From standing in soup kitchen lines to buying thoroughbred horses, three generations of bay area residents have seen it all economically, as evidenced by their financial pasts. But what about their financial futures?
For a retired railroader, these are the best of times. To an Internet junkie half his age, there's palpable pressure to make it big before a bust. And for a prosperous baby boomer, there's a nagging fear that her kids will never have it as good as they do right now.
The current economic boom is about to become the longest in U.S. history, entering its 107th month in February. What has it meant for Americans? And how much longer do they think the expansion will last?
We asked three generations of Tampa Bay residents to talk about their personal financial histories and important milestones _ first jobs, first cars, first houses.
Louis Terrasi, 76
Retired railroad worker
New Port Richey
"I was born and raised in New York City and I've been working since I was 16. My mother was from Ireland and my father was from Sicily; they met when they were working in the same factory. But my father never made much money. I supported them all my life, even after I was married. My mother wouldn't even give me a dime for the movies when I was a kid.
"During the Depression, I was about 5 or 6 years old. I remember my parents sending me to stand in the soup kitchen lines. We were janitors, carrying other people's garbage, cleaning apartment houses. Those were very unpleasant times. I hope young people never have to experience something like that.
"My first job was polishing costume jewelry for something like $18 or $19 each week. I was going to high school but I had a full-time job. I remember falling asleep in classes. They must have felt sorry for me because they graduated me.
"At 17 I started on the railroad as a fireman at $7.50 a day, seven days a week. Then I got promoted to an engineer. I served in the Army in Europe during the war, then came back to the railroad. When I retired in 1978 after 41 years, I was doing rather well, with a guaranteed wage. I was averaging close to $40,000 a year. Today, if I were working, I'd be making $50-, $60-, $70,000 in that job.
"The railroad gave me job security, and, my God, that was very important to me. My wife worked in a children's clothing store, but I carried the load and it was tough because my parents relied on me. We had a three-family house in the Bronx that I bought in 1946 for $11,000. My parents lived on the bottom floor, we lived with our daughter in the middle and my brother sometimes rented the top floor. When we moved down here in 1979, we practically had to give that house away, the neighborhood had gotten so bad.
"These seem to be the best times of my life right now. For the first time, my wife, Frances, and I aren't worrying about where we're going to get the next dollar, whether we're going to be able to pay the rent. With our savings, my pension fund and Social Security, we feel comfortable. I want to keep investing in CDs because of the FDIC, but they're not paying much interest.
"My wife and I are very conservative with our money and we've stayed out of the stock market. But I can imagine that this bull market will go on for quite a while. Most people seem to be doing so well. What bothers me is this thing with China and Russia. I hope they'll have stable governments and won't do something foolish, like the Russians are doing in Chechnya.
"Nothing lasts forever, but I think the expansion will continue. I just bought a 2-year-old Oldsmobile van, a Silhouette, for $27,000. And it was wonderful to buy something like that for cash."
Judy Hoyer, 50
"I come from a family of five kids and we all went to parochial schools. We had one of the older cars and we had to buy our school uniforms used at the basement sale. I got 15 cents for allowance and that was enough for a movie, but it didn't leave anything to buy Dots.
"I went to college in Fredericksburg, Va., for a year, but in the spring I volunteered to work on Robert Kennedy's campaign and I got swept up in it. In the summer of 1968, a friend sold me her apartment on Dupont Circle (in Washington) and its contents for $100 and I moved in, got a job as a legal secretary and demonstrated against anything that came along.
"By the time I left that job in 1971 to go back to school, I was making $12,000 a year. That was about $500 less than I made in my first job as a lawyer, as an assistant state attorney in Tampa in 1976.
"I took another pay cut when I went to work for the U.S. Attorney's Office in 1977, which I found fairly ironic. But I wanted to get back to Washington and I figured if I worked for the U.S. Attorney's Office I could get in through the back door. But then I met my husband (lawyer Chris Hoyer), and suddenly you have kids and a mortgage and you're not going anywhere.
"Chris ran Bill James' campaign for state attorney in 1984 and, after Bill won, we spent eight years there as prosecutors. But when Bill lost in 1992, we were unemployed overnight. It was scary. I can't tell you how many consecutive days I threw up. Chris had a daughter from a previous marriage, we had two kids together and we were unemployed professionals. It wasn't like we could go down to McDonald's.
