It's a big honor for me today to be able to bring a little attention to a wonderful film about a social issue that, to one degree or another, will likely affect all of us over the course of our lives. 

"Spent: Looking For Change" is a film, sponsored by American Express and produced by An Inconvenient Truth's Davis Guggenheim, that tells the stories of four financially under-served families here in the United States, depicting respectfully and truthfully what it's like to make your way through a financial system that excludes you entirely.

These stories are important to me, on a personal level. When Brandon and I were first married, things were tight. I was in my last semester of college, Brandon had just graduated with a Bachelors of Accounting, the economy was in a hole and falling deeper by the day (it was just after 9-11), and the only work Brandon could get was a night shift at the Costco, restocking ham from 2am until 10. Our first year of marriage was hard. It was really hard. We lived on opposite schedules. we hardly saw each other awake. We flat out didn't have enough money to make ends meet and often resorted to paying for the things we needed on credit. I remember going to the grocery store the week before Brandon's birthday--we'd been married about two months--and carefully selecting what would feed us for two weeks plus ingredients for a really nice birthday dinner, and then panicking at the register when the total came to fifty dollars. Fifty dollars! Did i have fifty dollars? I felt so guilty, it was way too much money to be spending on food considering how tight things were. (Until that day i'd never spent more than $20 at the grocery store.) I called Brandon in tears on the way home, apologizing profusely but refusing to leave any food behind, because damn it, he was going to have a nice birthday dinner. 

These days we're doing pretty all right. We're doing better than all right, we're doing great. But the road we took to get here was bumpy. In a rough economy, the only way Brandon could land the type of job that would provide for a family the way he wanted was through education. And more education. Two post-graduate degrees, each one making him a more desirable employee but also taking us further into debt. I was lucky to find a good job while he was in school that made it possible for me to get a loan and buy a house. We were hoping to break even (or even profit!) once Brandon graduated and we sold the house.... but then the housing bubble burst, and our house didn't sell, and there weren't any jobs, and the only thing to do was to get a third post-graduate degree, a degree that essentially doubled our student loan debt in just one year, oh and I was seven months pregnant at the time.

Through all this we were lucky. And that's the word for it: lucky. We were lucky to have family that could help us when things got tight. We were lucky that the house did eventually sell. (We only barely broke even.) We were lucky that Brandon got accepted to the number one program in his field, and we were lucky to find a free clinic in New York that would take me despite my lack of health insurance and my advanced stage of pregnancy. (Most OB/GYN in NYC won't take you unless they've had you from day one.) We were lucky to qualify for government assistance so that we could buy groceries, and we were lucky that Henry was born healthy, without any exorbitant medical costs, and that Brandon was able to get a job, a good job, immediately after he graduated (... for the fourth time). Since then we've been able to make our bills and pay our rent, and even have a little fun in this crazy city, and that's amazing. I'll never take it for granted, nor the help we had in getting here. We should all be so lucky.

We're in the minority. Looking around New York City, you're aware of just how high the highs can be, but you're also aware of just how low the lows can get when bad luck strikes. We are lucky. Many of our friends seem luckier; they grew up with the kinds of opportunities that we never had--parents who could pay their tuitions outright, connections to influential people, incomes that are never hampered by student loans--but many more of our friends are not. They're freelancers, doing things in untraditional ways or in creative fields, making ends meet just barely one month and then very easily the next. And we know just how quickly our fortunes can change, from first-hand experience and from second-hand experience. Many, many of us will find ourselves in the position where we have to scramble, so it's important that we educate ourselves now, and band together to support those who need that support now, so that there's a system in place should we ever need that support ourselves. There's a lot we can do, and I'm honored today to help spread the word so we all can start. 

If you have a spare half hour, watch this film. You'll be glad you did. (It's only 40 minutes, and so well made--these stories are told so earnestly and honorably). Then check out to find out what you can do to get involved. Think of it as an investment in your own future, should your luck take a temporary leave of absence.

This post was sponsored by American Express. @amexserve


  1. we didn't plan to get pregnant then, we'd been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant for about three years before we finally did! and i'm of the mindset that children and family planning are a personal, spiritual kind of decision that when you feel it's right, you don't hold back, even if things aren't perfect. (plus, we were planning to have a job after Brandon got his jd/mba. what kind of world has no jobs for the guy with the highest grades in his class? right?? haha, life ain't fair but it's still pretty grand.)

