Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Broke is Beautiful Folk of the Day: An Interview with Stephanie Walker

In 2009 Stephanie Walker and her husband Bob were struggling to keep their California house out of foreclosure. Stephanie began writing about the experience and called her blog Love in the Time of Foreclosure.

Here is how she describes her tale: "Our house sold in a short sale on June 30, 2009 and our marriage is better than ever. In fact, we're expecting our first child in July! Where do we live now? Rent-free in a 1910 farmhouse on a remote and beautiful little island in Washington State. How the heck did that happen?! Well, our entire journey is here. The ups the downs and everything in between."

I spoke to Stephanie via e-mail about love, stuff and the unexpected adventures of being broke.

Why did you initially decide you wanted to be a home owner?

Our first experience as homeowners was the purchase of our condo the same year we got married. Buying the condo was a natural step for us. It was almost a given that we were going to do this. Both of us believed in owning your home and didn't want to rent for the rest of our lives. We were introduced to the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles by a friend who lived and owned a home there. And we fell in love with it. We have absolutely zero regrets about buying that condo.

Selling it and buying the house is another story... Several factors led to that decision. It was both emotionally and logically driven. But at some point the emotion trumped the logic. We fell in love with the house. We believed strongly in real estate as an investment. I grew up with that perspective as a truth as a Realtor's daughter.

And Bob and I had our own evidence to support this, given how much our condo had increased in value in the short time that we owned it. We felt that it was the perfect opportunity for us to get into a house where we could grow roots and start a family. We made sure that the house had everything going for it in terms of resale value.

I can't even count the number of times I said to Bob, "No matter what happens in the market, that view will never depreciate." Obviously I was wrong. Everything depreciated. And our perspective has completely changed as a result.

The truth about real estate as a solid investment? Not so true anymore. Though I wouldn't say I'm against it on principle. It's just not a foregone conclusion. There are people making great investments buying foreclosed properties and short sales. I think, like any investment, it's about timing.

A lot of people when they are going through something like you were feel ashamed and spend lots of energy trying to cover up their financial stress. You started a blog. What made you decide to be so open and public? And what was the result? Did writing about your worries help you?

I love this question. Ultimately the shame that typically accompanies a financial meltdown is what led me to start the blog. First, I should say that I have never been someone who hides her feelings. When the reality of our financial situation hit, I definitely felt an overwhelming sense of shame and stupidity. You know- How could I be so stupid?! It ran me. And I think for a couple of months we probably sugar-coated our situation. I hoped things would turn around and we wouldn't have to own up to the mess.

When we listed our house is when our friends realized that things were worse than we'd been letting on. It was a relief to let them in. And to let our family in. I remain eternally grateful to my family for never ever saying, "I told you so" to me in any way.

It takes a lot of energy to pretend. And I was more committed to spending that energy turning our situation around. Hiding, pretending... it was out of the question. We began by letting the people close to us into our lives and being honest with them. Going public with the blog came later.

At the point that I began "Love in the Time of Foreclosure," we had already received our notice of default and were way in over our heads with credit card debt. We had no idea what would happen next but we were noticing that we were happier than ever. Why? Because we were facing this together and learning from all of our mistakes. We were passionately committed to rising above our circumstances no matter what. To be happy in the face of foreclosure.

I had been seeing more and more stories in the news about people killing themselves or burning their homes down as a response to an impending foreclosure and the tone about the meltdown was all doom and gloom. There was no outlet for people like us to talk about what it's really like, how hard it really is and how we're committed to turning things around.

This had me thinking about blogging. Another contributing factor was my mom telling us that 70% of people facing foreclosure never talk to the bank even once before they are thrown out of their homes. We'd been speaking to the bank every week. And I just wanted to share honestly about how we were handling things with the hopes of connecting with people in the same situation. Getting emails and comments from readers who were going through the same thing was the most rewarding aspect of the blog.

And yes, writing it did help me tremendously. It was my way of venting and processing all of the emotions bombarding me every day. The fact that the blog was about LOVE in the time of foreclosure also helped me. On the days when I wasn't feeling so loving or I just wanted to give up, I couldn't. Because I had spoken this commitment to rise above our circumstances in such a public manner. It kept me honest, so to speak.

You come across as very optimistic and focused on the positives. Did writing your blog help/force you to take that point of view or are you an optimistic person in general?

