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Politics

Are YOU Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?

Thousands of Kiplinger readers shared their answers to the central question of the 2012 presidential campaign. Here are their stories.

We recently looked at ten measures of economic growth to help answer the question “are we better off than we were four years ago?” (See our story here). But our initial coverage was missing one critical component: you.

After all, facts and figures only tell one side of the story; our collective experiences fill in the rest. So, to help us paint a more complete picture of the past four years, we asked you about your personal finances now compared to four years ago. Is your employment situation better or worse? How are your investments performing? Are you spending more or less on groceries and gas?

We received 5,570 responses, and, yes, we read every single one of them. Several predominant themes emerged: the long-term unemployed, people of all ages and income levels trying to keep up with the rising cost of living, investors who recouped their losses since the crash of 2008, and small business owners who are both struggling and thriving in the Obama economy.

More than three-quarters of respondents were over the age of 50, including a quarter who were 65 years and older. They were also predominantly male (65%), had completed at least some college, and made more than $25,000 a year.

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Their stories -- which may very well resemble your story or the challenges facing your family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues in your community – are alternately heartbreaking and uplifting. Read on to discover how your fellow Americans’ lives have changed throughout the last four years.







The long-term unemployed and under-employed are losing hope.

“I have been unemployed for two years now as of October 1, 2012. Getting ready to lose what little bit I have, including a place to live. Have no hope as of right now for the future.” (male, age range: 50-65 years old, level of education: 2-year college graduate, annual income: $10,000-$25,000)

"I am a divorced, 56-year-old female, and I have been laid off twice in the last four years. Will be living in a shelter by Christmas.” (female, 50-65 years old, some college, $25,000-$50,000)

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"I have been unemployed since 2009, and have not been able to get work for more than minimum wage.” ( male, 50-65 years old, 4-year college grad, $25,000-$50,000)

"16 months of unemployment cost me everything. I am underwater in my home.” (male, 50-65 years old, some college, $100,000-$250,000)

"I went from a successful professional to broke. I am homeless now and going through a divorce. I apply for jobs at Macys, Stanley Steamer, Home Depot and get turned away because of my past success working on Wall Street. I am bitter and have no faith things will turn around.” (male, 30-49 years old, 4-year college grad, $10,000-$25,000)

Older respondents in particular are struggling in this job market.

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“I have been unemployed for almost 2 years. I stand in line at job fairs with other over-50's, competing for the same few jobs. Until this past year, I owned my own home. My only remaining asset is a vastly depleted IRA. I survive only because I married someone. When it comes to retirement, what am I to do?” (female, 50-65 years old, 4-year college grad, $25,000-$50,000)

"I am unemployed and on unemployment right now, but I start school in January at 54-years-old to add education to my career experience. Hopefully, when I get done in about six months, I will be able to pay for the expenses of having two teenagers, 15 and 17, graduate, drive, and hopefully go to college." (female, 50-65 years old, high school/GED, $25,000-$50,000)

"I am 62 and recently lost my job. I had been working as an interior designer for the past 18 years, earning $50,000/year, plus commission. Now, there are no jobs to apply for, and, at my age, I fear I will never work again." (female, 50-65 years old, some college)

Then there are those who, while happy to have a job, lament that they are indeed worse off – either in a lower-paying field or “stuck” in the same position as four years ago with no raises but longer hours.

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"My husband lost his professional high paying job of 32 years. He now works for one-fifth the pay at a retail store." (female, 50-65 years old, 4-year college grad, $10,000-$25,000)

"Four years ago, my husband made $56,000. Last year, he made $10,020. He has applied for over 250 jobs with no success." (female, 30-49 years old, 2-year college grad, $25,000-$50,000)

"My wife just got a job after being laid-off for two years. She’s doing same thing she was for the last ten years, only for $10.00/hour less. My job makes in a week, what I used to in a day. We used to be comfortable. Now, we have no credit, have lost two rental units, and don't always eat three meals a day. I still have hope, but I have had all the change I can stand." (male, 65+ years old, some college)

"Lost my job in 2010. Fortunately, obtained another in 2011 but for $25,000 less in salary and fewer benefits. Lost my house, now renting. Had excellent credit, now it's bad. I am a single parent, and we live paycheck to paycheck." (female, 30-49 years old, 4-year college grad, $25,000-$50,000)

"I, a college graduate, have taken on a part-time evening job as a janitor at a nearby school to help make ends meet, as well as to get into their health benefit plan which costs me just shy of $900.00 per month. I have been trying to find employment in my field, but the home-building business is basically dead. I also have my age against me. I fear where I might be in a few years if the economy doesn't take a turn for the better. At the present time, we are merely treading water and living week-to-week... compared to about 5-6 years ago when our yearly income was more than double what it is now." (male, 50-65 years old, 4-year college grad, $25,000-$50,000)





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There are success stories, too.

