Big Families, Not-So-Big Budgets: How We Make It Work

Penny Wrenn

big familiesWhen it’s Mom and Dad and Billy and Sally (and maybe Rover), budgeting can be fairly straightforward—but not everyone’s home life is quite so nuclear, especially in the current economic climate.

We’ve all heard stories of recent college graduates who opt to live at home with their parents for a couple years to pay off debt, or folks in the 60-plus set who need to move in with their kids, thanks to depleted retirement savings.

To see how unconventional households make ends meet, we asked four families with nontraditional living arrangements (one family has even welcomed a boyfriend … and his sister!) to share how they manage the money side of things.

Maria Wright, 43, nurse, Lancaster, Pa.

As a nurse, I make $50,000 a year. My husband and I also own a furniture store, so with the money we made from the business and my income, we brought in a combined $100,000 last year. My husband pays most of the bills, like cable and electric, but I still know where the money is going.

maria family

Maria’s family, minus baby Asher.

There are eight people in our house: me; my husband, David, 45; my 73-year-old father, John; my younger kids, Ellie, 16, and Nicholas, 11; my older daughter, Corinne, 22; her husband, Adam, 25; and Corinne and Adam’s son, 3-month-old Asher.

My father, who will be staying with us indefinitely, moved in last month after a hip operation. He receives a $1,000 Social Security payment once a month—$400 of which he contributes to cover most of our $600 monthly grocery bill.

Corinne and her husband often contribute another $200, which we put toward groceries or the electric bill. With eight of us in the house, utility bills can get pretty high, but I don’t ask Corinne and her husband to pay rent or share all the household expenses. They have been living with us for seven months now, but they’re moving into their own apartment soon. I haven’t rushed them to leave. In fact, I wish they’d stay a little longer and keep saving money. They have about $15,000 of debt (student loans, credit cards, etc.) that doesn’t include their car loans.

I’m not rich, but I love being able to say, “I have the room. Stay and get back on your feet.”

I get paid biweekly, and as soon as I receive a check, I put more than half of each paycheck toward my mortgage. Ideally, the store makes money every month, so we use that to pay its lease. I marvel at how we’re able to make ends meet—we live week to week. We have a nominal amount in savings, and when you look at the numbers—what we bring in, and what we pay out—it doesn’t always add up.

Being on a strict budget means saying no to some things, like eating out. We order Chinese takeout once a week because it’s cheap, and we might get pizza once a month. We also buy groceries that stretch, like boxed macaroni and cheese or ramen noodles. We’re never starving, by any means, but we may not always have exactly what we want to eat.

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Although they can be expensive, I don’t deprive the younger kids of participating in extracurricular activities. Ellie is in ballet, and Nicholas is learning karate. But Ellie would love to take unlimited dance classes, and Nicholas also wants to do ice hockey—but that would be another $300 a month that we can’t afford.

Before I started this nursing job, I worked as an independent contractor. So for nine months last year, our family went without health insurance. Thankfully, we didn’t run into any medical problems. Somehow things always work out, but I would like to get a better handle on things—to keep a more watchful eye on our financial well-being. As it is now, I’m always worrying that there will be an unexpected expense that could send us reeling.

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But I still wouldn’t have it any other way. It reminds me of growing up: My parents were always taking in people, from friends to family. I’m certainly not rich, but I love being able to say, “I have the room. Come. Stay and get back on your feet.”

  • Debi Brown

    These are excellent tips and stories. We move into our own home at month’s end, after renting for years. My 23 year old will be moving back in with my boyfriend, myself and his 10 year old. It will be interesting to see how bills, groceries, etc., pan out. Thanks for giving us honest, open stories on real people.

    • Toni

      You should consider having a plan for how the bills, groceries, etc. are to be split versus just letting it work itself out. You could very well end up on the bad end of the deal and end up being resentful.

  • guest

    I will never understand adult children (especially ones who have kids of their own) who live with mommy and daddy. And in these stories, most of the “big family” are able to earn or collect a paycheck, so I don’t understand why that’s considered “not-so-big” of a budget.

