Success

I was homeless, unemployed and living off McDonald's. How surviving a recession prepared me for Covid-19

Pictured: Mike Dante Whitfield

I was 35 when I lost my job as a legal courier in San Jose, California. It was 2009, and the economy had lost nearly six million jobs since the Great Recession began in 2007. 

Finding work was nearly impossible. At one point, I juggled three jobs that paid a total of less than $500 per week. It was barely enough to get by. For the next three to four years, I was mostly unemployed, homeless — sleeping on benches, shelters and sometimes friends' couches — and living off the McDonald's Dollar Menu.

Those were some dark times. But I've come a long way since then. In 2017, I moved to Tacoma, Washington with my best friend Kim, who lent me just enough money to settle down and pursue my dream of getting into real estateYou're getting another shot, I told myself. Don't blow it

I didn't. Eight months after I got my broker license, I closed my seventh deal — for a total of $1.6 million in sales. I paid back the money Kim loaned me.  For the first time in my life, I had a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. I got serious about saving money and started planning for the future.

While the underlying cause of today's economic slowdown is fundamentally different from the Great Recession, the lessons I learned over the past decade still apply. And they've made me more prepared to handle the hardships that have — and will — come from the coronavirus pandemic.

1. Don't spend your hard-earned money on stupid stuff.

When I moved from the Midwest to California in 1999, I was offered several good-paying jobs from various tech companies. Growing up in poverty, I felt like I had won the lottery.

So, being in my 20s, I did what lots of young adults with money did: I partied like it was 1999. I traveled, ate out every night, went on dates at fancy restaurants and wasted my earnings on things I didn't need. I knew my habits were getting out of control, but I kept coming up with excuses: Tomorrow. Tomorrow I'll start saving.

Or, I'd justify my actions through charitable gestures, like handing a homeless person a $50 bill. I still believe in helping those in need, but at the time, I wasn't in a position to be giving financially. I also had no idea that, in a few years, I'd end up on those very same homeless streets.

Millions of people are facing financial strains due to the pandemic, but there are also a lucky handful whose finances are mostly intact. If you're in the latter group, don't take your position for granted. Be wise with your money, because you could lose it all tomorrow.

I've since learned to fight the temptation of unnecessary spending. Once you know what it's like to be homeless, what it's like to starve and eat ketchup and mustard out of containers — that's when you really know the difference between "wants" and "needs."

2. Plan for the worst and build an emergency fund ASAP.

Back then, saving was never on my mind. I would tell myself that if something bad happens, I'll deal with it then. But you should always assume that the worst will happen, because it eventually will.

No one knows exactly what the future will hold, so it's important to have an emergency fund and contingency plan in place. What will you do if you get evicted? Move back home with your parents? Rent a room on Craigslist? Always be 10 steps ahead so you don't get caught off guard.

After I started earning a stable income from my realtor job, I calculated how much I needed to contribute to my emergency fund each day to reach six months' worth of living expenses by the end of the following year. I even had to take on side hustles and sell things some of my belongings.

Saving wasn't easy for me, and it isn't easy for most. Maybe you have a low salary or a big family to support. Maybe you have student debt. Maybe you're getting crushed by medical bills. Whatever the situation, do everything in your power to make sure you have that emergency fund ready.

3. Learn new skills and be willing to work jobs you're overqualified for.

We're facing high unemployment and a tough job market. The work you're used to doing might not be in demand right now, so this isn't a time to refuse jobs you think you're too overqualified for.

I know master's degree holders who previously had a six-figure income, but are now bagging groceries. During the recession, I had to put my ego aside. I took any odd job I could find: Breaking landscaping rocks into shapes, walking dogs, cleaning houses and running errands. I even worked at a homeless shelter that I used to stay at.

But those jobs didn't just fall into my lap. Every morning, I'd wake up at 6:30, put on a suit and spend the rest of the day riding a crowded, hot bus to job interviews. There were times when I'd have to walk 20 minutes to get to a hiring site, only to find a line of 15 people — also soaked in sweat.

Another thing that worked against me: I wasn't the fresh-faced kid out of college anymore. I was in my late-30s and competing with hundreds of others who had the skills I lacked. So I decided to spend some time learning new skills, which helped a lot. I taught myself video editing and music production, and landed a few freelance jobs from it.

4. Unemployment will take a toll on your mental health. Have a support system in place.

For most of my life, especially during the recession, I battled with severe depression. I remember coming home hungry, lost and in tears.

There were days when I was so starved and broke (to the point where I could no longer afford McDonald's) that I had to each ketchup or mustard, just to have something in my stomach. I felt hopeless. I wanted to give up. I missed the days when my mother was still alive; she was my person.

Pictured: Mike and his best friend Kim

Unexpected life changes will take a toll on your mental health. Your stress and anxiety will worsen. You can't just turn them off ... and medication will only get you so far.

What helped me was having a support system in place. I used to push people away because I didn't want them to see me struggle. Eventually, I learned to open up and ask for help. I realized the importance of kindness and togetherness. I leaned on friends for support, even if it was just sharing stories about what we were going through. Some would buy me groceries or lend me their couch for a few nights.

I also became close friends with some homeless people I met on the streets. A lot of people have this perception that they're lazy or dangerous addicts with no work skills. But I learned that they're people just like everyone else — people who fell into hard times.

Incorporating healthy routines was also essential to maintaining my mental health. I exercised, prayed, meditated and created music. This pandemic can lead you to a dark place, but don't let yourself drown in it. Get help, whether it's through virtual therapy or talking to someone you trust. 

5. Be grateful for life and spend time with those you love.

Today, we're not just struggling with our health and finances. A lot of us are coping with loss, or the anticipation of it.

I used to get so caught up in my own problems that I'd forget how lucky I was to still be alive. Now, I'm beating the coronavirus blues with gratitude. Gratefulness, especially for life, is a powerful thing. And it can get you through your worst days.

It's also important to take advantage of the time you have left with those who are close to you. Before I became a realtor, I helped Kim take care of her mother, who was like family to me. Watching someone you love slowly die of cancer is a devastating experience. I still grieve over her loss, but I'm glad I made the most out of the time we had left together.

Having those special memories — of cooking her favorite dinners, telling jokes to make her laugh — is better than no memories at all. Don't put all your mental and emotional energy obsessing over things you can't control. Be there for your loved ones, especially if you know you don't have much time left with them.

6. Finding and spreading hope is key to getting through tough times.

Navigating this pandemic hasn't been a breeze for me. My realtor job has been on hold due to the impact of Covid-19 on the real estate market. Kim (who I currently live with) is working full-time from home, and I'm doing some freelance work on video editing and music production. We're just trying to keep a roof over our heads.

Every day has been hard, but I refuse to let Covid-19 turn me into a cynical and hardened person. My past experiences have made me stronger, wiser and optimistic.

We all have every right to be scared. These are the worst of times, but there are reasons to be hopeful. Hope is what pulled me out of the darkness, and I believe it's the only thing that will get us through this chaotic time.

You also don't need to search very far to find hope. There are ways to help your local community, whether it's donating food to shelters, making face masks for frontline workers or just spreading cheer and encouragement from your window. 

Mike Dante Whitfield is a real estate agent, licensed in California and Washington. In his spare time, he writes and produces music. Mike's hobbies include furniture restoration, cooking, sports and traveling. He currently lives in Sacramento, California.

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