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Disaster Thinking

moving and making it work

Last week, I moved 406 miles from the city I’ve called home for the past 10 years for a new job. Any move is stressful—even moving three blocks away can try your patience with all the packing and cleaning and labeling boxes. A move that’s hours away, though, carries with it additional stress. Part of that is severing yourself from friends, family, and everything familiar. Who will I text at midnight after (another) failed date? Where will I take the kids for used books, or to meet up with friends? And, sure, I felt that stress too. I had become part of a community in that decade.

But for me, moving is stressful for bigger reasons than leaving my friends behind, however dear they may be. Moving, in my mind, is always about money. It is the cost of the U-Haul, and how I’ll manage to get boxes (can I get them for free from friends?) and the gas to get there and the deposits and first month’s rent and the tiny things that every new place seems to need: curtains or a bathtub plug or, God forbid, a washer and dryer. Other worries and hopes creep in around the edges: Will my kids find new friends? Will I? Will my landlord be crazy again? But, the weeks before a move, as I fall asleep, all I can think about is my bank account, and many nights I doze off while running numbers in my head and hoping there will be enough.

One of the ways I’ve made it as a single parent of three kids is to practice what my friend Mike and I call Disaster Thinking. Disaster Thinking is not merely planning for potential disasters, although that’s part of it. It’s also expecting them, and then carrying out many of your plans as though the disaster is a future you just haven’t caught up with yet.

The year I was laid off from the University of Oregon, two days before the academic year ended and with no warning, I made a plan that assumed I wouldn’t find regular work for a year. I made a list of freelance contacts, a list of what I could sell, and a timeline of how long I could subsist on unemployment before having to pack up my kids and move in with my mom. That week, after I emailed all my freelance contacts, I started selling my books, and then some furniture. The planning made it easier, too, when I had to sell my car to make rent months later.

Often Disaster Thinking is less dramatic than outright selling possessions. It’s calculating how long you can go without paying the electricity bill, and then not paying it until it’s late just in case something happens and you need that money. On the surface, it looks financially irresponsible, but it’s actually a way to manage when there is nothing left to cut from your budget.

At the end of my options, I put “Ask Mom, David or friends for money.” My mom, though, is on a tight budget. My dad passed away after a long illness when she was 45 and he was 46, and though she’s managed to buy a house, she’s never completely financially recovered. My brother David has lent me money in the past, but he’s about to have a baby with his wife, and I hate asking. My friends sometimes have more money than I do, but none of them are well off, and besides, asking to borrow money from friends is fraught with complications. I’d do it if the kids were hungry, but that’s about it.

If it’s not obvious, disaster thinking is exhausting. It takes a lot of energy to think this way and to make these kinds of plans. But so often when you’re poor, your only resource is your ability to strategize, and to know things like how long the power company will keep the lights on before they make you pay, or that the Safeway on 40th takes an extra day to cash a check than the one on 18th, because the manager doesn’t like to run the checks at night, and puts it off.

So, even though I was moving for a new job, and even though I’m working through the summer, I couldn’t stop myself from disaster thinking. The move was expensive: with the U-Haul ($876), the crews to load and unload the truck ($444) (because I had back surgery in 2007, and because I dearly love my friends and do not want them to experience back pain, I now hire people to load and unload the truck), gas for the U-Haul and my car ($240) and deposit and first month’s rent ($2,450), I spent nearly $4,000 in the space of a month.

And even though I had managed to save some money, and had calculated which expense could go on which credit card, I couldn’t stop worrying over the move. After everything, even after putting the U-Haul on one card, and the gas another, I’d only have $100 left for a week. I couldn’t stop myself from imagining disasters: What if there was a flat tire? What if the U-Haul took more gas than I expected? What if the movers never showed and I’d be stuck with the U-Haul for an extra day and no quick way to unload it?

To quell my fears I went downtown and got a payday loan. It is the absolute worst financial product one can use. The payback on the $300 loan is $339.68—due in a month. But I knew if something happened, I’d have no way to get money. There wasn’t going to be room on my credit cards for anything substantial. Borrowing money from a family member when you’re stuck someplace, or you need it ten minutes ago, is challenging at best.

We arrived on Friday, Aug. 1. We moved in early in the morning, Aug. 2. And that $300 stayed in my account, untouched, until payday Aug. 8.

I’d like to say I wouldn’t do it again. But I would, every time.


This is the second essay in a multi-part series.

Heather Ryan earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon in 2006. Her non-fiction has appeared on NPR and Salon among others, and her fiction is forthcoming in the Southern Humanities Review. The first issue of her graphic novel The Imaginarium—about what happens when a teenage boy descends into the dark, fairy-tale world of schizophrenia—is forthcoming in summer 2014. She’s currently finishing her memoir Now Entering America, about a failed road trip and life as a single parent and writer. She starts her new job teaching at a small community college in Washington state in the fall.


13 Comments / Post A Comment

beastlyburden (#6,122)

Wow. Yes, this sounds incredibly exhausting. I got stressed out reading it.

