The Restless Project: Everything Is Fine, if There’s Overtime

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The Restless Project: This family of four sometimes struggles to get by on just the husband's income. Overtime makes a huge difference in their lives.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series by Bob Sullivan called The Restless Project. 

“It’s hardest for me to swallow because my husband and I are only 26 years old and never imagined we would be making this much money at this age.”

Julia Dawson and husband Jacob are raising two small children on one pretty good salary near Sacramento, Calif. Their personal finance picture is pretty simple: When he works overtime, they manage to get ahead. When he doesn’t, they fall behind.

“He is an apprentice lineman for Pacific Gas & Electric and makes $41 per hour, which would come out to around $50,000 a year after taxes, but with all the overtime he works, he usually pulls in much more,” Julia says. On an annual basis, perhaps 25 percent more. Last year, their gross pay was just a hair above $100,000.

But on a monthly basis, they can run in the red.

The Dawsons are this week’s volunteers to participate in The Restless Project, where I am examining why so many Americans who feel like they earn a good salary and don’t live luxurious lives still feel like they are falling behind.

“Sometimes it feels like we are alone in the battle, so it’s great to know there are so many more people like us,” Julia said.

The Dawsons rent, so they escape property taxes and upkeep costs. But there are two student loans to pay, a long-term payment plan for a child birth-related heath care bill, and they spend about $1,000 monthly to pay off a debt consolidation loan and credit card balances. The couple were very young when they had their first child, putting their bank accounts a bit behind the eight ball.

With a promotion in the future, they expect things to get better. But for now, every month has a question mark above it.

Before we get to the numbers, a little bit more about their lives:

“He began working right after high school and I went to college. After a few years we knew without some sort of trade or degree my husband wouldn’t make enough to support us, so he attended a trade school. So we both now have student loans,” Julia said. “Having a child so young and not having much help, we’ve dug ourselves into some serious debt, which we haven’t even made a dent in.”

The family faced a hard choice when child No. 2 came along last year: Are two incomes worth the price of child care? For Julia, the answer was no. She’s a stay-at-home mother now, a decision motivated by financial common sense as much as anything.

“With day care asking for about $1,200 a month, we just didn’t see it being a financial payoff for me to work, even with my degree,” she said. “I just don’t make enough to pay for day care. After day care, my take-home pay would be around $400 a month, [and when you] factor in gas, work wardrobe, and the loss of time with my children, it would COST us money for me to work. So we rely solely on my husband’s income.”

Their budget

Rent — $1,100.
Car payment (compact SUV) — $350.
Car payment (truck — husband’s) — $400.
Auto insurance — $220.
Gas — $530 (filling up truck once a week, and SUV every other week).
Life insurance/renters insurance — $100.
Cellphone (two cellphones) — $120.
SMUD (electric) — $85.
Pacific Gas & Electric (natural gas) — $15.
Medical bill, monthly payment for extended hospital stay when younger daughter was born — $65.
Cable/internet — $130.
Husband’s student loan with Sallie Mae — $235.
Federal student loans — $175 monthly (on an adjusted payment plan).
Various debt payments — $1,000.
Kids’ extracurricular — $100.
Medical co-payments — $50.
Total monthly expenses — $4,675

The family’s take-home pay, without overtime, is a little more than $4,000 per month.

“So months when he works no overtime, we are extremely short and resort to our savings and credit cards to get by. Then when there are months with overtime we try to pay down some of our debt, and save what we can for the months when we are short again. It’s a vicious cycle.”

More from Bob Sullivan:

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