We did not take our vow of poverty intentionally, but, like greatness, it seemed to be thrust upon us. Gone is the high life with the big house in the suburbs, unlimited credit and fancy cars.
Today, perhaps for the first time, we are living within our means, renting a house and taking the bus. Trappings of luxury have fallen by the wayside. The big-screen television blew up just after Christmas, and then the convertible went. Neither will be replaced, as we settle in to watch our favourite shows on an old-fashioned tube television and belly up on the first of each month to buy bus passes.
Five years ago, my husband and I started a video-production business and invested our small nest egg in our dream of working for ourselves. Today, that dream is all but a memory thanks to a recession that saw clients tightening their belts and cancelling our contracts.
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My husband began working the early-morning shift at Home Depot while I continue to eke out a small living as a freelance writer. It's the $10 life we're living, with nearly every penny devoted to bills, and few extravagances save a morning latte made fresh by me with the help of an espresso machine my son gave us for Christmas.
My husband and I often wonder what became of us. What happened to the free spirits who defined ourselves by the fancy company we kept and the jobs we had? When did it all start to fall away?
We could blame the recession, but I think it started before that. For much of our lives, we spent like there was no tomorrow, and now there is no tomorrow. We gambled our savings, gave up lucrative jobs, rolled the dice and lost spectacularly. Now we have a room full of idle video equipment and two small clients - not enough to pay the rent or put food on the table.
We're in our 50s and are having trouble starting over again. We can't get work in our respective fields because the young ones work cheaper, and no one wants to take a chance on older employees. Once professionals, now we are paupers, looking for any kind of job that will help pay the rent, still hoping for just one more chance to show what we can do.
Maybe our expectations were too high. Growing up in the Trudeau era, we were told we could do anything and everything, and so we did. My husband travelled the world as a cameraman, capturing images of world leaders, jet-setters and pop stars, then getting down and dirty in war zones. I worked in journalism and politics, then in consulting. Those were heady times with six-figure salaries.
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But things changed. My husband took early retirement and I became a mother of three. Somewhere along the way, we lost our edge and never got it back.
Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't have traded my life experiences for the world. I wouldn't have done anything differently except for the savings part. But in the maze that is life, we somehow took the wrong turn. We're still searching for the path that takes us to find our cheese.
Until then, the $10 life tries to consume us, tries to take away our dignity and our power. I watched my husband get up for work the other day, watched him as he shook himself awake then trundled out to the backyard, watched him get on his bicycle to ride 12 minutes to his part-time job. He looked haunted and broken, still sick from a flu he couldn't shake.
But off he rode before the sunrise to participate in the gruelling daily ritual called "pack down", hauling hundreds of pounds worth of merchandise down from the shelves. He rarely complains except when he jabs himself with electrical wire, or wrenches his knee carrying heavy packages down a ladder. I know it kills him to wait on customers who used to be colleagues.
I wait for him every day, filling in the hours with laundry and dishes, answering the infrequent e-mails from clients and cooking large meals to parcel into small packages for the freezer. He smiles at me when he comes home, and tells me about his day.
We spend the evening sharing an early meal, cooked on the expensive cast-iron barbecue we bought what seems like eons ago, back, as George Harrison once said, "when we was fab." It still cooks a good steak, even though the cut is a little cheaper, and for that we are grateful.
We talk and we cook, we read and we drink a little wine and get a little stupid. And then my husband toddles off to bed at 8 p.m., leaving me to watch reality shows and crime dramas. The house is quiet, the dogs are sleeping and life is peaceful.
It's not a bad world, the $10 life. It's just a little smaller, a little diminished. I've learned that things can't make you happy. We have our children, we have our dogs and we have our health. And most of all, we have each other.
As I've said to my husband, I'd rather be poor with you than rich with anybody else. Everything after that is a bonus.
Rose Simpson lives in Ottawa.
Illustration by Emily Flake.
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