Before the recession hit, the Sadowskis, a family of four in upscale Orange County, Calif., believed they had it made.
They lived in a four-bedroom home in a cul-de-sac. They had an outdoor kitchen, a gas fire pit and a custom pool lined with boulders they had craned in, because they didn’t want artificial rocks. For the Sadowski sons’ birthdays, they celebrated big, with neighbors, family and bounce houses.
They also put away money for emergencies: Tim Sadowski, the father, earned about $160,000 a year and managed to squirrel away $80,000 in savings. They had health insurance, and they had put down 20 percent when they bought their home.
But in 2007, Tim Sadowski’s interior construction business started losing customers. That’s when reality hit: The family might lose their home.
“We don’t want to lose our home,” Krichelle Sadowski, the mother, said. “We love it. We love this neighborhood. My kids have gone to the same school their whole life.”
The Sadowskis weren’t an anomaly. In fact, friends agreed that they were “part of the crowd” of people on the brink of losing their homes. Between 2007 and the beginning of 2010, 6.6 million foreclosures were initiated. And even though the recession has ended, more than a million families in the U.S. are still fighting to save their homes.
Dateline met the Sadowskis in April of 2009 as their financial struggles were underway. We connected with them over the next four years as they negotiated with banks to keep their home and negotiated with each other to maintain their marriage.
The American dream
The Sadowskis were proud of their accomplishments. They had grown up without much money, hadn’t graduated from college but still achieved financial success.
They refinanced their mortgage several times, taking out more than a hundred thousand dollars to upgrade their house. They viewed it as an investment, and in a sense, it was: Their home almost tripled in value.
“I bought motorcycles for the boys, quads for the boys,” Tim Sadowski said. “We would go out to the desert a lot with me and the family. That was my enjoyment.”
Krichelle Sadowski said they worked hard for their success. “I don’t think it was excessive,” she said.
“A financial analyst probably would have said, ‘You’re irresponsible,’” Tim Sadowski said. “But the friends we were hanging out with are saying, ‘You guys are just part of the crowd.’”
As Tim Sadowski’s business dried up, he applied for more than 100 jobs. In that time, the family blew through their savings, forcing Krichelle Sadowski to work part time job as a lunch aide supervisor at her sons’ school.
The Mercedes and the RV were repossessed, and when the business finally closed, the family lost their health insurance.
‘Hoping against hope’
Yale Professor Jacob Hacker explained how people think in these dire situations: “If your house goes into foreclosure, your credit rating is ruined – you don’t think you’ll be able to get another house,” he said. “It’s not so much you’re denying it. But you’re just hoping against hope that you can somehow work it out.”
But hope started to fade as Tim and Krichelle Sadowski started bickering over finances. Krichelle Sadowski stopped wearing her wedding ring and threatened divorce.
One day, after more talk of divorce, Tim Sadowski took off on a motorcycle to clear his head. But rather than provide clarity, the drive added yet more stress as he slammed into an oncoming vehicle.
“The next thing I know, I’m laying down on a street, face up, looking up at the sky,” he said.
As he lay in intensive care with a severed foot and broken pelvis, Krichelle called hospital after hospital, begging them to take a man without health insurance. Finally, Riverside County agreed.
For a while, the Sadowskis found love again as Krichelle nursed her husband back to health.
They applied for food stamps and were awarded $668 a month for their family of four. They also received cash aid of $762.
“It’s embarrassing,” Krichelle said, “but I had to do what I had to do. We did not have enough money to buy food.”
Professor Hacker said the Sadowskis were in a particularly bad spot, having lost work so early in the recession.
“When the economy is depressed, when there’s not much demand for workers, the people who lose their jobs at the beginning of the recession often are the ones who have the hardest time getting back in.”
‘Things don’t buy happiness’
In the end, the Sadowskis lost both battles – for their home and their marriage. They no longer live that American dream, but their outlook has changed.
“You know what? Things don’t buy happiness,” Krichelle Sadowski said. “We all say that, but it really is true. I’ve learned that you can be happy without money.”
NBC's Isolde Raftery contributed to this report.
Watch Dateline’s full report, “America Now: On the Edge,” on Friday, Aug. 30, starting at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT.