Our troubled economy

Hard times put cracks in the nest egg

  • Updated: October 1, 2008 - 2:26 PM

We're told to sit tight and do nothing while our savings evaporate in the financial crisis. How do we do that without panicking?

We have this old fishbowl next to our washing machine where we throw all the change found in various pockets. Every once in a while, we think about emptying it and seeing just how much of a fortune we've amassed from spare dimes. But we never do; preferring, I think, to imagine that there is indeed a nest egg of ostrich-sized proportions waiting there instead of ... spare dimes.

Now, in the wake of the news of bank failures, bailouts and buyouts, I wonder how much is there -- not that I'd tell you. There's nothing we'd rather not talk about than money. Ask people how much they make or what that cost them and watch them pull their heads in faster than a turtle. Hey, what happened to those Twins?

Right now, though, I don't really care about you. All I really want to know is, "Where is my money?" And that's what makes this crisis so different from others we've weathered.

Think about the last time the entire country was faced with such an encompassing threat. For weeks after Sept. 11, you couldn't ride an elevator or stand in a grocery store line without feeling a new and frankly unexpected sense of kinship with those around you.

We all were a little unnerved because no one could be sure exactly where this was heading, or what role we might have in our fate. Together, though, we felt more than the sum of our parts.

Today's financial crisis has a far better chance of reaching into the very pots and pans of our households than any flight-school zealot, yet the overwhelming sense is that we're in this alone. Worse, if the brains on Wall Street came up short, where does that leave us?

The questions begin to pile up. New reports say that the country's economy is on the verge of shutting down. Shutting down? What does that mean, really?

And what's this "risk" that well-paid CEOs always said necessitated that the net below their tightrope be cushioned with dollar bills? All this time, they were safely suspended from the circus tent's peak, just playing at keeping their balance.

We're being advised to sit tight and do nothing, which I'd happily do, given that the alternative is to panic. Then I run into an older person, a member of the generation that makes us inwardly roll our eyes when they launch into yet another scold about how they survived the Great Depression, and I wonder about that advice we're getting. When they hear about business failures and stock market crashes and government bailouts, it's as if they're recalling the newsreel before the Greta Garbo movie, with its images of soup lines and bank runs and surprisingly delicious cakes made without eggs.

I look into their eyes, and pay more attention to what they're saying.

Studs Terkel, in "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression," explored how people saw their personal situation fitting into the national headlines. From his introduction: "The suddenly-idle hands blamed themselves, rather than society. True, there were hunger marches and protestations to City Hall and Washington, but the millions experienced a private kind of shame when the pink slip came. No matter that others suffered the same fate, the inner voice whispered, 'I'm a failure.' ... Outside forces, except to the more articulate and political rebels, were in some vague way responsible, but not really. It was a personal guilt."

It's not quite the same now, of course. For starters, people fling blame far more than they foster guilt. Back then, people's savings plans weren't so wed to whether the bull or the bear rampaged that day. You actually could save to buy a home, partly because there were fewer other temptations for your dollar. Today, there's even a slick term for the way we fritter away our purportedly precious dollars: the Latte Factor. This describes how forgoing small daily purchases such as fancy coffee (or bottled water or lottery tickets) can add up to real savings.

Lottery tickets? That's spending money to make money, right? The Minnesota Lottery posted record sales for fiscal year 2008, which surprised officials because sales traditionally tail off when money gets tight. Lottery ticket sales in convenience stores still are up about 4 percent, said Clint Harris, the lottery's director. "My theory, and it's just my theory, is that people are cutting back on their Starbucks, but going to a c-store for 99-cent coffee and then buying a ticket."

That's risk. No one bails you out when your grandchildren's birthdates don't add up to a winner. But it's a solitary act, whether of solitary desperation or a solitary hunch. It's sort of like the stock market, with beef jerky on the side.

Maybe we'll finally count the spare change in that fishbowl. A dime to spare? Buddy, we got 'em.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

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