Every one of us makes money trade-offs nearly every day, whether we realize it or not. Residence over retirement. Later over now. Needs over wants. Faith over financial facts.
But all too often these trade-offs are subconscious, which means we don’t discuss them openly and fail to question them relentlessly.
The people you’ll encounter here have been sorting it out for themselves for some time now. Their household income is at or close to the median in their area — from Arkansas to Michigan, Indiana to California.
Meeting the most basic of needs is usually not a problem for these people, but it’s a challenge to figure out how often to allow themselves things they want and to weigh those desires against longstanding debt or the contributions they probably ought to make to their futures.
Below are some of the most common trade-offs that they — and all of us — face.
What financial trade-offs do you make to afford what you really want? Join the conversation on Facebook.
For Married Veterans, Scarce Funds Mean Prioritizing
Sometimes Tanya Brashers can almost forget about the financial situation her family is in.
Tanya and her husband, Chris, are military veterans — Tanya is a former member of the U.S. Navy and Chris of the Marines — living in this bedroom community southwest of the state capital.
In mid-February, Tanya, 41, lost her $37,000-a-year job with a nonprofit veterans group in North Little Rock when grant funding dried up. In early April, the couple and their teenage son from a previous marriage must vacate the house they have been renting for $1,200 a month because their landlord plans to sell it. The couple has about $50,000 in student loan debt.
“The more I talk about our situation, the more grim it seems,” she said. “We prioritize everything: our rent and utilities and our food comes first … It’s a huge splurge if we go out to dinner or something, but we feel like it’s important to do that every so often. And I do feel guilty for it.”
The couple has decided to move to Fairhope, Ala., on the Gulf Coast, hoping it will bring new opportunities.
Tanya’s Arkansas social worker license is valid in Alabama. Chris, who has a degree in engineering but is trying to build a business as a freelance photographer, researched the area and thinks there are more freelance jobs there. They will also be near several military bases, an employment option if they cannot find full-time work, she said.
Money worries are not new to Tanya, who grew up in poverty in Yazoo City, Miss., in the Mississippi Delta. She remembers moving often as a child because her parents could not pay the rent. The water and electricity were frequently cut off.
Tanya said that growing up in poverty and seeing poverty every day had a significant influence on her political choices.
“Given that there are a lot of economic issues right now, social welfare programs are essential and help people from being homeless to keeping people from having their health become detrimental,” she said.
Money was also scarce during her five years in the Navy. “So you kind of get used to living very basic,” she said.
The first time in her life that she thought she had enough money was after she was discharged and moved to Reno, Nev. “I started to make good money in the civilian world … and I lived a little more lavishly, maybe too lavishly, and ended up in bankruptcy,” she said, and “then, of course, I reverted back to the basics again.”
Chris, 46, grew up in Arkansas; he also filed for bankruptcy after leaving the military because he lived beyond his means.
While Tanya no longer has a paycheck she can count on, she receives disability compensation of nearly $2,000 a month for a back injury she sustained during a training exercise in the Navy.
Chris, who served during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was also receiving $2,000 a month in disability compensation for a number of physical and emotional issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder. But in December, that payment was halted for six months after a paperwork error resulted in his being overpaid.
The couple has health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs; Tanya’s ex-husband covers their son’s insurance.
While they drive newer vehicles, they shop for things marked down to the lowest price and closely monitor their utility costs.
Chris said he is hopeful about their situation, and he likes a lot of what President Trump is doing. “Like wanting to renovate the V.A. system,” he said. “That would really impact us, but how is he going to do it?”
Tanya said she is not sure of their future. “We are happy with living simply,” she said. “We tried to find the least extravagant house in the neighborhood.
“I’m at peace with the fact that I don’t have to have a lot of money to be happy.”
Rob Moritz lives in North Little Rock. He has spent more than 30 years covering politics, state and local government and crime news for newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas.
A Bisexual Teacher in Red Country Has a Mission
Avalon Manly is proud of who she is and what she represents as a feminist, bisexual, social activist, writer, artist and teacher living in the famously conservative stronghold of Colorado Springs.
And defying what she sees as an unfair image of her fellow millennials as “lazy and entitled,” Avalon, 27, works hard. She teaches at a Colorado Springs middle school. She also does “part-time pittance work” to bridge the gap between her $44,000 teaching salary, in an area with a median income of about $54,000, and her bills. She calls them “side hustles.”
“Every millennial I know has a side hustle or two,” said Avalon, who does freelance design work, editing work and writing. “I don’t know anybody who has one job and makes a living at it.”
She scrambles because she is digging out of a financial hole she created when she lost her job in 2014 and turned to credit cards to fill the gaps in her monthly budget. It’s a choice that taught her a particularly painful lesson in personal finance.
