Lessons From the Recession: 10 Things We Learned in 2010

Times are hard but, as they say, what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger. The WalletPop team collectively learned these lessons from the recession:

1. Our Houses Are Homes, Not Piggy Banks or Retirement Funds

Thank you Big Banks for teaching us this poignant lesson. You might have found a way to beat it into our thick skulls without displacing 3 million families through foreclosures this year, but nevertheless it was a lesson we needed to learn. Experts predict that by the time the housing market regains its sea legs, as many as 25 million homes will have been lost to foreclosure.Silly us who fueled the economy by buying new cars and taking vacations when we withdrew equity from our ever-appreciating homes. Well, we certainly have learned that real estate as an investment didn't work out the way we planned. But shouldn't the Big Banks -- the guys who with a wink and a nod gave us adjustable rate mortgages and no-document loans -- have shared some of the culpability? Instead, they got the bailouts and we got a loan modification program that didn't actually modify very many loans. We won't even touch on how lenders considered your job loss just a "temporary" thing when they said you didn't qualify for a loan modification.

2. Public Libraries Are a Good and Free Thing

They have free books, free video rentals and free interesting lectures and programs. They have free programs for toddlers, children and seniors. And probably most important in this recession, they have free computers for you to use and really smart people working there who can help you update your resumé -- again, for free. People who work in public libraries are extremely nice individuals who speak in very quiet, gentle voices and seem to genuinely enjoy helping others. Why didn't the government bail them out instead of the Big Banks or let the librarians run the loan modification programs?

Libraries reported a 65% increase in attendance in 2009
and no doubt will report even greater patronage in 2010. And yet local governments see the gentle-voiced librarians as the place to wield their budget-cutting axe. Libraries across the country have had to reduce staff and hours, and have less money to spend on those computers. The American Library Association called it a "perfect storm" brewing of increased public need and decreased funding.

3. Only Fools Go Shopping Without First Googling for Coupons

We learned to never leave the house for a store -- any store -- without first googling the store name and the word "coupon." We spotted an interesting phenomenon at Macy's last week. By using your Macy's card, you could get 15% off your total purchase. But if you didn't use its high-interest charge card and instead just googled for discounts, you could get a 20% off coupon for your whole order. Not sure what it says about Macy's dissing its customers by charging them more to practice brand loyalty, but it sure says plenty about not having to pay its interest rates.

4. Ask for Discounts Everywhere

No meal out now is complete without asking whether the restaurant provides an AARP or AAA discount and looking askance if they don't. Same is true of every premium factory outlet store. Nowadays, it's become perfectly permissible to ask for discounts from your dentist, doctor, plumber and kids' tutor. Don't forget to ask for drug samples whenever your doctor writes you a prescription. Getting free cosmetic samples at the high-end department store is also now the norm. Spare no one. Just ask.

5. Savings Accounts Are a Good Thing

We have learned the value of saving. In 2005, the savings rate of Americans dipped into negative territory. We were busy spending money we didn't have. Now we have begun to save money to the tune of 5% to 7% of our disposable income. Not bad for a nation whose former president -- that'd be George W. Bush -- encouraged us to deal with 9/11 by going shopping. And being loyal patriots, we did.

6. The Friendly Credit Card Company Is Not Our Friend

Sure they act all lovey-dovey when they tell you how you're special, how they've pre-approved you and only you. And really, just to prove their love, they'll even give you a few cents back on the dollar when you use their cards. But just wait and see what happens if you are a nanosecond late on a payment. And watch out for their sneaky fees. Truth is, 2010 is the year we fell out of love with our credit cards. We closed accounts and left the survivors home.

7. Car Loans Are for Wusses

Cars have become one of those things that we need to save up for. If you are trapped in the bad spot of having to take out a loan, consider a credit union before you fall into the car dealer's den of evil. And while we're at it, we also learned that buying a gently-used car is preferable to buying a new one that will depreciate as soon as you drive it off the lot. We are no longer defined by what we drive.

8. There Is No Such Thing as Job Security

Everyone knows someone out of work. More accurately, everyone knows multiple people out of work. The days of going to work for one company and staying there until retirement are history. Now, the more-frequent scenario is people working three or four part-time jobs in what's been named the gig economy. No health coverage, no paid vacations, no sick days, no disability leave. But it's a salary and in this economy, there's no complaining allowed. For those still employed, job mobility may be a distant memory. Long gone are the days when your next spot was just a phone call away.

9. Vacations Are a State of Mind

Whether it's a staycation, where you take day trips and sleep in your own bed, or a house swap with a friend or Internet stranger in an act of blind faith, vacationing has changed. Travel spending is down and people think thrice before shelling out big money for a trip. We've gotten more comfortable mooching off friends and relatives. Taking a few days where you don't compulsively check email might qualify as a vacation for some. For those who feel it isn't a "real" vacation unless it involves airplane travel, spend some time online and search for a deal.

10. Share What You Have

Taken in the literal sense, the art of bartering has become part of our economic reality. I'll walk your dog if you water my garden. I'll loan you my vacation condo if you do my taxes. Taken in the less literal sense, this is the year we realized that the best part of getting comes from giving. Lend a hand and bask in the gratitude. 2010 may have taught us that we have more than we know, even if we no longer have jobs.

WalletPop writers Aaron Crowe, Jason Cochran, Vera Gibbons, Martha White and others contributed to this post.
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