We Survived the Southern California Recession of 2009: What We Learned – and Are Learning Again Now

In 2009, the economic bottom fell out of our lives, when the company my husband had worked for since he was 21 quickly went from being a Fortune 500 company to filing for bankruptcy.

The financial and professional futures we saw for ourselves disintegrated almost overnight, and we grieved those losses. We had two preschoolers at home and were living in one of the hardest hit parts of the nation. At one point, one in four neighborhoods in the community where we lived was in some stage of the foreclosure process. Not only were we hurting – most of the people we knew were, too.

It wasn’t uncommon during those times to have neighbors suddenly allow their grass to go brown. Soon, you would learn they’d packed up and left their sprawling suburban homes behind in the middle of the night in anticipation of the banks seizing them.

Another thing I remember hitting hard is the desperation of those looking for work. One middle-aged man positioned himself on a busy street corner, day after day, dressed in a snazzy suit and holding a sign that read, “Have an MBA, need job making $50,000. Call me.”

My husband and I know what it’s like to have a little something in the bank, and we know what it’s like to live without, too. Our own childhood experiences probably make us trend conservatively when it comes to money. We try to save and we think a lot about how to be good stewards of our money. We also, often, fall short.

It turned out 2009 brought other stressors. Several family members and friends were facing severe health issues, and we were working to manage those from across the country from our Alabama and Mississippi hometowns.

I was finishing up my doctorate and only working part-time – while worrying about how I would be able to use a doctorate in educational leadership in a recession that had tens of thousands of Southern California educators out of work – and entitled under union agreement to get their jobs back before external candidates like me could even be given an interview. One of the fears that gripped us most during this time was losing health insurance. Not only were we unsure we could get jobs in our fields – we weren’t even sure we could get jobs with benefits.

As an added “bonus,” to the year, the kids both had swine flu – and had terrifyingly high fevers. When those fevers broke, I promise you we weren’t thinking about what was or was not in our bank account.

Thankfully, we came out of the 2009 recession fairly unscathed. It even made us better people along the way. Here are some things the experience taught us – lessons we seem to be relearning now, as economic uncertainty looms large again.

  1. Focusing on what you do know can truly become a superpower. There were so many times back in 2009 that I spiraled into catastrophic, “what if” thinking, trying to plan for every negative event imaginable. It’s like I believed if I thought analytically enough, I could out-think our situation. Slowly, though, I learned to steady myself by listing out what I did know at the time: My immediate family was healthy. We had food to eat. Running water. Electricity. Access to education. Access to healthcare. Jobs. Professional contacts. We had people who loved us – people who I sometimes listed by name when I was feeling my most fearful.
  2. There can be a magic in living more simply. We escaped the 2009 Southern California economy by moving to the Houston, Texas area after my husband got a job offer from a utility company. My husband made less money in the job, but the moving package got us out of California – and the Southern California housing market – and got me into a better market for my skills. We rented a smaller house, near his work and maximized the time he had previously spent commuting to make memories. Because we were able to stay positive and emphasize the benefits of the move, our kids didn’t even notice that we had downsized – or that our previous vacations were replaced by staycations or driving trips to see family. They just saw the magic of a new place – one where Daddy was around more and where Pawpaw lived closer to them.
  3. Music really can be a salve for the soul. When I look back on some of our more fearful days in Southern California, I recall the many times that music got me through. Even now, I have a sort of Recession Playlist that includes songs like Chicken Fried by the Zac Brown Band, Live High by Jason Mraz, and Better Together by Jack Johnson. Each of those songs has a message about simplictiy and beauty in togetherness. It’s funny, but I have been listening to those songs more as the challenges of 2020 face us. (I’ve also added in some Queen and Aerosmith and Enigma for good measure.)
  4. Relationships matter. In the heart of our concerns about the Southern California economy, there were so many good people who stepped up – in some cases people we had not heard from in quite a long time. These people stepped alongside us with not just words of support but offers of help. I can still remember the names of the people who shared our resumes – both in Southern California and across the Deep South. I’ve been thankful to return a few of those favors in more recent years – but the amazing thing is that no one ever asked me to or expected me to – they just helped because it’s who they are. They’ve made me a better person through their kindness.
  5. You never know who or what will help you get back on solid professional ground. My husband was one of thousands of applicants for his job in Texas. His resume stood out because the hiring manager happened to be familiar with the program at his university and viewed it as a good one. A while later, I got a full-time job because my son’s kindergarten teacher was willing to go to bat for me and vouch for the volunteer work I did in her classroom – not because I was trying to get a job (I’d been told there wouldn’t be openings) – but just because I loved being with the kids. Doing the next right thing and volunteering paid off, even though I had no reason to think it would.
  6. You can’t wait until you are crisis-free to have fun. One day early in 2009 it hit me – we had been riding one personal crisis after another for a while. If we had written off the months and years when something upsetting was happening in our lives, we never would have allowed ourselves to have fun or enjoy ourselves. We learned to laugh even while grappling with heavy matters. Life is too short not to have an awful lot of fun.

We grew so much during the season of 2009-2010! And even though our kids were quite young, they sometimes reference that period and the wisdom we gained. They know that we will be ok with less – less entertainment, less disposable income, fewer distractions and activities.

They understand that friends and family and helping others are the real treasures of life. We all still worry a little more than we should and work to predict the future when that’s impossible, but the lessons learned then were valuabe.

I’m re-learning some of those lessons, too – it’s not a coincidence, then, that I am re-reading The Simplicity Circle during this season. It’s also not a coincidence that Jack Johnson, The Zac Brown Band and Jason Mraz have all been on repeat on my Spotify account. Later today, I wil likely make at least a mental list of all the things I know to be true – in this moment.

I can almost hear myself growing and maturing again.

2 Replies to “We Survived the Southern California Recession of 2009: What We Learned – and Are Learning Again Now”

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