“There were months during the great season of unemployment where I would send out 15 job applications and then I would sit on the couch and have panic attacks,” she said.
Her months of “unemploycation,” as she calls it, began when she lost a teaching job just a month after making a down payment on a $162,000 townhouse. “I ran up about $9,000 on my credit cards that I couldn’t pay,” she said. Soon she was in crisis, facing a 30-year mortgage, $15,000 in student debt and her credit-card bill.
“I was really dumb,” she said, explaining how she took temporary and part-time jobs to generate income and negotiated with her bank and credit companies for relief.
“We live in this system that correlates wealth with character,” Avalon said. “If you are doing well financially, you must be a good person. And if you are doing poorly, you must be a bad person. What an unjust narrative that is.”
She might have recovered from her financial woes more quickly, but chose a lower-paying teaching job in a neighborhood with one of the lowest per-capita incomes and highest crime rates in the region, turning down more lucrative offers.
“My friends and I tend to be very activist, very passionate about people and passionate about doing meaningful work,” she said.
She admits she would fit in better in more progressive Colorado communities like Boulder or Denver, but she is committed to staying here. “My family is here,” she said, and she likes to be near them.
Avalon moved back after a three-year stint in New Orleans, where she taught in a poor public school as a member of Teach for America. And she is making no compromises as she plants roots here.
She says she will not change to blend into her upper-middle-class Briargate neighborhood, more famously known for Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family Christian ministry and the New Life Church founded by the evangelical pastor Ted Haggard, who was ousted in 2006 after admitting he paid for sex with a male prostitute and bought crystal meth.
Instead, she wants the community to adjust. “There are more of us here than people realize,” she said, adding, “We are working to change Colorado Springs.”
She is tempted to take higher-paying jobs, but says her work is too important to leave. She points to a seminar she led for new Teach for America corps members.
“We had a very real conversation about supporting queer kids,” she said. “It was hard to watch all the new teachers’ faces when we talked about the need to support queer kids in states that legislate against them.”
Bill Vogrin has worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for 35 years, primarily for The Associated Press and The Colorado Springs Gazette. He has lived in Colorado Springs since 1994.
Grand Rapids, Mich.
A Hard Case of Money Woes From Family Turmoil and Alcoholism
Money has been a burden for Kate Elenbaas for much of her life, a constant reminder of how her family struggled financially, and then how her addiction to alcohol nearly killed her.
“From the time I was a little kid, money has somehow or another woven itself in and out of my life in a negative way,” said Kate, 53. “It’s the reason I made bad decisions, did desperate things.”
Now, 15 years sober on Feb. 1, Kate still does not have a nest egg, or even her own home. Yet she lacks for nothing and makes a point to donate to organizations that help people who are homeless and addicted.
She is a therapist at Thriveworks Counseling and Life Coaching, and she made $57,000 in 2015, just above the median income for this area. She rents a small two-bedroom home on the northwest side of this city, and the only luxuries she allows herself are a 2008 Jeep Commander and a 60-inch 4D television with a stereo sound system.
She owes more than $70,000 in student loans, some from attending college in her 20s and the rest from earning a master’s degree in social work in 2010.
“My goal wasn’t always to be filthy rich, but it was to have some financial freedom mentally and emotionally … so I can take a breath,” she said. “I feel like I have been holding my breath for years in some capacity, waiting to feel like I can breathe and not worry about money. It has been so ingrained in me even in my thinking. I still live very much paycheck to paycheck, and I’m very grateful.
“Sobriety has taught me I could be so much worse off, and I tell myself that daily.”
Her parents divorced when she was 7, and Kate said her mother remained acrimonious toward her father about child support. That bitterness extended to Kate.
“I know it wasn’t easy for her, but it would be one thing if my mother would have instilled in us the idea that, ‘Look, we may not have much money, but we have enough,’” she said. “But every week and every day there was an argument about money. My mother would berate me — tell me I was ungrateful.”
While Kate’s family was considered middle class, most of Kate’s friends were in the upper income range. It made her feel insecure, she said, and she became the life of the party, the class clown.
“I found friendships through humor,” she said. “But inside, I was insecure. I realized my alcoholic behavior — what I thought and how I felt about myself — started in childhood.”
That behavior escalated in her adult life. A fifth of vodka would temporarily cure the physical toll the disease was taking on her. She suffered from the shakes, retching, hair loss and nosebleeds, and she was desperate for money to pay for liquor and cigarettes. She pocketed money from the till while working at a fast-food restaurant. She stole quarters from her nephew’s piggy bank.
“You feel horrible, but when you are in the throes of addiction … ” she said. “I was at the point where I had to drink all the time. I existed on a fifth of vodka and a pack of cigarettes.”
