In the years since the recession, the median household income in the U.S. has dropped to just over $50,000 , while fixed costs like health care, higher education, and housing have only soared.
Now imagine trying to support a family of four on a fraction of that income.
It's a reality that Danielle Wagasky and her family have lived with for the last four years.
And, perhaps a little surprisingly, they wouldn't have it any other way.
Wagasky, 28, and her husband, Jason, 31, moved with their two young children to a three-bedroom family home in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2009. Jason, a member of the U.S. Army, was fresh off a tour in Iraq and decided to go back to school complete his undergraduate degree.
His tuition was never an issue –– thanks to the GI Bill, he was completely covered –– but they were only given a $14,000 annual cost of living allowance.
It took a while to adjust, but the family has managed to thrive with barely any credit debt, no car payment, and no mortgage to speak of.
Wagasky has been sharing her journey to living meaningfully and frugally on her blog, Blissful and Domestic, since 2009.
She was kind enough to chat with BI and tell us how she makes it work.
Wagasky was in in for a rude awakening when she took over the family's finances in 2008.
In her mid-twenties and with two small children to care for (and whom she also home schools), Wagasky was hardly prepared when Jason was deployed for a second tour in Iraq in 2008.
"I had no clue," she said. "I wouldn't say I went crazy, but there really wasn't a plan [for managing our finances alone]. My husband would call me from Iraq and be like, what is going on?"
Their bills were repeatedly late, Wagasky often overdrew her bank account, and she treated the clearance racks at Target like an emergency source of therapy.
She often hung up the phone in tears after speaking with Jason.
"Then he told me he'd heard about this book, ["America's Cheapest Family Gets You Right on the Money]," she said. "We talked about it over the phone and I read it and thought about how it could apply to us."
It was exactly the stepping stone she needed to take control over her situation.
First thing was first: The mindless spending was out. The couple was determined to save $30,000 for a downpayment on a home when Jason returned from deployment.
"I changed the way I was grocery shopping and started working my way up, " she said.
She researched savings strategies wherever possible –– from the library and Google, to Pinterest and family.
With a single source of fixed income, there was no room for impulse purchases in the Wagasky household.
Wagasky barely knew her way around a kitchen when she started her money makeover.
Now she's an avid cookbook collector (she checks them out from libraries or asks for them as gifts to save), and it's one of the simplest ways she's managed to cutback on spending.
Her prize possession is a $7 bread-maker she scored at a local thrift shop, which she uses to make homemade breads and save on store-bought slices.
She skips all kiddie snacks in favor of healthier, cheaper DIY options like homemade granola, and chops vegetables and fruits to freeze them for a month. She gives dairy products like milk, cheese, butter and yogurt the same treatment.
"Everything must be budgeted," Wagasky wrote in a June entry on her blog. "From family outings, to toiletries to clothes purchases. It must be budgeted."
And she takes Do-It-Yourself to the extreme. Everything from laundry soap to clothing was either crafted by hand or thrifted.
They also did away with cable (they invest $14.99/mo in a Netflix plan) and limited grocery shopping to once per month.
"Once that $400 [we budget for groceries] s gone, it is gone," she wrote. "There are no extra shopping trips made because there is no more money."
How they manage to stay credit-debt free:
After Wagasky's husband left active duty and started school, the couple knew they would only have $14,000 per year to live on –– and that didn't cover summer months, when he wasn't paid while on vacation from classes.
They learned to attack debt head-on and as early as possible.
Both of their cars were paid off by setting aside a little savings each month until they could afford it –– that included $8,000 for Jason's truck and $22,000 for a new van.
Credit cards are always reserved for medical emergencies only.
"We recently had some medical bills we had to pay, and we were able to take our savings and pay those down as fast as we could," she said.
Their proudest achievement was purchasing a home in cash.
By the time Jason came home from Iraq in 2009, the couple had managed to scrape together the $30,000 they needed for a downpayment on a home.
There was just one problem: Nevada's job market was weak, and Jason wasn't likely to find work straightaway. Rather than take out a loan on a home they likely couldn't afford, they figured it was wiser to downsize their ambitions a little.
"We decided the best option would be not to have a mortgage payment at all," she said. "We found a fixer-upper that didn't have a kitchen ... and we paid cash."
Price tag: $28,000. With the leftover cash, they were able to finish the kitchen and install wood flooring throughout the house.
"I don't feel like we're missing out on anything."
Even after Jason completes his degree later this year and gets for a full-time job, Wagasky says they still plan on keeping their $14,000 budget in tact.
And they have good reason to be cautious.
Due to their strict budget, Wagasky admits they haven't been able to save for anything other than immediate needs –– that means a practically nonexistent retirement fund.
Once their income grows, they hope they'll be able to make up for lost time.
"I don't feel like we're missing out on anything," she said. "I feel like in our society now we focus on the tings we feel like we need. For me, I have my family and we have food and we have a place to live and to me that's the most important."
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