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For richer and for poorer

Baum is a Times staff writer.

Mona Mond had a plan -- and it didn’t include Wall Street going haywire and giving up a three-bedroom house with a half-acre yard for a small apartment.

She’d married a man with a career on Wall Street, and at the very least she was going to live in a house, preferably brand new, with a Jacuzzi in her bedroom and a pool in that yard. There’d be a maid -- and no skimping, no worrying that any day Amar, her husband, would lose his job.

The Monds would retire early with $10 million to $12 million in a rock-solid retirement account that would spew off enough interest to keep them going until . . . well . . . they actually got old.

Because that’s how it goes during good times on Wall Street.

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But now there are no sure bets -- “the Street” is besieged by instability.

“I’m so angry,” says Mona, who is 32 and about to have a second child. “We are living so tight, and we feel so limited. I wanted a big nice house. . . . This was planned.”

With the implosion of Wall Street, Mona’s plan has been upended along with so much else in the world financial capital in New York. Families of thousands of Wall Street employees, whether they’re high-flying fund managers, traders, computer programmers or secretaries, are being forced to adjust to withered expectations.

For those who still have jobs, their income is still substantial but likely this year to be smaller, and families are cutting back on their spending and their dreaming.

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Over the last year as Lehman Bros., Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch and others were swallowed up by other banks, thousands of jobs vanished and billions of dollars were lost. With experts predicting more layoffs, some are just giving up on Wall Street.

Carlos Alvarez has not been able to find a job on Wall Street since he left Credit Suisse last spring with the hope of making more money as a trader. He is taking a position with a company near his home in northern New Jersey. No one is happier than his wife, Fran.

“I never liked the whole Gordon Gekko greed image,” she says, referring to the Michael Douglas character from the film “Wall Street” whose mantra is “greed is good.” “I can see how America can feel like Wall Street is the bad guys. But I never felt we were part of it.”

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About 185,000 people work in the securities industry in New York -- the hard-core Wall Street world of investment firms, banks and hedge funds. The average income is about $365,000, although top-flight managers typically make many millions more. (In New York’s broader financial community of banks and insurance firms the average is $228,000.)

It’s hard to have sympathy for people who make that much money when the average New Yorker makes $85,000. But beyond the tales of fat cats having to make it on $250 million when they used to get by on $1 billion, there are stories of families reeling during this downturn. Many insist they are as much a part of Main Street as the denigrated Wall Street.

In interviews with several Wall Street wives whose husbands’ big earnings are in jeopardy, they describe the pain of walking through malls and boutiques -- how it hurts knowing they can’t grab a few things for themselves that might catch their fancy. They tell themselves this will pass. Wall Street shrinks during tough times, but it always comes back. But what if it doesn’t this time?

Many admit to being in the dark about their husbands’ prospects at the bank or for finding new jobs -- if it comes to that. They’re keeping up on Wall Street’s woes, obsessively watching the news crawls. But the devastation hits home, they say, when they witness their husbands’ panic attacks in the middle of the night.

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For months, Mona has anxiously awaited daily calls from her husband while he is at work. They live in Edison, a comfortable suburb in central New Jersey and a 90-minute commute by train from her husband’s office in Manhattan.

For the last two years, Amar, 36, has run a technology unit in the capital markets division for Lehman Bros. until it went bankrupt and was bought in part by Barclays. He’s still there, adjusting with the change in management. His salary at Lehman’s was $400,000, including a bonus and restricted stock options. Amar’s base salary, about $200,000, remains the same, but there are no reports yet on what will happen to 2008 bonuses and options.

During their daily calls, Mona is usually out with their 3-year-old daughter, Karen -- doing errands or dropping her at the Little Geniuses preschool in a strip mall.

“Is everything all right today?” she asks. “Do you have meetings?”

At the same time she’s thinking to herself, “He called about the meeting because something’s going on, maybe layoffs?”

Usually, he’s distracted while they’re talking. “He’s always looking at numbers, millions and billions of dollars, going up and down. The amount gives him some kind of reason to go on,” she says. “He wants to do right for the company, but he’s stressed all the time, and when he comes home he never smiles.”

On the morning of Black Monday, Sept. 15, Mona, then six months pregnant, was outside an operating room waiting to have a mastectomy because of breast cancer. Her husband knew Lehman would be declaring bankruptcy that morning.

“We weren’t talking about my surgery,” she recalls. “I kept asking him, ‘When the company goes bankrupt, do you still have insurance for THAT day?’ ”

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For the last few years as Amar watched Wall Street banks unravel and his own investments founder, he had tried to ratchet back his family’s lifestyle.

“I wish we had invested more conservatively,” Mona says, “but when you’re on Wall Street that’s the game because you know, or at least you think you know, so much you can be a millionaire in 20 years and get out.”

