A friend recently asked how I make ends meet with a family of five and my wife not working. I didn’t really know how to answer this question quickly. I thought about the question for a moment, and then I said, “A budget. We live on a strict budget.”
“Hmm…” she said. “I don’t have one of those.”
I work in education, which means I have a white-collar education, but earn a blue-collar wage. In the evenings I teach classes online, and during the day, I work for a program that helps low income, first-generation students be successful in college. To put things into perspective without putting a number on how much I make, with my family of 5, and my taxable income, were my children college students, they would qualify for the program I work for. I’m not telling you this so you can feel sorry for me. I’m just letting you know the facts. Because honestly, I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I really enjoy my life. Mel and I make ends meet and we live in a nice home that meets our needs.
Even with my small paycheck, we are buying our home, have two cars that are paid for, no credit card debt, and my wife is a stay at home mom. Each month I donate 10% of my income to the LDS church. To make things work, Mel and I hold to a budget. A strict budget. Being a family on a budget means getting a small amount of spending money each month, and knowing that, if I over spend on soda or snacks at work, I will need to explain myself. It means that Mel does me the same courtesy. It means accountability. It means that we haven’t bought a new vehicle in over 10 years because although our 11-year-old Mazda and our 13-year-old Chevy are not pretty, they are paid for, and that makes our lives easier. It means that we live in a small three-bedroom home in Small Town Oregon, where my mortgage and insurance is less than $1,000 a month. It means that I pack a lunch every day, and that we only eat out as a family once a month. That is, unless your family is featured on Good Morning America, than you can go out twice that month.
We take a family trip every year, and we stay in affordable hotels or with friends, and we always drive. We didn’t have smart phones until this year, and even then, Mel and I had to buy them used, and move some money around to make it happen. Our children attend a well-run charter school, where we are required to volunteer. They are thriving.
Mel and I are very conscious about what we spend and how we spend it. We discuss large purchases, and small purchases, really anything outside the budget. I know this all sounds complicated, but it’s not. In fact, it’s teamwork. It is survival. I have two graduate degrees, which means we do have student debt that I manage by using an income based repayment plan (IBR). My job at the university also qualifies me for public service loan forgiveness, which helps me sleep at night. And although some feel that programs like public service loan forgiveness are gaming the system, I disagree. Everyday I help students who shouldn’t be successful at college, make it happen. Just this last year, I could give a list of 15 students who, without me helping them navigate the complicated bureaucracy of the university, would have had to leave college for one reason or another. Those students are going to go on to gradate, I have no doubt, and pay into the system.
We didn’t get here over night, but what I will say is that when Mel and I started talking about marriage, one of the first things we did was discuss money and how we were going to handle it. We talked about listening to both our parents fight over money, and I mentioned that my father filed for bankruptcy several times. He was addicted to painkillers and alcohol, and spent most of my high school years in jail. He died when I was 19, and before his death, he owed everyone money… even me. He left my mother with loads of debt.
“I can still remember my mother sitting at our kitchen table, a stack of bills to her left, and crying. We can’t do that,” I said. “We’ve got to live within our means.”
Mel agreed. Then she said, “I’ve always wanted to be a stay at home mom.”
“If that’s what you want, than let’s try to make it happen,” I said.
And ever since, we have been on the same page.
Mel and I have been together for ten years, and it took us a long time to figure out how to handle our money. We’ve gone through a number of different budgets. Some of them were made on excel, some were created by various budgeting software. This is not to say that we haven’t fought about money. We have. But they’ve never been over anything substantial. Usually we fight over one of us eating out, or buying something on sale without telling the other. And this is not to say that we couldn’t do better with what we have, because we probably could. But what I can say is that we are happy living in our budget. I don’t worry much about money, because I feel like we know how to handle it. I will admit that sometimes I wish we had more. Sometimes I wish we could afford a larger home, or a better vehicle. Sometimes I wish we could take the family on a trip to Europe. And maybe, someday, we will. I don’t know, but what I do know is that every major purchase Mel and I have made has happened through open communication, restraint, and living within our means. Everything.
Please keep in mind that this is the story of a white couple. I grew up poor in a rural Utah. Mel grew up middle class in rural Utah. We’ve never lived in a major city. I went through college late. I started at age 22, and I was married at the time. We had our first child during my sophomore year. Although I was born into a privileged race, I was also born into poverty, divorce, and a parent with drug addiction. What I am trying to say here is that I don’t want this essay to be about race or privilege. Rather this is me trying to answer the question of how Mel and I make it work, and it is my hope that some of you in a similar situation can benefit from my answer.
And if you have any tips for me, I’d love to hear them.
I have to assume that some of our success has come down to luck. We’ve never had a major accident. We’ve never lost a home to fire, or something like that. But most of it, honestly, has come down to realizing what we have, what we need, and making sure that we live within our means. And although it doesn’t sound glamorous, although our furniture is mostly used, we are happy. We are comfortable.
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.