Kate finally reached her “bottom” in 2002, when her sister rushed her to a treatment center.
“The doctor took a look at me and said, ‘She won’t make it through the weekend,’” Kate said.
She remembers waking up in a hospital intensive care unit three weeks later. She weighed 106 pounds. She had suffered from alcohol encephalitis and cirrhosis of the liver. Her body had begun to shut down.
“Obviously I lived, but it was a very long and tenuous recovery,” she said. “A liver specialist told me I’d aged my body by 10 years. I went through menopause at 40. I still feel chronic pain and arthritis. Everything has been accelerated.
“But by God’s grace, here I am, and I realize what’s important. I have a good life.”
Mary Ullmer has been an associate editor for espnW.com since 2011. She is a Michigan native who worked in the newspaper industry for nearly three decades. She returned to her home state in 1999.
New Albany, Ind.
Living Frugal, but Staying the Course
Wesley Shears thought he’d arrived. Still in his 30s, he was on the fast track at work, owned his first home — a small three-bedroom in Lexington, Ky. — and with his wife had a combined income in excess of $100,000.
But his degree in architecture could not protect him when building projects dried up after the country’s financial crisis in 2008.
“I survived many rounds of layoffs,” he said. “Finally, there was nobody else to lay off.” The house went soon after, lost in a bankruptcy.
In what should have been his prime earning years as an architectural designer, Wesley scrambled to continue his livelihood, finding only a string of hourly wage jobs.
“It just looked like everything was stepping up and then boom, boom,” said Wesley, now 44, from the small living room in the duplex he rents for $800 a month in New Albany, Ind., just across the river from Louisville, Ky. “Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s just me. I think it’s this whole generation that I’m a part of. Because there’s a lot of people that I went to college with that I connect with on Facebook … they’re just kind of in the same boat.”
To make ends meet, he managed an office, directed projects for a cabinetmaker and was a substitute teacher in the New Albany school system. “There’s one school right down the road in a bad neighborhood,” he said. “They had me on speed dial.”
A year ago, Wesley separated from his second wife, Kristin. He now lives frugally with his 11-year-old son, Hank, a fifth grader at Hazelwood Middle School, along with two cats and two Jack Russell terriers. The family recently stopped using the upstairs bathroom, he said, because the leaky pipes send water through the downstairs ceiling. An older son, Cowen, 18, is a freshman at Butler University, and he also lives with them.
“Money was the end-all, be-all growing up,” Wesley said. “It seemed what you would strive for. Now what makes me happy is just everything’s taken care of, everything’s paid for. The lights are on. There’s food. Stuff like that.”
He now makes about $45,000 a year, with bonuses, at Paradigm Engineers and Constructors in Louisville, where he has been employed as a project manager for more than two years. His earnings are slightly under the area’s roughly $53,000 median household income.
While he does not quite live paycheck to paycheck, he has long since cashed in his 401(k). His 2007 Hyundai, given to him by his parents, has 140,000 miles on it. He has no credit cards, no savings. He tries to stay healthy so he does not accrue more medical costs than the $330 a month he pays for the health insurance he gets through his employer.
When Hank needs new sneakers, Wesley buys a high-end brand, so they last longer. His own shoes, he said, come refurbished. Occasional trips to Goodwill and the Salvation Army augment his wardrobe. Entertainment comes courtesy of one of the few remaining neighborhood video stores — where kids’ movies are free. Cable TV is a splurge. Internet, he said, is a necessity.
“When stuff is really, really, really needed, I can make it happen,” he said. “I take it to the very last point. If I can’t make it then, I reach out. I don’t want to, but I do.”
He also helps others, serving food at a soup kitchen, as a volunteer coach at his son’s school, and at his church. What he has lost in bank accounts, he has gained in relationships, including a new love interest.
Wesley said he is confident that his current struggle will be a catalyst for his sons’ future success.
“I do have dreams and I have no plans of letting them go,” he said. “My focus on myself and my two boys is clearer, and with my current job I will be a homeowner again and move ahead financially in life.”
John Mura is director of communications for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. He worked for 36 years as a reporter and senior editor at newspapers in New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Kentucky.
The Emotional and Financial Shock of Becoming a Young Widow
Natalie Davis was married with a 5-year-old and three months pregnant with her second child when her husband died. She was 31.
Suddenly, Natalie, a full-time businesswoman, was a widow and a single mom. She had no safety net (her husband did not have life insurance) and no clear path forward.
“Nobody expected him to die at 45,” said Natalie, now 36. “He literally just dropped. Metaphorically speaking, that can happen to anything. It was a wake-up call.”
