Each Household Profile presents the financial life of one family in the USFD study. While these families are not necessarily representative of the total sample, they illustrate recurring themes: households struggling with income volatility, unplanned expenses, and finding ways to save and invest, but also using creative–and sometimes surprising–budget and money management strategies to help make ends meet.
Mateo Valencia, 31, and Lucia Benitez, 30, are an unmarried couple currently living in Queens, New York after moving to the U.S. from Ecuador in 2005. They live with their four-year-old son Pablo in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom townhouse, and they rent out rooms to friends and relatives who are between homes or jobs. Mateo and Lucia are in many ways emblematic of the American immigrant experience. They came to the U.S. with hopes of building a better life and while they are not truly secure yet, they are finding opportunities. They each work multiple jobs and actively seek additional income earning opportunities. But Mateo and Lucia live much of their financial life outside the formal financial system. They deal primarily in cash, so there is little information to support a credit score and they do not have long-term savings or health insurance. Their undocumented status also undermines their ability to invest in the long-term.
Elena Navarro is a single, 27-year-old woman living outside of San Jose, CA. She has a bachelor’s degree and ambitions to attend law school. While Elena’s degree and experience qualify her for jobs that pay well above the poverty line, she lives close to the margin. Elena survived a challenging year thanks to the generosity of her sister and her ability to repeatedly find new employment. Without her resourcefulness and considerable help from her family, it is easy to see how these challenges might have derailed her significantly, perhaps permanently.
Sandra Young lives in Brooklyn with her grown children Tyler and Kayla. She manages several branches of a tax preparation agency, which means that she earns most of her income during the six months between November and April. Sandra has chosen an unusual structure for her financial life, and the seasonal nature of her income means that she has to budget over a longer time period than many households. Despite the irregularity of her income over the course of a year, Sandra’s financial life is stable, and she retains a remarkable level of confidence and control over her finances. This level of control is thanks largely to her straightforward and highly disciplined system of budgeting and financial management.
Lauren Walker is a single mother living with her four-year-old son in a rented townhome in a small town in eastern Mississippi. Lauren works full time as an administrative assistant for a local construction and engineering firm, and she covers her frugal needs with her annual income. Lauren employs several financial management tactics: keeping expenses low, timing the payment of recurring bills to align with her income, paying for larger expenses gradually, and getting financial assistance from her mother for childcare and other occasional expenses. The Earned Income Tax Credit, which she relies on to pay off her debt to her mother, complements her financial discipline to help her stay on top of her bills and manage ups and downs.
Rita Douglas, 62, lives in a two-bedroom apartment in a dangerous neighborhood near Cincinnati. Though she barely has enough money and resources to support herself, Rita regularly helps her relatives and friends. This help takes many forms: sharing her home, cooking dinners, washing clothes, offering the use of her credit card, buying alcohol and cigarettes, protecting cash and providing basic supplies like toilet paper. Late in the month, when Rita runs out of money, she receives the same type of help right back, often from the same people. By taking advantage of a combination of free and discounted community resources, and by engaging in a constant give-and-take with a large network of friends and relatives, Rita gets by.
Mike Smith, a single man in his mid-50s, lives in a small town near the Ohio River and works as a maintenance man at a local office building. Even though his resources are limited, he manages to save by strictly controlling how much he spends, even on groceries and medical care. He has no debts and few assets, including his house, which has no mortgage but was appraised as being worth $50,000 about 20 years ago. He has some cash holdings that he keeps at home and on his person, and a small savings account at a bank. He is frustrated by the fact that he can’t seem to earn more income even though he works hard.
Ahmed and Shaila Hossain are immigrants from Bangladesh who moved in 2010 to Queens, New York. In Bangladesh, Ahmed’s education enabled him to work as an accountant at a large corporation and support his family but he now drives a taxi because he lacks the language skills and American educational credentials to find accounting work. The Hossains own a checking account and credit cards, and are taking careful steps to both pay down debt and build their credit scores. They still face many obstacles, including income insecurity that makes it difficult to save money. Both parents work long hours at multiple jobs, but lack benefits such as sick leave, so any days off result in lost wages and financial setbacks.
Looking at the most basic measure of financial stability, the difference between income and expenses, Tim and Clara Adrian appear to be on fairly solid ground. Tim has a full-time job at a hotel, and Clara works part-time for a local preschool. However, the linchpin in their budget is the income they earn from caring for foster children–income that is irregular and erratic. As a result, they strategically and regularly miss payments for their bills, and it is not uncommon for them to pay a few months’ worth of payments at once, along with associated late fees. The Adrians’ financial life–like the rest of their life–is full, busy and complicated.
Sarah and Sam Johnson are a hardworking couple with three daughters struggling to make ends meet despite having stable, full-time jobs and several part-time ones. They own a home and two cars in a working-class neighborhood in a small town near Cincinnati, and they have retirement savings through their jobs. However, their income is volatile and irregular and their expenses fluctuate. They don’t have a cushion for unplanned outlays, such as home repairs and medical expenses. They manage their finances mainly through credit, although this is not an approach that will enable them to maintain or improve their financial health over time.
The Rodriguez family is a multigenerational household living in a small town near San Jose, California. Maria and Dean Rodriguez live with her mother and their two grown-up sons in a home they own. The household members have multiple sources of income that exceed their day-to-day expenses and are also enough to pay off debts accumulated from credit card spending and a large home equity line of credit. While this family may ultimately achieve a high degree of financial stability, one wrong decision or one unlucky event could derail this family from its upward trajectory.