    • Tania

      In certain cultures the view of extended family living is different. In Hawaii many Asian families have three to four generations living in a duplex or in a main home plus cottage (grandma/parents/adult children and their children). Part of it is to care for your elders as they get older and part of it is the very high cost real estate here. I recently moved back to live next door to my parents in an in-law type of suite attached to the main home after 25 years of living on my own. I can afford to live elsewhere (in fact, I pay them rent at market value) but I chose to be close to them. They are healthy now but when they do need me, I’ll already be here (I moved islands to be closer to them). I’m not young and starting out so my situation is different and I could see how parents may choose to allow their children to save for their future versus paying full rent as they are starting out. My younger cousin, her husband and their baby live in her parents’ guest cottage although they too make a good living. People in Hawaii don’t judge extended family living, it’s completely normal and considered, it’s about family. If families are doing this in other areas not because of their culture and beliefs but because it works for them, more power to them.

      • guest

        Sorry, I should have been more specific. I meant that I don’t understand why they would move in with their parents to get discounted housing rather than trying to support themselves. I completely understand moving in with an aging relative to help provide care for them. I am considering moving back to the state in which my parents live to help provide care for them as they are experiencing health problems. I don’t think I could go so far as to share a house with them, though! Maybe if I had a guest cottage, they could live there. LOL!

        • Ann Walsh

          Not all adult children move in with family out of choice.Young adults can be stricken with unexpected illness and then qualify for Social Security- which, does not always cover monthly expenses ( excluding grocery budget). Please expand your consideration on the topic. Not all the children are lazy loafers who’d rather live at home with mom and dad. Some have to to survive.

    • JenInBoston

      When my cousin got married, his in-laws gave them a wedding gift of down-payment money for a home. A while later, with 4 young kids, his wife became ill and couldn’t work for a couple of years. It completely altered my cousin’s career trajectory (as well as his wife’s). His responsibilities at home, and financially, were tremendous. He’s so thankful for that down-payment gift because had they not gotten it, they would not yet have purchased a home, but his wife would have still gotten ill, and they probably would’ve been stuck renting for many years. Now the kids are older–the oldest 2 have recently graduated college and the younger two are enrolled. With the kids so close in age, my cousin couldn’t afford to pay cash for their tuitions. Nor did they qualify for tons of financial aid. So what he has told all of them, (including the wonderful, hardworking fiance of one of them), is that though Mom and Dad couldn’t pay for their college, they can easily shelter and feed the kids while they go to grad school, pay off their loans, and/or save to buy their own places. This is SUCH a good idea. He is an awesome dad and I just cannot understand why anyone would look down their nose at his family for doing such a wonderful and loving job of getting his kids started on the right path in life! The rich leave money to their kids after they die and nobody calls the kids “moochers.” The working class gives what they can to their kids during life–because it’s usually supporting costs, and not wealth. Why the double standard?

      • guest

        The rich also usually give their kids money while they’re alive, and plenty of rich kids get called moochers. I don’t think it’s a double standard.

        It’s nice that your cousin wants to help out his kids, but I think we can just agree to disagree on whether or not kids who think they’re in good shape to get married allowing parents to cover their room and board is the “right path in life.”

    • brenda

      I can say from my own experience that living with “MOMMY AND DADDY’ is due to health issues. our daughter, her husband and two children live with my husband and myself because she has a 25 percent lung capacity due to the birth of her child. so perhaps you now understand. It was not planned.

  • Nick

    If you can’t afford your expenses after having a baby, then why would you have another one 2 years later?

  • JenInBoston

    @Nick: There are so many scenarios where you COULD afford your expenses after having one baby, and something happens during the 2nd pregnancy or shortly after the arrival of the 2nd baby that causes budget difficulties.

    I can’t understand why anyone would be upset by these stories of families supporting each other and taking responsibility for themselves, rather than turning them out and telling them to ask Uncle Sam for help. I *wish* I’d had the opportunity to stay at home a few years after college and pay down my college loans or save for a home. I think families that do it this way are loving and great! Maybe the naysayers are just jealous that they had to scrap and scrape for everything they have. Man, scraping is overrated!

    My friends who are in the healthiest and most stable positions now, are the ones who worked hard AND had some serious help from their parents, through college tuition, rent-free living, a gift of a down payment, and/or free childcare. They are appreciative and they are not lazy. Having walked in my own shoes and looked at their shoes, I fully plan to give my own child a pair of THOSE shoes. She will make more of herself if she learns to work hard AND isn’t crushed by debt for 10+ years at an early age.