In the years after his death, Natalie relied heavily on her credit cards and accrued lots of debt.
“Going through high school and college, I always had some sort of a credit-card debt,” she said. “So I’d worked hard to get out of debt,” and she had finally established good credit. But as she struggled to deal with the loss of her husband, she ran up credit card bills again.
“Now I find myself digging out of another debt hole,” she said. “I have to be careful about where I put my money, where I spend it. I hate packing my lunches for work, but I do it.”
While she is considering where to cut corners, and what she can allow herself, her philosophy on money is relatively simple.
“I feel like I can always make more of it,” she said. “That’s a pro. I feel like I don’t hang on to it or have such an attachment to the dollar. On the other hand, I feel like I have to make that dollar stretch a lot more. I’m one mistake away from not being able to pay a mortgage or put my daughter in day care.”
Natalie does not have any savings, which she says makes her a little more cautious but is not a source of great anxiety.
The biggest trade-off she has made was leaving a full-time executive position to spend more time with her 10-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. “I’m the only parent they have,” she said, “and they’re young.”
She is now a freelancer working with clients in fashion merchandising and product development. The flexibility is important to her, but her salary can swing by as much as $20,000 a year, without ever quite amounting to six figures. She said her number of clients had grown, but she was not completely removed from the financial struggle.
But the change was worth it to get time with her children. “I see their development getting so much better,” she said, “especially my son.”
Natalie said she was getting over the guilt she felt about not being able to give her children everything, especially in the absence of their father.
“This is what we have, and this is what we’re going to work with,” is her mantra, of sorts. “I’m definitely less hard on myself about not being able to provide in all aspects. I just cut myself a little more slack, because I used to physically lose hair over it.”
This mom has also carved out two small luxuries for herself that she says have made her life much better, even if she can feel it in her wallet.
“I’m going out tonight,” she says, on one of the evenings she sets aside to spend with other mothers. Only in the last year has she felt comfortable enough with “biting the bullet, and hiring a babysitter because it was needed.”
The other little thing she says she will not bend on is having a housekeeper come once a month to help out.
“It chops off an entire day for me,” she said. “That’s time I can now take my kids out and do things with them. I don’t feel so guilty about that anymore, but I used to.”
Jarrett Hill is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. He hosts Back2Reality, a politics and pop culture podcast for NBCBLK.
Expecting to Work Until the End
Alonzo Adams doesn’t know if the old saying will hold true for him.
“Black preachers don’t retire, they die,” said Alonzo, a 42-year-old pastor and father of four. Particularly at smaller, modest churches like his, he said, pastors’ families often divert their own money to fill the church’s coffers, leaving little for retirement savings.
Indeed, Alonzo’s 69-year-old father — who founded New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Ferguson, Mo. — is still working as a pastor. With only Social Security checks and no retirement savings, he has to.
It’s a cycle Alonzo is hoping to break. In addition to tending to New Jerusalem’s flock, he works a full-time job at the Department of Agriculture and runs a small janitorial business that cleans offices overnight. His wife, Ronica, 40, home-schools three of their four children and runs a cake-baking business out of their home.
“My wife was diagnosed with lupus two years ago. Kneading all the fondant, and all of these things to make these cakes and put all this stuff together, it hurts her,” Alonzo said from his home in Florissant, Mo. Ronica has to work, he said, even though he puts in 75 to 80 hours a week. “This is the world that we live in,” he said.
Even with the extra jobs, the Adams family brings in a maximum of $76,000 each year, just about the median income in their ZIP code. They have trouble saving, he said, and have no retirement nest egg.
The financial pressure of raising four kids is apparent and frustrating. “Right now, we’re not buying as many groceries as we normally would,” Alonzo said.
But it is not the hustle that bothers him. It is the feeling that no matter how hard he works, no matter the choices and sacrifices he makes, he barely keeps his head above water — after a lifetime of watching white classmates, friends and co-workers excel, seemingly with ease.
“I’m educated. I don’t believe I’m ignorant. I try to speak intelligently. I try to carry myself, and even I get to the point where I just get frustrated and want to lash out,” Alonzo said. “Then I look at my cousins, my friends, people who I went to school with, people who I just see on the street on a daily basis. And I just see how they respond, how angry they get, and how they lash out.”
It is the weight of an economic stagnation and anxiety that North St. Louis County’s residents have carried over the years, and one of the factors that fueled the unrest following the police killing of the teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014.
“I can’t condone it,” Alonzo said of the disturbances, “but oh my God, I have to tell you how much I understand it.”
He has done his best to get ahead. He served in the Navy, graduated from the University of Missouri, read up on I.R.A.s and 401(k)’s — all the while remembering his grandfather, also a preacher, who spent his life picking cotton in Mississippi.
