An Essay: Lessons From the Recession, Learned the Hard Way

Notice of termination - pink slipThe pain caused by the recession can't be minimized: millions of homes lost to foreclosure, 8 million jobs erased from the landscape, families displaced, lives disrupted.

But there are a few linings to the recessionary dark cloud that don't get discussed that much. There are people who have been dealt economic blows and have found the mechanisms -- and the strength -- to cope. A few have even thrived with the discovery that less can indeed be more.

Let's face it: Conspicuous consumption has been around for as long as the Joneses and our need to keep up with them. Bigger homes, newer cars, better labels on our jeans, vacations taken with such frequency that you'd think Tahiti was sinking away were all part of the code we lived by.But the recession forced us to refocus our priorities, and many who found their incomes reduced and their homes no longer a viable ATM also found ways to hold it all together and actually come out ahead. Working dads came in from the cold and rediscovered they had kids whose Little Leagues needed them as coaches. Moms learned to play the coupon game and realized how much money they'd been letting fly out the window in ignorance.

We also learned the difference between wants and needs and realized that shopping as a recreational sport is actually a pretty shallow way to spend the afternoon. But perhaps most important, we realized we were capable of saving our money for our future. Immediate gratification, we've discovered, is for those who don't know any better.

I know all this because I'm one of those people who learned these things the hard way. I was laid off two years ago from my job writing a nationally syndicated column about celebrity real estate for the Los Angeles Times. My work days were spent touring fancy mansions and writing irreverently about celebrities -- the badder, the better.

As I wrote in a recent OpEd piece for my former employer, I'm also one of the lucky ones. My niche as a writer opened freelance doors to me that were locked shut to many of my fallen comrades. Being able to cobble together a living through various gigs made it easier for me to move on financially and emotionally. But something else happened, too: I learned that not only could I live with less, but that I liked it better.

As strange as it sounds, I know I'm better off for having lost my job. I'm a happier person, no longer trapped by my trappings. I've learned that giving, no matter how little you think you have, actually makes you feel better. I learned that if you approach each day with an attitude of gratitude, you actually can change the outcome of that day. Celebrating the little victories, focusing on the nice words the teacher said about your son instead of the driver who cut you off and flipped a finger your way, remembering that the hard times, just like the good ones, are only temporary -- all these things helped me stay sane in this insane economy.

Nothing stays the same forever, and in these times, remembering that may be the only control you have over the situation. And until that change comes for you, you can learn ways to cope with the New Spending. Websites like WalletPop -- where I've been honored to work for nearly two years as a part-time editor and blogger -- taught me all I needed to know. It's here that I learned how to handle my grocery bills, replace my car, which credit cards to avoid, and how to still do what I loved doing -- seeing movies, traveling, reading books, eating well -- without spending money I no longer earned.

And it's here that I'll soon be saying goodbye to dear friends, colleagues and readers. I'll be returning to the full-time work force in a few weeks -- yes, I found a good job -- but I know I won't be returning to my old ways. Thank you, WalletPop, for that.
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