A house. Two cars. A kid in college. Debi and Nick Lemieur had all the markers of a middle class life. But they both remember one purchase — Nick's $600 bass amplifier — that prompted one of the biggest fights in their four decades of marriage.
"He didn't tell me he hid it in the trunk of the car, and I found it," Debi says, laughing, 14 years later. "To me it was like, oh my God, how much will this screw with our budget?"
Today, amid the pandemic, a third of U.S. adults say they are having difficulty covering everyday costs such as food, rent or car payments. While people with the lowest incomes face the biggest challenges, even some households making above $200,000 are straining to pay basic expenses.
For many families, walking the tightrope of financial stress, with little to no savings, is hardly a pandemic-specific condition. Over a year ago, more than a third of Americans said they could not cover an unexpected $400 home repair or hospital bill without going into debt — or at all.
Indeed, the paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle has long been a widespread affliction. Single mothers live it. Young professionals live it. Even college professors and retired tech workers live it, like the Lemieurs from Pennsylvania. They were among three households that let NPR look at their monthly budgets before and during the pandemic. The budgets offer a window into how life's costs can sometimes leave little financial wiggle room.
"What comes in goes out," says Debi Lemieur, poring over the spreadsheets with her husband, Nick — a weekly drill since the amplifier incident.
These individual stories, like anyone's, are complex. There are winding career paths and unexpected health crises, loans and credit card debt, difficult choices and a few regrets. But the economic backdrop, too, has been unforgiving even for those with good incomes.
For decades, U.S. wages have failed to keep pace with the rising costs of what many perceive as essential ingredients for a successful American life: good education and health care, a home and a family. Student loans are a yoke around young people the minute they graduate and keep many parents from retiring. Medical bills can set people back for years, as they did for the Lemieurs. A home mortgage and utilities can bite off half of a monthly income, especially in big cities.
A snapshot of monthly expenses cannot paint that full of a picture. But it shows how financial strain sustains as incomes change — a tight budget means ignoring a janky phone, while a bit more money can mean finally upgrading — and how life's setbacks and twists can add up.
"I don't feel like, even if I'm saving, I'm saving ... I'm ever going to get ahead of anything," says Rhonda Alvarez, a dental assistant and mother of two teenagers in Ohio. "I feel like it's a constant struggle, you know what I'm saying?"
"I shouldn't have to live paycheck to paycheck"
Rhonda calls them "little spendings." Nothing special or life-altering. New tires swiped onto a credit card. A last-minute birthday gift. Soccer cleats, shin guards and gloves for her youngest teenager.
"You don't think about it," says the 45-year-old. "Or you do after you've done it — you're like, 'God, what did I do?' "
Debt is powerful, which is why most Americans have it. For Rhonda, a loan helped her discover a dental assistant career she loves both for the work and for the pay. After never going to the dentist until she was 18, she now geeks out learning about gum surgery, earning about $45,000 a year.
A series of false starts came first. Pressure to be the first in the family to attend college. Then culinary school, with another student loan, and food-service jobs. A marriage and a house. A bankruptcy and a divorce.
Debt can also bog you down. When her personal crises piled up, and the sale of the dental practice where she worked pushed her into a new job, Rhonda felt overwhelmed by her loans and bills. She cashed out her retirement savings early and paid some of them off.
Still, she's kept several credit cards. You never know what might happen. Like a worldwide pandemic, perhaps. Or like losing that new job at the very start of it. Rhonda has deferred her mortgage and some utilities; life trudges on despite the global crisis. A minor surgery gets scheduled. Her oldest starts driving and needs car insurance. The younger one needs that soccer gear.
"You're trying to be careful and then you're like, this sucks," she says. "I make decent money now, and I shouldn't have to live paycheck to paycheck."
Rhonda wishes school would teach children money management. "It's way more important sometimes than algebra or geometry," she says. For herself, she's looked at going back to train as a hygienist, too. But it's another $30,000 in student loans — more debt she's not ready to take on.
"Up and down on a roller coaster"
While more education usually does mean more income over a lifetime, it's also expensive. The cost of college has more than doubled in just 20 years, and student loans are the fastest-growing type of debt in America. Many people use this money to learn a trade, like Rhonda — or Robi Hamilton.