What Alonzo knows about finances, he taught himself.
Today, he is helping his son, who is his oldest child and an aspiring engineer, go to college locally. He and his wife spend more on rent than they can easily afford, but want their kids to grow up in a safe neighborhood.
He may spend the rest of his life working, but at least he will have tried to set up his son and daughters for a life easier than his.
“They are a product of their environment,” Alonzo said, sitting at his dining room table over a cake his wife had baked. “So what environment am I willing to pay for now to ensure that they can have a better later?”
Ryan Schuessler is a freelance journalist who grew up in St. Louis. He has lived in Chicago since 2015.
A Rewarding Career in Oakland, if Not a Lucrative One
Christina Chung, 39, still remembers being one of just a few children in her middle school who lined up in the cafeteria for the free lunch program. It didn’t make her feel bad, exactly, but she was aware that she came from one of the poorer families in her upper-middle-class Orange County, Calif., neighborhood. “I was around a lot of people feeling that I didn’t have what they had,” she said.
Now, as a mother of one with a second child on the way, she packs a lot of lunches and realizes food is an easy way to spend and to save. “So we cook at home a lot,” she said. “We rarely do takeout or delivery.”
Christina is Korean-American. Her parents met in Southern California and “were all about assimilation and the American dream,” she said. When Christina was little, her father worked as a computer scientist and the family bought a small home, but he had flashy tastes, “like buying a new Acura.” Her mom was more practical and “would immediately return it.”
Christina’s father struggled with mental illness, and life got harder as he got older. He owned a gas station for a while, then couldn’t hold down a job or be an effective parent; he died when she was 13.
Her mother went from being a stay-at-home mom for Christina and her younger sister to working multiple jobs as a translator, a thrift store manager and an office assistant for a car repair shop.
Christina worked, too, babysitting, then at various jobs throughout high school. “If we wanted to buy a CD, we had to work,” she said. “There was no asking Mom for that.”
Christina took out student loans to attend the California Institute of the Arts, then went into education. She chose a career that offers modest financial rewards in order to focus on service. “Work for me was about finding meaning,” she said of her job as a curriculum developer. “The money was secondary.”
She is cleareyed about the consequences and benefits of her choices. She loves the creative life she has built with her husband, an administrator in an independent school, and their 4-year-old daughter in an apartment in the Temescal district with stable, under-market-rate rent. They both D.J. on the side and have a rich community of friends — she works a 30-hour week to have more time with their daughter.
But, she says, she sometimes wonders if she is “like super-insane to have so little money.”
The couple only started using credit cards a couple of years ago and have no debt, but little savings. The bulk of what Christina earns goes toward rent and child care. They cannot save enough for a down payment on an apartment or house of their own.
“I have always had expensive taste, but I won’t go into debt,” she said. “Like this couch. It’s falling apart but it’s Room & Board. I always try to find the things I like but used, like on Craigslist.”
Christina feels a deep allegiance to her diverse Oakland neighborhood. But as it gentrifies she realizes they are, in some ways, trapped. Skyrocketing rents mean “we couldn’t even afford to rent another house on this block right now.”
Meanwhile, as real estate values escalate, the local elementary school still ranks poorly. “Why would we send our kids to that school when no one else I know would ever put it in their top five?”
Now Christina is expecting their second child. The couple waited to conceive until their first daughter would be entering kindergarten so they could avoid double day care costs.
They’re committed to sending their children to public school, but quality concerns have driven Christina to at least consider private options if she can find a place that costs around what they already pay for preschool. The change, however, would place a serious squeeze on the family budget.
What about college? Christina said her children will be expected to attend college — just as she and her sister were — and to pay for it. “They’re not getting a free ride from us,” she said with a laugh.
Jeanne Carstensen is a writer in San Francisco. She is the former managing editor of The Bay Citizen and Salon.com.
Little Else a Mother Can Do but Provide for Her Children
In Tara Thompson’s weekly calculations on how to scrape by on $20,000 a year, her daughters are always at the heart of the equation.
Kayla, 18, is a busy high school senior planning for college. Kaiya, a 15-year-old sophomore, is training to be a nurse at a vocational school where she spends half her days. Tara tries to make sure they have clothes, food and field trips, which is no easy task when you are a single parent earning less than half the county’s median income.
“As long as my kids have everything they need,” she said, “whatever I can do that week, I do. Whatever I can’t, I don’t worry about it.”
She said she knows that money shapes the way people think about you. “The way you dress and look and the way you eat: Everything is based on what you can afford to do, and people judge you on that,” she said.