I am naturally optimistic with a side of pessimism. I definitely always look at the bright side... even in the worst situations. My belief is that there is always something to be learned from every situation. But I don't know that optimistic is really the right word. Pragmatic? I also tend to believe that everything happens for a reason. Not that things are predetermined, but that things happen for a reason. The side of pessimism comes into play when I look at my own life.

And this might originate from my Catholic upbringing, but I never sit there and think, "I deserve a good life." Rather when something bad happens I tend to think that I obviously did something to deserve it and I have to pay penance. I'm working on that.

Various studies have shown that when people are having financial problems they often cut themselves off from other people. Did being as open as you were allow you to have more community support than you might otherwise have had?

Absolutely. I am still blown away by the support we received from our immediate community as well as the online community through the blog. Friends cooked for us when we literally had no money, they volunteered their time at our big sale, they helped us pack, gave us incredible moral support. Our families, though physically far away from us, gave us much needed emotional support. They believed in us and told us on a regular basis. We received wonderful advice and my mom - who was taking a course in short sales and foreclosures- coached us on a regular basis and shared information with our realtors. Being open was the best thing we could have done.

Before you were forced to sell your possessions what was your relationship to stuff? How has it changed?

I had my attachments because I spent a lot of time looking for the "perfect" stuff at the best prices at flea markets and thrift stores. When Bob first suggested selling all of our possessions, my first reaction was, "We're losing the house. I don't want to lose everything in it too." It was too much for me to consider. I wanted to hold on to these things that represented our life.

But I quickly came around. I saw the opportunity in letting go. In breaking that emotional attachment to material things. The idea of being free and unburdened became quite appealing. And I wanted to see what would come up for me in the space of letting go. What appeared was freedom. And I have an entirely new relationship to material things now. We moved into this house in Friday Harbor without any furniture and barely any money to spend. We shopped the dump on a neighboring island, thrift stores and the classifieds for free items. We took what we could get and have made it work. Our goal is to spend money only on what we absolutely need. The distinction between want and need is now crystal clear.

Your blog is called Love in the Time of Foreclosure. Money problems can cause serious problems in relationships, but you seem to have avoided that. Did you begin with a similar view towards money and possessions? How did you manage to stick together through these hard times?

Gosh, well... no. Our views on money and possessions were not similar. And money issues definitely plagued our marriage prior to us having to confront everything head-on in the midst of our foreclosure story. We're now on the same page and it feels so good. In the past it seemed that every conversation about money turned into a fight. Now, we can actually talk about money. Everything we went through together had us individually reevaluate our own past and relationship to money.

Personally, I used to ignore money issues entirely. Now I get excited about paying bills and budgeting. When everything came to a head with our finances, we knew that things could either get very bad for us or we could use the disaster as an opportunity to grow closer together. I feel like a broken record, but that is ultimately what had us 'avoid' the typical marital issues caused by money problems.

The amazing part of your story is how losing your house and stuff led to a position as a caretaker and living rent-free in the San Juan Islands. It sounds as though the decision to get rid of everything allowed you the freedom to explore possibilities you would not have had with a van loaded with stuff.

Yes, true. Letting go of everything is what had us be open to explore all kinds of possibilities. There was a time in our lives that this is what we both craved- being untethered and completely in the unknown. I never could have predicted we'd end up in the San Juan Islands. It's exciting to think about what can arise in the space of nothing.

Prior to buying the house we had discussed taking a year to travel as backpackers around the world. We thought it would be the perfect time. But then I got scared and put more of my attention on owning a house than traveling the world. So I guess it was both a fantasy and challenged my comfort zone. I didn't know how much I would be challenged until we actually got here. The transition from city life to rural life has been much more challenging than I would have predicted. Though now I'm settling in.

What have you learned and what is next?

Goodness. Big question. I've learned so much. Several lifetimes of lessons. Where do I begin? I guess with love. Love is what rescued us. We nourished our love for each other above everything else and that was the right thing to do. We're happier now than we've ever been. What else? Well, sharing is better than not sharing. Sharing our humanity- the good and the bad. It creates community, produces fulfilling relationships, creates authentic connections, fosters humility and opens worlds of possibility.

What's next? Parenthood. Baby Walker is due on July 24th!