In October 2013 I wrote a post about the government shutdown and the negative impact it had on my community. Although it was frightening and infuriating at the time, my family wasn’t impacted financially, and eventually I came to look back on it as a temporary discomfort, a bee sting. Our paychecks arrived on time, we didn’t end up going without anything, and we were mildly inconvenienced. Other people were not so lucky. Those tagged as “non-essentials” were put on furlough, and those required to work without pay likely experienced long term negative effects that went unacknowledged.
Now it has happened again, and I am suddenly feeling this unique and devastating variety of angst so easily forgotten after 2013. I appreciate the outpouring of support from those not directly impacted by the shutdown, who are outraged that the government would once again use its own employees and the military community as pawns in a selfish political game. However, I’ve also noticed the absence of personal stories on my social media feed about how the shutdown is affecting fellow military families. Perhaps it’s because we’re experts at staying cool under extreme pressure, or we’re reluctant to share what’s going on in our personal lives to maintain a persona of stoicism in the face of adversity. So I wanted to show readers what the shutdown is like for a typical American military family. Here’s my Day in the Life…
Day One I didn’t know about the shutdown right away. While my coffee was brewing, I found a Roseanne rerun on TV. I avoid watching the news in the morning because I prefer to wait until later in the day to lose my faith in humanity. Rosie was giving her boss a hard time and sassing back when her kids acted snotty. She’s one of my heroes, a gal who can handle the shit life flings at her. During the day, I would frequently summon imagery of Roseanne facing up to random bullshit as I muddled through my own interior turmoil. As soon as I logged into Facebook, an article about the shutdown came across my feed. That unique combination of panic, dread, embarrassment, and rage overtook me, and suddenly it was 2013 all over again. How in the entire hell did this sneak up on me ? I thought, knowing it had been lurking in the shadows all along, a vicious cancer posing as a bee sting. While I chatted online with friends and family about the situation, I analyzed each emotion individually. How long had it been since I’d felt so many negative emotions all at once!?
Panic As a military family, we really depend on the government to pay us for services rendered! What if they don’t? Will there be enough money for expenses? Will we miss a mortgage payment or a car payment? If we do, will it hurt our credit scores? If we end up in financial trouble, how long will it take to recover?! The cruel truth is that our lifestyle has failed to provide us with a financial safety net in times of major crises, not because we’ve been irresponsible over the years, but because the military life is actually quite expensive. Many costs aren’t covered. We go into debt every time we move, we pay out of pocket for things that our insurance should cover, but doesn’t, and we often don’t actually see substantial savings from military discounts. There are perks, but we pay a premium just to have perceived benefits and imaginary luxuries. So when the government doesn’t pull through and support us, we are left with nothing but what-ifs.
Embarrassment Why in the hell am I embarrassed?! Maybe because I never imagined that at this point in my life, I would have to bend and flex every which way just to survive the tsunamis created by governmental mismanagement. I’m embarrassed that I don’t have a clever fall back plan for situations like this, because I certainly should know better by now, shouldn’t I?! I’m embarrassed for assuming that the government wouldn’t pull this stunt again because it’s so unseemly to do this to any American, not to mention our own military! Most of all, I’m embarrassed for my fellow Military Spouses, our Families, and our Service Members who have to put up with this, and we deserve better because we’ve earned better.
Dread I considered upcoming social plans, debated whether or not to cancel, and felt embarrassment all over again. Can I even afford to go out with friends at this point? Embarrassment. Should I cancel my haircut so that the money can be spent on essential items? Oooh, there’s THAT word — essential. The government seems to have a handle on who’s essential and who’s not, who goes without and who doesn’t. Dread. I should have seen this coming, and the worst part is that I did see it coming, but I didn’t see it coming! More embarrassment. I decided to save face by extending my hair appointment another few weeks under the pretense that my hair looks fine (it doesn’t). My daughter wants her side shave re-done. It is overgrown by at least an inch, and sticks out in a funny little tuft. But she hasn’t mentioned it since Thursday, I think she forgot that I promised we’d go to the barber shop. Maybe she won’t mind waiting as well.
