Looking back, the financial lives many Americans enjoyed until just a few years ago can seem like a mirage.
Their voices and those of many others tell the story of a country that, for all the economic turmoil of the past few years, continues to believe things will get better. But until it does, families are trying to hang on to what they've got left.
The Great Recession claimed nearly 40 percent of Americans' wealth, the Federal Reserve reported last week. The new figures, showing Americans' net worth has plunged back to what it was in 1992, left economists shuddering while sharpening attention on the pocketbook issues at the center of the presidential campaign. But for families across the country, the report, tracking the period from 2007 to 2010, confirms what they already felt in their gut and saw in their checkbooks. It is one more reminder that they're not alone.
"There's nothing in this report that makes me feel good," says Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and an economic official in the Clinton administration. Bubble-inflated housing wealth was a fiction whose end should have been expected, she said, but the drop in incomes is especially troubling, because it gives people even less flexibility and confidence to save for the future. "There are signs of improvement, but I think that everybody is scared."
It's not just plummeting wealth affecting Americans' financial psyche. Incomes have been stagnating for years. But until the bubble burst, lenders and credit card companies gave consumers freedom to borrow and spend. No more.
Americans "were told they were much wealthier than they really were and they believed it," says Robert Manning, author of the book "Credit Card Nation" and an expert on consumer finance. "Now they're kind of hearing they're a lot less wealthy then they believed - and they're in denial."
Long after Main Street goes quiet, Mike Lamm is still at the back of his jewelry shop, surrounded by tools. There'll be no more customers until the morning, but that does not mean the job is done.
"If I had to rely on retail sales out of my case, I'd have had to close my doors a long time ago," the 48-year-old businessman says.
These days, people aren't buying much jewelry. What saves Lamm is his ability to repair watches and make rings. There's still enough call for that kind of work in Mediapolis, a small town in rural southeastern Iowa.
Things have always been tight for the Lamms, who Mike describes as a family of "modest means." But like many of their neighbors, it's become more of a struggle over the past five years. At this hour, Mike would rather be home with wife Tracey and their two children, Ethan, 16, and Raeann, 11.
But there are groceries to buy, cars that need gas, and a mortgage to meet, says Tracey, who works as a grant writer for their regional government council.
"I feel like, for what we make, we should be doing better. We should have more money," says Tracey, who's 43. "But all of it just seems to go to bills."
Tracey estimates she spends $60 a week on gas, commuting to work. Mike, who uses a wheelchair after losing use of his legs in a car accident at 17, spends about the same for van that operates with hand controls.
Utilities and groceries at the one market in town also have risen 10 to 15 percent a year since the recession hit.
"And when you feed a teenage boy, you're automatically at a different level," Tracey says.
Other things, however, have had to go by the wayside.
The last family vacation - the only week away together Tracey can remember in years - was a trip to Disney World in 2009. But those trips are no more.
Now they rent a video and have a family night, or the kids go to their grandparents' farm for a "getaway."
This isn't all bad, Tracey says. Their kids are learning to value what they have. "They don't seem unhappy or deprived and they certainly know how much they're loved," she says.
But that doesn't stop the worries.
Even working 65 to 75 hours a week, Mike is bringing in less than he did last year. They have little saved for their children's college.
But they hold on to hopes, if not for themselves, then at least for their kids.
"I think it will get better," Mike says. "It's just going to take time."