The Star – February 23, 2015
by Linda Lipp
FORT WAYNE — Jessica and Ken Butterfield are doing everything right, but it’s an everyday battle just to keep up with the costs of raising four children — let alone get ahead.
The Waynedale couple have no credit cards, and no debt except for the mortgage on their home, her student loans and a few small medical bills. Jessica plans all their meals and food budget in advance and uses coupons to save on groceries. When they anticipate a major expenditure, such as replacing a vehicle or fixing the roof, the Butterfields earmark their tax refunds and pinch pennies to pay for it in cash.
It’s the Dave Ramsey model.
Jessica is a stay-at-home mother who home-schools her oldest son, Liam, 11; and has just begun teaching their second child, Caroline, 4. They also have two toddlers, Levi, 2; and Sawyer, 1. Although she once worked as a medical assistant, she left her job shortly after the couple married five years ago.
“We knew all along that it was our desire that we would home-school our children,” she said. “We made the choice before we got married that we wanted to have more control over what our kids were learning, the environment they were in.”
It also made no financial sense as their family grew for her to go back to work and put the children in day care. With the small salary she would have made, “at the end of the month if we had paid for child care, we wouldn’t even have broken even,” she said.
The Butterfields were getting along OK until late last year on his annual wages of $37,000 for a job at Triple Crown that came with good benefits. But he lost that job, and the benefits, when the company slashed its local workforce from 240 people to just 40. He found another position as a dispatcher with a small trucking company pretty quickly, and it came with $1,000 more a year in pay. The problem, however, was the switch would mean a health insurance bill for the family of $18,000 a year.
“That was a huge hit for us to realize that we could not financially insure our family,” Jessica said.
The family knew a month or so in advance that his job at Triple Crown would be cut, and he immediately started looking for something else. The trucking company where he now works was the first to make him an offer.
“We went over and over our finances. We looked at the option of taking this job with no insurance, or sitting on unemployment to look for something else. But unemployment would not have met our monthly bills. We felt that this was the choice we had to make,” Jessica explained.
The stress of coping
Long before she met Ken, Jessica was a single mother of Liam, her son from a previous relationship. There were times she struggled, times she didn’t have a job, and the fear that she couldn’t provide for her child stuck with her. When Ken lost his job, “I had that memory. I had been through that before, so it hit me a lot harder than it hit him,” she acknowledged.
“Jessica can be very intense and over-stressed about things, and I am the complete opposite,” Ken agreed.
From a small town in Ohio, Jessica came to Fort Wayne to go to Taylor University, where she lasted about two years and changed her major several times.
When Liam was was born, she went back to work after just three weeks, but she couldn’t also handle the burden of being a full-time student. She decided to switch to Brown-Mackie College, which had a more manageable schedule, to get a quick two-year degree that she hoped would allow her to earn better wages.
“It was very important to me. I didn’t want to have to be getting assistance. I did not want that to be who we were,” she said. “I made my mistakes. I wanted to grow from them and teach my children better.”
Cost of getting ahead
Unfortunately, between Taylor and Brown-Mackie, where she got an associate’s degree in medical assisting, she racked up student loans that now total about $69,000. Worse yet, she still qualified only for relatively poor-paying jobs.
“What I paid for my education, I would never be able to make that back. My salary was not aligned with what I paid,” she said.
Because she qualifies for a low-income deferment, Jessica does not have to make payments on the student loans. “But I think they’re still adding up interest,” she said.
“It’s sad. Our house was not $69,000. We owe more for my student loans than we do for our home,” Jessica said.
The couple also qualified for down-payment assistance and closing costs from the state when they bought their home four years ago. The older two-story home was solid but plain, and had been on the market for more than two years, so they were able to purchase it for $30,000 less than asking price.
“It was a steal – much more affordable than an apartment,” she boasted.
Another grant, from a weatherization program, helped them pay to replace the 36-year-old furnace. Ken, who readily admits he’s never been very handy, now relies on YouTube videos and friends to help him figure out how to do as many home repairs himself as he can.
“You can find everything on YouTube,” he said.
Because they budget so carefully, the Butterfields usually have a little left over at the end of the month for fun things with their children.
“It’s enough to cover that, but not to build up any savings,” she said.
Jessica is better than he is at tracking their spending, Ken said. She’s also the one who makes sure bills are paid, and she does almost all of the shopping for the family.
“Other than buying presents, or when she sends me out to get something, I can’t think of much of any spending I do,” he said.
‘Worry about tomorrow — tomorrow’
Ken has considered seeking training in something like the building trades, for example, that would allow him to advance into a better-paying career. And Jessica has thought about going back to work herself one day, when the kids are older, but isn’t keen on the idea.
“We chose to have these kids, not because we wanted somebody else to raise them,” she said. “It would be hard. I don’t know that I could do it.”
It wouldn’t take a lot to make their lives easier, the two agreed. Ken’s wish would be for better support systems for child care, for advice; maybe even a chance to go out with other couples some times. Jessica’s wish is more concrete.
“If we had health insurance and another 10 grand a year, then we would have a little cushion,” she said.
“Do I worry? Day to day, no, but if something goes wrong, then I do start. If the sink leaks, I think, what if this is a much bigger deal? I start to worry about that, but it’s not a day-to-day thing,” she said.
“I feel pretty confident that we’re taken care of — today. And we’ll worry about tomorrow — tomorrow.”