Families scrimp and save to attain financial security

By Tyrone Beason

The Seattle Times (MCT)

Published: Sunday, June 3 2012 7:57 p.m. MDT

Sarah and Jack Walters play with their son, Jack III, at their home in Kent, Washington. The family lives on a tight budget limiting their home furnishings and other aspects of life. (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times/MCT)

Ken Lambert, Mct

SEATTLE — The two-bedroom apartment Lance Miller shares with his wife, Jen, and their 4-year-old son, North, looks out over the loading docks of Fred Meyer in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood.

It's not a pretty view. You wouldn't invite friends over to admire the industrial scenery.

In the living room, you won't find a big-screen TV or expensive sofas or a cabinet full of fine dinnerware. But you will perhaps stumble over North's Matchbox cars, because the cramped space also serves as his playroom, as well as Lance's office, which comprises a computer resting on a file cabinet, and what passes for a dining room — a small table with chairs.

But it's home. And it's the family's launchpad for something bigger and better — a middle-class life in the city they love.

Lance takes his son to school each day by bicycle. Jen, who uses her maiden name, Lincoln, takes the bus to work. After holding off on buying a car, the couple recently purchased a used one for road trips and urgent appointments.

It sounds like a fine, eco-friendly urban existence, and Lance is the first to acknowledge his family isn't suffering.

But there's a huge chasm between doing all right and living the American dream.

The life they lead is actually the result of multiple trade-offs and calculations.

The fact is that as renters, the family has had to inch farther and farther away from downtown to find affordable housing and services they can walk to. The apartment Lance and Jen used to rent in Fremont was just a 20-minute walk to the video-streaming company where they both work. Now they live farther from the office but only a short walk to their son's school. By not owning a car, they were able to put more money toward savings for their first home.

Jen and Lance have considered buying a condominium in the suburbs, rather than in Seattle, but doing so might necessitate having two cars, depending on bus service, badly cutting into the household budget.

Like many families struggling to maintain a middle-class lifestyle during the most prolonged economic crisis since the Great Depression, they don't have that luxury. They have to pick and choose which aspects of that dream they can afford. The white board on their kitchen wall lays it out plainly, their itemized monthly budget scribbled in marker, right down to the penny.

"We've done these strategic little things that make it work," Miller says, "all the little tricks that you have to do in the city. If you're above a certain monetary line, you don't have to master those things."

But if the American dream is about aspiration, about wanting to do better than your parents and wanting your children to do better than you, then the family appears to be on the right path. Lance, for instance, grew up poor in the suburbs of Little Rock, Ark., but his son enjoys better circumstances.

The bigger issue for his family, and the rest of us, is whether the American dream, that gauzy notion of middle-class comfort and financial security, can stand up to the realities of a transformed economy.

While Jen and Lance dream of moving on up, extended joblessness, decreased property values, debt and the rising cost of living have pushed many families in the opposite direction.

More than 40 percent of Americans qualify as low-income or are just getting by (a finding based on household incomes below $45,000 for a family of four), according to one recent study.

Lance Miller, 50, says his household's income is well over $50,000 a year and that on paper, at least, his family already fits snugly into the middle-income bracket.

What does it mean, though, to fit into a once-comfortable income bracket that may no longer support your goals?

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