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They had tried to get out after Sept. 11, 2001, when Mona spent the day roaming Queens Boulevard where they lived as she waited for her husband to come home. His office was adjacent to the World Trade Center towers that fell. He made it safely to Queens that night, but shortly after, the Monds fled to California near Mona’s family for a less pressured life. But after two months they were back in New York, and Amar was on Wall Street.

“We realized we had gotten used to the pace of the city,” she says.

After returning they bought their first house, the three bedroom with the half-acre yard in Colonia, N.J., a leafy bedroom community in Middlesex County. It didn’t match their shiny dream house; still, Mona was able to furnish it to their taste. But after a few years, as Amar saw home prices climbing, he was convinced the bubble would burst. The Monds sold their house and moved to a two-bedroom apartment in a modest complex filled with immigrants from India.

“Here in Jersey you just have to have a house unless you’re just a fresh immigrant,” says Mona, who thinks she should be past that stage. Twenty years ago, she moved from the Punjab state in India to Santa Clara, Calif., where she lived with her parents in another two-bedroom apartment.

“It’s ironic but I feel even poorer now,” she adds. “Maybe it’s because . . . we got used to having things. Now we want things more, and it’s heartbreaking for us.”

The couple hadn’t owned the Colonia house long enough to make much of a profit, and whatever they made was piled into investments that soured with the credit crisis or stagnated in markets overseas.

Last year they sold their fully loaded Nissan Maxima for a small minivan. They stopped going to movies and let the cleaning woman go. But some habits are hard to break. Buying back-to-school clothes for her daughter this fall, Mona knew she should have gone to Walmart, but she ended up charging $500 at Gap.

“I felt good,” she says. “It’s not rational. I can go with bad clothes, but I don’t want Karen to. . . . It’s a silly, silly thing I did.”

A petite woman with large dark eyes and a wedge of shiny black hair, Mona covers her face with her elegant hands. She is the guest for a rare lunch out at a Cheesecake Factory. Karen is singing and dancing in the aisle while her mother talks about avoiding malls and other temptations.

“If we make it through the next 18 months, I can put my baby in day care and go find a job,” says Mona, who has worked in finance.

Later, she describes bitterly the lavish gifts her husband gave when they felt flush. When Mona’s sister was marrying, Amar presented her with a $5,000 diamond-and-platinum ring to give her new husband and a week at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

“I wish I had that money now for our daughter’s education fund,” Mona says.

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Fran Alvarez rarely spent lavishly, as she describes it, during the five years her husband, Carlos, 43, was making $250,000 writing software programs for Credit Suisse. He will be earning half that in his new job away from Wall Street. It was either that or sell the house with its $3,000 monthly mortgage.

At 41, Fran is the caretaker of their daughters, Gabriella, 6, and Isabella, 4. In the last five months she has gone back to her daughter-of-a-mechanic mentality. She canceled magazine subscriptions and expensive cable -- and stopped buying soft toilet paper.

“Growing up, my mom used to buy the scratchiest toilet paper, and when we complained she would say, “When you get your own job, you buy the expensive type,’ ” Fran says. “Well, we’re back to the scratchy stuff.”

When Carlos was on Wall Street, they lived without thinking how they spent, she says. They renovated their kitchen, took the kids to Disney World. That was all before.

“Before, I would go crazy on clothes for the kids even though they were so young and couldn’t care. Before, if I didn’t feel like cooking, we’d go out. Before, if we were thinking about a vacation, we bumped up to the better hotel,” she says. The other day Carlos picked up Gabriella at piano and Fran yelled at him for stopping at Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee.

“That’s another $3.25 you don’t need to spend,” she told him.

It’s hard for Fran to believe that just two years ago Carlos bought her two Fendi bags for her 40th birthday. “He liked the idea of making a lot of money. It meant more to him than it did to me.”

Carlos hadn’t revealed his unemployment to his parents, who didn’t approve of how hard he worked but were impressed by his income. Fran had to tell them. “I wanted them to know the well for us had run dry,” she says.

The Monds aren’t there yet -- they aren’t prepared to give up on the dream of “the Street.”

Amar says he’s working harder than ever to remain in New York because “it’s addicting. There’s always 1.5% of Wall Street that doesn’t get affected by downturns. I aspire to be at that level.”

If he has regrets, it’s that he scared his wife: “I didn’t reassure her that even if Wall Street was broken, I wouldn’t be broken.” He also regrets selling the house: “I’m going to make it up to her.”

Mona sold almost everything from the house on EBay, keeping the bare minimum needed to furnish their apartment.

But she hung onto the lawn mower. It sits on the tiny balcony outside their apartment, useless as a tool but significant as a reminder of the life Mona hopes she’ll one day reclaim.

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geraldine.baum@latimes.com


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