Tara, 39, works as a home aide in the suburbs south of Pittsburgh, earning $12 an hour caring for people in their 90s. She is paid only if she shows up — if her clients are sick, or if she is, less money comes in that day. “My last paycheck was lower than normal because my daughter had the flu and was in the hospital for three days,” she said, “so I missed work.”
She would be more than willing to get a second job, but her daughters’ school district does not have any activity buses, and so she needs to drive them around in the afternoons.
That is especially challenging because the city where the Thompsons live, Duquesne, Pa., became so poor five years ago that it could no longer afford to maintain a high school, and its students were divided between two nearby districts.
Duquesne was once part of a bustling, economically vibrant stretch of steel mill cities along the Monongahela River, which flows into Pittsburgh. Most of the mills shut down more than 30 years ago, and today, Duquesne is mostly African-American, with a median household income that is about the same as Tara’s.
To make ends meet, Tara and her daughters live in the home of her sister, who is a nurse. Also sharing the five-bedroom house is their mother and her sister’s son.
“I have looked at a couple of other places to live, but they need a $1,500 deposit or the first and last month’s rent,” Tara said. “And I really don’t want to move my kids into the projects because of the alcohol and drug addictions and the danger.”
Beside her earnings, Tara gets about $3,400 a year in child support from Kayla’s father, and she relies heavily on her earned-income tax credit each year, which ranges from $6,000 to $7,000.
“When I get my income tax check,” she said, “I pay off whatever bills I have and then it’s gone.”
A big part of what sustains her is her church, First Presbyterian Church of Duquesne, where she is an ordained elder.
“I grew up afraid of God,” she said. “If I said or did something someone didn’t like, I was told I was going to burn in hell. When I started going to this church 14 years ago, I saw for the first time what God really wanted for me.
“I still struggle a lot, but the difference now is, I know that God is with me.”
Mark Roth is a freelance writer who was an editor and reporter at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 33 years, retiring in 2015. He also teaches science writing at Carnegie Mellon University.
A Longtime Couple’s Survival Secret: Living at His Mom’s
Somehow, over more than three decades in the Phoenix area, David and Laura Demson, husband-and-wife haircutters, have hopscotched through 10 or so hair-salon locations and raised three children.
What goes around comes around, and now their business, Salon Rock, is only 13 doors away from the Scottsdale bar where they first met in 1984 when it was called Cowgirls.
David, 54, looks like David Lee Roth, the rock singer, and Laura, 57, looks like Nancy Wilson, the blond guitarist from Heart.
Despite their rock star looks, they say they rarely drink, they don’t do drugs, and they regularly attend Grace Chapel, a local evangelical charismatic church.
Faith and music, secular and nonsecular, are big parts of their lives.
The $100 white guitar that Laura threw out the window after a fight with David hangs on the wall of Salon Rock. The drums from one of David’s first bands, Foreplay, sit next to the cashier’s desk; their daughter, Rain, 21, plays them when they hold a concert in the salon.
They have been together for 32 years, and their banter can sometimes turn contentious. Their son, River Jordan Demson, 22, leaves when they start to raise their voices.
“I am more of a realist, he’s a dreamer totally,” Laura said of David.
What do they argue about? Money. “When you have no money, there’s a lot of stress,” Laura said.
In their lush periods, mostly in the 1990s (when they were able to charge as much as $150 for a haircut and coloring), they made as much as $100,000 a year. Now they are lucky to make $48,000 a year, slightly below the local median household income of $50,000.
A mishandling (by David) of payroll taxes brought large tax penalties from the Internal Revenue Service in 1988 and ruined their credit rating.
The 2008 recession hit them especially hard. They had to scrimp and were not able to save. Laura has no savings account. David has the minimum $5 in his. “We are flying by the seat of our pants,” David said.
Money was so tight, the Demsons used food stamps and food banks to get by. David, a diabetic, gets insulin and other treatments under the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state’s Medicaid agency for low-income people.
Recently, the Demsons and two of their children moved in with David’s mother. She has a nearby 2,000-square-foot, four-bedroom house, fully paid for. “How do we get by?” David said. “We live rent-free.”
David’s mother, Peggy, 84, allowed him to take out a $50,000 second mortgage — $30,000 to remodel Salon Rock and $20,000 for surgery to reset River’s jaw, flawed since infancy.
The couple has given up going to the movies, eating out and vacationing in San Diego. Laura misses makeup and mostly uses the free samples from stores’ bonus programs.
“Looking back, I wish our parents, who knew about money, taught us more about money,” said Laura, who was one of eight children. Her father was a General Motors executive, and her mother was a jazz singer.
“For our own kids,” David said, “we’re teaching by example.”
Anthony Ramirez is a former reporter for The New York Times. He has lived in Scottsdale for four years.
