Finance: Americans Adapt to the 'New Normal' readers share their stories of hardship and hope.

June 12, 2009, 3:44 PM

June 15, 2009— -- The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the ensuing recession have forced Americans to change their lives in ways large and small. It's a world of "new normals," with more belt-tightening, less income and, in many cases, a newfound gratitude for the most basic human comforts: family, home and health. asked readers to tell us how they're adapting to today's economic conditions and they didn't hold back. Here's a selection of some of their responses.

Cutting spending, not surprisingly, seems to be the most common way Americans are adapting to the tough economy. For one Florida family, that means paring back on day-to-day costs; for a California family, that means scaling back on future plans and for a Wisconsin man, it means sacrificing as much as he can to keep his business alive.

When we put all of our money into our business and it was not making enough to pay the bills, we had to sell it at a loss. My husband, who is a retired chiropractor, is still out of work after 10 months. I work two jobs, both from my home.

We used to buy whatever foods we liked and usually never looked at the price. Now we only buy foods on sale or "buy one get one free." I used to get my hair cut or colored every four to six weeks. Now I color it myself and cut it once a year.

We shave or cut our kids hair ourselves. I never get a manicure or pedicure anymore -- I just do it myself. We drive only as a necessity in order to save on gas. No more leisurely drives or excursions to different or new malls or parks or restaurants.

As a family living in a hot and humid state, we used to keep our home at a cool temperature. Now we keep the air on 79 to 80 degrees until evening when we go to sleep (and it is HOT). Our kids no longer attend summer camps as they always used to.

... We used to shop for clothes for our children as the styles changed and as they grew at stores in the mall. Now we only purchase clothes when they have grown out what they have or if I see something good on clearance - usually on the $3 rack at WalMart.

... Life has changed for us drastically but we know that there are many more people who are worse off than we are so we are thankful for what we do have and that at least one of us still has a job. And as always, we are so thankful that our children are healthy and happy.

-- Robin Levine, Cooper City, Fla.

'Not Standing There With Your Hand Out'

My wife was "right-sized" out of her job in January of this year and has not been able to find employment since then. Because she was the family's major wage earner, this impacted all of our spending habits ...

We've downgraded the family cell phone plan, bundled home Internet/phone/TV plans to get the best deal and we don't eat out at all. All purchases are discussed -- no more impulse buying. We pay off all credit card purchases so we don't carry balances or accrue interest charges. With her unemployment benefit check and my salary, we can stay afloat for now.

But my daughter starts college in the fall and my son will follow next year. Since their eligibility for scholarships and grants is based on our past income, we had to change my daughter's plans to attend a college in Northern California. We are looking at local colleges, so that our kids can stay at home while attending.

-- Albert Sauri, La Verne, Calif.

We own a small manufacturing business, about $1.5 million annual sales. We have not taken a paycheck since before Christmas, (living on retirement savings) sold our toys at losses to reduce payments and restructured bank commitments to survive. All with NO HELP from the FED.

It's all about cutting back, not standing there with your hand out.

-- Tom Teckam, Goodman, Wis.

Joining forces with your family member, friend or neighbor can be a way to persevere though any crisis and that's exactly what some Americans are doing to cope with their thinner wallets: One Georgia man shares money-saving tips with his friends, a New York woman is taking advantage of a barter system with her neighbors and an Ohio mother and daughter are helping each other make ends meet.

I have been frugal most of my life so cutting back isn't new for me. I think one of the biggest things people can do to help each other though is to share. Before letting something expire that I know I am not going to consume see if someone else can use or would like what you have.

I have always shared coupons with others, I take advantage of buy one get one free especially if it's a product I know I need. ... I appreciate when I have been given tickets to different sporting events. I will call friends and see if they would like to go and get as many people people to go that the tickets will cover.

Every time I see anything aired on TV for a free coupon or product I text my friends and family and tell them to take advantage of free products. ... It's all about people sharing information with each other that is making this era in time a little less stressful for me.

-- Semela Wallace, Atlanta

The good, old barter system is alive and well in our neighborhood (the government can't tax if no money changes hands). My vegetable garden is larger than normal so garden produce will be traded for farm produce such as meat and milk. We eat more wild game because country folk can survive.

-- Nadine Crawfrord, Waterville, N.Y.

The Family Way

I am a retired teacher who lives with her single daughter and teenage granddaughter. Economic conditions make this arrangement work for all of us.

My daughter will graduate from college this year. She works full-time and attends evening classes while I tend the home front providing full time "Grandma" supervision, transportation,cooking, etc. There isn't any way that either of us could afford to live without combining our incomes and talents.

The economic conditions and lack of job opportunities around Cincinnati have changed our future plans. Initially, after graduation, she had planned to stay in Ohio and advance with her present company. Now, the company is struggling and cutting benefits to the point that she is making less than she made last year. ... Canceled are all plans for purchasing a house. We worry about not having enough savings to meet emergencies and about the deteriorating social and economic conditions that surround us. My daughter laments the loss of opportunity for college graduates this year and sometimes resents the fact that she has spent seven years investing time and money and is now confronted with the present economy when she has to repay her loans.

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

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.

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.