A couple of months ago, I shared the story of a reader named Mike.
Mike wrote about the efforts he and his wife have made to maintain a nice, but not extravagant, lifestyle. But he also noted that people who live around him, and who seem to make a similar salary, "spend like they have an unlimited supply of cash."
His question was, "What is 'normal,' and why does everyone around me seem to be able to eat out, travel and recreate and splurge more often than we do?"
I told you then that I could relate to Mike's situation. And it turns out that many of you can, too.
So, for the next couple of weeks, I'm going to share some of your stories, while inviting more responses. Later, I will talk to a few financial advisers and get their impressions of this situation that so many of us have in common.
One response came from a reader named Kim. She said it seems as if her family is the only one in her neighborhood that is struggling to get by, but she knows that can't be true.
"My family is similar to yours," she wrote in an e-mail. "My husband and I are both in our mid-30s. We are college-educated and live in a nice neighborhood of homes priced between $300,000-$450,000. We have three children ranging from 7 to 1 years old.
"We have both been with our respective companies more than 14 years. He works full time in the sporting goods industry. I work in sales about 18 hours a week, and we manage to bring home almost six figures. We have no debt other than our home and one car. We pay about $1,650 for our mortgage (including tax and insurance) and $300 for our vehicle per month. We do not have cable, name-brand clothes, dinners out, fancy vacations, etc."
Kim wrote that she and her husband keep a budget and track their spending, but she wishes they did not have to worry about where every dime is going.
"Every time I go to the grocery store I spend the same amount and come home with less food," she wrote. "It is so scary to watch the gas prices jump as I picture myself telling my children I cannot take them to the zoo because we don't have the money. I feel as if everything is stacked against us. These are things I cannot control."
Kim and her husband have tried to do everything right, contributing to retirement accounts and an emergency fund. They also have great credit. But she feels as if it doesn't matter.
"I would love to know what other middle-class families are doing to make ends meet," she wrote. "I am losing hope in our economy and my family's budget. I am sitting here clipping coupons in hopes for a brighter tomorrow."
A reader named Kathy echoed those sentiments. In an e-mail, she wrote that she is not trying to keep up with the Joneses, but she does wonder if she and her husband could manage their money better.
They also are in their mid-30s and are both college graduates, and they have five "going on six" children. They live in a "starter home" in the $150,000-$180,000 range, she wrote, and her husband makes a "decent" salary.
After paying taxes and contributing to a medical flex spending plan, she wrote, they use a zero-based budget to account for his take-home pay, "and this is how it looks: 14 percent charity, 5 percent savings (too low, I know), 25 percent mortgage and home repair, 10 percent utilities, 17 percent food and food storage, 12 percent transportation costs (gas, car payment, repair, insurance), 2 percent clothing, 12 percent household supplies and personal (lessons, allowances, school fees, gifts, etc.), 3 percent recreation.
"Some of the things we do to save money: We plant a garden; my husband and kids brown-bag all lunches; we have only one car, and my husband rides the bus or bikes to work; no cable TV; restaurant trips are few and far between. My kids get $5 a month allowance after they are old enough to count money, with occasional opportunities to earn more. Major vacations are funded by that lovely child tax credit Uncle Sam gives us. My kids don't have iPods or cell phones and are none the worse for the lack. ...
"I feel we are getting by, but that's about it. We try to save money from our tax return every year so we have a reserve fund. I feel blessed that I can stay at home with my kids. And I feel blessed that we have good health insurance, ... and that except for our house and car, we have NO debt! So, how are we doing?"
That's a good question, Kathy. I'd be interested to know what other readers think of your situation.If you have an opinion, want to share your own story or have a different financial question, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or to the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.