Which brings me to rage. RAGE. Why should I feel all these other emotions in the first place?! Why should my family continue to be jerked around, stretched increasingly thinner while we wait for the government to figure things out? Why are we dangling like carrots for politicians to either grasp or bat away? Our leaders haven’t learned anything in five years except how to fine tune strategies for torturing innocent people. And maybe we citizens haven’t learned much in the last five years either. There is no question that the rage felt by so many right now is completely justified.
But I wasn’t going to make this about my political opinion. After my emotions self assessment, I went into damage control mode. I checked the bank account and jotted down the balance, noted upcoming expenses, changed a few plans (mostly my plans to go thrift shopping for vintage sweaters and get my hair cut) and organized my coupons to maximize savings during my next grocery run. For at least the next several days, EVERY trip to any store would have to be carefully planned, and EVERY purchase would have to be carefully considered. I inventoried our toilet paper, cleaning supplies and food. I made a meal plan to efficiently use food and reduce waste. I do this every week anyway, but now it’s even more important to conserve as much disposable income as possible in case things get crazy. We would have to be very well disciplined. I told myself that this is an opportunity to tackle my list of chores. Chores cost nothing to complete.
I considered the timing of the shutdown. Every military family knows that PAYDAY is a time of celebration, and for about a week after, we live high on the hog. Keep in mind that for military families, living high on the hog is not what one might expect. For my family it means splurging on organic meat and non GMO produce, filling our fuel tanks, and restocking household goods like dryer sheets, Clorox wipes, and maxi pads. I know, exciting! We also take advantage of not being broke for a few days by paying for kids’ extracurricular programs, out of pocket medical expenses, and all the other miscellaneous expenses that gnaw away at our wallets. A pretty typical financial strategy for many Americans, if I am not mistaken.
Usually by the following week, we are back to living frugally while waiting for the next payday. I’m not proud of this cycle, and in thirteen years I haven’t figured out how to break it. I would LOVE to be financially independent from the military. Unfortunately, our family has been forced to survive on less income than we actually need in order to be classified as ‘thriving’, and there is absolutely no wiggle room for all the unexpected things in life that cost money. As humble as our lifestyle is when we HAVE money, our lifestyle when we don’t can be both oppressing as well as depressing. As payday approaches, my Army spouse friends play a game to compare who ate the saddest dinner; usually something like Saltines with generic peanut butter wins. Cheetos and wine continues to be my low point as well as my contingency plan. Even when times are good, we all feel the pinch, from the lowly Private to the high and mighty Colonel.
I spent most of the morning making decisions that aren’t important on normal days, but under the circumstances, they are of utmost importance. These decisions will set us up for success or failure in the days to come. Instead of getting a haircut, I can just wear my hair in a pony tail. I can make simple, inexpensive meals and send leftovers in the kids’ lunches. I’ll avoid going shopping just to shop, and I’ll get things down around the house. I felt okay about the plan, still angry, but okay and more confident. I had Roseanne telling me not to give up, because that’s what the bastards would want.
In the early afternoon, I realized that I’d promised to send a friend German rye bread from a local bakery. I knew she would understand if I didn’t send the bread, but I had made a promise, and this suddenly because my most important mission, shutdown or no shutdown. The bread became symbolic of me fighting the system. I had to succeed, I had to get it. Roseanne would be proud. I would be proud. I needed this victory. The bakery was already closed, but I could visit a nearby German deli that sold the bread. If I couldn’t find it there, I would have to try the commissary on Fort Carson. I did not want to go to the commissary. The Army wife rumor mill on Facebook was humming with news that the commissary would close by Wednesday. Another non-essential service, food for military families. I imagined the hectic scene there and resolved to exhaust all other resources before driving to Fort Carson.
