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America: What’s your money story? Credit.com contributor Bob Sullivan is hitting the road to ask the people he meets across the U.S. that very question. Whether it’s your struggle with student loans, what you did when you lost your job, how you dealt with a house that was underwater or the ingenious way you paid off a major debt – we want to know about it. Everyone’s story is unique, but the concept of money – and the challenges and triumphs that come with it – is universal.

Bob’s travels are taking him through Chicago, Iowa City, Omaha, Denver and then Seattle. If you’re along that route and want to share your money story, you can reach out to him on social media, using the hashtag #AmericanMoneyStories.

Here are the dispatches from Bob’s time on the road.

Trina Foster-Draper: I’m 56 & Reinventing My Career

LOGAN, Utah — Trina Foster-Draper looked around her homey, brand new two-bedroom apartment and let out a big sigh. She’s recently been laid off from her call center job at CenturyLink in Logan, Utah, but she was in a new home anyway, and proud of it. She’d been living in subsidized housing for more than a decade, but two factors came together recently that finally allowed her to splurge on a nicer place. First, her final two children are soon graduating from college. And second, her father has moved in with her and can help pay the rent.

Trina Foster-Draper

Trina Foster-Draper

“I’ve been living with a food budget of $20 a week for a while,” Foster-Draper said. “Things are better now. I won’t be writing $5,000 tuition checks anymore.” Her children attend a Utah state school.

Foster-Draper, 56, was in the middle of raising four children when her marriage dissolved at age 40. She then had to figure out how to earn enough money so could get her four kids fed, and eventually, through school.

Life in Logan is comfortable enough, but good jobs are hard to come by. She was a trained chef, but stuck in the “land of fast food,” that wasn’t a career option. She started out in food service, cutting fruits and vegetables for college students. She bounced from job to job until she landed a customer support gig at CenturyLink.

High turnover is the norm in any call center, but Foster-Draper learned all she could about CenturyLink and managed to last more than five years there. When her call center was finally closed and all workers laid off this year, she was near the top of the seniority ranks. That was essential, because her severance package got her just across the finish line

“I was given health insurance through next spring, when my kids graduate, so that’s great,” she said. “That’s what I was really concerned about.”

Foster-Draper is now headed back to school to learn IT — the third time she’s had to completely shift gears in her career. IT jobs are plentiful in Utah. She’s not sure how long it’ll take, but she’s not worried. Her new apartment home is next door to a Wal-Mart, and she figures she’ll work there until something turns up.

“Hey, everybody in this valley is overqualified. That’s the way things are today, you have to keep reinventing yourself,” she said. “I’ve gotten by on less before.”

Jen Marcum: I Restarted My Life After a Divorce

BASALT, Colo. — Jen Marcum packed her things and her dog into her car in Kentucky two years ago and headed west. She knew she needed a fresh start, and she headed to the Rocky Mountains, to Aspen, Colo. She had vacationed there and loved it. But she had a rocky start. On the road, she worked her cell phone to figure out living arrangements.

Marcum, 30, was leaving a failed marriage, and realized along the way that she was ill-prepared to be on her own.

Jen Marcum

Rusty and Jen Marcum

“For me, it was dad, then dorm, then husband,” she said. “I wasn’t prepared.

Originally from the Phoenix area, she studied art at the University of Louisville. And now, in Aspen, she had to start right at the beginning, figuring out what she could do to make money, how she’d pay for life’s basics, and where she could get training so she’d be employable. It was scary.

“The first thing I did was secure a room to rent and got jobs waiting tables. It was a good experience,” she said.

She made sure to live within her means to avoid going into debt, and “I opted to wait on getting a credit card until I had a salaried position, which made it more accessible then,” she said.

And soon enough, Marcum saw an ad in the newspaper and took a class to earn a real estate license. She eventually hooked on with Shane Aspen Real Estate and started making a network of friends to support her business. Selling homes is a different beast in a place like Aspen, where one big sale could make your year, but those big fish are hard for newbies to catch. So she’s brokering rentals for now, and found her own community, now living 20 miles north of Aspen in Basalt. The big fish will come.

“My money advice is that people should always be able to take care of themselves. Don’t rely on others, because you never know what can happen,” she said. “And it’s never too late to begin anew.”

Axton Betz-Hamilton: I Teach Students About Money

CHARLESTON, Ill. — Axton Betz-Hamilton is just starting out, but the Illinois state pension mess is already having a direct impact on her career. Betz-Hamilton is a freshly minted Ph.D. and now professor at Eastern Illinois University, not too far from Indiana. She’s also a new wife, but lives entirely across the state from her husband, who lives and works in East Moline, right on the Iowa border. When that job at Eastern Illinois came open, Betz-Hamilton jumped at it — it’s a tough time to get a job as a professor. They trade off on the 3.5-hour drive during weekends to see each other.

Axton Betz-Hamilton

Rusty and Axton Betz-Hamilton

“It’s really not too bad,” she said. “We get to spend more time in the summers together, too.”

Betz-Hamilton, 32, isn’t thinking about retirement. But the Illinois pension mess is directly impacting her anyway. Illinois has the worst state pension crisis in the nation — a $100 billion hole — and it has had to take radical steps to plug the hole. News of changes that are coming, which almost certainly will involve decreased benefits for state employees who retire in the future, have many employees opting for early retirement now. Plenty of professors, also state employees, are retiring, too. That means larger class sizes for the remaining teachers, like Betz-Hamilton, and fewer opportunities to teach advanced classes. Betz-Hamilton must teach mandatory “core” classes instead.