    • guest

      I’m not jealous that I had to work hard for what I have. By the age of 20, I was fully financially independent of my parents and living on my own. I bought my house and finished my dual masters at the age of 23, and I finished paying off my student loans at 25. After marrying at 26, my husband and I have been putting away money so that we can afford to live comfortably with kids even IF “something happens.” Now at 28, we will soon begin our family that we can support without relying on handouts from others.

      What bothers me is when some of my expenses increase just because other adults in my age range can’t get their act together. For example, when my medical premiums went up so that others my age could still mooch off of their parents’ health insurance.

      Basically what I read from your comment is that it’s more important to have nice things than it is to be able to be self-sufficient. I’m not saying that I won’t help my kids financially with things that will make their life a little easier, but I would hope that when they become adults, I have raised them well enough that they would be able to stand on their own two feet.

      • JenInBoston

        It’s on you if when you hear about families loving and helping each other in a different way from your perfect existence, all you take-away is “Moochers!” In many families, helping each other and sharing liberally is not only a sacred obligation that brings joy, but actually a major accomplishment for the person able to do the helping.

        It’s so demoralizing to hear people with above ordinary accomplishments tooting their own horn very loudly and taking delight in belittling ordinary and less than ordinary people for making the best of a so-so hand and playing whatever decent cards they might have. Not everybody’s life is as smooth as yours. Not everybody is ABLE to accomplish what you have. Not everyone got raised as well as you’re going to raise your kids. Everybody dreams of a wonderful, loving spouse, but not everybody meets one. You don’t think you are ordinary, do you? If your accomplishments are as you say they are, then you are above ordinary. Don’t you have enough? Do you really need to cut down the people who don’t have the gifts you’re blessed with? Thank heaven most people who enjoy such blessings in life as you do understand that there but for God’s grace go they, and they don’t go around judging the less fortunate.

        • guest

          First I’m jealous that others were given more help than I was and then I’m judgmental because I’m so blessed?

          I do think that I am fairly ordinary. I came from a family that often struggled to make ends meet. I have a disability that makes life difficult sometimes, but it’s not something I’ve ever shared with my schools or employers because I don’t want ever want to use it as a crutch or an excuse for not being able to accomplish something. I don’t think the hand I was dealt is abnormal to most Americans…. maybe a little better than some, a little worse than others. Perhaps my accomplishments are above ordinary, but it is because I have chosen a more difficult path and worked hard.

          I believe that most of the general population has the ability to work hard and make smart life decisions. I do get frustrated when my budget shrinks to accommodate the decisions made by other capable adults, but I also realize there are some situations that are not a result of poor decisions (and I financially support groups who assist people in these situations). I’ve also seen first hand examples of Thomas Paine’s addage “That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly.” I don’t take for granted what I have in my life, and I hope that everyone has the chance to feel the sense of accomplishment that comes with hard work and determination. It is more valuable to me than any money or possession that I could have been given.

    • LeeLee

      I think much of the contempt comes from the thought that this is suppose to be a financial planning site that teaches fiscal responsibility. Instead, it seems like the answer is “If you don’t want to plan your finances properly, you can always move in with your relatives and tap into their resources indefinitely.”

      • skt

        In the story, the couple with the baby are moving out soon. It’s good to get a jump start on things with parents help and save money in a emergency fund to help out when things get rough on their own. They are not staying there indefinitely. I lived at home until I was 25 and got married and we got our own apartment. That is my culture and my parents would have killed me if I didn’t do otherwise. I learned a lot about financial responsibility at a very early age and moved out without students loans and the ability to save a hefty emergency fund and having the ability to buy a simple couch or dining room table for the apartment. This ensures that I never have to move back in with the parents either, lol.

  • Ray Rafferty

    When people support their aging or ill parents it is great and it is better than them struggling or living solely off the tax payments of others. But when grown kids live with their parents for more than a few months to save for a house you have to wonder what happens when the parents pass away. That is sad enough but are these people going to be ready to make it on their own? Not so sure.