The Restless Project: Doing Well at $125K, but Still Losing Sleep Over Money

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

“Something is wrong. Very broken. We are doing our part. We rarely splurge, we never go out as a family to the movies, we aren’t taking wild holidays, we don’t spend foolishly, and yet every month is painfully tight.”

Matthew Brada is a software consultant, and he is doing great. He earns about $125,000 per year while owning a home in reasonably priced Plano, Texas. He’s been married 16 years to wife Julie, and together they have two children: Piper, who’s 12, and Noah, who is 9.

Matthew is also pretty nervous. Or, using the language of my ongoing project, he feels restless.

“We’ve cut the cable, subscriptions, eating out. We literally scrape by. If something breaks, it stays broken basically,” he said. “I am grateful to have my position, but when I break it down for my family of four on a sole income in Plano, it’s not so awesome.”

When son Noah was 6 months old, he was diagnosed with a rare pediatric eye cancer called retinoblastoma.

“At the time I was working independently as a [software] consultant trying to build up a client base and live the American dream,” Brada said. “I couldn’t afford the expensive group health insurance as a sole proprietor, so Noah’s cancer devastated us financially – completely and literally wiped us out. Every dime of our savings was used, we sold our second car and anything else that wasn’t critical to live on. We eventually lost our home due to foreclosure.”

Eight years later, the family is back on its feet again. They were able to get a VA mortgage and buy a new home.

“Through hard work, discipline to budget, and lots of sacrifices, we now have a beautiful home in Plano,” he said. “Even so, and even without things such as a car payment, we are still barely making ends meet.”

Here is the Brada family budget:

Mortgage — $2,700.
Electricity — $300.
Wife’s cellphone — $70.
Internet — $70.
Energy company — $40.
Water/sewer — $100.
Vehicle gas — $100.
Tollways — $40.
Student loans — $700.
Groceries — $150.
Credit cards — $3,000.
Other home costs — $700.
Total — $7,970.

Round it up to $8,000 after funding a modest health savings account and that just about eats up all of the Brada family disposable, after-tax income.

There is light at the end of the tunnel for the family. The couple had chipped away at their joint $100,000 in student loan debt, including Brada’s graduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University, the degree that helped him land his six-figure job. It’s down to $21,000 now. And now that the kids are older, Julie has gone back to school for a degree so she can begin her second career as a math teacher.

“[Julie] starts student teaching next semester and hopefully will be picked up in a year, and that $50,000 to 60,000 she’ll make will be a godsend after a decade of one income,” he said. “Notice there is nothing in there for savings, there is nothing left over.”

That last bit keeps Brada up at night. He feels like the family is only secure until the next big repair job, or the next health crisis.

“I never thought I’d be so penny-tight at 43,” he said. Most of his friends suffer from similar restlessness. “Our middle class is dying a horrible slow painful death.”

More from Bob Sullivan:

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