“I spend a lot of time on the basics, like grammar and sentence structure, in addition to course content,” she said. Still, she teaches some life skills courses, such as housing, where she makes sure her students know all the ins and outs of buying and maintaining homes.

“The thing they are most surprised about is how long it takes to buy a home, how much paperwork and planning is involved,” she said. Among the first stark realizations: Down payment requirements. Many students fear they will never build up a bank account big enough to afford a down payment. But they also have no idea where their money goes.

“After I have them do an assignment where they track their spending … they then realize how much money they are spending on going out to dinner, on clothes,” she said. “A person has to understand what they can afford, and creating a personal budget is key to that understanding.”

Denise and Jim Carbone: We Bought a House at the Worst Possible Time

MUNSTER, Ind. — Denise and Jim Carbone walked into a bank several years ago and walked out with an offer to borrow $500,000 to buy a home. They were renting in Wrigleyville at the time, home to their beloved Chicago Cubs. That might have been enough to buy a place not far away — but the young couple knew that was way beyond their means.

Denise and Jim Carbone

Denise and Jim Carbone with Beaker

“A half-million dollars? That was crazy,” Denise, 42, said.

With other friends choosing to extend themselves to stay in Chicago, the Carbones took the road less traveled to Indiana. They bought a lovely $297,000 home with a huge backyard for their golden retriever, Beaker, in Munster, Indiana, the first exit over the state line. The commute is long — they both work close to downtown– but the peace of mind that a reasonable mortgage gave them is priceless. They bought the home in 2006, probably the single worst time to buy a home in modern times. They shudder to think what might have happened if they listened to the bank. Instead, they are on such solid financial footing that they were able to refinance into a 15-year mortgage last year, which will get them out of debt even faster.

And they make the best of distance. Jim and Denise commute together, which gives them two hours of “quality” time every day (“Well, not always,” joked Jim, 38.) Meanwhile, as long as there’s not a traffic surprise, the drive into downtown from Indiana isn’t really any longer than their train or car commute was from Wrigleyville.

Sure, they go to a few less Cubs games, but because they work downtown, they use happy hours to stay connected to friends in the city. And many of those friends enjoy coming out to the suburbs for fresh air and space once in a while.

“On New Year’s Eve, everybody came to our house,” Denise said. “It was great.”

Merela Carrido: I Run a Real Family Business in 2014

MIDDLEFIELD, OHIO — Merela Carrido moved to northwestern Pennsylvania from the Philippines, by way of Australia. At 58, she’s seen a lot of life, and a lot of the world. She’s sure there’s only one way to be confident about the future.

“Be your own boss,” she says. “You’ll work hard, but when you work hard, it’s for you, not for someone else.”

Carrido and her extended family own their own business selling fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets and flea markets all around the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. I met up with her in the heart of Amish country just east of Cleveland in Middlefield, Ohio.

Merela Carrido

Merela Carrido

When I say family business, I mean family business. Mom works there, siblings, in-laws, nieces, nephews.  There was about a dozen of the Carrido clan who welcomed me into their corner of the world. Merela is happy with her simple life of hard work. She grew up in the Philippines, and lived in Australia before coming to the U.S. decades ago. Sister Pinky Carrido earned a degree in nursing and occupational therapy, but the farmers’ market offered her a better future.

It’s hard work — there’s plenty of 5 a.m. days. Each day, they must unload and display a tractor-trailer’s worth of produce, and each night, they pack it all up and drive back home. Produce prices can be volatile – witness the great lime shortage of 2014 – which squeeze profits and angers picky customers.

But it always puts “money in my pocket,” Carrido said, even at one $3 quart of blueberries at a time. And it lets her control her own destiny. She wishes more Americans would take the risk of starting a business.

“When you work for someone else, you never quite know what you’re getting for your work,” she said. “We work, but at the end of the day, we know where we stand.”

Scott Haag: I Was an MBA Living on Ramen Noodles

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Scott Haag’s story represents only one data point, but it’s a good one, suggesting some Americans are getting back on their feet post-Recession. When I met Scott Haag in Columbus, Ohio, last summer, he was nearly at the end of his rope. He’d been downsized in February 2012, had no luck finding a job in recession-ravaged Northeast Ohio, and he was starting to run out of money. But Haag kept at it, and this winter, landed a great job as Chief Audit Officer of Solomon Global Holdings. Still, more than two years of unemployment took its toll; he’s digging out of the credit card debt he amassed while out of work, though he expects to pay it off by this fall. He credits his financial acumen and a series of part-time jobs with keeping him afloat during the lean times. Things could have been much worse.

Scott Haag money story

Scott Haag and Rusty

“I ate a lot more macaroni and cheese, ramen noodles, and grilled cheese sandwiches than I had since my college days and this MBA graduate even had to debate whether or not to buy milk certain weeks,” he said. “But I was smart with my money … I do have former colleagues who bought big houses and fancy cars and are struggling as a result and many still can’t find jobs.”

Haag also offers a possible glimpse into why the economic recovery seems to be lurching in fits and starts. Consumer spending is the driving force of the U.S. economy, but perhaps many consumers emerged from the recession a bit scarred.

“Even though I have a full-time job and a steady paycheck, there is …. a psychological hangover that still makes me extremely selective with my spending,” he said.

The positive side of that conservative view on money, Haag said, is he’ll be even better prepared if he’s jobless again in the future. The advice he offers to anyone with a full-time job today: Take that standard personal finance guru advice about saving three to six months of living expenses and double or triple it.

“Always prepare financially as if you could lose your job tomorrow, (and) not be able to rely on state or federal unemployment benefits,” he said. “(And plan that you) could be out of work for more than a year.”

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Main image: michaelquirk; all other images courtesy Bob Sullivan

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