Broke and Childful: Middle Class Money Malaise

9 years ago

I recently attended the wedding of a college roommate and dear friend. It required travel, and in doing so, I was able to spend some time with my other roommates, friends I have known since we were all buying pizza with the coins we found in the ashtray of an ancient Festiva, friends who now range in professions ranging from psychologist to speech pathologist to elementary school principle. Well-educated, dual-income couples. Out of the five of us, three couples have kids. Actually, everyone but us that has kids has TWO of them.

And we’re all broke.

What gives? I have an (I’ve been told) unrealistic expectation for stability in my life. I dream that there will be a time when I won’t worry about money. I thought that was what being an adult, particularly a parent, was all about: You trade your wild spontaneity and dining-out dollars for security, company and being able to go to Target without wanting to vomit. I thought being in a two-income relationship would protect me from the financial worries I know affect many stay-at-home-moms. I thought there was a damn good reason I was doing the whole going-to-work-and-missing-the-milestones thing: MONEY. I thought in addition to contributing to more than half of our monthly bills, I would maybe have a little extra left over to buy myself something pretty. Then the daycare bill went up. Twice.

I got curious. I started broaching the delicate question of money to colleagues. It seems this is happening to everyone, whether they’re sticklers or spenders. At first I thought we were all just living hopelessly beyond our means, but then I saw this.

Here’s a quote from MSNBC’s article:

The basics, according to Warren, now take up close to three-fourths of every family's spending power (it was about 50 percent in 1973), leaving precious little left over at the end of the month — and leaving many families with no cushion in case of a job loss or health crisis.

Here’s another.

In the end, the portion of an average family’s budget spent on fixed costs like housing has risen much faster than wages and inflation, while spending on discretionary items has declined. That means mortgages, more than lattes, are the source of middle-class anxiety, says economist Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute, a generally liberal think tank that focuses on the interests of low- and middle-income Americans.

I’m not surprised. My company has great health insurance, but I just found out from a colleague it’s going up $60 a month for a couple. I have three people on mine. AWESOME. That’ll effectively eat my raise pretty quickly. Stuff like that happens every month – the daycare that costs more than 25% of my take-home salary goes up $25 a week. Property taxes reset. Open enrollment means higher health insurance rates. If you use the tax-deferred childcare account, you have to give yourself a monthly swing loan to cover the float until you get the reimbursement check. And the vise on our collective heads goes squish, squish, squish.

I’m talking about this in mommy & family instead of personal finance because the 1973 rates the MSN article quoted were based on a one-income family, and the current ones were based on a two-income family. OUCH. So both parents working doesn’t even help?

Sometimes I think about how it would be if I or my husband had five whole days a week like my mother did to do the housework, laundry, meal preparation, bill-paying, budgeting and shopping that we squeeze into nights and weekends now. I like my job, my day job, just fine, but though I would always write, I wouldn’t choose to work full-time if we didn’t need the money – not while my daughter is three. Now I’m looking at these numbers and wondering whether achieving my parents’ one-income standards are even possible by the time my daughter is in school. Will we even be able to afford childcare for another child? Would I ever be able to afford to work part-time?

So what’s the answer? I’ve done a bunch of digging in response to that depressing story (and got Warren’s book from the library), but all the really good sites seem to suggest cost-cutting efforts that involve TIME, as in the time you have when you’re not working more than 40 hours a week and then commuting on top of it. Everyone knows you can accomplish anything with enough time or enough money, and I think that in addition to low-income, working parents, the problem may have extended to the middle-class more than we realize. Time/Money. Time/Money. We’re not pissing it all away on shoes – we’re paying our bills – the same bills our parents paid on one income. What.The.Hell?

So what do we do? I’m not sure. Any ideas?

If you do have time, I highly recommend this site, written by a husband and wife team who have been debt-free for 13 years. (Yes, we all hate them.) I liked the suggestions a lot, but of course would have to stop breathing to fit in the “make your own snack food” task.

If you’re out of time like me, here are some Dancing With the Stars-based suggestions from The Frugal Duchess.

1) You're only as good as your last dance. It doesn't matter if I saved money last year or last month, the discipline of saving has to be a steady dance. You have to constantly show up and perform well every day.

2) Pace yourself. Apparently, Sabrina had an off week because she was doing so much. I've been there and I've done that. Sometimes in a push to earn lots and lots of freelance money, I over commit. I promise editors more stories with unrealistic deadlines. It becomes a lose-lose situation and I feel financially and emotionally bankrupt. And I lose points with my judges (editors).

3) Remember there are no dress rehearsals: Too often I've made serious missteps that I've later regretted. Unfortunately, there are no do-overs in life. Bottom Line: Give your best effort in the here-and-now. It's hard to repair damage on credit reports and memory accounts.

I feel that “you’re only as good as your last dance” thing, because up until we bought Chateau Travolta, we had six months of living expenses saved. Now we have the goose egg. But a good school district!

We’re trying to claw back to where we were. This month, my husband and I did what we could: We stopped eating out. At all. Not even the Costco pretzels. Only no one was home to prepare dinner. As a result, our mealtime and the little angel’s bedtime have been pushed back farther and farther. She’s waking up again at night. It pretty much stinks. We’re crabby, feeling overstrained and exhausted, so we can save money. The funny thing is that we both like to cook when there is time.

Or maybe it’s not so funny. I’m hungry, and as I write this, it’s 6:07, and I’m still working, and I’m an hour’s commute away from home.

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