  2. Wow! That was incredibly eye-opening. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I really need to see this. The trailer looks amazing. -Hanna Lei

  4. amazing. thanks for sharing.

  5. AnonymousJune 10, 2014

    Thanks for sharing your story. My path has been similar to yours. We married young, had a rough financial road, and got pregnant (we were trying) even when we weren't all that financially stable. But we were ready to start a family and we took that leap of faith. And like you, we were fortunate that our families could spot us during the lowest of lows. I'll definitely check out the movie! -Lara

  6. I can't wait to watch this.. Maybe we can all stop hiding our troubles and learn to admit to them and ask for help if we need it. It's great of you to share your personal story; to make it all the more real. Considering so many assume both online and off that everyone else has it all figured out..

  7. Hey Natalie,

    I'm a new reader from the UK. I just wanted to say how much I enjoy ( if that's the right word) your blog. There are a lot of blogs which promote perfection - your honesty is refreshing, this post especially.

    I volunteer at a soup kitchen which initially was for the homeless but have seen it grow and grow with people looking for a hot meal for their family. Sad that this is still happening in US / UK!

    Here's to change.


  8. Such a great video. Huge eye-opener. Thank you for sharing!

  9. Great video! Thanks so much for sharing. My little family is struggling a bunch these days despite our best effort. Its a frustrating position to be in. Its nice to hear the story of your successes as well.

    Love your blog. Have been reading for years, but I don't really ever comment.


  10. AnonymousJune 10, 2014

    Thank you for writing so frankly - and for sharing this video. I've charged groceries before - it's such a privilege to have a safety net, and you captured that feeling so well.

  11. Can't wait to watch it after kiddos' bedtime... Definitely something that hits home here, the husband just graduated from med school and with his new diploma came over a quarter of a million dollars of student loans. It's excruciating to think about, and now that we are about to start 'getting a paycheck' we are terrified of how we are going to make it every month- we will be worse off than during school. I wonder if people knew how many doctors spend the whole 4 years of school on Medicaid, WIC, and Food Stamps. Now that he's a doctor we can't afford the loan repayments plus insurance and rent and all the other necessities. It is such a struggle that so many go through.

    1. If his loans are not private, you can put them into forebearance during residency. Another option is to consolidate them and use the income based repayment plan, possibly combined with the PSLF plan. I know a number of residents (with families) who have done IBR & have very reasonable payments - do-able even on a resident salary. My husband is a 4th year resident, so I understand your concerns.

  12. Hi Nat,

    I'm a long time reader of yours! I know about your struggle with infertility, and just came across this article. I thought you might be interested!


  13. Thank you so much for posting this. I feel like most people out there struggle financially, but no one ever wants to talk about it. Which is how things continue to get worse, because we feel we're alone. So companies continue to take advantage of the fact that we like to pretend our finances are doing a-ok and buy things we can't afford just so we don't look like we're struggling. The only way things are going to change is if we talk honestly about it. I'm so glad things are going ok for you guys now--gives hope to all those out there who aren't!

  14. this is good. a tad depressing. and hopeful.

  15. I can so relate. Except it took us 10 years to conceive (I'm pregnant with our first) and we could have afforded it better earlier in our marriage. I have a lot of health problems and we have a lot of medical debt. Hubs has a good job, though, and we have decent- though expensive- health insurance. Things can change in the blink of an eye and it's so important to be prepared for that whenever possible.

  16. This is crazy. I was literally just bawling on my way to work thinking about "How are we going to make it?" Trying to buy a house, pay for expensive insurance, have a child, all while I am the breadwinner (a nurse) and the husband is still in school (UNDERGRAD..AHH, gotta love the 2 year mission gap). This post is a breath of fresh air and gives me so much hope that this period is for us to grow and appreciate what really matters. Thank you!

  17. Holy crap I needed to read this. We're in the just-married, struggling newly-wed, working wife - gradschool husband, WHERE IS THE MONEY COMING FROM? stage of life. It's stressful sometimes. But this really confirmed what I know: it won't always be like this; things will get better. (Even though we're South African and will have to do it without the help of American Express :P )

  18. I really love that you shared this part of your family's story. My husband and I and our two year old daughter just moved to NYC and it's been a whirlwind to say the least, especially to our finances. Every plan we had hasn't worked out, so we're just fumbling through it all. Blogging is funny business - lives can look perfect and I think it's honorable when someone is real about where they came from and the struggles they're having, so thanks for that. ;)

  19. Thank you for sharing. I'm in a stage where I feel way too old to be accepting help from my parents, but so thankful that they are able. I freelance / babysit every chance I some months are amazing, and some months I don't know how I am going to pay my cell phone bill without the call to the parentals. This gave me hope this morning, that things can go upward, and I thank you for that.

