s always been conscious of ways to save money, but saving for college simply isn’t an option.

“I can’t save because I don’t have it,” Newell said. “It’s hard to regret because I’m doing the best I can.”

Smith’s youngest daughter, who racked up a $14,000 student loan to attend the Ohio Center for Broadcasting, is now paying back her own loan.

That wouldn’t have been the case two years ago for Smith’s daughters who had the luxury of having most of their expenses paid for.

Smith’s oldest daughter, who’s getting married in June, is paying for her own flowers and photographer. The wedding dress was “hugely discounted” and Smith plans to buy the cakes from either Costco or Wal-Mart.

“We’ve learned you’ve got to be happy with you have, and to cut out the extras,” Smith said. “When my husband and I got married, we didn’t have all these things and we were as happy as could be. So how important are these things?”

After that small epiphany, Smith began selling off items like dining room furniture, an oak pool table, collector Disney movies and a Sony Vegas HDTV to help supplement the family income.

She’s selling her TV to her hairdresser for $300 because it “won’t fit in a rental home.”

“The plan is to land a job in health care by March and find a rental house,” said Presently, Smith is attending Concord Career College for a certificate in medical billing.

“We always said if something happened to my income we’d be in a lot of trouble,” said the primary bread winner of the family.

She lost a six-figure income that year — $114,000 to be exact.

In 2007, when the housing market began to crumble, Smith’s branch of UBS Home Finance was shut down. UBS was the 179th mortgage company in the country to go out of business, according to The Mortgage Lender Implode, which tracks the implosion of the housing finance sector.

Today, there are currently 326 mortgage companies that have gone out of business since 2006.

“I was on the front lines and got to experience how these companies pushed loans when they couldn’t really guarantee them, which is really what the downfall has been in the industry,” said Smith, who evaluated risky loans and conferred with “people on Wall Street” about purchasing them.

That downfall led to Smith’s layoff in October of 2007.

One year and four months later, Smith is in her second week as an intern at a medical office, working the front desk, checking in patients and collecting and processing co-pays.

“I’m almost done with schooling, and once I’m gainfully employed that will be another relief,” Smith said. Finding a rental home with be the “third and relief.”

“I believe that there is opportunity in crisis,” Newell said, after having lived through a lay-off, the loss of her mom and a rigorous campaign for the senate all in one year.

“I can’t get upset because all my hardships have set me up to be in the position that I am,” she said.

“But it is hard. You do have to watch your pennies. And the irony is that while I’m trying to budget $2,500 a month, when you look at the state’s budget, we’re just as poor at a state level.”

Smith also has come to learn there is a silver lining.

“I really don’t miss the high amounts of stress I had with my job. I was working 60-70 hour weeks, and bringing work home with me,” she said. “I’ve gotten to connect with my family again. I just want to land a job in March. The rest I’ve made peace with.”


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