What happened to you during the worst week of your life?

Perhaps the worst week of my life was the week of a heavy snow fall in February 1990. Snow wasn't my biggest problem, however, even though I was again walking to work through mounds of it that had been thrown to the side by salt trucks on the Pullman Bridge in Butler, Pennsylvania. For me each day that week seemed to be getting worse, and the desperation of my situation was sinking in. It wasn’t because of the 2 foot high snow drifts I was struggling through, or that I wasn’t healthy, or that I was hungry, or any other physical type of concern.

The problem was money. I had none. Not only did I have no money, but I hadn’t had a single extra dollar in months. The worst part was that I was one breath away from homelessness.

About one mile ahead of me was the part-time job I was walking to. I was paid $3.35 per hour as a produce clerk at a supermarket, and was hoping we would get the extra 15 cents per hour that our union was negotiating for. Even though I would take any raise, I knew that the 15 cents wouldn’t help me. I worked 32 hours a week and nearly all of my take home pay went to pay my half of the rent and utilities for the apartment I shared with my brother, Matt. We were both in real trouble.

Mike Bowman

How poor I really was.
I really didn’t even earn enough to support myself. Keeping the lights and heat off most of the time, buying no groceries, except ramen noodle packs, and wearing the same clothes almost every day, kept my expenses very low. While I knew I could be fired for it, I would graze on the extra food that would cross my workstation at the grocery store’s produce department. Some of the other workers would occasionally give me part of their lunch, or even a ride home. Even with their generosity, most days looked bleak.

 

To this day I am surprised that I had a girlfriend during this time. What she saw in me during that period of my life I will never know. She lived at college during the week so I didn’t see her very often. She would come home on weekends, and pick me up in her car. She and her family were very supportive to me, and provided a much needed sense of family and hope. Even with their kindness, however, my day to day struggles were wearing on me. I was always fearful of losing my apartment, job, or anything else that would send me into homelessness. For me, wishing for more to eat was like an irritating gnat that zipped around my fear of homeless. Thinking about it just frustrated my situation even more.  

A “gift” that was given to me by my girlfriend’s parents still sticks in my mind. They had bought a quantity of meat and kept it in a freezer. They gave me a 1 pound package of ground beef to take home. I couldn’t believe my luck. Giving someone a pound of ground beef wasn’t even a second thought to them, but to me it was a treasure. I never told them that later that day, back in my apartment, I cooked the entire pound of beef in the only pot I owned, and ate the whole thing. I hadn’t eaten any kind of protein in weeks, and it tasted great.

Another memory of food that sticks out was the opening of a new 4 Star Pizza shop in Butler. During the grand opening day the pizza shop was giving away a free medium sized pizza to the first 500 people that showed up at the door.

The produce department I worked at in Friedman's Supermarket as it appears today.

My brother and I had not eaten pizza in so long that we were very excited to rush over to get in line that day. I believe we were somewhere in the 350 to 360 range of people waiting. I distinctly remember a reporter from the local radio station coming up to my brother and I to ask us if we thought waiting in the freezing cold with 350 people in front of us was worth a free pizza. Yes, we thought it was well worth it, and would gladly wait another hour outside for the pizza.

The pizza shop was about a half hour walk from our apartment. Neither one of us could wait that long to eat the pizza, besides with as cold as it was there was no way it would still be warm by the time we got home. So we ate the pizza as we walked, and enjoyed every slice. I've had plenty of pizza since that day, but that particular treat is burned into my memory.

There were bits of generosity and luck scattered throughout that period of time, but the reality was that I was desperately poor, and my situation was getting worse. When you don't have enough to eat, and you worry about keeping a roof over your head, your frame of mind can change.
My mental state.
During that worst week of my life the freezing wind over the bridge didn't bother me as much as my shoes. There was a hole in the bottom of one of my shoes, so that foot was wet from the snow. The light jacket I had was too thin for the winter. On most days all I could think about was what was going to happen to me. Money and basic living needs consumed my thoughts. This day was different though. The thought of more hardship, and not being able to provide for myself, was emotionally overwhelming. I was mad, and wanted to scream, and then I wanted to cry. I was mad at myself that I had become this emotional. I had never been a person to lose control like this, and now I was physically fighting back tears. I felt so weak and looked down. I didn’t want the on coming traffic to see my face. This wasn't me, was it?

The last mile to work didn't get any better. The fact that I still had to dodge slush being thrown in my direction by passing buses, constantly rub my hands together for warmth, and breathe all the exhaust from passing cars all reminded me of my plight.