Due to an IT glitch (I was assured that it had nothing to do with the shutdown) my bank account was temporarily also shut down. I checked my pockets and found $45. That would have to be enough. I spent $20 on the last two loaves of bread and a jar of rose hip jelly at the German deli, thanked God for sparing me a trip to the commissary, then spent $20 on a box of wine at the neighborhood liquor store. With $5 left in my pocket, I headed home to check on the beef roast in the Crock Pot.
My husband had been out all day, and I decided to greet him with a positive attitude and creative solutions rather than bitchy complaints about the shutdown. He has been deployed, risked life and limb, worked long, exhausting hours over many years to provide our family with a good life, and when we hit low points, it’s my job to build him up. I choose to be with my husband, and he chooses to serve his country. He’s the best man I’ve ever met, and he does everything, gives everything, to provide for his family. He has served his country selflessly and inspired countless soldiers along the way. He is loved and respected, and has earned his reputation as “the guy you always want in your corner”. So for these reasons, I approached him calmly and offered support, even though my brain was still spinning with countless what-ifs.
Day 2 Still pissed. The shutdown is a weird type of psychological punishment, a widespread mental abuse, with lingering negative effects that the government will fail to address. Our leaders want to exploit us and fuck with our lives, then say “Oh we’re going to pay you…eventually…but you’ll do have to work without pay…indefinitely, oh and by the way, thanks for your service.”
The weather here is terrible. Normally I go to the grocery store for the Sunday papers, but I don’t want to leave the house, so I’m blogging and watching TV, reruns of Monk today. Monk is my hero too. He knows what mental abuse feels like, but he refuses to give up. I can admire that. I’m trying to decide when to put gas in my car. I still have 110 miles to go before the tank is empty, it snowed last night, and the wind is blowing, so I can procrastinate for another couple of days. There is almost nothing worse than putting gas in a car when it’s very cold and very windy.
I organized my coupons into a stack for Wal-Mart and a stack for Safeway. When I tried to print a dozen coupons from the Coupons.com Website, I discovered that our printer was out of black ink. Apparently black ink is a deal breaker. It won’t work until I replace the cartridge. My husband needs to print important documents for the week, so ink is indeed an essential item, and at some point I will brave the traffic, snow, and wind to go to Wal-Mart. Toilet paper is on the top of the list, but it usually is anyway. Toilet paper is a constant, shutdown or no shutdown. I have six coupons for toilet paper, so maybe I’ll stock up. If things get really bad, we can always eat the toilet paper.
My Safeway list is mostly food items. I’m agonizing over whether or not to just fill my cart to overflowing and let the chips fall where they may. Money is just money, and shutdown or no shutdown, we will need food! Or I could just buy enough for the week, which will cost less but ensure another trip to the store later in the week. As I go over meal plans and grocery lists, I’m also kicking myself for checks I wrote last week for the girls’ school activities. I could have floated one until late March, but wanted to pay so that I wouldn’t worry about it later on. But I’m worrying about it now, kicking myself for not using that money to fill my gas tank or pay a bill.
I’m also kicking myself for using a few gift cards left over from the holidays. I could have saved them for groceries, or toilet paper, but I didn’t. Well, it’s all water under the bridge now. No sense in beating myself up for past decisions. Instead I’ve started itemizing a bill that I hope to send to the government, for my family’s expenses incurred during the shutdown.
It’s the end of the day. We survived. I picked up one daughter from a ski trip, and drove the other daughter to a Girl Scout meeting. Now my car has 98 miles until E. My coupons are ready for tomorrow and I have a plan to get through the day. For now, I plan to pamper myself with cucumber slices under my eyes and a glass of wine. I think I will add the 68 cent cucumber to my itemized bill for Washington. I also think that I will add that box of wine from yesterday. Self medicating may not have been necessary if it wasn’t for the shutdown…
Stay strong, people!