"The first plan was for me to find a job with a salary to cover our expenses and Chris would go into private practice with our friend, John Newcomer. I got an offer from a law firm but at the last minute it didn't feel right, so Chris said, "Come with me.' So there were the two of us, in an empty office with a phone on the floor, calling people to let us know we were in practice.
"But we've been fortunate: The first client I signed up was a man who had been an employee at MetLife. He told me about a fraud scheme there _ and at virtually every other insurance company you could name _ and we learned how to file a class-action lawsuit. Since then, the payoff has been in the millions. I've lost track of how much.
"We bought the kids prepaid college plans and paid off our first mortgage with the first MetLife settlement. I bought a horse out of the second settlement and now we own two thoroughbred horses. Our 16-year-old daughter got a car for Christmas: a brand new white Mustang, which is the car I wanted when I was 16. And for my 50th birthday in November, I got a little Mercedes convertible.
"So we've done very well for two people who didn't have any savings when we found ourselves unemployed in 1992. And Chris has made some really good investments.
"But I don't know anyone who thinks the market can continue the way it's going. We have a budget every month that we stick to, and the first thing we take care of is making sure that, if the unspeakable happens, what we have will be protected.
"Our biggest worry is that we give our kids a lot and they don't understand the value of the opportunities they've been given. We worry about when they go out on their own. How they can ever support themselves in a way that's comfortable?
"That's a huge question mark on our horizon. We just hope we've taught them the skills they need to get along, but we won't know till we get there."
Prentice Murphy, 31
Manages radio affiliates for Internet music site
"I was born in Jacksonville, the first American in my family. My parents divorced when I was young. My mom was a Russian Jew from England; my father was Irish and they basically had to leave their countries.
"Growing up, we were lower middle-class; my mom had lupus and we lived on SSI. She died when I was in seventh grade and I went to live with an aunt and uncle, but I was basically on my own.
"At 16, I got my first job, washing pots and pans in a family-owned restaurant at $5 an hour. I learned work ethics: Just do it because there's someone relying on you. And I learned teamwork.
"After I graduated from high school in 1986, I wanted to go backpacking through Europe but my Dad said I should join the military and have someone pay me to travel.
"I saw the opportunity to secure a job in graphic communications in the Air Force; they trained me in Colorado, then I was stationed in England and Spain, earning $500 a week. It was great until spring of 1991 when Desert Storm broke out. Then I was loading bombs in Egypt and Spain, which was not the best of times. But everybody did their jobs and we went home relatively fast.
"When the military was downsizing in spring 1992, I was discharged in Tampa and got a job with a company that promoted concerts. It paid under $300 a week, less than I had been making in the Air Force. The upsides were the free concerts and being in that culture.
"But I quickly learned I couldn't afford $400-a-month rent in Hyde Park. Now I live in a historic home in Seminole Heights with one roommate. Rent, with an option to buy, is $600 a month.
"In 1995, I decided to go back to school to be a professional chef; I'd been working part time in restaurants. I had the GI bill and work-study jobs, but I still came out with about $14,000 in debt.
"After graduation in 1997, I went to work at Mis en Place in Tampa. By the time I left in November, I was making $525 a week.
"I came to Visiosonic (in Clearwater) just a few weeks ago because I realized the growth potential of the technology these guys are innovating. They're paying me the most money I've ever seen _ $600 a week plus incentives. We're still talking about stock options, but I know mine are going to look good to me. There's lots of upward momentum here if you show you have the ability to make it happen. The future is Internet radio. This is it.
"Since I joined the Air Force, I've been putting 25 percent of my pay into a Merrill Lynch Capital Builders Account. Right now I'm focusing on Asian technologies. I'm trying to make sure my future is secure, though I'm not necessarily looking to settle in the states.
"I want to go to the West Indies, or maybe Costa Rica or the Grenadine Islands. I'm more of a world traveler. I was in Turkey in August and it was beautiful, but the economy was wrecked.
"Ultimately, I'm trying to save to buy a house and maybe a Range Rover, though for now I'm looking at a Mitsubishi Montero. Right now I'm driving a Ford Ranger truck that I bought new for $13,000 in 1996.
"I do think there will be a downturn within the next 10 years. People won't be able to own the big-ticket items; instead of having homes on 16 acres, they'll be living in high-rise sardine cans.
"Eventually, I'd like to see a salary of $150,000 a year; that could support anything I wanted to do. Before I'm 45, I hope to be close to that. I think it's possible if you've got your motors running."