Finance: Americans Adapt to the 'New Normal'

All of us are thankful that we aren't facing foreclosure or homelessness. We are fortunate not to have credit card debt and are glad not to be worried about medical conditions. In times like this, we feel thankful to be self sufficient. We may not have many extra material comforts, but we don't have to worry about payments on things we don't own. When times are tough, we look around and know that they could be tougher.

-- Mary Smith, Ross, Ohio

Whatever It Takes to Work

In this economy, finding a job isn't easy and neither is keeping one. Below, a Maryland woman shares her story about the layoff that devastated her and how she's clawing her way back to self-sufficiency.

About 18 months ago, I lost my coveted position with a prominent real estate law firm, and six months later, my savings account was depleted. ... I moved into my mothers house, where I pay no rent, in hopes to be able to continue to be able to make the mortgage payments and avoid foreclosure. So far, this is working, but just barely.

I went from making $40,000 per year, as my base salary which did not include bonuses, to an income of barely $9,850 last year. Talk about a blow to the ego. I have had to depend on generous friends if I want to see a movie in a theater, or even have a social cup of coffee in the mall ...

After more than eight months of desperately searching for a job -- any job -- I decided to go back to community college to complete my degree which I started about eight years ago. I applied for financial aid, and was given a loan. Last summer I took the placement exams again, and reviewed the new degree programs that the college had since added to their curriculum. I found a program that interested me, and that I had enjoyed in my youth.

I chose the Architecture Associates Degree Program in addition to a Landscape Architecture Design Certificate. It helps that with the Obama Stimulus Plan, these areas of infrastructure are expected to have steady growth, and stable employment.

I am now a full-time college student taking between 12 and 16 credits per semester, and I am currently taking two summer classes. I have completed half of my two-year degree program, and I maintain a 3.83 GPA. I work very part-time hours in the campus cafeteria making sandwiches and salads. I enjoy working in the cafeteria, as I get a free shift meal. Normally I don't even earn enough money in one shift to fill up my gas tank, but at least I know I will get one good meal. Talk about going from one extreme to the other.

-- Jennifer Hare, Riverdale, Md.

Good Times for Some

Not everyone is suffering during this recession. Below, a North Carolina man explains how he's taking advantage of some of today's economic conditions to build a bigger nest egg.

As I am still currently gainfully employed, I find that I am spending more money. I feel that it is a responsibility of those working to support the U.S. economy. I do find that I am spending lot more money locally though and have identified that as a personal target market.

I have also increased my 401(k) contributions, opened an IRA and am in the process of opening a tax-deferred 529 plan [education savings] for myself.

I am not sure we are ever going to see an opportunity to buy equities at such "fire sale" prices ever again.

-- Andy, Pittsboro, N.C.

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