Surviving tough times
By John Gray
The other day I came home to my humble abode in North Greenbush to find a note hanging from the door. It was from the town water department informing me that they came to read my water meter, it was broken, and I should CALL IMMEDIATELY. Since it was after hours I did exactly what you would do, I went to the basement to look at the meter and it appeared to be working just fine. So I shrugged my shoulders, tossed the notice in my bag and promised myself I’d give them a call first thing Monday. Well, Monday turned to Tuesday, and before I knew it the week was almost gone. On the very day I was finally going to call, I received a bill from the water department informing me that instead of my usual 14,000 gallons of water usage, I consumed more than 200,000 gallons and my bill was roughly $1,000. Do you remember that scene in the “Sixth Sense” when Bruce Willis realizes he’s really dead and the wedding ring hits the floor? That’s exactly what happened to the Snickers bar I was eating as it fell to the dirty kitchen hardwood. Oh, I still ate it, 10 second rule and all.
I immediately called the water department and they told me to calm down, stop eating dirty candy and wait for the repair man to get there. He came promptly and told me that he needed to install a little device on my meter so they could read it from the road when they drive by in their truck. Basically, they wanted to modernize my meter. I said, “But it’s broken,” and the man told me, “No it’s not.” I then showed him my bill and he laughed and said, “Yeah there’s nothing wrong with your meter. When people don’t call us back I send them a fake bill to get their attention. Works every time.” I have to admit, it’s very clever. I was going to offer him my extra Snickers bar, but he was a little too pleased with himself and stomped away in fake protest.
This little true story is my way of talking about the economic crisis we are in. For the better part of two years, I’ve been telling myself things weren’t possibly as bad as they looked, but life has handed us all that ridiculous bill and ‘yes’ it’s gotten our attention.
At the risk of sounding like one of the Brady Bunch kids telling you that everything is going to work out, the truth is, it is. It’s just that right now, this very instant, is the hard part. I think we are seeing the bottom and slowly things will come back. Until that happens, I can’t help but wonder if somewhere buried in all of this misery and worry there isn’t a nugget of gold we can take with us.
Let’s start with the basic family unit. Whether mom and dad live together or it’s a divorce situation, money is tight right now. The trip to Disney is off and much to the dismay of your little guitar heroes, there is not a bottomless pit of money to buy them every little thing they want. That’s good, people I think this crappy economy just may force a few of us to parent the old-fashioned way. Meaning, gifts are replaced with time together. No cash and the kids are climbing the walls? Go to the park. It’s raining out and the munchkins are complaining there’s nothing on the 700 TV channels? Break out a board game that brings everyone to the kitchen table for an hour – Life, Scrabble, Monopoly, Battleship. These games have been around forever because they are fun to play.
Many families will contemplate cancelling vacation this summer. What about day trips? New York State tourism will send you free brochures showing you we live in one of the neatest places in the country with so many great things to do, all on a tank of gas. My kids have been to Disney, the ocean, Boston, Manhattan, lots of trips that cost lots of money. Yet, they still talk about the drives we’d take to Shaftsbury, Vermont, and the picnic lunch we would share by a small brook each fall. I think the whole day cost me less than twenty bucks.
Tight budgets means eating in, which is good because the portions the restaurants have been shoveling at us was making us fat anyway. Plus, learning to cook is not only easy, it’s fun, and dare I say something a couple might actually enjoy doing together. I know nothing turns me on like the sight of a woman in a stained t-shirt, dicing carrots.
If you have kids and more time to kill than money right now, I strongly suggest a trip to the craft store. A.C. Moore and Michael’s have a million projects you can do together at home for less then $10. There are Halloween signs my kids painted when they were just 3 and 5 that still go on the lawn every October, 11 years later, and I can’t help but smile every time I see them. They aren’t decorations as much as they are memories.
Guptill’s Arena in Latham is still a fabulous bargain and meets those two criteria I love: you do it together as a family and get some exercise to boot. Bowling, yes bowling, is also a great way to spend a rainy day, and if you call ahead you might be surprised at the deals they offer if you are flexible on when you go. I know many of you have fun with Wii bowling that you do at home. If it’s that much fun playing “pretend” bowling, imagine how much more fun it will be to go to an actual bowling alley and play the real game!
And when is the last time you visited one of many state parks or lakes in the area? Just as gorgeous as you remember and still a bargain. My point is that I think many of us have gotten away from this kind of fun because it’s easier to swipe the credit card or drop them at the mall with a $20. This stuff is better for your wallet and their hearts. I mean that both literally and figuratively.
Another positive effect of this negative economy is it has forced me to look at how I spend every dime and not charge things unless I absolutely need too. For far too long we forgot the lessons of our grandparents: if something is worth having it’s worth saving for. Citibank and the others made it all too easy to slide that card and take home what you wanted right now, to the devil with the consequences. Well, the devil’s at the door and he wants his money with 20 percent interest. As bad as things are right now, if it forces us all to start living within our means then maybe that’s a gold nugget too.
So do things stink right now? You bet. Are we going to get through this? Absolutely. As much as I’d like to blame this mess on Congress, the banks and greedy corporate America, the truth is we lost our way as well. They offered us the wrong path and we gladly took it because it was easier. This crisis has made us smarter and tougher and I think brought us all together as a family and community. And if that’s the price of admission then I suppose I’ll pay it. In cash, of course. The credit card is chopped up in the garbage right next to the candy bar wrapper.
John Gray is a Fox23 News anchor and contributing writer at the Troy Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org