"Four years ago I was working 3 part-time jobs, trying to make ends meet. I didn't have health insurance, and I was $5,000 in medical debt. I ended up evicted from my home. Today, I work one full time job. I have excellent health insurance and have successfully paid off all of my outstanding debt. I am now saving approximately $1,600 a month, and am setting myself up to buy a home in the not-too-distant future." (female, 18-29 years old, 2-year college grad, $25,000-$50,000)

"After I was laid off in 2009, I did not panic. I knew it was a cycle. I took advantage of unemployment insurance and looked for work. Now I have more work than I can shake a stick at." (female, 50-65 years old, 4-year college grad, $25,000-$50,000)

"I was laid off in September 2008 from a management job in the banking industry. I worked part time for six months before being hired for a series of temporary positions, which led to regular, full-time employment. I earn more now than I did in banking, and I am confident of an adequate retirement income. (female, 50-65 years old, 4-year college grad, $50,000-$75,000)

I lost two jobs at the end of the Bush administration, all within a year. I have been employed continuously now for more than three years." (female, 50-65 years old, 4-year college grad, $75,000-$100,000)








An overwhelming trend among all readers, regardless of age or income level, is the rising cost of living. One woman calls it “the biggest problem with our economy.”

"As a divorced mother of a child that just started college this year, I am fearful that $20,000/year isn’t going to be enough to see my one-and-only child make it through college. With the price of tuition, gas, groceries, utilities creeping up and up, my biggest fear is that he will end up without a proper education." (female, 30-49 years old, high school/GED, $10,000-$25,000)

"I'm a caterer and I live and die by food and gas prices. I'm being killed and I don't think anyone in Congress or the President cares." ( female, 50-65 years old, 4-year college grad, $25,000-$50,000)

"Everything we need costs more today than it did four years ago. While our salary is in the higher range, we cannot afford to fill up our cars with gas most of the time. Groceries are through the roof. We hardly ever eat out anymore." (female, 30-49 years old, Masters, $250,000+)








"I am stuck in the same job, same wage. Yet the cost of my mortgage has gone up, mostly due to property taxes. All other costs have gone up: car insurance, cell phone bill, city utilities by about 25%, and of course, food prices. I don't bother to go out to eat anymore." (female, 50-65 years old, 4-year college grad, $25,000-$50,000)

"Income has been cut in half. I lost my car. I've had to cut all non-essential spending. I no longer go out to eat, and I only buy food on sale. My 30-year-old daughter is now living with me in a small apartment because she lost her $60,000 a year job. I blame it directly on the current administration." (male, 50-65 years old, 4-year college grad, $10,000-$25,000)

"My personal income is down 48%. A college degree and years of experience no longer command the same salary levels. Between two college-educated, working professionals, my husband and I have been laid off five times in the last four years. My son, a high-school graduate can't find full-time work." (female, 30-49 years old, 4-year college grad, $75,000-$100,000)





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For many retirees on fixed incomes, the annual Social Security cost of living adjustment (COLA) is "unrealistic.”

"I am a senior and I can't meet all my bills with just Social Security. The price of gas has made me a hermit." (female, 65+ years old, some college, $10,000-$25,000)

"Retired three years ago and had to go back to work to pay for gas, food and all associated cost of living increases tied to increased gas prices." (female, 65+ years old, 2-year college grad, $75,000-$100,000)

"As a disabled veteran on Social Security Disability and a partial VA disability, I’m concerned that my buying power is being depleted due to over-inflation. Food, fuel, utilities and all other consumer goods have increased in prices to the point that they overshadow my income. My income has remained at or below poverty level. I live in a mobile home (trailer) and I can't afford homeowners insurance." (male, 50-65 years old, high school/GED, $10,000-$25,000)

