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Tools on Dealing with Reduced or Eliminated Income

Marina Edelman, MA

Conspicuous consumption penetrated United States post-WWII as an outcome of modernity. Mass consumption of houses, automobiles and manufactured goods infused Middle America. Captivation with materialism exhibited itself in the purchases of houses. "They became, totem objects, symbols of self-identity and fundamental components of the new identity kit for middle-class status (Knox 36)." Americans are financing their indulgences by accumulating the highest personal debt and the lowest saving rates in years. This is taking a toll on family life and personal health, as evidenced by the space prescription drugs for anxiety, stress and depression occupy in our medicine cabinets.

empty piggy bankRobert Arkin, Ph.D., of Ohio State University, found that undergraduate students who identified themselves as chronic self-doubters were far more likely to agree with statements such as "I like to own things that impress people," and "The things I own say a lot about how well I'm doing in life." A second study showed a direct correlation between self-doubt and materialism. Self-doubt leads to dissatisfaction with ones life and so as a distraction, people invest themselves in materialism. The worst thing to do is accumulate more debt or overspend at a time when the next paycheck is not guaranteed.

So what happens to self-identity when one looses their coveted dwelling? We define our roles in the material world; we are a mother, a daughter, a brother, rich man, poor man, beggar man, and thief. Self-identity to most people is associated with their standing (role) in society as well as their worldly possessions. When the family's breadwinner looses his/her job and must downsize the family's life style by putting vacations on hold or canceling private schools, unknown issues come to light.

This article will highlight three common issues that affect most people when they fall on hard economic times: how to tell the children, socializing with neighbors, and how to live within a new budget.

The first issue of explaining to the children why a parent is not going to work everyday, or that they need to move out of their home, is a daunting task. Thoughts of failure and incompetence run through ones mind whether they are moving from a modest home or a McMansion. Children are pretty intuitive and see and hear a lot more then their parents usually give them credit for. By the time a parent brings up the financial distress topic, children usually have a clue of what is going on. Use this as an opportunity to be frank with your kids, in an age appropriate manner, but without alarming them. Exhibit self-confidence and control. After all, you are the parent and they rely on you to protect them, when parents are tense and upset the children feel unsupported. Normalize the situation for them by explaining that during ones career change is inevitable and that the situation is temporary. By emphasizing that this is not a major disaster children will learn how to deal with life challenges. Help them identify and focus on positive aspects of their life. Don't try to pretend that nothing is going on by over indulging them. Instead, use your extra time to pick them up after school or take them to a park. If a move is expected explain that the façade of the house is not as important as the people inside the house, and try to maintain a routine as much as possible. Finally, encourage your children to ask questions and externalize their fears and concerns through verbalization or art. By responding to questions and concerns regarding the job loss in a truthful and respectful manner, parents help develop children's personal self-confidence, problem-solving ability and knowledge. Signs of distress to watch for in children include sleeplessness, diarrhea, withdrawal, headaches or angry outbursts.

Now that you have told your immediate family the news, how do you handle friends and neighbors? Be upfront and open. They can be your best allies in a job search. Networking opportunity is everywhere. Instead of shying away from dinner parties go and explain that you are searching for new opportunities. Reach out to your former colleagues, customers, vendors, and contacts. Take advantage of all available channels such as telephone calls, emails, face-to-face meetings, and networking via the Internet. This might sound like a cliché but your true friends will be there to support you. Undoubtedly it will be difficult to answer the common dinner question of "what do you do for a living" however answering that openly and positively will leave your dinner companion with a positive feeling about you, and you never know where that may lead. Avoid bad mouthing your old boss or criticizing past colleagues. Instead try answering the question by stating your profession such as accountant, engineer, etc. If the conversation continues about your status of employment you can state that you are currently transitioning. Your identity is not tied to a specific company but rather to your training, skill set, and interests.

Change in a family's budget affects all members. It is therefore advisable to discuss with your clan members the situation and request suggestions on spending priorities. Ask each family member to come up with ideas on how to reduce spending. If only one parent worked and now both will be looking for work, discuss the implications with the children but do not catastrophise the situation or make them feel like they are a cost center. Involve children in helping with chores around the house but remind them that they are not responsible for supporting the family. On average it takes 6 months to find a job. Put together a budget for the next 6 months, include all expenses you foresee and for income put your savings plus unemployment insurance. Balance the budget even if drastic cuts are needed and stick to it.

To quote Mr. Spock of Star Trek, "Live long and prosper". Most would define prosper as being successful, but how? Money is important, it provides security and keeping up with the Jones's can be fun for a while but becomes tiring pretty quickly. Your identity is not related to your job or bank account. Job loss is a temporary situation so treat it that way. Be open with your family and reach out to your friends and neighbors. Seek professional help if symptoms of depression or anxiety persist.

Reference:

Knox, Paul (2005) "Vulgaria: The Re-Enchangment of Suburbia". Opolis: An International Journal of Suburban and Metropolitan Studies: Vol 1, No. 2, Article 3. 2007. http://repositories.cdlib.org/cssd/opolis/vol1/iss2/art3 (20 March 2007)