I just wanted to escape everything. I felt like I had nothing to look forward to, except more suffering. All these depressing, negative thoughts flooded my inner eye and ear. I wasn't much of a talker, and wasn’t getting these thoughts out. Although my few coworkers were pretty much aware of my condition, they didn't talk about it very much, because I tended not to want to discuss it.

Was this really who I was?
Even though I wasn't talking about the desperate thoughts racing through my mind, that didn't take away from my despair. I started to entertain thoughts of how to make this all end, and the only reason I didn't was because I was afraid to. It was one of the lowest points of my life. I would argue with myself, or berate myself, over having these negative feelings. I couldn’t believe this was all over money! Money had never been such a serious issue before. In high school I worked as a dishwasher, and had money in my pocket all the time. Now, my life was a wreck because of some green paper? Besides what I have become wasn't really me, was it? I had never lived like this before. The people they had known me while I grew up would never have expected me to end up like this, would they?
My middle class upbringing.
I grew up in average middle-class family. I was sent to a private, religious school. We certainly didn't have a lot of money, but as I entered my pre-teen and then high school years, the family didn't seem to be struggling like it had when I much younger.

My father was a small business owner. He had a doctorate degree in biochemistry, and started his own small business on the first floor of the family home. Like so many small business owners who got off to a rough start, my dad went through the same challenges. As time went on, however, he established a regular customer base that gave him enough business to support the family. So we always got by.

Years later, I discovered that my parents had been going through many more financial struggles then they had let on. They really didn't talk about that to their kids. I was vaguely aware of money problems throughout my childhood, but kids often adapt to their environment and accept it as the norm. So those conversations about money I overheard, and our particular lifestyle, seemed normal to me. I still remember the family celebration, when I was about 6 years old, as we were finally able to afford a jar of pickles as a treat. Back then I didn’t understand the significance of that day, but I do now.

There wouldn't be any money for college, cars, or vacations, but on the other hand we never went hungry, cold, or without entertainment. I liked to read, exercise, and learn new things, and I thought I was a pretty smart kid. My teachers and parents were generally satisfied that I was doing well, and that I would continue on to college and get a good job.

I was surrounded by plenty of good, hard-working middle-class people who certainly were good work ethic role models. My girlfriend’s parents, in particular, were two of the finest role models anyone could have had. Although, when I think about the educators, bosses at part-time jobs, and my parents during the time I was growing up, no one really took the time to teach me the “survival skills” I would need for when it was my turn to support myself. Perhaps, everybody thought the transition from the safety of my parent’s home to the real world would be much slower, but that was not the case.

My lack of resources.
By the time I arrived at work on that final day of the worst week of my life, I was miserable. In between bouts of feeling extremely sorry for myself, I fretted over the resources that I didn't have. I thought about the “luxuries” other people took for granted, like transportation, warm clothing, and decent food to eat.

Not having adequate physical resources stopped me from doing many things, however it was my lack of knowledge about how to make money, stretch money, and get more value for less money that was really holding me back.

When I started out on own, my transition into poverty didn’t happen overnight. Not properly managing the few resources I did have led me to a point of desperation. I made some dumb decisions that expedited the process though. Making minimum wage meant I had no business walking up to the National Record Mart at the Clearview Mall and buying $100.00 worth of tickets to a professional wrestling event, but I did it.

I walked home at the end of the worst week ever for me, in the dark, across the same bridge. I laid down on the floor, that served as my bed, wanting to sleep, but hating myself instead.

My complete lack of "survival skills".
How did I get into this mess? The truth is I was completely unprepared for life. The story of how I ended up without a core of support in my life, such as family or education, is a story for another time. At that point I simply didn’t have the skills or knowledge with which to adequately take care of myself, let alone do better. I was quickly discovering that not knowing how to fix small problems had a domino affect that brought big problems.

You might ask why didn't I just ask for help from the government, or from work, or from a charitable organization. Why didn’t I just get on a bus, and move to place that offered higher paying work? As a kid I lived in a very sheltered environment, and had no idea just how quickly everything could be taken away. In school we were taught to depend on divine intervention to see us through tough times. At home we were instructed to just work harder in order to succeed. Neither approach, however, taught me how to negotiate through the financial challenges you are faced with when entering the real world with no safety net. I simply didn't know about the many options I might have been able to pursue for help.

At $3.35 an hour I had an income crisis. Although I did follow-up on job leads that my peers would talk about, I felt I was limited because of where I lived, the clothes I owned, the experience I didn't have, or the initial investment the new job might require.

The only jobs I seemed to qualify for were those that would hire someone on the spot for menial labor. Moving from job to job wouldn't have produced better results. I considered myself better off working somewhere where there was food.