"I'm 74 years old. Four years ago, I was retired and living off my investments, which were primarily carrying commercial real estate contracts. Today, I've had the large commercial buildings returned to me because the buyers were unable to make the payments. I'm now back working full time to return them to a good condition, which is very difficult because of my age. I can't sell them because potential buyers can't get the money needed. Financially fine, but physically tired with no end in sight." (male, 65+ years old, some college, $75,000-$100,000)

"We are those older people you see on TV that were forced into retirement. We both lost our jobs over two years ago, six months apart. The SS checks that we were forced to file early absolutely do not cover everything. We couldn't find health insurance to cover us (my husband more importantly) because he had a pre-existing condition (diabetes) when my COBRA expired Sept. 2011. We have never been without insurance, and have always had top credit. We've had our house listed for 18 months and no offers. We never thought we would be in this mess. It's sad in so many ways." (female, 65+ years old, high school/GED, $10,000-$25,000)

Nonetheless, many remain hopeful.

"Four years ago, I had just retired and was getting used to living on a fixed income. Some of the costs have gone up, such as gasoline and food, but I simply drive less and don't eat out as much. The value of my home has gone down, but I'm not going to sell my house and I don't need my investments to live. So, considering the slowness of the economy, I’m a lot better off than someone who has to worry about his job or feeding a large family. This will all improve." (male, 65+ years old, 2-year college grad, $50,000-$75,000)

"I had to reenter the work force after losing a good career position in 2008. I am self-employed and working hard in sales trying to make ends meet--not an easy task at 63!! I am a survivor and will get through this somehow--but financially struggling and trying to stay afloat." (female, 50-65 years old, 4-year college grad, $10,000-$25,000)

While others have already crossed the finish line.

"I am a GM retiree. I am ever so thankful that the President stood behind efforts to save GM. It appears to have paid off big time for the Big Three and hundreds of thousands of employees." (male, 50-65 years old, 4-year college grad, $100,000-$250,000)

"Four years ago, when the market tanked, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to retire as planned. Fortunately, I was able to keep my job, and between saving a bit more and the recovery of my investments, I was able to rebuild my retirement nest egg. I retired a few days ago." (female, 65+ years old, $100,000-$250,000)





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A few other dominant themes emerged among Americans' open-ended responses to our survey questions.

Small-Business Owners


A majority of the small business owners we heard from feel stifled by regulations put in place by the Obama administration.

"My homebuilding business is all but gone now. I had 10 employees four years ago. Now my wife and I are working out of our home office, trying to scrape by. The Obama economy is horrible. The government did not HELP me start my business 40 years ago, and they are hurting my business today with banking rules that are anti-small business." (male, 50-65 years old, high school/GED, less than $10,000)

"We are small business owners (small lumber company), trying to hang on until this economy turns around. Health insurance, workman’s comp, unemployment taxes, etc. are so expensive for us. Now, I am not sure we will make it; very sad for us." (female, 50-65 years old, some college, $50,000-$75,000)

"The business I owned for five years was forced to close 18 months ago. The Obama administration knows nothing about how to help small businesses." (male, 65+ years old, some college, $75,000-$100,000)

"I am a business owner and have quit hiring. Now, I’m in a "hold" mode pending the election. If we do not have a change of direction, I will probably have to lay off some employees and rethink further investment in my business." (male, 65+ years old, Doctoral/professional, $250,000+)

Many take issue with Obamacare, in particular.

"I am a small business owner who finds it difficult to hire qualified people due to the cost of health care and taxes, both currently and projected with the Affordable Health Care Act .I need to use much of the money that I make as seed capital for the next year. With less, I will be forced to hire fewer developers and consequently, unable to bid on more jobs." (male, 50-65 years old, Masters, $100,000-$250,000)

“I hope to God we can get rid of Obamacare so my 19-year-old small business wasn't all for nothing.” (female, 50-65 years old, 2-year college grad, $25,000-$50,000)

Some small businesses are thriving in this environment.

"Four years ago, my executive recruitment business tanked. I just had the best year I have had in 10 years." (female, 50-65 years old, $100,000-$250,000)

"We actually opened a small business in 2009. We employ nine people, all at a nice wage. Each year, our business has grown. As Independents, we are very confused by all the talk about small businesses hurting in this country. It has not been our experience and we don't believe it." (female, 50-65 years old, high school/GED, $100,000-$250,000)

Health-Care Costs


Several express support for Obamacare, particularly those whose health insurance costs have gone down.

