NEW ALBANY, Ind. — Wesley Shears thought he’d arrived. Still in his 30s, he was on the fast track at work, owned his first home — a small three-bedroom in Lexington, Kentucky — and with his wife had a combined income in excess of $100,000.
But his degree in architecture could not protect him when building projects dried up after the country’s financial crisis in 2008.
“I survived many rounds of layoffs,” he said. “Finally, there was nobody else to lay off.” The house went soon after, lost in a bankruptcy.
In what should have been his prime earning years as an architectural designer, Shears scrambled to continue his livelihood, finding only a string of hourly wage jobs.
“It just looked like everything was stepping up and then boom, boom,” said Shears, now 44, from the small living room in the duplex he rents for $800 a month in New Albany, Indiana, just across the river from Louisville, Kentucky. “Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s just me. I think it’s this whole generation that I’m a part of. Because there’s a lot of people that I went to college with that I connect with on Facebook … they’re just kind of in the same boat.”
To make ends meet, he managed an office, directed projects for a cabinetmaker and was a substitute teacher in the New Albany school system. “There’s one school right down the road in a bad neighborhood,” he said. “They had me on speed dial.”
A year ago, Shears separated from his second wife, Kristin. He now lives frugally with his 11-year-old son, Hank, a fifth-grader at Hazelwood Middle School, along with two cats and two Jack Russell terriers. The family recently stopped using the upstairs bathroom, he said, because the leaky pipes send water through the downstairs ceiling. An older son, Cowen, 18, is a freshman at Butler University, and he also lives with them.
“Money was the end-all, be-all growing up,” Shears said. “It seemed what you would strive for. Now what makes me happy is just everything’s taken care of, everything’s paid for. The lights are on. There’s food. Stuff like that.”
He now makes about $45,000 a year, with bonuses, at Paradigm Engineers and Constructors in Louisville, where he has been employed as a project manager for more than two years. His earnings are slightly under the area’s roughly $53,000 median household income.
While he does not quite live paycheck to paycheck, he has long since cashed in his 401(k). His 2007 Hyundai, given to him by his parents, has 140,000 miles on it. He has no credit cards, no savings. He tries to stay healthy so he does not accrue more medical costs than the $330 a month he pays for the health insurance he gets through his employer.
When Hank needs new sneakers, Shears buys a high-end brand, so they last longer. His own shoes, he said, come refurbished. Occasional trips to Goodwill and the Salvation Army augment his wardrobe. Entertainment comes courtesy of one of the few remaining neighborhood video stores — where kids’ movies are free. Cable TV is a splurge. Internet, he said, is a necessity.
“When stuff is really, really, really needed, I can make it happen,” he said. “I take it to the very last point. If I can’t make it then, I reach out. I don’t want to, but I do.”
He also helps others, serving food at a soup kitchen, as a volunteer coach at his son’s school, and at his church. What he has lost in bank accounts, he has gained in relationships, including a new love interest.
Shears said he is confident that his current struggle will be a catalyst for his sons’ future success.
“I do have dreams and I have no plans of letting them go,” he said. “My focus on myself and my two boys is clearer, and with my current job I will be a homeowner again and move ahead financially in life.”