Big families, small budgets: How they make ends meet

These large broods make do with limited incomes and still manage to save

When 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.

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 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.

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.

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."

David Chamberlain, 41, web designer, St. Petersburg, Fla.

We have a full house that includes my wife, Barbara, 52; my stepson, Justin, 21; my 22-year-old stepdaughter, Lindsay; her boyfriend, Chalon, 24; Lindsay and Chalon's kids, Brayden, 3, and Havelynn, 1; and Chalon's 17-year-old sister, Soarche.

I own a web design business that just started taking off, so my monthly income is all over the place. Recently, it jumped from about $1,000 per month to $4,000. We also get $1,000 each month from Barb's disability. She suffered a back injury that required surgery, and her doctors expect that she'll need several more. As an entrepreneur, I bill clients separately, and checks trickle in throughout the month, so the disability money is our cushion.

My bill-paying method goes like this: When a statement comes in — like the one for our electricity or the water — I pin it to a bulletin board. And once a check from a client comes in, I take a bill off the board and pay it. Since I don't get paid at the same time every month, I try to avoid automated payments and instead use a Google calendar alert to remind me when things are due.

Both Chalon and Lindsay have full-time jobs. They give us $150 a month for the cable bill, but I don't want them to pay much more than that because they've been saving up for their own place. And since I work from home, and Barb is on disability, they are able to save a good amount on child care. Chalon's mother also sends us a little something each month for his sister, Soarche.

Lindsay and Chalon were originally living in an apartment, but after Lindsay gave birth to Brayden, they couldn't afford to pay rent with the new baby, so they moved in with us. Then Chalon's mother moved away... and his sister also needed a place to stay. Of course, we couldn't turn her away. Justin also lives with us because he can't yet afford to be on his own.

Everyone pays for their own food, but I often stock the kitchen with basics, spending about $800 a month, so there's always something to eat. When I'm shopping, I buy according to the "buy one, get one free" deals. They always have these specials on staples, like drinks, cereal, bread, and other packaged foods. Another money-saving trick: Our electric bill used to be about $500 a month, but I cut it by $150 just by setting the thermostat to 76 degrees instead of 72!

I never envisioned that we'd have so many generations living under one roof. I thought that when the kids turned 18, they'd move out — and Barb and I would travel the country! But I wouldn't have it any other way. We have family movie nights. I get to watch my grandkids grow up. Life is good.

Angel Henderson,* 30, paid teaching intern, Harbor City, Calif.

We moved in with my parents-in-law six years ago to save money after my husband lost his job. It's me; my husband, Ben, 36; my stepchildren, Reyna, 18, Nathan, 16, Mannie, 15, and Gigi, 13. There's also Ben and my kids, Michael, 11, and Rihanna, 6. Oh, and don't forget our cats, Felicia and Star.

For the last three years, Ben and I have been taking care of the mortgage (about $1,400 a month) because my in-laws have been on a fixed Social Security income. Between the mortgage, utilities and food, we pay about $2,400 each month. When we first moved in, Ben and I evenly split the household expenses with his parents, which helped us put money aside toward buying our own home.

We set up an automated $600 monthly transfer into our savings account, allowing us to save for a down payment. In the past six years, we've squirreled away $16,000, but we only needed $7,000 for the down payment, so we now have some cushion money. We just signed the papers for our new home, and we're moving in August!

I've been in school for six years — first to get my associate's degree, then my bachelor's, and I'm now finishing up my master's. I've qualified for scholarships and financial aid along the way, so I haven't accrued any debt from student loans. Before I started my paid teaching internship, Ben was taking care of the bills and expenses with his salary. He works as a foreman for a construction company, making about $72,000 a year. My internship program guarantees full-time placement as a teacher, at which point I'll be making about $47,000 annually.

Since I've only recently started earning a paycheck, Ben and I had set up automated bill payments — cell phones, cable and other monthly expenses — around his weekly pay schedule. I get paid once a month, and my check usually goes toward taking care of things for the kids, from orthodontist visits (two of our kids have braces) to expenses for extracurricular activities. Ben and I are also the primary caretakers for my stepchildren. On average, we spend about $400 per month on all the kids for things ranging from clothes to family movie nights.

In general, we shop around for what will best accommodate our family's needs for the least amount of money. Our kids want iPods for their birthdays, so we'll find good ones on Craigslist and only spend $100 for each one, as opposed to $300. We also shop at the flea market for clothes, so the kids can get the skinny jeans and graphic tees that are in style for less than $10, compared to the $25-plus that you'll pay at the mall. These are tricks that we learned when we didn't have as much money, but now that we're doing better financially, we still use them!

*Name has been changed to protect privacy

More from LearnVest...


Will Apple's $3,500 VR headset take off?
Vision Pro headset
Today's big question

Will Apple's $3,500 VR headset take off?

Why is Riyadh going it alone on oil cuts?
An illustrated image of oil rigs and oil barrels
Today's big question

Why is Riyadh going it alone on oil cuts?

Jamie Dimon 2024?
Jamie Dimon on Capitol Hill

Jamie Dimon 2024?

MoviePass stages a Hollywood comeback
MoviePass illustration

MoviePass stages a Hollywood comeback

Most Popular

What is Mike Pence thinking?
Former Vice President Mike Pence on a motorcycle
Talking point

What is Mike Pence thinking?

Ban the Bible?
Holy Bible.

Ban the Bible?

Actors union votes to authorize strike
A writers strike picket line outside Sony Studios in Culver City
strike two?

Actors union votes to authorize strike