"I’m broke. But I’m happy with Obama because he saved my life with Obamacare." (male, 50-65 years old, 2-year college grad, less than $10,000)

"I have better health coverage because of the Affordable Care Act." (male, 50-65 years old, Masters, $75,000-$100,000)

"I will soon be able to afford medical care due to Obamacare. I fear that Romney will repeal it if elected, keeping me in the same un-insured status I've been in for the last 20 years." (female, 65+ years old, $75,000-$100,000)

"For years, my concern was pre-existing conditions for health insurance or even getting health insurance if I lost my job. That does not exist any longer." (male, 50-65 years old, 2-year college grad, $100,000-$250,000)

"I have been unemployed for one year. Obamacare is something I desperately need, but I might be described as a diehard Republican in all other matters." ( male, 50-65 years old, 4-year college grad)





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Many readers bemoan rising premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

"My health insurance has gone up 400% and my deductible has tripled." (female, 30-49 years old, 2-year college grad, $25,000-$50,000)

"It seems like the Health Care Law will continue to dip into my financial stability with the new Medicare taxes for 2013. I think the law should be re-evaluated!" ( female, 30-49 years old, some college, $50,000-$75,000)

"My health care premiums have almost doubled !!!!!! I have a higher deductible, less coverage and more debt due to health care costs!" (male, 50-65 years old, 4-year college grad, $50,000-$75,000)

Many folks are worried about Medicare in particular.

"We are saving much harder for retirement now because we are afraid of huge health care bills in retirement. All of this talk about people over 55 not having to worry about getting traditional Medicare seems to assume that people in their early 50s (like us) don't vote." (female, 50-65 years old, some college, $100,000-$250,000)

"My health insurance has increased markedly; my old primary provider for Medicare no longer takes Medicare patients." (male, 65+ years old, Masters, $75,000-$100,000)






“Just holding on,” “afraid,” “scared to death,” and “trapped” are just a few of the words people use to describe our country’s financial future.

"We live in economic fear every day. Our income is down, and our expenses keep going up. We have not seen a cost of living increase or raise in the last three years. It is a shocking reality to have to fill up our vehicles. We used to enjoy going out for breakfast once or twice a week, but because of gas prices, our breakfast money is going towards filling our gas tank. Breakfast is now a luxury. We don't have a pension, so any extra pennies we can gather we use to fund our self invested pension. But it won't be enough. So, the anxiety for the future is crippling us in our older years." (male, 50-65 years old, 2-year college grad, $50,000-$75,000)

"I was a student four years ago with an optimistic outlook on my generation's financial future. Now, there is more uncertainty in my eyes about our economic longevity." (male, 18-29 years old, 4-year college grad, $50,000-$75,000)

"Our two daughters are now both in college. We have never had to borrow from my husband’s 401K just to make ends meet, but we have now. I am very worried about our future, our mortgage, and our country. I don't think I have ever been in such a stressful state of being in my life." (female, 30-49 years old, some college, $25,000-$50,000)

"My biggest fear is the national debt that will be handed down to my children and grandchildren." (male, 50-65 years old, 2-year college grad, $50,000-$75,000)

"As seniors, we’re terrified about the future of Social Security and Medicare." (male, 50-65 years old, 4-year college grad, $10,000-$25,000)

But at the same time, others feel “more stable” and believe that “overall, things are on the upswing.” “Moving in the right direction” and “let’s finish what we started” are other common refrains.

"It took more than four years to get into this mess, so I know it will take at least four more years to get out.” (female, 50-65 years old, 4-year college grad, $25,000-$50,000)

"I am retired now, and I can see the economy coming back slowly but surely. Obama came in with the greatest challenge since FDR." (male, 65+ years old, high school/GED, $50,000-$75,000)

"Four years ago, I probably would have lost my home, but thanks to the HARP program, I still have it. It was a little tough, but I think we are on the right track." (30-49 years old male, $25,000-$50,000)

"I think the country is going in the right direction. My money is growing, not as fast as I would like, but growing." (50-65 years old, male, 4-year college grad, $75,000-$100,000)

"What we've pulled through is incredible. It's always going to be a slower climb back up." (30-49 years old, female, some college, $75,000-$100,000)

Thanks to all the concerned Americans who shared their stories and opinions with us. Visit Kiplinger’s Facebook page and Tumblr blog for more.