Disaster Thinking

by Heather Ryan

Last week, I moved 406 miles from the city I’ve called home for the past 10 years for a new job. Any move is stressful — even moving three blocks away can try your patience with all the packing and cleaning and labeling boxes. A move that’s hours away, though, carries with it additional stress. Part of that is severing yourself from friends, family, and everything familiar. Who will I text at midnight after (another) failed date? Where will I take the kids for used books, or to meet up with friends? And, sure, I felt that stress too. I had become part of a community in that decade.

But for me, moving is stressful for bigger reasons than leaving my friends behind, however dear they may be. Moving, in my mind, is always about money. It is the cost of the U-Haul, and how I’ll manage to get boxes (can I get them for free from friends?) and the gas to get there and the deposits and first month’s rent and the tiny things that every new place seems to need: curtains or a bathtub plug or, God forbid, a washer and dryer. Other worries and hopes creep in around the edges: Will my kids find new friends? Will I? Will my landlord be crazy again? But, the weeks before a move, as I fall asleep, all I can think about is my bank account, and many nights I doze off while running numbers in my head and hoping there will be enough.

One of the ways I’ve made it as a single parent of three kids is to practice what my friend Mike and I call Disaster Thinking. Disaster Thinking is not merely planning for potential disasters, although that’s part of it. It’s also expecting them, and then carrying out many of your plans as though the disaster is a future you just haven’t caught up with yet.

The year I was laid off from the University of Oregon, two days before the academic year ended and with no warning, I made a plan that assumed I wouldn’t find regular work for a year. I made a list of freelance contacts, a list of what I could sell, and a timeline of how long I could subsist on unemployment before having to pack up my kids and move in with my mom. That week, after I emailed all my freelance contacts, I started selling my books, and then some furniture. The planning made it easier, too, when I had to sell my car to make rent months later.

Often Disaster Thinking is less dramatic than outright selling possessions. It’s calculating how long you can go without paying the electricity bill, and then not paying it until it’s late just in case something happens and you need that money. On the surface, it looks financially irresponsible, but it’s actually a way to manage when there is nothing left to cut from your budget.

At the end of my options, I put “Ask Mom, David or friends for money.” My mom, though, is on a tight budget. My dad passed away after a long illness when she was 45 and he was 46, and though she’s managed to buy a house, she’s never completely financially recovered. My brother David has lent me money in the past, but he’s about to have a baby with his wife, and I hate asking. My friends sometimes have more money than I do, but none of them are well off, and besides, asking to borrow money from friends is fraught with complications. I’d do it if the kids were hungry, but that’s about it.

If it’s not obvious, disaster thinking is exhausting. It takes a lot of energy to think this way and to make these kinds of plans. But so often when you’re poor, your only resource is your ability to strategize, and to know things like how long the power company will keep the lights on before they make you pay, or that the Safeway on 40th takes an extra day to cash a check than the one on 18th, because the manager doesn’t like to run the checks at night, and puts it off.

So, even though I was moving for a new job, and even though I’m working through the summer, I couldn’t stop myself from disaster thinking. The move was expensive: with the U-Haul ($876), the crews to load and unload the truck ($444) (because I had back surgery in 2007, and because I dearly love my friends and do not want them to experience back pain, I now hire people to load and unload the truck), gas for the U-Haul and my car ($240) and deposit and first month’s rent ($2,450), I spent nearly $4,000 in the space of a month.

And even though I had managed to save some money, and had calculated which expense could go on which credit card, I couldn’t stop worrying over the move. After everything, even after putting the U-Haul on one card, and the gas another, I’d only have $100 left for a week. I couldn’t stop myself from imagining disasters: What if there was a flat tire? What if the U-Haul took more gas than I expected? What if the movers never showed and I’d be stuck with the U-Haul for an extra day and no quick way to unload it?

To quell my fears I went downtown and got a payday loan. It is the absolute worst financial product one can use. The payback on the $300 loan is $339.68 — due in a month. But I knew if something happened, I’d have no way to get money. There wasn’t going to be room on my credit cards for anything substantial. Borrowing money from a family member when you’re stuck someplace, or you need it ten minutes ago, is challenging at best.

We arrived on Friday, Aug. 1. We moved in early in the morning, Aug. 2. And that $300 stayed in my account, untouched, until payday Aug. 8.

I’d like to say I wouldn’t do it again. But I would, every time.

This is the second essay in a multi-part series.

Heather Ryan earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon in 2006. Her non-fiction has appeared on NPR and Salon among others, and her fiction is forthcoming in the Southern Humanities Review. The first issue of her graphic novel The Imaginarium — about what happens when a teenage boy descends into the dark, fairy-tale world of schizophrenia — is forthcoming in summer 2014. She’s currently finishing her memoir Now Entering America, about a failed road trip and life as a single parent and writer. She starts her new job teaching at a small community college in Washington state in the fall.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.