After a Loss, Living for Today Instead of Waiting for ‘One Day’
Jordan Hightower took her American-history students from the Tacoma School of the Arts to Washington, D.C., in January to witness President Trump’s swearing-in. By the time she and her students traveled back home, Mr. Trump had issued a flurry of executive orders and she was even more assured of the trip’s success.
“It’s been interesting,” said Jordan, 31, a graduate of Washington State University. “I’ve been instructing them that there are limits to the presidency.”
Jordan, a Democrat, was dismayed to hear that one of the president’s first acts was to suspend a planned cut in housing-loan insurance rates. While the Tacoma housing market is not quite as hot as Seattle’s, prices are escalating. It’s another challenge for millennials trying to buy into the American dream.
“Any move on those loan insurance rates can make the difference of $50 or $100 a month,” said Jordan, who has just a small amount of savings.
For now, buying a house is on the back burner. When it comes to decisions about money, she factors in an unusually painful but important chapter of personal history.
In January 2010, her younger sister was killed in the 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti. Molly Hightower had traveled to Port-au-Prince to volunteer with Friends of the Orphans and was working with children when the building they were in collapsed.
Her sister’s death made Jordan rethink most things in her life. “One of the biggest things was my ‘one day’ mentality,” she said. “I was stockpiling away money, waiting for — I don’t know: a partner, a better job, more money — unclear. But I was waiting to do the things I always wanted to do.”
When her sister died, Jordan was 24. Molly was 22. “I realized that waiting to experience life was stupid because hers had been taken so suddenly and I could be next,” Jordan said. “I began living.”
For Jordan, who has two brothers and whose father is a general manager of a steel mill in the Puget Sound area, that meant travel. Over the last seven years, she has visited 23 countries, backpacking for weeks at a time during breaks from her teaching job in Tacoma.
“I have run marathons, bought a car, seen hundreds of events and shows — including musicals, plays, concerts, sporting events — and have gone to a dozen bachelorette parties around the nation, celebrated friends in a variety of ways and fallen in love,” she said. “All of those things are worth the small number in my bank account to me.”
She makes $55,000 a year and lives in a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment with her fiancé, Michael Villalpando, 30, a paramedic. She has started saving about $4,000 a year in a Roth IRA as part of her retirement plan. She owns outright the car she bought in 2011 and has paid off her student loans. She has about $3,000 on her credit cards, but she is currently not using them and is paying off the balances.
“I don’t have a huge savings,” she said, adding that if something were to happen, she would have support from her parents, Mike and Mary, until she got back on her feet.
And now Jordan has another big-ticket financial item on the horizon. When she returned from Washington, D.C., Michael surprised her by proposing. He took her to the pier on the Tacoma harbor, and friends, family members and a photographer were there.
“These weddings are such a burden we put on each other,” Jordan said, referring to herself and her friends. “But now that I’m getting married, it’s my turn to get back some of the money I’ve spent the past few years!”
Laura Vecsey is a freelance writer specializing in real estate news. Previously, she was a sports and political columnist in Harrisburg, Pa.; Baltimore; Seattle; and Albany.
The Cage Match of Income
Martin Vergara, a mixed martial arts fighter, is living his dream. One day, if his skills continue to improve, he could realize some attractive paydays.
“It’s my passion and it’s my lifestyle,” said Martin, 25, a Mexican-American who is among the first generation of his family to be born in the United States. “It makes me happy and keeps me sane. I see myself being very successful. At the same time, right now, I have a family to take care of.”
And that is his priority.
Martin and his wife, Raquel, have two daughters, Maria, 6, and Emily, 3. Raquel once worked as a personal banker, but now stays home to raise the children.
“It’s a financial sacrifice, but we don’t want to just drop them at day care and miss out on so much time,” Raquel said. “You never get that time back. Time is more important than money.”
But money is needed, so Martin also works as a trainer at Epic Boxing and Fitness, teaching boxing fitness and physical conditioning, and that was the foundation of his $47,500 income last year. If he continues to progress in M.M.A. (where the fighters compete in a cage, utilizing a combination of boxing, wrestling, judo and jujitsu), life could take a more lucrative turn.
He has two to three fights a year, and he is paid by performance, plus funds from sponsors and a percentage of the ticket sales. But right now, that doesn’t account for much of his income.
Things are looking up. There’s stability, no debt and a rental home for his family that was secured through one of his clients.
“Everybody wants a nice house, but I don’t want a mansion, not even a huge house,” Martin said. “I just want comfort for my family. We don’t need a lot of material things. Maybe I’d like to take them on a nice family vacation, something like that.
