An Upside to the Downturn

Losing your job, or just worrying about it, is no joke. But some of us are finding silver linings amid the maelstrom.

A few weeks ago, I got laid off. After my bosses delivered the blow - plunging economy, budget cuts, blah, blah, blah - I walked up to the Miró exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, which I'd never have had the time to see if I were still employed. Taking in the paintings, I felt weirdly . . . euphoric. Working so hard during the flush times had left my soul parched, and now light and color were quenching it like a tub of La Mer (which I never could afford, anyway). Leaving the museum, I damn near flung my hat into the air like Mary Tyler Moore.

These are brutal economic times, but as we worry about our jobs (or lack thereof), mortgages, health insurance, shriveling 401(k)s, and whether we'll be able to put our kids through college or buy a new pair of shoes ever again, something else is slyly creeping in: relief. A sense that the pressure gauge has been released. I'm calling it recession euphoria, and you can't swing an empty It bag without hitting someone who's feeling it.

Born-again penny-pinchers are suddenly discovering the pleasures of thrift and waxing about it with near-religious fervor. "Because of the recession, I'm forced to pay attention to the things that really matter," says Jocelin Engel, a 28-year-old consultant in New York City. Instead of "carelessly wasting money running around town for overpriced cocktails," she's now spending more time with her husband, cooking dinner with friends, watching movies at home, enjoying the people who mean the most to her. "That in itself is a luxury." Says my friend Sarah, an editor, "This weekend, I cleaned out my makeup drawer. I found so much stuff that I'd bought and just forgotten about - like I had some kind of consumer fever for a decade. I'm realizing that life doesn't have to cost a lot of money. I can take walks, read my books, hang out with my friends - for free."

Others have found that this bear-market moment has given them permission to wear their Schadenfreude on their decidedly-not-cashmere sleeves. "The days when the students had better clothes and fancier cars than the professors will, I hope, be a thing of the past," says Eileen Angelini, an upstate New York college professor in her early 40s. Rachel Eden, a 43-year-old freelance editor in Kennesaw, GA, who was sick of envying her neighbors' flashier existences, puts it a bit differently. "It always felt like it was never enough money," she says. "It's a relief to know that we're all in the same boat now." Meanwhile, Monica White finally banished her guilt over failing to capitalize on the booming market. "I used to feel like I was behind by not contributing enough to my 401(k), but the recession has been an equalizer," says the 34-year-old paramedic from Houston. "I spent my money on shoes and purses that I still use, and I'm happy."

Then there are those of us who simply feel like we've been sprung from the Big House. When Allison Raybin, an event planner in New York, was told last month that her position was being eliminated, she says her first thought was, I'm never working another weekend in my entire life. She had toiled nonstop for six years; now she's planning to start a master's program in early childhood education. "I'm really happy," she says. "I go to the gym every day." As for me, during my afternoon at the museum, I was drawn to a Miró painting titled Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement. A plaque explained that the inspiration was a quote from Rembrandt: "I find rubies and emeralds in a dung heap." And I realized, this recession may be one stinking pile, but some of us are discovering gems.

Cheap and Cheerful is Having a Moment

In 2008:

10.7M people visited in November, the best traffic month ever for the world's top food site.

$1.33B in sales were logged at JoAnn Fabrics, America's largest sewing retailer, a 3.5% increase from '07.

30% more Ball canning products were sold than in '07.

1.3B Americans visited the public library, a 10% increase from '06.

700K new folks signed up at their local YMCA, for the largest membership in the org's history.

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