The Realists: Making Ends Meet
It’s been a bumpy decade for Jessica Burrell and her husband, Chad. In 2001, with a baby and dreams of building a nest egg, they were optimistic, despite $11,000 in student loans and credit card debt. In 2005, their income hit a low point when Chad left the Army after two tours in Iraq, and they moved in briefly with his brother. A year later, Chad, now 36, found work as a salesman for a beverage company, and Jessica got a job as a child-care provider. In 2008, with the help of a low-interest loan program for vets, they closed on a $159,000 home in Ridgeland, Mississippi. “We’re happy to have some equity,” says Jessica, 32. “But we worry about the economy and the future of our jobs. ”
Their house has lost value due to foundation damage, but they can’t afford to fix it. “Our biggest financial challenge is simply making ends meet,” says Jessica. Their savings consist of less than $500 in Chad’s retirement account, slightly better than the quarter of all U.S. families with no savings. “Ideally, we’d have a retirement nest egg, money to help the children get on their feet after college, and a little extra to travel,” says Jessica. “But, realistically, we just plan on repairing our house and paying off our debts.”
The Self- Starter: A Taste for Reinvention
Regina Mason opened the Virago Baking Company, an organic pastry shop in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, in 2007 after being laid off from a food-services industry job that paid $50,000 a year, her third layoff in a 30-year career in the field. “A financial planner told me I could invest in stocks, or I could invest in me,” says Mason, 55. Opening Virago took about $60,000, which Mason cobbled together with a bank loan and personal savings. Her expenses, $8,700 a month, include loan repayment, baking supplies, rent on the shop, a home mortgage, health insurance, and credit card bills. Though the recession brought a serious decline in small business start-ups, Mason’s bet on herself is paying off. Her bakery is set to do about $150,000 in sales this year.
As a divorced mother of four, Mason knows how to make a dollar stretch. “We always felt middle class because we always had enough,” says Mason. “I think middle class is more about how you feel about where you are rather than your bank account.” She has about $10,000 in savings and a 401(k), but retirement is not on the menu. “I feel most alive when I can create something,” she says. “Retirement seems like stopping.”
The Retirees: Just Trying to Hold On
In 2003, Gina Caliri retired earlier than planned from the United States Postal Service, at age 64. Her mother, who lived in France, needed care and soon had a stroke. At the time, Gina and her husband, Sebastian, had about $95,000 in savings and an additional $50,000 in stocks. In four years, Gina made 12 trips between Sacramento, California, and France. The Caliris’ savings and 401(k) were weakened by the costly airfare, home repairs, and several stock investments that turned out badly. Then, in 2005, Sebastian, now 78, suffered a stroke of his own. With hefty medical bills and no income besides their pensions and Social Security, they eventually lost their home to foreclosure in 2007. Their plight was no less painful for being common; more than 60 percent of U.S. bankruptcies are caused by medical bills.
They rented a house in Plumas Lake, California, and in 2008, their son, Ron, now 49, who was diagnosed with a rare blood disease, lost his job and moved home. Gina and Sebastian both need dental care but cannot afford it. “I was always middle class,” says Gina, now 73. “To be honest, that’s a term I never even thought about until I was slipping out of it.”
—Natalie van der Meer
The Optimists: Faith in a Better Future
Frank Hallum lost his job in 2008 and not one but two houses in 2009. His wife, Pamela, 45, lost her insurance adjuster job this past July. But the married father of three young children and stepfather of two grown sons remains optimistic. “It’s the hope in the middle class,” says Hallum, 45. “You can taste it. You can feel it. You can grasp it. You haven’t got a good hold on it, but you’re right there.”
From 2004 until his layoff in 2008, Hallum worked as a technician on the rail system at Dallas–Fort Worth airport. During the housing bubble, he bought an investment property. When the recession hit and he lost his job, he could no longer handle the two mortgages. He sold his family home and lost the rental property to foreclosure, a fate that befalls 1 out of every 200 homes in the U.S. In December 2010, through contacts in the entertainment industry, he landed a job with radio host Steve Harvey. The Hallums rent their current home. Frank, who makes around $90,000 a year, sees himself as solidly middle class — and wants to move higher. “You don’t look at the middle and want to go backward,” he says. “You look at the middle and want to get better.”
The Road Ahead for Middle Class Families