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Between choice and circumstance: Six stories from the economic trenches

By Manav Tanneeru and Katie Hawkins-Gaar, CNN
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Getting by in a tough economy
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN iReporters are following people they know throughout 2010 to get a measure of how things are going in the economy
  • At the six-month mark, they relate stories of perseverance, reinvention, doubt, success
  • Follow their stories for the rest of the year
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Editor's note: Six CNN iReporters are following someone they know in their community for the entire year to get a measure of how things are going in this economy. At the six-month mark, they relate stories of perseverance, re-invention, doubt and success. You can follow their stories on CNN's Economy Tracker.

(CNN) -- In October, when her newspaper merged with a competitor, Jamie Smith was laid off.

"I became one of the thousands -- maybe millions -- of people in the United States who became displaced," she told CNN iReport in December. "Due to nothing of my fault, really no one's fault; it's the economy right now."

Smith, 30, who lives in Bentonville, Arkansas, began collecting unemployment and looked for opportunities to write on a freelance basis. She also decided to create her own public relations company

Through the first few months of the year, her goals seemed on track. She was writing for a variety of publications and a spring expo that she'd planned to launch her business was sold out.

But in April, she ruptured her appendix. Complications developed, including the onset of gangrene, and she had to spend two weeks in the hospital.

"Basically, life halted," she said.

Watch as Jamie talks about her hospitalization on CNN iReport

Luckily, her husband had "great insurance," so they weren't saddled with expensive hospital bills. And the expo went on as planned in June.

"This is really not the most intelligent time to make a career change," she said recently. "But life forces you to make some hard choices."

Selling a home ... in this economy?

Michael Andrews hopes to move to a larger home before his 4-year-old son begins kindergarten.
Michael Andrews hopes to move to a larger home before his 4-year-old son begins kindergarten.

Michael Andrews faces a choice as well: Does he sell his home now? Or wait until the market gets better?

Andrews, 33, lives in Bowie, Maryland, with his wife and 4-year-old son. He bought the home in 2005 but wanted to move to a bigger house in a nicer area.

However, as the housing market collapsed, the price of his home fell.

"The cost of our home is such that we can't really leave until it flips back around to some kind of profit," he said when he first spoke to iReport in December.

But as the year went on, the Andrews family realized it may be wiser to stay.

"You get more home for the value, schools are great, great amenities -- so we had to re-evaluate that," he said.

Instead, Andrews, a college administrator, said he's spent the year investing in his career. He created fivemikes.com, a website devoted to his motivational speaking engagements.

"I work for the state of Maryland, and the state government is not really thriving right now," he said.

"I think that when times are as rough as they are right now in the economy, you really have to rely on yourself to take that extra leap."

A forced transition

After being forced into early retirement, Bruce Pollard now works one day a week and spends most of his time at home.
After being forced into early retirement, Bruce Pollard now works one day a week and spends most of his time at home.

Last year, Bruce Pollard retired from his information technology job of more than 25 years after his company filed for bankruptcy. He took on a consulting job, but it only made up for 20 percent of the salary he once earned.

He set about looking for more work, but it wasn't necessarily what he ideally wanted to do.

"What I'd really like to do is teach [high school students] and contribute," he told iReport in February. "But I can't afford to do that with my family and two kids going to college and another one coming up."

His wife, a psychologist who used to work one day a week, began working more, and between the two, they're "filling up the work week," he says.

Pollard, 58, says the first half of the year has been a transitory period, coping with the emotions and adjustments of no longer working a steady job.

"I'm trying how learning to take in the duties that my wife handed over to me," he said recently. "You think that when you go away for five days a week and come back that things just happen around the house. But they don't."

A year for expansion

David and Susan Nethero have opened three new Intimacy stores this year and plan to open two more this year.
David and Susan Nethero have opened three new Intimacy stores this year and plan to open two more this year.

It's been a different sort of transition for Susan and David Nethero. Owners of Intimacy, a specialty bra company, they've overseen the opening of several stores across the U.S. this year.

The company has been around for 18 years and had 11 stores at the start of the year. They've already opened three more stores: A second New York location, one in Los Angeles and another in Orange County. They have plans to open two more stores this year.

Despite an economy where growth has been anemic and shaky, Intimacy has done well, the Netheros say.

"Our sales are trending exactly where we hoped they would be. In fact, we're a little bit ahead," Susan Nethero told iReport recently. "That gives us great confidence for the economy and for the balance of our sales for the year.

"We're feeling very strong and very bullish."

Where tax season is 'like Christmas'

Guy Daniels is anxious about the next six months at his tattoo parlor in Wausau, Wisconsin.
Guy Daniels is anxious about the next six months at his tattoo parlor in Wausau, Wisconsin.

Guy Daniels, the owner of Expressions Ink, a tattoo parlor in Wausau, Wisconsin, says he was a bit nervous when the year began.

At the time, Expressions Ink relied on longtime customers and people who were using gift certificates from the holidays. Walk-in traffic "took a dive with a lot of layoffs in town," he told iReport.

As the year progressed, he began cutting costs where he could and invested a bit of money on a new computer and advertising. "Figured you have to spend money to make money," he said.

Things began looking up when tax season arrived, a time when refunds give customers more disposable income to spend.

"People are more spontaneous with their money at tax time," Daniels said. "It's like Christmas for us."

The shop is holding steady for now, but Daniels predicts the next six months, when revenue from tax season and other such bumps will recede, will give a better indication of what the economy is like for his business.

'A personal tiredness'

Kathy Kirkpatrick, owner of New York's Life Cafe, says she's grateful to loyal customers for keeping her business afloat.
Kathy Kirkpatrick, owner of New York's Life Cafe, says she's grateful to loyal customers for keeping her business afloat.

Kathy Kirkpatrick, like Guy Daniels, is a small-business owner hoping to ride out the economy. She is the owner of Life Café. She has two locations in New York City, one in the East Village and another in Brooklyn.

In the more than 20 years that Life Café has been around, 2008 was the worst economy she's ever seen, Kirkpatrick told iReport. But as this year began, she sounded optimistic.

"I have jobs for people, and I'm able to provide that. I'm so grateful for that," she said.

Business has been good, but not strong, for the past six months. The springtime, when tourists frequent the café, wasn't similar to years past.

However, she says, in retrospect, the recession has been something of a benefit. The café's management has cut down on costs and learned how to make better decisions, she said.

"You have to understand profit and loss, for the small business owner, comes incrementally," she said earlier this year. "A few hundred here and there in costs adds up. ... It's the difference between success and failure, life or death."

The economy of the past two years has also made her more pragmatic.

"Besides a personal tiredness, the recession has made me cautious of the eggs I do have in my basket," she said.

"I don't have the time in front of me to take any more risks like I used to. I have to be realistic."