Originally published Saturday, January 31, 2009


Hard times 

It hasn’t taken an economist to label the times we live in as tough. The Flint area of Michigan (and Michigan in general, especially Detroit) has seen hard times for decades. But even in the toughened alleyways of post-industrial Michigan, the times have gotten harder still. It seems difficult to believe that only a few brief years ago, or in some instances not even a year, there were still signs of prosperity in the economy. 

But then the collapse truly began in earnest… An economy built on a house of cards, one grand pyramid scheme, crumbled beneath it’s own upside-down weight.

I saw it coming. And I think that many others did, too. But we were all in denial, still hypnotized by the echoes of chants by the profits of the past. That is profit, as in earnings. But it was the rare prophetic announcements by the occasional economist or academic who went against the army of Wall Street, GWBush, and his philosophy of greed that would be met by others’ scorn.

And if I saw it coming, it was not without its consequences. 

In my household, we have more debt than we should, but it is still manageable, much of it due to the costs of my graduate school and now my daughters’ college educations. I see the “light” at the end of the tunnel and my daughters will be saddled with some student loan debt upon graduation, which we will do our best to assist them in covering while they each, in their turn, get on their feet. In the meantime, we can, when absolutely necessary, draw upon a shrinking savings when tuition or tax bills create a burden beyond the means of my paycheck. This is in spite of the fact that, in the past, we were able to pull in at least a modest contribution from my husband’s woodworking business. Now, however, he is only able to cover his specific expenses, ones that I am happy not to have included in the household’s commitments.

Now for my students:

(understand that my former students will always be my students!)

So what advice can an experienced educator who has long professional experience in the field of design give her students facing the prospects of a difficult launch (or continuation) of their career?

First, let me start by assuring you that this, too, shall pass. There have been rough times in the past, and there will likely be rough times in the future. The economy is cyclical, or you could think of it more like waves with crests and troughs. Some higher and lower than others, but always a new cycle to replace the last. So here’s my advice for surviving until the next upturn.

Keep yourself current!

The challenge is to find ways to remain relevant and current in your work. Do it in whatever way is necessary. If design is meant to be your life’s work, then find new and groundbreaking ways to expand your experience and skills. 

I know it sounds like a tall order. After all, if you’re out of work, or you’re stressed out working long hours at a half-baked job that only barely pays the bills, when will you find the time? No matter what, you must. Even if it means creating small projects for yourself. Design a calendar, a datebook, an accordion book of your work. 

Give yourself a small assignment… “Today I will use my cellphone camera to take pictures of shapes and textures, color, light and shadow, strange signage, graffiti, letter-shapes found in the landscapes around me…” Then make a small book out of the images, a website, or an animation. Post it on facebook or myspace. Share it with friends. This isn’t rocket science, people. It’s an exercise you can give yourself to practice your skills, learn new ones, and sharpen your designing mind.

Don’t have the software? Find a friend or school where you can come by. I welcome alumni here to Mott. Come in and see me and we’ll find a place for you to practice during an Open Lab. No longer in Flint? Try signing up for a community education class at a nearby high school or library or college. These often give you entré into facilities that will help you practice and improve your skills. Don’t have a book? There are plenty of resources online, too, including tutorials, podcasts, videos. The library often has many books that make great learning resources. 

Want to just brush up on some basic design and typography concepts? Check out our own ezine and podcasts created by yours truly and my colleague James Shurter to help students review some basics that often get overlooked… www.graphictips.org.

Cut back on expenses.

Here is where the reality check hits hard. And, regardless of what field you work in, this advice applies. If the money you’re earning from your design job is not enough, or you’re not working at ALL in design but want to, it’s imperative that you re-evaluate all of your expenses. This sounds like a basic concept. But it often gets overlooked or worse, dismissed, because in this consumer-driven society (of which designers have long been active players), we view it as “necessary” to have these “things” and “symbols” of a prosperous life. As long as we were able to pull on credit, or feel the glow of a fresh paycheck in our pocket, then we fall into the trap of self-delusion.

Now all it takes is a look at the number of foreclosed properties on the market, businesses going under, and bankruptcy auctions advertised to see where such a fallacy can lead us. And like the house of cards I described earlier, Americans have not been the only ones who are facing an economy built on quicksand. It has spread across the world when even in China and India, once the unstoppable armies of the global economy, are facing an economic downslide.

So how do you re-assess your expenses so that you can “cut-back”? Here are a few maternal pieces of advice from one who has “been there.”

Step One – Write up a budget. Determine what ARE your expenses? I mean the regular ones – car payment, insurance, electricity/gas, gasoline, cellphone, rent/mortgage, property taxes and food. 

Don’t know what they are? Pull out your checkbook, old bills, receipts, etc. Start typing them into a spreadsheet. Use Excel, Apple’s Numbers, or don’t have those? You can try GoogleApps where there’s a free spreadsheet program to set up your budget. Many of these have pre-made templates to get you started.

Step Two – Determine what you’re actually spending your money on! This is where you begin to see where some of your money is slipping away, like water through your fingers. 

I know for my own part, that I would spend money on things like coffee at Starbucks or Panera and suddenly money would disappear! I had no concept of where it went! I also have a weakness for clothes, still do. But when I took a good look at where my money was going, I saw an opportunity to make a major savings. This was especially true with two daughters who inherited my penchant for a shoe bargain at Saks Off Fifth or Macy’s. So I took another look at my wardrobe and gave myself a goal to put it to good use, even doing a little “recycling” of some good stuff that I hadn’t worn in a long time.

Step Three – Cut back your spending. You’d be surprised how easy this can be done.

In my own budget, I added up what I was actually spending on things, including food. Once it was in front of me, it was clear to see where money could be saved. I would also begin to “take inventory” of my food before shopping. Often I found that I had enough to make it through a little longer, without going to the store, by preparing meals using foods that I had been ignoring. I found that by writing up a list of the items I needed, my spending was reduced as I wasn’t tempted to go beyond my list. And, if I only needed basics like milk and eggs, I would keep my blinders on and just get those, avoiding the temptation of other goodies in the store!

Still, even I have cut coupons for items that I can put to good use. Great to learn that my local Kroger still gives double coupons. And I always use my Kroger card to get the store’s promotional prices. This helps me later, too, when I buy gasoline. Recently, I’ve been able to get 30 cents off per gallon at the Kroger gas station!

Step Four – Stick to your budget. Obviously if you’re spending more money than you earn, you’ll never get out of a hole. You’ll only dig yourself deeper. One way to save money but not live like a monk involves finding cheaper ways to entertain yourself. 

For example, cellphones are one way to save. While they’ve really moved from extra to necessity, do you really need to have the latest, greatest? Did you really need that $5 App or ringtone? How about using a “pay-as-you-go” phone? Also, most folks can easily get rid of their home phone. The only reason I haven’t is because I’ve had it TOO long. But I’ve cut its service back to the absolute basics and have it only for emergencies. Otherwise, my cellphone does all the heavy work.

Same for Cable TV. If you must have it, there is really no reason to have all the extras. For my part, the only reason I have it is for the high speed internet service. Otherwise, we have basic cable and that gives us more channels than we’ll ever watch. And as for movies? I either use the old-fashioned store rental (about $2.75/night) if there is something I really must watch, or we use the free “movies on-demand”. The internet service part of my cable bill is a business/professional expense and you can be sure that I include this to lower my tax liability come tax time.

And maybe you could just invite a few friends over to watch that movie (potluck!) instead of going out to a bar where you’ll just spend more money than you really have anyway. Not to mention saving the heavy expense of going to the movie theatre. For my part, I’m just as happy waiting until the film comes out on DVD. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m seeing it a few months later, but my budget loves it!

When times get desperate.

When it’s really getting tough, or you’ve gotten yourself into a deep hole, then it’s time to take a long step back and swallow some pride. That can mean different steps for different folks. But here are a couple of potential scenarios you might consider:

A) Move back in with Mom and/or Dad, or another relative. While you’ve been enjoying a little independence, living on your own, it may be time to consider this possibility, keeping in mind that it should be temporary.

Your parents, brothers or sisters, are probably also suffering a bit financially and the stress can prove a challenge to family harmony. But if you set some boundaries, and keep in mind that someone else’s outbursts are not always about you (maybe they’re suffering their own problems), this could work out giving you enough time to gather your resources again. If you’re working, instead of paying the rent to your former landlord, negotiate a contribution to the household expenses. Regardless of what you may think, your sheer presence in the house DOES increase the costs there. More showers mean more gas or electricity. More laundry. More food. So, as a responsible adult that you say you are, you should expect to contribute to this. 

B) Take on a roommate or boarder. I know you’ve probably gotten used to some privacy and freedom of movement. But in these hard times, taking on a roommate or two could be a great relief financially.

It’s not without its risks or personality challenges. But if you already own a home but are getting cash-strapped, then consider taking on a boarder. And even if you’re still just renting, it might be time to tighten up your personal space and share with someone else. Sharing may not be what you’re used to, but with a little self-control and patience, this could make a huge difference in controlling your expenses.

Keep in mind that if you keep your name on the lease, you have the advantage of maintaining control of the space (like throwing them out if it doesn’t work out). On the other hand, if your name’s on the lease, you are also responsible for the rent, whether your roommate pays or not.

Back in some of those earlier cycles of economic hard times, people did just this. They opened their homes to other family members or boarders to help offset the costs and it allowed them to keep a roof over their heads. And sometimes it’s nice to know you’re not alone on a cold winter’s day or be able to share in the housework.

I remember my first cookbook given to me by my mother-in-law when I first got married. It was a small used paperback. And at first glance I thought she must be kidding. But it was a book that she used, too, as she passed on the baton of advice on how to live on a shoestring budget. Before the days of “Hamburger Helper,” my first cookbook’s title was “365 Ways to Cook Hamburger.” Seems even more appropriate than ever before.

Hey… maybe you’ve got some of your OWN new money-saving recipes. Could be a new book project to design!

Bon Appetite and happy designing!

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