One day turns family's finances upside down

A crime committed by Michelle Hart's husband financially swamped her and their two children with alarming speed.

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Michelle Hart and her 9 year old daughter sit in the entry way of there apartment as by her daughters pose they re keeping there heads held high.

It wasn't exactly the high life, but it was a good life, Michelle Hart remembered.

Her husband had logged for the same company for a decade, bringing in enough income to rent a nice home in Longview, Wash., and to allow Hart to attend school.

Her children, ages 16 and 9, enjoyed many of the electronic luxuries most kids have today, she said.

Hart's goal then was to major in legal studies. Now, she hopes to survive the financial disaster that befell the family out of the blue.

When her husband failed to show up at home one evening, Hart, 41, figured he was at his job late again. The man was a hard worker and the family proved it with a comfortable lifestyle, she said.

Her spouse wasn't doing overtime that day, it turned out -- he was on his way to doing time.

Something had happened to trigger an angry response from Hart's usually temperate spouse, severe enough so that he punched a windshield, she said.

On a police car.

Her husband received a sentence of six years for a second-degree assault conviction. Just like that, life looked completely different.

The family had half a month's salary in savings, but it was no dam for the flood of new financial woes. "When people say you are one or two paychecks away from disaster, they are not kidding," Hart said. "Especially with the debt we accrue, it's like the bottom dropping out of the stock market."

Her savings went quickly, the rental was given up and Hart moved to "the ghetto," she remembered. In the new neighborhood, her high-achiever teen became a source of worry atop the other stressors.

"I lost my mind a little bit."

She sold everything she could, packed the rest into the 13 bags she was allowed to take on Amtrak. The family headed to Walla Walla, where her husband was sent to serve his sentence.

Hart arrived here with few funds and fewer plans, she said. "I have weeks that I don't have a cent to my name and I'm not used to that."

She grew up in a wealthy family -- this is a whole new level of helplessness. "I went from having two vehicles, a nice house ... I only had one credit card." Her student loans were another thing. With no savings left and no job, Hart defaulted on those payments and is unsure if she will ever be eligible for financial aid again, she said.

"It is a scary, soul-crushing experience."

She's applied for more than two dozen jobs in Walla Walla, Hart said. "I can't find a job to save my life." The family is using the Valley Transit system -- "That's another first for me" -- which does "an outstanding job" of getting people where they need to be, she said.

She has availed herself of help through Blue Mountain Action Council and is taking the free "Money Smart" class at Banner Bank.

"I think everyone should take it. Most people in that class are trying to get their life back together. If I was doing this all along, I wouldn't be in this position."

She is taking every bit of free financial and other education she can find to better her life, Hart added. "Because I don't ever want to be here again. Never, ever."

The Money Smart class has reminded her of the significance of having a nest egg, one big enough to cover six or seven months of lost income. "It's like a huge, fat bonus to me ... things I knew but never really exercised."

In her case, life fell apart because of her husband's crime, but it could be anything, Hart said. "Maybe an illness or getting hit by an uninsured driver ... you see that all the time; people doing good and then tragedy hits."

She gets that people feel invincible. "Those people who say it can't happen to then, that is what I said two years ago. I was going through life not really getting it."

Hart is planning on surviving this crisis and regaining ground, some day having some of the things the family was forced to eliminate, she said.

Gone forever, however, is her smoking habit and fast food purchases. "Those things won't be added back in."

She means that "never ever," too. "I feel like any minute this could be ripped out from under me. I will never let this happen to me again."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom .

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