There was one exception. I saw an ad in the newspaper that promised $150.00 per week for setting up and displaying cleaning products. $150.00 would've been a big pay increase for me. I went through the interview process, and was told to go home, and wait for a call that would let me know if I was hired. Later that day I got a phone call at my friend’s house, and was told that I was hired! I was to report to work in two weeks for training.

I scrambled to borrow and beg for enough money to buy a car that would get me to work every day. I called on everyone I knew and was able to put together $300.00, which bought me a 16 year old car. I went back to the supermarket and gave my notice, telling everybody about the great job I had just been offered.

On my first day at the new job, I discovered that my new job was going door-to-door and actually selling Filter Queen sweepers. I would make the $150.00 if I personally set up 10 appointments at different homes to show and sell the Filter Queen. I tried, but anyone who has tried selling a sweeper on a cold sales call with little sales training will tell you that you are in big trouble. I wasn’t going to make my $150.00 per week. In fact, now, I wasn’t making anything. The situation I thought couldn’t get worse, just did. Several weeks into this new job I realized this wasn't going to work. My boss found 8 quarters in his desk to loan me, which allowed me to buy $2.00 worth of gas for my car and get home. The next day I went to see the boss at the supermarket, who was nice enough to give me my old job back. The only difference was that now I owed $300.00 to various people, and I couldn’t pay the rent.

Three good things came out of my Filter Queen experience though. When I was told I got the job I had a spark of hope that better days were coming. That kept me positive for another few weeks. I also now had transportation. Even though it could break down at any moment, for now I could pursue an unforeseen opportunity that was about to come my way. Finally, the entire experience made me think that maybe there really was work out there where I could earn $150.00 per week. 

When things started to change.
Now that I had a car, at least for the moment, I decided to leverage that into a new job possibility. In the supermarket’s break room I read the classifieds, and saw an advertisement for a temporary foundry laborer’s position. On my day off I applied for the job in person. I had been passed over for laborer's jobs before since I had no building or crafting skills. That didn't stop me from giving the interview of my life, and telling the temporary agency whatever I thought they wanted to hear. I was offered a full time job at $7.00 per hour! Ever see someone's reaction with a winning lottery ticket? That was me. That would double the amount I was making at the supermarket!

With a larger paycheck I vowed things would be different. I offered to work any number of hours, any shift, and at any department in the foundry. Determined to be hired into a permanent position, I told the boss I would come in early or work late if someone called off or was injured and couldn’t work. If I worked overtime I was paid $10.50 per hour. Can you imagine?? I decided to keep living my current lifestyle and put away some money in case some stroke of bad luck took that temporary job away from me. Still concerned about the reliability of my car, I kept some food and a change of clothes in it. In the event the car broke down, or wouldn’t start, I planned to live in it near the foundry, and walk to work everyday, so I wouldn’t miss a day of work.

I worked very hard for my new paycheck. The work in the foundry was extremely tough, and the supermarket’s produce department didn’t even compare. Because I worked so hard for my paycheck, and never wanted to be so poor again, I was determined to stretch every dollar as far as it could possibly go. My fear of loss and homelessness had been so traumatic that I was practically scared into finding many new ways to get more, and to manage my money for the first time.

Seeking out information about money and frugality led me to new sources of answers about money. I was very passionate about finding ways to ensure my ability to earn a living and stretch my money. It is a passion that has stuck with me ever since.

By working extremely hard and seeking to be the person that added value at work I was promoted into higher paying departments and, several years later, into the management of the foundry. Each step I took toward improving my employment and financial situation opened new opportunities, which ultimately brought a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle. Learning to manage my money, to get much more value every time I bought something, and to prevent financial losses, eventually put me into the secure lifestyle I once thought was unachievable.

If you asked me to pinpoint the one thing that turned my life around it was the short period of time, after the worst week of my life, when I decided not to give up on myself and to find ways to improve my situation. Realizing that what I was doing was obviously not working, and deciding to seek out the information that more financially secure people must have had, put me at the starting line for changing my life in a dramatic fashion.

Today
Today, decades after the worst week I ever had, I still seek out better ways to improve the quality of my life. There probably is an emotion tucked away somewhere in my consciousness that constantly reminds me of how fast economic security can be taken away. Since that day I have discovered many strategies to save money and build personal economic security. My lessons didn’t stop during that period of my life, they were actually just getting started. However, with each challenge I survived, I became stronger and more secure, just like you can, by seeking out and applying many of the same principles discussed in The Quarter Roll and on this site.

No matter what economic circumstances you are facing right now, remember that all the answers that could bring you options to resolve your concerns are out there, somewhere. You just have to actively look for them, and continue to believe in yourself. My goal is to make The Quarter Roll and Bowman's Money College two resources that bring some of those answers to you, and perhaps we will all have the best weeks of our lives!

 

 

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