“People say they’d like to win the lottery. I don’t think I do. Money can’t buy you happiness. That mind-set starts young. When you come from nothing or very little, you tend to appreciate everything you have. I’m more grateful for that than almost anything.”
Martin’s parents, Ignacio and Gloria, immigrated from Mexico and raised five children, mostly in New Jersey before moving to Florida. His father was a truck driver, and Martin sometimes accompanied him on long trips as he hauled cargo. His mother was a delivery person who had regular work throughout New York’s office buildings, including the Twin Towers.
“I can’t say we were comfortable because it was a constant financial struggle,” Martin said. “But my parents did their best. Compared to where they came from, our life was luxurious,” even when the family living space was about 800 square feet shared by seven people, a small home attached to the Mexican restaurant they operated.
Martin first met Raquel when they were in high school, working at competing fragrance kiosks at the mall. At first, she was suspicious of her business rival, but was soon won over by his kindhearted personality and ambition.
It has not always been easy and fun. In one of their first apartments, they could not pay the electric bill, so they ate Chick-fil-A by candlelight, telling their oldest daughter that it was a camping party.
“Money is not going to determine our happiness,” Raquel said. “I believe in Martin. We’re going to be just fine.”
Martin said that his parents opened his eyes and taught him “there’s a very big world out there. We have a lot of opportunity in this country.
“I feel I can do anything. I just happen to be a fighter. That’s what I know. We’re so much better off than most people. I’m young and have a beautiful family. I am living the dream.”
Joey Johnston was a sportswriter at The Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times for 36 years until 2016. A lifelong resident of Tampa, he is now president of Johnston Communications.
A Community Organizer Struggling to Stay in the Community
Anna Hill exudes confidence. She founded a community group and routinely faces down City Hall officials over conditions in Dolphin Heights, her lower-income neighborhood in southeast Dallas.
Behind her self-assurance, however, the 76-year-old worries about being able to pay her mortgage.
In 1990, after renting for much of their lives, Anna and her husband, Daniel, bought a 936-square-foot two-bedroom house, built in 1923, for $17,500. In 1992, they decided to buy life insurance so they could pay off the house if one of them died. But Daniel died the day before they were supposed to sign the papers.
“That was kind of a hard time,” Anna said. She was making good money, she said, as a home health care contractor. But her mother fell and she needed to take care of her full time. Now Anna is the sole caregiver for her mother, who is 98. An 88-year-old friend also lives with them.
“That’s a hard pill to swallow when you’ve been used to working,” Anna said. “My Social Security wasn’t diddly.” She receives $1,535 a month. All told, the household’s annual income is $58,668, well above the ZIP code’s median, $36,583.
The costs of premiums forced her to drop a Medicare supplement. Now she pays the patient share of her medical costs herself or relies on Planned Parenthood or free mobile clinics.
For her live-in friend, who has glaucoma, out-of-pocket medical expenses in the first five weeks of 2017 reached $1,000.
“I hear people at the pharmacy counter say, ‘Just put that back because I’ve got to buy food,’” Anna said. Unexpected medical bills are a big worry. “To be honest, that keeps me awake.”
She dislikes credit. “I’m a firm believer in what you need, you get,” she said. She saved for two and a half years to pay cash for a five-burner gas range. “We don’t really eat out,” she said. “I do all the cooking.”
Sometimes Anna has had to borrow: to buy the house; to replace the heating and air-conditioning, for which she still owes $500; and for new windows to reduce utility bills. The hardest lesson she’s learned about money: “Budget.”
She has her indulgences: She tends the community garden next door and drinks the occasional glass of white wine.
“My biggest luxury is Sunday school and church,” she said. “When I miss, I get grumpy.”
She traces her feelings about money to her grandmother, who raised her and her brother until Anna was 12. They lived in servants’ quarters in a white neighborhood near downtown Dallas.
Her grandmother supported them by taking in laundry from detectives, police officers and businessmen, washing their white shirts in a black three-legged pot and hanging them on a line. “We never went without anything,” Anna said. “Knowing what I know now, I know it was hard.”
“We grew up happy,” she added. “We didn’t have a choice.”
She voted for Hillary Clinton because she objected to President Trump’s proposed border wall and his characterizations of immigrants. “I can’t say that I would have voted for her just because of the economy,” Anna said.
But her friends see hardened attitudes — reinforced since the election — toward the poor. “Some of them are scared,” she said. “Some of them are worried that they’ll wind up back on the street.”
She doesn’t think that four years from now, when she is 80, economic conditions for people in her situation will be great. But “I’ll be O.K.,” she said, “because I know how to do without.”
Randy Lee Loftis is a freelance journalist focusing on environment, science and history. He worked for The Dallas Morning News, The Miami Herald and The Independent Mail in Anderson, S.C.