Looking back, the financial lives many Americans enjoyed until just a few years ago can seem like a mirage.
On a suburban cul-de-sac northwest of Atlanta, Michael and Patricia Jackson are struggling to keep a house worth $100,000 less than they owe. In a small town in West Virginia, Michael Bobic, who last year lost his job as a college professor, sells Star Trek collectibles on eBay to get by.
Their voices and those of many others tell the story of a country that, for all the economic turmoil of the past few years, continues to believe things will get better. But until it does, families are trying to hang on to what they've got left.
The Great Recession claimed nearly 40 percent of Americans' wealth, the Federal Reserve reported last week. The new figures, showing Americans' net worth has plunged back to what it was in 1992, left economists shuddering while sharpening attention on the pocketbook issues at the center of the presidential campaign. But for families across the country, the report, tracking the period from 2007 to 2010, confirms what they already felt in their gut and saw in their checkbooks. It is one more reminder that they're not alone.
Most of the wealth was lost to the mortgage crisis and the drop in home values, wiping out equity many families counted on. But incomes and stock-based retirement accounts fell, too. In the 18 months since the Fed completed its survey, home prices have continued to fall in many cities, while stocks rose and then fell back to nearly the same level.
"There's nothing in this report that makes me feel good," says Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and an economic official in the Clinton administration. Bubble-inflated housing wealth was a fiction whose end should have been expected, she said, but the drop in incomes is especially troubling, because it gives people even less flexibility and confidence to save for the future. "There are signs of improvement, but I think that everybody is scared."
It's not just plummeting wealth affecting Americans' financial psyche. Incomes have been stagnating for years. But until the bubble burst, lenders and credit card companies gave consumers freedom to borrow and spend. No more.
Americans "were told they were much wealthier than they really were and they believed it," says Robert Manning, author of the book "Credit Card Nation" and an expert on consumer finance. "Now they're kind of hearing they're a lot less wealthy then they believed — and they're in denial."
In New York, Michael and Patricia Jackson shared a bedroom made from a walled-in front porch, in a house cut into three cramped apartments. Then, on a visit to Georgia in 2000, they drove past spacious new homes and lawns in subdivisions promising affordability, and they began to dream.
By the time they moved in to their brick-face colonial in Marietta four years later, even bigger dreams seemed within reach. The house in the new Hampton Chase neighborhood cost a little more than $200,000 and values were rising fast.
With $20,000 in equity and two paychecks, the Jacksons were financially secure. What they remember most, though, is feeling proud. Their daughter had her own room. Patricia loved the "humongous" master bedroom and bathroom. Michael devoted himself to the lawn that sloped down to a thick stand of trees, working hours in the heat with a relish he'd never felt as a renter.
"This is what we always wanted, was to live somewhere comfortable and to be part of the community as well," says Michael, who is 53. "It made me a better man. I learned how to cut the grass. You know in New York you have one little patch of grass and you can take scissors and cut it."
The couple said they rejected countless offers to borrow against the house. Instead, they made plans to save and let equity build, hoping to eventually buy a vacation home near Patricia's parents in Jamaica and maybe even a small apartment in New York, for visiting family.
But in 2007, Patricia was cut from her job as a dispatch supervisor with a cable television company. Then Michael lost work as a contractor. They struggled to pay the mortgage. But they kept pace when their lender offered a forbearance plan that temporarily halved monthly payments, but added the balance to the loan, a fact the Jacksons say was not explained to them at the time.
They fell even further behind after getting into an accident on the long drive between New York and Georgia. Meanwhile, a foreclosure wave swept the metro Atlanta real estate market, sending home values down.
County appraisers recently valued the Jackson's home at $166,000, but the couple say it probably would bring no more than $140,000. They are 11 months behind on their mortgage payments and, with penalties added, now owe $245,000 on the house.
Michael says they were naive. They tried filing for personal bankruptcy, which confronted them with the fact that they'd already lost their equity and would probably lose the house. So they withdrew the filing and decided to battle it out. They dropped cable, stopped taking clothes to the drycleaner and Patricia cut out tithing to the church.
Both found new jobs and the lender has cut the interest rate on their loan. But they are so far behind on the mortgage that the lender tells them they can't qualify for government programs to help families stay in their homes. The Jacksons, who long ago shelved fantasies of vacation homes, now are desperate to convince someone they are worthy of keeping the house on Hampton View Court.
"We're scared. We don't know what's going to happen," Michael says. "Right now, our main thing is to hold on to what we have. I mean, we're holding. But the mortgage company, they have a grip on us."
For 13 years, Michael Bobic taught political science to college students. Now he sells Star Trek collectibles on eBay and teaches a fencing class at the YMCA to help pay the bills.
The 49-year-old drives only when he has to, shops around to save 50 cents on a gallon of milk and hasn't bought a restaurant dinner since losing his job as a professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College last year.
"I'm incredibly cheap," Bobic, who lives in Fairmont, W.Va., says proudly.
Once a week, Bobic spreads his gospel of frugality, teaching a money management class at Galilean Baptist Church in nearby White Hall. Growing up in Kingsport, Tenn., Bobic recalls that as his parents divorced and later remarried each other, their financial lives swung wildly. Their son learned to prepare for the financial uncertainties of his own adulthood by watching.
He tells his church class to do what he did — have an emergency fund to cover three to six months of expenses. When Bobic lost his job, he was prepared. Enrollment had been shrinking and he knew Wesleyan couldn't afford an extra professor with two already tenured.