Robi, 28, spent virtually all her savings to get out of her home in Houston and move to Austin for massage school. Between classes, she worked at a salon around the corner, sweeping hair and doing laundry. Her boss paid for her state licensing exam as a Christmas gift, shelling out the $200 that Robi couldn't afford.
She now owes more than $10,000 in student debt, but has kept it in forbearance, or on hold, "trying to get to a point where paying my student loans wouldn't actually break me," she says. That debt relief plus full-time massage therapy work — $24 an hour with generous tips — had Robi feeling solid financial footing for the first time in her life.
"I didn't know what to do with myself," she says. "When you start making more money, you can upgrade your bills just a little bit. I got a new phone. I was like, 'This is a whole new world for me.' Still living — more comfortably — paycheck to paycheck."
The move to Austin proved more difficult for Robi's boyfriend Andrew Mentzel, 30. America's music capital lured him with the promise of lucrative opportunities for his line of work in audio and video tech. Back in Houston, a phone call or two had him running visuals for big oil board meetings or shepherding rock stars to concert sets. In Austin, he struggled to book enough gigs, even after slicing his rates.
"Once the shows stopped coming in, I was completely at a loss," Andrew says, "and I have been kind of pivoting ever since."
The pandemic has undercut both of their careers. Canceled live events meant no work for Andrew. Robi hasn't done much massage therapy since the spring, relying on unemployment benefits and occasional side hustles. Andrew is now baking at a restaurant for $17 an hour.
Bills are a prominent expense for the two — rent and utilities are pricey in places like Austin. The couple defray the cost by living with a roommate. They have also spent more during the pandemic, thanks in part to the boosted jobless benefits.
A new floppy-eared responsibility entered their life: a long-coat Dalmatian puppy named Libby, both the keeper of household sanity and agent of adorable chaos. Homebound life called for splurges at GameStop, Nintendo and Google for video games and streaming. Andrew paid off a TV he'd been financing and began a new plan for a bicycle that gets him out of the house.
Financially, "it feels kind of like going up and down on a roller coaster," Andrew says. "I'm able to stay above water miraculously sometimes. But other times, it's too close for comfort."
"Panicky in our gut"
For the Lemieurs, after the amplifier fight, budgeting became serious business: a painstaking accounting of birthday presents and vet visits, car payments and utilities, that ran 12 pages long.
With three children, one expense or another has always popped up, but health care costs have always been the heftiest, as for many families. In the U.S., medical issues are a major reason people file for personal bankruptcy.
The Lemieurs' medical costs weren't just big, they were many. Their son with special needs underwent numerous therapies. They lost a daughter, who died after seven years of fighting brain cancer. Debi had her own cancer battle. Nick had heart surgery.
"We just never had the way to save," Debi says. To this day, health insurance runs almost $1,000 a month. At 64, Debi looks forward to ditching her high-premium plan when she qualifies for Medicare.
She believes they would've done better with more education. That's remarkable because she holds two master's degrees in classics, Latin and Greek. But in academia, without a doctorate, Debi became an adjunct professor — a higher-ed gig worker — making less than $30,000 a year. She couldn't afford to finish her Ph.D. after her health problems and a funding cut by the university.
Nick, 66, did not finish college. He fell into a solid job in tech, rising from technician to engineer managing software contracts. Then, a few years ago, his work got outsourced. Unexpectedly retired, he aced a community college course in 3D-modeling, but nobody hired him.
Nick picked up a school crossing-guard gig — to pay for the beer, he jokes — but had to stop during the pandemic. Debi's college wages lag in the summer and her tutoring dried up. They've deferred some bills, took their two cats off pet insurance, cut back on museum memberships and charity donations.
Looking back, Nick ponders whether their early start on children was what got them into the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle. What if they'd been more disciplined about budgets and savings earlier? Debi shakes her head. They never made enough money, she says.
"We just would have more savings and so it wouldn't be quite as panicky in our gut knowing that we're pulling from the savings," Debi says. "I think we still would be living paycheck to paycheck."
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