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Recession Diary: A Turn In Fortunes

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Recession Diary: A Turn In Fortunes

Recession Diary: A Turn In Fortunes

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Since the spring we've occasionally heard from freelancer Caitlin Shetterly. In April, money troubles led her and her husband, Dan Davis, to leave Los Angeles with their three-month-old baby to move in with Caitlin's mother in Maine. Dan is a freelance photographer, but he hadn't had a job since December. With the new baby, Caitlin had been counting on Dan to help support them. They lived with Caitlin's mother for five months and then in September Dan decided to go back to school. Here Caitlin continues her family's story.

Ms. CAITLIN SHETTERLY (Writer): Your class goes from...

Mr. DAN DAVIS (Photographer): Two to five.

Ms. SHETTERLY: At the end of August, Dan and I moved into our own apartment in Portland, Maine. Two weeks later, we dove headfirst into what felt like our only lifeline - a Masters for Dan, which we hoped would bring more opportunities if and when the recession lifted. Three days a week he took the bus two hours south to Boston with a packed lunch of peanut butter sandwiches, homemade hummus, pretzels and apples.

(Soundbite of infant)

Ms. SHETTERLY: You're going to be pretty sick of hummus in a little while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHETTERLY: Three nights a week, Dan drove a half an hour each way to a bartending job. I was alone with our nine-month-old son and trying during nap times and at night to do a small amount of freelance work and also work on a book proposal inspired by my blog and NPR diaries. We were barely scraping by. One morning, as Dan, our son and I ate breakfast, I told him that caring for a baby and the household alone and also trying to make money on top of that was starting to feel impossible for me.

(Soundbite of utensils)

Ms. SHETTERLY: For Dan, it was hard to come home every night.

Mr. DAVIS: I'll have a good day in classes and I'll feel like this is the right thing. I feel challenged by professors, by other students, and I feel like, all right, we're moving, this is going to be a good experience and it's going to put us in a better place. And then I come home and you've had a bad day or you're overwhelmed and then it goes from being something that feels positive to being - feeling like a nuisance and troublesome.

(Soundbite of infant)

Ms. SHETTERLY: Three weeks in, Dan and I were talking about what it would look like if he dropped out of school. But first we tried to trim every bit of fat from our budget - we lowered our cell phone plans, got a landline with no features, started hanging our laundry to dry and began ordering food from a bulk buyers club.

Chickpeas, organic, 25 pounds, they're $1.09 a pound.

Mr. DAVIS: Yeah, it's 70 cents cheaper.

Ms. SHETTERLY: Okay, so let's get those.

Still, the stress was mounting. With Dan's travel costs and the unpredictability of his bartending tips, the numbers were not working out. Creditors from our year of financial collapse were dogging our answering machine.

(Soundbite of answering machine)

Mechanical Voice: Wednesday 3:04 p.m., Friday 9:56 a.m., Friday...

Ms. SHETTERLY: We hit a breaking point when Dan decided to call my dad to ask for help.

Mr. DAVIS: It was a hard conversation, because I had to admit to your father that I made a mistake when I already felt like I've made a mistake, several mistakes that got us into this situation, and yeah, the end result was that I had to ask him for money and for him to help us.

Ms. SHETTERLY: I understood that as a man and a father, Dan couldn't help but blame himself for everything that had happened to us since the recession began. My dad came through with the margin we were short. Even so...

(Soundbite of answering machine)

Mechanical Voice: Saturday...

Ms. SHETTERLY: ...our debt loomed.

(Soundbite of answering machine)

Mechanical Voice: ...10:56 a.m.

Ms. SHETTERLY: Suddenly a light appeared in the darkness. The book proposal I'd written about our journey West and back home again started to get interest from publishers. My agent set up phone meetings and then, overnight, there were offers on the table. We sold the book. That day we had $16 in our bank account and an empty fridge. Like that, our lives changed.

Great, well, I just signed away our lives.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHETTERLY: I just signed my contract. I'm pretty excited.

Mr. DAVIS: That's great. How do you feel?

Ms. SHETTERLY: When I called my mom to tell her we might not have to move back in with her just yet, she said that we needed to remember that luck was not the primary ingredient in this sudden exciting success.

Shetterly's Mother: Yeah, I really do believe that you and Dan have worked very hard, and that counts for something. So when opportunity comes along, that you have a preparation for it. That's what I think. But yeah, I mean, Cinderella story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHETTERLY: A little bit, yeah. A little bit. My book deal is not enough money to retire on or even buy a house, but to us it's huge because it gives us a chance to bail out. No sooner do we adjust to our good fortune, however, than we start eyeing the ominous pile of bills in the corner.

Mr. DAVIS: I mean, here's what we have to pay. We have our credit card bills. We have our hospital bill for what the insurance didn't cover. We have to pay back your dad.

Ms. SHETTERLY: We're not going to able to pay everything at once.

As we pay back and equalize our lives, Dan and I know that what we're learning from our journey through the recession is to simplify. Last weekend we were back home at my mother's, where we lived for five months this year. We celebrated Thanksgiving, made kindling and got her house ready for winter. This holiday season we're celebrating the time we've spent together as a family and would never have been lucky enough to have shared if the recession had not rocked our world and made us come home.

SIMON: You can go to our Web site, npr.org, for a link to Caitlin Shetterly's blog about her family's journey through the recession, along with her husband Dan's photos documenting their story.

Caitlin Shetterly's stories for NPR have been edited by Andrea de Leon and produced by Rolando Arrieta.

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