If the recession is over, we want to know, what do we call this? Economists have an answer: "The New Normal."
At first glance, it's almost reassuring. New has that nice, shiny, fresh-from-the-package lilt. Normal is good, right? It's not abnormal...
Then you get it. The "New Normal" is ominous. It's the "jobless recovery" -- on a ten-year plan. It's celebrating Dow 10,000 (because Dow 12,000 is a pipe dream). It's whatever you thought was temporary but ended up settling for: Your post-pregnancy weight. The cubicle job you took when you lost the office-with-a-door job. The Trader Joe's job that makes you miss your cubicle. It's bad, it's sad, get used to it.
And then, buck up. Consider Alicia Florrick, the Silda-Elizabeth-Hillary character played by Julianna Margulies in the new hit drama "The Good Wife'' (which happens to be a CBS show.)
Florrick's life -- and that of her two kids -- has been blown apart by the sordid and corrupt activities of her husband, a Mr. Big Shot (played by Chris Noth) who is now behind bars. Margulies is really good at pained faces (is it all in the eyebrows?). Sometimes the episodes seem to be a series of reaction shots where you see her get it, again and again: this is life as the "wife of the disgraced politician.'' Reduced financial circumstances are the least of it. (Arguably, her circumstances are still a lot less reduced than yours or mine. As The American Prospect points out in a review, she leaps easily off the mommy track into a top law firm, and she's already acing the work.)
"The Good Wife" treats us to plenty of flashbacks (the press conference, the perp walk, the friends before they abandoned her). But when we first meet Florrick, she's back on the horse: Dressed, out of bed, showing up at the office. And when she talks to the kids, her back straightens, her face clears, she's Opto Mom! (Any parent will recognize the look -- totally synthetic, utterly necessary.) Optimism, after all, is part of the job description, whether you're Mom, Dad, spouse of the unemployed, or grown child of Madoff-ed retirees.
Following Florrick's example is what you -- and any adult you share a balance sheet with -- need to do: Define your New Normal. And then embrace it. Here's how to get started:
- Sit down. This might make you a little woozy.
- Assemble your own set of economic indicators. Is your employer still operating in the black? How stable is your state's unemployment fund? Is your mortgage about to re-set? How long has your neighbor's house been on the market? Have your kids moved back in? Are they paying you rent?
- Calculate your income. Write down your Old Normal income. Write down your New Normal income. If your income hasn't changed, great. But discount a little if you see looming share-the-pain pay cuts or extended furloughs. Do that math. Assume that the gap will not be closed before, say, 2020. Okay, 2015.
- Calculate your spending. List your Old Normal expenditures: The fixed costs, and then the unfixed. Take-out meals per week; vacation destinations outside a 5-mile radius; hours of paid service from the babysitter, gardener, lawn guy, car detailer. (Think of their New Normal.)
- Look for places to cut. Start with the luxuries. Work your way to what's sacred (the Thanksgiving ski trip with your frat brothers). Compromise (skip the resort, rent a cabin together). Don't be punitive. (You'll survive unemployment better if you see your therapist. Will she cut her fee?)
- Start plugging some new numbers into your budget. If, like the vast majority of budget-averse Americans, you don't even have an Old Normal budget, go to one of the free money-management websites that are bright, cheery and easy to navigate.
It may help to invent a catchy slogan (the family of NPR reporter Yuki Noguchi calls it "chill on the bill"). Much better than "the New Normal."