I’ve read a lot about how persistent financial problems takes up an inordinate amount of mental energy, and while you only touches on that aspect of it very briefly, Heather, I really appreciated reading about how disaster thinking manifests day-to-day from someone who’s actually living it.

Your last piece talked about how you were moving to take a better compensated teaching job. Do you think financial stability would eventually allow you to stop preparing for worst-case scenarios, or do you think that this will follow you for the rest of your life?

HRyan (#7,159)

@beastlyburden I really hope that I will eventually stop this worst-case scenario planning when I’ve been somewhat financially stable for a while. Because it truly is exhausting, and I also think it makes it harder to enjoy things that are fun and cost money. I took my kids to see a play in Ashland, Oregon this year for the first time, and I had to constantly remind myself that it was okay to spend this money since we’d never done it before, and I had gotten a decent deal, and we were moving away from the area. I really hope that feeling goes away.

SnarlFurillo (#2,538)

Heather, I think I read a blog you kept a few years ago, and I remember how moving and beautiful all of your work was. I’m so glad to read this and catch up, as it were. Disaster thinking is so familiar to me- I know which gas stations put a three-day hold on your account rather than charging your debit card immediately, and whether that hold is $75 or $1. Hello, pre-payday fill-up.

And for anyone who reads this in the future, liquor stores will often let you take their unpacked cardboard boxes for free. They’re narrower and deeper than traditional moving boxes but damn they do the job. Plus they make you feel like a rebellious pin-up when you see them all packed up in one place.

garli (#4,150)

@SnarlFurillo Also Trader Joe’s apple boxes – small enough (especially for books) that you don’t over pack AND there’s handles. Go as soon as they open and ask them to save the next day’s boxes. The morning crew is way more likely to help you out.

HRyan (#7,159)

@SnarlFurillo Thanks so much for reading!

I posted below that I love liquor boxes–they are super sturdy. The last few times I’ve moved, my friends have come through in a big way with a ton of good moving boxes (some of them from liquor stores).

Garli, the TJ’s apple boxes are a great idea, too. I’ll keep that in mind for the future.

Oh wow – I never have a name for it, but Disaster Thinking is a perfect description. It is, like others, so familiar to me – it is why I go buy groceries at Target and get $40 cash back so often in the 2 days before payday, since I know they don’t process the payment from my Red card that is tied to my checking account for at least 3 days. Every month I make a financial change to save money, to allow myself to save for emergencies that seem to all come along at the same time. Last week I spent nearly $1000 on things that I had not planned for – emergency vet bills and car fixing and miscellaneous other tasks. I know eventually a month will come along where I don’t have any of these things and maybe I will be able to sock away some extra cash, but until then I will continue my practice of planned late payments with the electricity company and AT&T.

HRyan (#7,159)

@designateddrinker The ER vet bills are the worst. So expensive. I hope your pet is okay.

I’ve been planning on putting money away in savings to prepare for these kind of inevitable emergencies, and I’m hoping the new job will give me a little space to do that.

andnowlights (#2,902)

Oh man, anyone with moderate-to-extreme anxiety can relate to this (myself included) and know it’s exhausting. I’m glad you go through it with no emergencies and hope you can be a little more at peace right now!

Also, Barnes and Nobles/other bookstores are AWESOME for getting moving boxes. Their company boxes are the perfect size and are very sturdy. I also second @SnarlFurillo’s suggestion of liquor store boxes! Especially the Captain Morgan boxes, because who doesn’t like a wall full of pirates? ALSO, if you’re moving long distance (1000 miles) and don’t have that much stuff, we’ve found that actually using a moving company is cheaper than renting a U-Haul once you include gas. It would have cost $2000 to rent a Uhaul for each 1000 mile move once we factored in gas and it was only $1700 for a moving company each time.

HRyan (#7,159)

@andnowlights Good to know about the long-distance move! I priced out PODS-like options, but because I moved to a semi-rural area, they were more expensive.

Also: I freakin’ LOVE liquor store boxes. I always look like someone who throws awesome parties when I move.

andnowlights (#2,902)

@HRyan We actually never looked into the pods, but I don’t know why, now that I think about it? We used United both times and have nothing but great things to say about them!

HRyan (#7,159)

@andnowlights I think the PODs can be great, but sometimes they are just as expensive (or more expensive) than hiring a truck/movers. If I ever have to move far, though, I’ll look into United. So many people have recommended them to me (though let us hope that I don’t have to move 1000+ miles ever).

callmeprufrock (#5,158)

Sheesh. I just got thrown a similar curveball (being kicked out of my apartment of 2+ years with 30 days’ warning) and used all my savings on the move/rent/deposit. I’ll recover some of that when I get the deposit back from my old place, but I can’t imagine dealing with all of this plus worrying about kids.

HRyan (#7,159)

@callmeprufrock I’m lucky that academic jobs often give you lots of time (unless you’re an adjunct), so I’ve known about the move since the first week of April. I don’t know how I’d do it with 30-days notice. That whole scenario of a landlord saying I have to move is something I worry about (yay leases…?).

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