  20. hello Natalie,

    I am French but I live in Maryland and yes, I notice here people die because of debts. One of our friend didn't go to the doctor because his insurance was not good neough and now, 1 year later, he has stage 4 of cancer. I mean, in France, government pay for your health, and help you pay your rent if you can't afford it. Also, I got paid to have a master's degree in education. Here if you wanna have a good job, you have to either be rich, or study study and therefore pay a lot...
    It's sad, very sad? I'll be here for only 4 years, after that, hello Europe!

  21. I can't even begin to tell you how many times we've 'been there done that' and finally learned our lesson in paying off all of our credit card debt, and never owning any again...except one for emergencies. Luckily we didn't have any student loans to pay off because A) I got a grant in which I didn't have to pay back, and only completed two years of college) & B) My husband never went to college. After his mission he worked enough to have a lot of savings, and married me. He didn't have the desire to attend and he kicks himself in the butt every time for not starting sooner. However, we did get ourselves into a lot of trouble when we were first married with credit cards, and then unexpectedly had my first daughter. We got a lot of credit cards to make ends meet. Luckily she was "free" because we qualified for medicaid. We had no help at all. Not from my mom (who is barely on a fixed income herself) or my in laws (even though they could have helped but we were too prideful then) We never even considered going to the church at all!!! Ever!! I guess being a convert at 20 years old I didn't realize that I could have gone, but then again my hubby who is born and raised in it wanted to be self sufficient. We got into a downward spiral even getting sinked into that payday advance crap ten years ago!! Bad, bad idea that was. We were lucky that when we moved from Utah to North Carolina with a better job that we paid it off. It was such a relief, and I'll tell you we'll never go down that route again. Although we've had many a hardships living in New Jersey where taxes are crazy expensive, and they charge for every little thing, with four kids we've managed to make it. After I had my son four years ago we did need help and swallowed our pride, and learned to accept help from friends and family, and in some instances the church with food and such. Now my husband has a dang good job working for UPS and we pray that we will be self sufficient so that in the future we can help others. Such a great documentary, and I appreciate you for sharing. Now I want to share my experiences with all the financial hardships we had and where they've taken us! Take care doll!


  22. Thanks so much for sharing this video and your crazy-good writing. Man, that video is hard to watch, especially when you've been in situations similar. It's such a reminder to be grateful for where I am now, so thank you for sharing.

  23. AnonymousJune 11, 2014

    OO I'm going to def watch this!I feel as tho i will be a starving artist forever tho hahahaaaa

  24. AnonymousJune 11, 2014

    i've been a long time lurker on your blog; since huck was a fresh baby! i loved your blog back then because of your kick ass style and wit.
    today, i love your illuminating stories about your struggles and your triumphs. they're helping me get through my tough times (hey, i'm 22), which i think are crazy similar to your earlier days. just wanted to say thanks for sharing bits of you (even the sponsored ones) because they inspire me to keep chugging through my soul sucking job with my eyes on the prize ahead.
    so thanks :]

  25. cute post!

  26. So encouraging to remember that " this to, shall pass", and it is SO true that we appreciate more in life after facing things that challenge us.
    One of my favourite Anne Shirley quotes is,
    " I have learned to look at each small hindrance as jest, and every great hindrance as a foreshadowing of victory."

    We are also in tight " rice and beans" times, but we have so much to be thankful for. Thanks for the reminder! :)

  27. This is such a worthy cause, and something we don't talk about enough in our country. Thank you for sharing - and your little guy just keeps getting cuter and cuter. Love him.

  28. Thank you for sharing this, Natalie. What an uplifting post. Do you think money does buy happiness sometimes? Or at least buy away stress or anxiety? I wonder if it reaches a certain point where it does and then tapers off. I know when money is tight, it is hard for me to see what is good all around me. But that doesn't mean it's impossible.

    Your blog is wonderful. You have such an authentic, genuine voice. Keep it up! :)


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