money talks

‘I’ve Lost All My Income and I Feel Paralyzed’

Photo: Getty Images

The Cut is asking readers to share what they’re doing with their money — or the lack of it — in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. This week, a 39-year-old massage therapist in Brooklyn, who has lost all her income.

The last day I worked was on March 14, the Saturday before Governor Cuomo closed New York down. I rent a workspace in Brooklyn, and no one in my building was on the same page about hygiene protocols. I was also nervous about taking the train to get there. I knew there was no way I could say for sure that none of my clients would get infected at an appointment. So I was just like, “I can’t do this,” and I canceled all the next day’s appointments.

Shutting down my business was terrifying, financially. And the irony is, I was just getting to a good financial place. About a year ago, I got a divorce, and that process was finally ending. I’d also doubled my business revenue, which allowed me to start paying down my consumer debt more aggressively. I had one shared credit card from my marriage that had about $11,000 on it and another personal credit card with about $9,000. My plan was to pay off both of them by June or July and then start tackling my $90,000 of student debt from when I went to graduate school for acupuncture. Before all this, I mapped it out so that I could pay it off in the next five years.

I was also planning to go to aesthetician school this summer so that I could add facials and skin care to my services, and it would have bumped up my annual revenue by about $50,000. Everything was lining up perfectly — and then it all just came crashing down. One of the hardest things about all this is having the direction of my life completely ripped away.

Not only did I lose all my income but I also lost over half the money I received in my divorce settlement, which was a 401(k) worth about $26,000. The Monday after I closed my business, I liquidated that portfolio because I didn’t feel comfortable leaving my money in the market. That was the same day that the Dow dropped 3,000 points — so what started out as $26,000 wound up being only about $10,000 in the end. I consolidated what was left of it with the rest of my money in a savings account. I also have some cash from a promotional offer that I did in mid-March where clients bought gift cards and packages. It’s basically a credit to be worked off later, though, so I don’t feel great about living on it. Altogether, I had about $40,000 total at the beginning of the pandemic. I’ve spent about $8,000 of it so far.

Before this, I wasn’t saving at all. After my divorce, I realized that there was so much I had never explored because I never went out at all when I was married. I’m glad that I tried new things and checked out new places, but I was spending a lot of money — takeout every night or meeting up with a friend for dinner and a bottle or two of wine.

During normal times, my personal expenses would be about $5,000 a month, minimum, including rent and transportation. I can’t believe how much I used to buy. I love clothes, and it wouldn’t be abnormal for me to spend $1,000 or more a month on shopping.  But now I’ve cut down my total expenses to about $2,200 or $2,300 a month. Since the shutdown began, it’s been hard not to shop, but I’ve only bought one pair of stretchy pants and something from ThredUp — $280. I also used to spend at least $500 a month on takeout, and now I’m spending $250 or $300 a month on grocery boxes. I allow myself to order out one night a week.

My landlord cut my rent by 50 percent, which has helped a lot, and right now he’s letting me use my security deposit to pay for it. I’m still paying $850 a month in rent on my workspace that I sublet from a colleague of mine. The landlord hasn’t given her a break, so I’m continuing to pay her too. I also used to pay for my own health care through Oscar, but then I realized I was probably eligible for Medicaid, so I applied and was approved.

There are a few things I won’t give up. I’ll still buy myself a health supplement or a beauty product that I know will make me feel better. And wine. I just subscribed to Bright Cellars, and the first box was a special deal, so I think it was five bottles for about $40.

I’m also paying for therapy. When this all started, I signed up for the app BetterHelp. It was $350 or $400 per month, but then I submitted a form saying that I had no income, and they reduced my fee to about $125.  It’s harder to convey all the things you normally would in a traditional therapy session in the online format, but it’s much better than nothing.

I filed for unemployment on the first day that I was eligible for it under the CARES Act, on April 1. It took me about three hours just to do the application, because the website was so old that it kept timing out. And if you’re freelance, like I am, you can’t even finish your application online — someone has to certify it, so they give you a phone number to call. I called every day for over a month and got a busy signal every time. Finally, I got a message that said, “We are experiencing high call volumes. Please call back later.” It was all just crazy-making.

Another ridiculous thing is that you’re supposed to verify every week that you’re unemployed in order to be compensated for it, and I was unable to do that because my calls wouldn’t go through. So I kept calling the claims line every day just to have a call record. My reasoning was that if they ever tried to fight me on back payment, I could say, “Here are my phone records.”

I reached out to my local representatives, a couple of City Council members, and various members of the New York State Assembly. They didn’t return my calls or emails. I called Cuomo’s office, sat on hold for three hours, was transferred to the Department of Labor, and was told I would get a call back in two or three days. That didn’t happen.

I finally spoke to someone at the unemployment office on May 7, and I got my first payment on May 20. It’s a little under $1,000 a week, which is enough to cover my basic personal expenses. I read the CARES Act carefully and filed my 2019 taxes specifically so that I could get as close to the maximum amount as possible. But I haven’t yet been able to get all of my back pay. At this point, they owe me about $8,800.

I also filed for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan from the Small Business Administration. I actually applied for it three times because the application kept changing. And I had no idea what was going on with it until this week, when $45,000 appeared in my bank account. No one even asked me for collateral or anything. I don’t know if they’re going to come back to me about it, or if the SBA is just so overwhelmed that it can’t provide oversight. I’m nervous to spend it on reopening, whenever that happens, because there might be another wave of cases and then I’ll have to shut down again and I’ll owe even more money. So I’m just going to sit on it for now.

The thing that keeps me going is my absolute rage at how poorly this whole situation has been handled. I was making six figures before all of this, and because the government failed to manage this properly, I believe it owes me what I’m losing. I actually keep track of the figure and write it down. Like, “Okay, week No. 9, I would have made $30,000 by now.”

The uncertainty of my business and finances and worrying about my friends and loved ones have tested my mental fortitude. Finding out a friend’s parent has tested positive for COVID, checking in with people — it’s psychologically exhausting. I live alone with two dogs, and they do help me stay on some kind of schedule, but I haven’t been sleeping well. Most nights I try to go to bed around 11 p.m., but I can’t actually fall asleep until about 4 a.m. Then I get up sometime between nine and 11 a.m., take the dogs for a walk, and make calls for the rest of the day. But there are days every week when I just go back to bed because I don’t know what else to do. I’ve talked to a lot of other small-business owners who feel the same way — just paralyzed.

‘I Had to Shut Down My Business, and I Feel Paralyzed’