American Families' Net Worth: For Many, It's Riches to Rags

Yahoo Contributor Network

For Joe Tuborg, America's financial meltdown was a traffic light that changed from green to red.

By the end of 2007, the Southern Californian's real estate business netted $600,000 a year and he saw his net worth rise to more than $2 million. He was planning on retiring in 2013 at age 53.

"Then everything changed," he says.

Construction halted. Fewer housing contractors needed his business. Income nose-dived. Net worth plummeted.

"No matter what I did, I could not kick-start the economy," Tuborg wrote in a first-person account for Yahoo! News.

His story isn't unique. The Federal Reserve's numbers, released on Monday, bear this out: From 2007 to 2010, the net worth for the median U.S. family tumbled from $126,400 to $77,300. The housing meltdown sparked the nearly $50,000 drop, but some families say the ancillary fallout picked their pockets even more.

To put some human faces to the figures, Yahoo! News asked Americans to share their financial picture from 2007 to today. To be sure, not everyone saw a decrease in net worth. Here are some excerpts from their stories.

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The downward spiral of my family's net worth

I have to admit it's difficult writing this, relating my personal experience against this week's news that net worth has dropped to 1990s levels. I wish I could say my family's financial situation was an exception. But, unfortunately, my experience seems to fit right in.

I estimate our net worth in 2007 was around $40,000. I now have a net worth of $0.

I surrendered my home during bankruptcy, as the mortgage was completely under water by then. A 15-year relationship was ending during my bankruptcy, so I am now a single mother on one income that is about one-third of what it was five years ago.

How has this affected me?

I struggle to support myself and my 13 year-old daughter each month. I rent an apartment and share expenses with a roommate. I'm in my early 40s and recently enrolled in school to study interior decorating, hoping the credentials will allow me to find more work. It seems getting back to where I once was will be a long journey.

I truly think the most important thing I can do is continue to believe that anything is possible. I appreciate what I still do have and look forward to things getting better. Keep believing in your dreams and in the American Dream.

Change only happens when you believe it will happen.

-- Michelle Radcliff, Nevada

Read more of her story.

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The financial crisis did me a favor

In 2007, my net worth was somewhere around $10,000. I had a great job until the changes in Medicaid changed the way the mental health facility I worked at operated. When I realized what was going on was not what I signed up for, I had to find another means of income.

Today my net worth is around $80,000. That is still low by most people's standards, but it works by mine. I have never been materialistic. All I ever wanted was a home in the country where my son and I could have a garden and raise some animals. Finally, at almost 40 years old, I was able to make that happen.

I moved to my current home in Knox, Ind., earlier this year. I was able to buy the land I bought because of the nation's financial crisis. The housing market is moving slowly enough that even prime homes aren't selling. What I have is a simple piece of land in the country with a home and pole barn. It's not the kind of thing that sells fast in a good market.

-- Kathy Foust, Indiana

Read more of her story.

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From riches to rags in Southern California's housing market

At the end of 2007, I was looking at retirement by 2013. Not having to work after age 53 certainly would not make me the youngest man to retire, but it would be earlier than most. As a small-business owner in San Diego, our company's focus was on the construction industry. Southern California was booming and home building was one of the leading industries.

I had seen my net worth rise to a little more than $2 million and there was no reason in my mind that it wouldn't at least double in the next five years.

By the end of 2007, my business was netting $600,000 per year. I owned two homes and a commercial building with a total appraised value of just more than $6 million.

The last large deal I closed was at the end of 2007. My 40-plus hours of work increased, but my income nose-dived. I was working to maintain customers, the proverbial Dutch Boy with a thumb in the dyke. No matter what I did, I could not kick-start the economy.

As I write this, my commercial building was just sold in short sale, and I still owe the SBA $700,000. One home has a short sale pending, and my other is $150,000 in the red. Retiring next year is not only a joke, but may now never be an option.

The most difficult part of the experience is that I was raised by this Golden Rule: "Work hard and you will be rewarded." I still want to believe that is true. I want to believe that America is still a land of opportunity even if it is not the land. Yet, it is hard for me to preach that to my young adult sons. How can I encourage them to save and sacrifice if it has not worked for me?

-- Joe Tuborg, California

Read more of his story.

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Economic crisis made me a better, albeit poorer, person

The median American family has lost almost 40 percent of its net worth since 2007. I believe it.

That year -- 2007 -- was a significant one for me. That's the year I quit my stable job downtown designing databases and started a small resale shop near my home. The timing was unfortunate at best. 2007 was not the time to start a business serving those who were hardest hit by the economic downturn.

On paper it should have been a slam dunk to make money helping people economize by recycling great clothing, shoes and purses. But the reality is that people on unemployment don't buy clothes; they buy food and gas. Pretty soon all my savings were gone as well as a small amount of stock and my 401(k) -- all told about $65,000.

As a young jet-setting computer consultant in my 20s, I thought I would be set for life by the time I reached my late 40s.

But instead, I'm driving a hand-me-down 18-year-old car and struggling to meet all my obligations.

Still there's a part of me that wonders if the lessons of this "hard time" aren't something we actually needed. Like many, I refinanced my house, and my payment is now as low as anything I could rent. Did I really need to eat out that much? Were those three-martini dinners at the airport bar the height of sophistication, or just kind of pathetic? Remember the excesses of the '80s? It seems to me we became a little too preoccupied with the national obsession for accumulating stuff.

-- Kim Jacobs Walker, Texas

Read more of her story.

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Slowly but surely, our family's net worth is growing

Although the grunge look is out and aging Madonna can't pull off thigh-high leather boots anymore, it feels like the early 1990s all over again.

As a Generation-X American, I can't really relate to the statistics since I was still in college in the early 1990s. At that time, I had a negative net worth.

But, I can say I've been slowly building my assets and eliminating my liabilities in the past two decades. My family's net worth is now slightly above average, or more than $130,000. We actually had the greatest increase in our net worth in the past five years since our incomes and savings increased and our debt decreased.

I'm sure our net worth would have been much higher had it not been for the housing and stock market crashes. Despite the setbacks, I think Generation X is in a better financial position compared to baby boomers.

-- Laura Cone, Florida

Read more of her story.

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