finance

Rich wife, poor wife: How it feels to lose every cent you have.

Seven years ago, my husband and I lost every single cent we’d ever earned. We’d been married for five years, we had two children with another on the way, and we were broke.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of losing it all. Even now looking back it plays through my head like a bad movie. There were tense silences, stress like you wouldn’t believe, stacks of letters of demand from energy providers and mortgage companies and even, shamefully, from my child’s preschool.

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At first we thought it would be okay. The big bad Global Financial Recession had arrived. We’d seen it coming but like everyone else, never thought it would be as bad as it was. My husband’s businesses in property tanked immediately and instead of downing tools, accepting his fate and moving on, he chose to fight.

Jo Abi on her wedding day

In the meantime I was nursing my second child in one hand and calling debt collectors with the other, begging for extra time and payment arrangements and asking them to please please please waive the late fee.

“If I can’t even pay the bill, how do you expect me to afford the late fee?”

The problem with being in business for yourself as opposed to being fired is that my husband wasn’t given any notice, wasn’t given a payout and didn’t even have any annual leave he could cash in. The money simply stopped. The bank froze his accounts overnight and then told him they were taking possession of his latest development.

His skin turned grey. He grew quiet.

They were silent months, the months during which we lost it all. There was no fighting, no talking, no comfort, no encouragement, just silence.

Related: Meshel Laurie is starting all over again. And it’s daunting.

He refused to give up. He was going to get it all back. I wanted to believe him, but I knew it wasn’t true. I secretly put our home on the market and found a cheap rental near my parent’s house. I asked the universe for a job that would cover at least rent and food, preferably one I could do from home. And I got it.

It was the day we arrived home to a repossession notice that my husband realised we’d have to sell and we’d have to move. But it was like he was playing along. I was just so negative with all of my preparations for a moneyless future.

“The worst part of all of this isn’t the money Jo, it’s the fact that you don’t trust me anymore,” he’d say. “You’ve lost faith in me.”

Jo and her family

I don’t trust you, I’d want to say, but I didn’t. At the end of the day it wasn’t his fault that we were losing it all. We were just in the wrong business at the wrong time and we were to become some of the nameless victims of the idiots who thought sub-prime mortgages were a good idea, until the practice nearly bankrupted the world.

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You probably won’t believe me when I say this but losing it all was the best thing that ever happened to us. It took us years to realise it, but we didn’t like the people we had become when we were wealthy. My husband worked any and all hours and I was alone a lot. We were very distant and living separate lives. Our friends weren’t real friends. Most of the couples we used to socialise with have since split. We spent too much money on things that didn’t matter. We valued all the wrong things – car brands, boats, labels, restaurants.

Related: 8 financial essentials you should know by your 50s

Today we are happier than we’ve ever been.

We’ve never recovered financially. It’s impossible to recover what you’ve lost when you have three school-aged children with needs. You can’t just eat noodles for three months while you save the deposit for another house. Kids don’t work that way. So we’ve chosen them as our investment and we are renting our home.

We spend every single cent on them and their education and we spend money on things that matter. We spend so much time together, we do everything together, we talk all the time and we never feel the loneliness and isolation any more.

There are other things that our ‘riches to rags’ story has taught us. We appreciate what we have. We ran out of food money. I remember the feeling of spending our very last $236 on groceries and wondering what we were going to do next week. Our family helped us, but nothing replaces the feeling of earning enough money to buy our own food. That’s why I love grocery shopping so much. I am so proud of the fact we have money for food. We never went hungry but there was quite a long time when we didn’t get to buy what we wanted or as much as we wanted. Chicken breast was a luxury. Eating out wasn’t on the cards. Bacon was a luxury.

We have a roof over our heads. There was a time when I thought we might have to move in with my parents. That didn’t happen and now we have a great home we are renting that is close to our family. It has a big back yard and the school bus stops right at the end of our driveway.

Jo's kids.

The kids are happy. They have great lives. They don’t get everything they ask for but they get a lot, and the joy of being able to buy them the things they want and need is so healing.

There are moments when we wish we had the money we had before and imagine some of the things we could do for our family. It’s particularly hard during rental inspections. But we wouldn’t give up what we have now to have that money. We always remind ourselves that we have all the things that money can’t buy...

Love, family, health and happiness.

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