[photo: woman teaching child]

American Families

A Mighty Rainy Day

Machiel and Eileen Birkhoff
Mandeville, La.

"It seems like we would take one step forward and two steps back."

If his life were a country western song, Machiel Birkhoff could have been describing the line dance that would accompany it. Instead he was describing the series of misfortunes that befell the Louisiana-native and his new bride Eileen.

First Hurricane Katrina destroyed their house. Then Eileen needed emergency surgery two weeks after the birth of their first baby. Two weeks after that, Machiel flipped his motorcycle, badly injuring his arm and leg. Because of the crash, Machiel couldn't start a new job that would have provided the family with health insurance. Both Machiel and Eileen were laid up, with a tiny new baby, no jobs, and no insurance. Their puppy died, and the water well burst twice. And with Louisiana's social service system in shambles after Katrina, they resorted to knocking on neighbors' doors for help.

Frustrated and desperate, Machiel wondered, "How do we get ahead? How do we get to a comfortable, really comfortable spot in our lives?"

After Katrina, the couple was able to make some money assessing property damages for a mortgage company. Machiel and Eileen both healed from their physical traumas. And the couple slowly made their way back up.

Today the family is healthy and living in Mandeville, La. Machiel works as the nursing director at an assisted living community in town, while Eileen is in sales at a Slidell, La.-based meat company.

Though they're on the right track with jobs, the couple is still struggling with a $30,000 debt they accrued from Katrina-damage, car notes and Machiel's medical bills.

Throughout their disasters, they were fighting for their lives. Now the Birkhoffs are fighting for something more – a piece of the American dream.

"You want the house, the dog, the kids. You want to be able to have your weekends together. You want to be able to take that week long vacation or drive across the country with your kids in the back of the car," Machiel said. "That is what we are fighting for - a comfortable lifestyle."

Toward that dream, both are interested in investing or "making money out of my money" as Eileen put it. Machiel said he wants to invest heavily in the 401K program at work, once the Birkhoffs have a handle on their debt.

Besides damaging their home, Hurricane Katrina did a number on the couple's confidence in the government's social services programs. FEMA didn't help them back on their feet and the VA hospital shut its doors when Machiel's father needed care for diabetes.

Machiel said he's worried about what he'll get out of his contributions to Social Security because of the mass retirement of Baby Boomers.

"All this money that I'm giving up each paycheck – when it is time for me to retire, where is all that money going to be?" He continued, "It kind of frustrates me that I'm having a difficult time providing for my future because the government is saying, 'this is how we are going to provide for you.'"

The couple said they're doing their best to be responsible with their finances. They've never had a credit card and said they don't want to rely on food stamps or government assistance again.

Their church helped them with mortgage and car payments in the months following the hurricane, and Eileen remains level-headed about their debt.

"The bills are always going to be there. They are never going to go away unless you are a multi-millionaire, and I'm sure the more money you have, the more bills you have," she said.

With youth on their side, the Birkhoffs' immediate goals are to focus on debt before savings. They plan to pay down their existing debt, save for their daughter's college expenses, and then focus on retirement.

Eileen said not worrying about what they face is key to survival. "Stressing over it is going to kill you – it is not the situation that will kill you." She added, "With everything, plan ahead just in case."

Machiel piped in with what could be the chorus to the Birkhoffs' Katrina-themed country song.

"My dad is always telling me to put money away for a rainy day," he quipped. "But he never mentioned anything about a flooded day."

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