What It’s Really Like to Live Paycheck to Paycheck While Raising Kids

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We had exactly $0.03 in our bank account after paying the power bill last week.

We’d already made a payment arrangement to push it a few extra days, hoping the check from my latest freelance gig would deposit before 4 PM on the due date — lest we end up with no power. My husband, a finance manager, figured it down to the penny, and we were relieved to avoid overdraft fees for the time being.

But this hasn’t been our only close call.

Our credit cards, which have low limits in an attempt to control our debt, are all maxed out, and I’ve already spent what little cash we had taking our daughter to Urgent Care for the flu. We don’t have savings, and what we did have was spent long ago, thanks to the terrible health insurance we had when our youngest, now 4, was born. The hospital bills wiped out our savings account, and the $900 balance from my husband’s vasectomy is still in collections.

The clinic that we owe also happens to house the pediatrician that I’d like to take my children to — which comes highly recommended by moms in my area whose children have the same ADHD/Autism Spectrum diagnosis as mine — but until we pay the balance, we can’t see any of the doctors located there. We’ll pay it eventually, we always do, but other things continually take priority as we scramble up — and slide down — what seems like a never-ending hill of financial difficulty.

We aren’t the only ones. Stephanie, a single mom of four living in Colorado says she lives with the same seemingly inescapable stress each day.

“Today I’m weighing if I take my son to his therapy appointment tomorrow (not covered by Medicaid) or if I buy groceries for next week,” she tells me.

Jessica, a single mom of one, works three jobs and donates plasma to make ends meet.

“My son has a budget for himself that he uses for toys or wanting treats,” she says. “It’s way easier to say it’s not in his budget than [to say] no.”

Every night, my husband and I worry … I’ve watched him age over the years, the lines deepening in his face.
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The days just before payday are always the hardest. Without a cushion or a safety net, I silently pray that our van will crank, that I won’t get a nail in my tire, that no one will come down with an illness that requires a doctor visit, and that papers requesting money for field trips or special events at school will not come home in backpacks until after we have more than three cents in our account. The school fundraisers and requests for money are endless, and I understand why: schools don’t have proper funding and teachers are underpaid. I want my kids to have the best education possible, but I ignore all requests, telling myself that maybe next time we will have something to contribute.

Every night, my husband and I worry. We go through our stacks of bills, discussing which one needs to move to the top of the heap. I’ve watched him age over the years, the lines deepening in his face. He’s such a good man, working crazy long hours to provide for us, rarely complaining, always coming right home after work. His job is commission-based, and even when we have good months, the money quickly disappears into the black hole of unpaid bills. It’s disheartening to us both, but I am more vocal about it than he is, making me the complainer in our marriage (though I’m trying to get better about this.).

I worked in insurance for six years before deciding to stay home with our kids, a decision I do not regret. Cutting our household income in half was a radical thing to do, and sometimes I resent the fact that choosing this way of life often translates into a lifetime of struggle for not just our family, but others, too. We make too much money to qualify for any sort of assistance, and we get taxed out the wazoo, so we continue to barely make it, living paycheck to paycheck each week.

“My husband and I have desirable and highly employable skills, but we can’t afford adequate childcare or health insurance that won’t break the bank,” says Sarah, a mother of 3 who lives in Maine. “I am thousands of dollars in debt over my son’s medicine [for a life-threatening illness] and it kills me. I have a damn master’s degree that I can’t afford to use.”

Waiting for payday to arrive feels like a really long time when we’re out of staples like bread, milk, eggs and fruit. There’s no guarantee it will arrive before our vehicles run out of gas or an emergency arises. So I get creative with the remainder of our pantry; the kids will hopefully not notice how little there is to eat, if I keep their plates full.

This week, the Book Fair is running at the elementary school, and our boys come home each day with their wish lists. I love how much they love books, and we want nothing more than to buy them everything on their lists. But the thing is, we can’t.

“We don’t have money for that right now,” I say, gently. “But as soon as Daddy gets paid, I’ll order you each one book from your list. Promise.”

They see friends at school leaving with armfuls of brand-new books, but they don’t complain. They know that sometimes the answer is no, and that makes me proud.

I stop at the library and leave with an armful of borrowed books.

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“My family is under financial strain because I didn’t finish college before my husband became disabled,” I’m told by Amanda, a 37-year-old mother of two living in Tennessee. “He is denied social security disability; we took the fight all the way to federal court and lost. Now I’m in college but have three more years before I’ll be able to work for more than minimum wage.”

Whitney, a mom of 2 who lives in Louisiana, tells me of her similar struggles.

“I constantly think, I work too damn hard to stress this much about getting store brand bread,” she confides. “Then I feel guilty because the mom next door is wondering how she is going to pay the power bill.”

The strain of providing for a family on one income is a double-edged sword. I make a decent, albeit unpredictable, amount as a freelance writer, and sometimes I bat around the idea of going back to work full-time; but the costs of before- and after-school care for our three kids, in addition to the immense amount of stress I would be under trying to juggle the moving parts, remind me that we are better off with me at home.

Also, sometimes increasing the household income only doubles the number of things to argue about. Beatrice, a mother of two living in Ohio, describes finances as “a huge strain” on her marriage.

“We have different ideas about how to spend/allocate our money,” she tells me. “I want experiences and he wants to save so that we can retire early. When you have different ideas about how to use money, it’s hard to find common ground. Money is stressful whether you have it or don’t. I just went back to work and our income has doubled which instead of relieving stress seems to have caused more.”

On paper, my husband makes enough money to support us, yet our bank makes a killing on our overdraft fees. Why is that? Let me tell you why: It’s buying enough food each week to feed a family of five. It’s healthcare fees for the kids. It’s the therapy bill for myself. (I’m in recovery for alcoholism, which is unrelated to our finances, but sometimes I really do miss drinking when I start going through our bills.) And it’s the extra care required for my son, who has special needs. All together, these things add up — quickly — and destroy our budget. Housing costs are ridiculous, and, like most people, we have student loan debt.

When I go to the store to buy milk, sometimes a gallon is $7. We blow through a gallon of milk a day in our house. We could easily spend $50 per week on milk alone, and that is CRAZY.

So, what’s the answer?

In our case, the solution is to move into more affordable housing, and to hold on tight and hope things get better. We redouble our efforts to save money. We work harder. We say “not right now” an awful lot.

Sounds pretty depressing, right? Sometimes it is, but overall, we are still very happy. No one in this house goes without toilet paper or clean socks or food, and I have to remind myself that despite our struggles, we are still better off than most of the world’s population.

After all, a little struggle never hurt anyone. I’m just ready for a tiny bit less of it.

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