March 19, 2009— -- For the first 45 years of Ken Karpman's life, everything was close to perfect.
He graduated from UCLA with a bachelor's degree and M.B.A., then got a high-paying job as an institutional equity sales trader. He married his dream girl, had two children and traveled the world on expensive vacations.
Over the span of Karpman's impressive 20-year career as a trader, he climbed the company ladder, reaching a salary of $750,000 a year.
"Life was good, we were making a lot of money -- and why wouldn't this just continue on?" Karpman said.
From all appearances, Ken and Stephanie Karpman were living the American dream in Tampa, Fla., nestled in their 4,000-square-foot home that sits on a golf course. "I had no idea what anything cost in a store," he said. "I'd just put it in the cart and buy."
Karpman was so confident in his good fortune and the strong economy that he left his job in 2005 to start his own hedge fund. To pay for the new business and their standard of living, Karpman quickly burned through $500,000 in savings and, like so many Americans, took a line of credit against his house.
But in the reversal of fortune that followed, Karpman was unable to attract investors and was forced to dissolve his hedge fund. He found himself jobless in a job market that had collapsed.
In the past, Karpman had found it easy to get a job. It wasn't so this time around.
"When I used to go into a job interview, I probably came across as a jerk because I was like interviewing him to see whether this firm was worthy of me," he said. "Now it's kind of like you almost feel like you're coming in with your hat in your hand."
Turning to Pizza for Help
After a lengthy and fruitless job search, the Karpmans were shocked to find themselves in financial dire straits, with zero savings, hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and their home in foreclosure.
Desperate for quick cash, Karpman tried to find a job bartending but came up empty. Finally, he drove his Mercedes to Mike's Pizza & Deli Station in Clearwater and applied for a job. Mike Dodaro, the owner of the pizza shop, said he was shocked when he read his application but he offered him the job despite some reluctance to hire an over-qualified candidate.
Stephanie Karpman said she was more than a little surprised when he came home with his new job, initially saying, "You're kidding me, right?
"Delivering pizzas," she said, "Never in my wildest dreams did I think he'd be doing that."
Karpman's salary plummeted from six figures to $7.29 an hour -- plus tips -- but it's money that he's grateful to earn, even when it means delivering to neighbors or his old office building.
"This whole progression down, it's amazing how many things you say, 'I can't do' and a week later you say, 'Yeah, I could do that,'" he said. "I'm not going to make a career out of this but, until I get something that pays more, this is what I'll do to keep food on the table."
The stress has also taken a toll on their marriage. Stephanie Karpman said she didn't want her husband to leave his trader job in the first place and wishes he would have put more in savings.
"There's no question of where the fault lies," Ken Karpman said. And when it comes to finger-pointing, "I point it in my direction.
"If we didn't have to worry about the lights getting turned off, we can spend more time talking about us."
Each day has brought new lows and new lessons in living with a little less "stuff" and a lot more humility.
"The worst thing for me, for both of us probably, was, you know, to go to just friends around here, and say, 'Can I borrow some money?'" he said. "Pizza was a step up."
'I Need a Couple of Wins'
The Karpmans are now on food stamps and a tight budget that doesn't nearly cover their children's $30,000 private school tuition. But thanks to an anonymous donor, the Karpmans children's tuition has been covered through next year and they are deeply appreciative
"It's just something that kind of makes you a little misty every time you think about it, that somebody would do this for our kids," he said. "But we'll have a chance at some point to do that for another family."
The family's jet skis now collect dust in the garage near the Mercedes, with its broken transmission they cannot fix. The home they will soon lose has fallen into disrepair.
Stephanie Karpman has closets full of clothes and handbags she likely won't be able to take with her and is eyeing consignment shops as a place to unload them. She said she has found herself going through her closet and wearing clothes she hasn't touched in years.
As Karpman counts every penny he earns, he still hopes he can come back from the financial brink and reclaim a lifestyle he, like so many Americans, never imagined he could lose.
"I need a couple of wins," he said, "and I think that, hopefully, it'll mushroom up like it caved in."