Paycheck to Paycheck: A Portland Reality

My family makes a decent income, less than the median income for Portland married-couple families (according to the 2016 Portland census) but more than we’ve ever made in the past — yet we are still one of the many families in Portland that live primarily paycheck to paycheck. My spouse and I often sit in wonder, asking ourselves if we are just not disciplined enough, trying to figure out what exactly is happening. We don’t have a lot of toys, I mean, we don’t even have a couch actually, but that is not just monetary. We aren’t a family that travels farther than we can drive in a day (the kids have never been on a plane), we only have one car, we bought a house last year but only because we got a down payment grant to offset the cost (shout out to Portland Housing Center). We take turns buying things we need, this month my spouse got new shoes, next month I’ll get a new pair of jeans. This is our reality. We can afford food, we pay our bills and are trying to pay down debt and school loans, but we come out of every month fairly depressed. I know we are not alone. I can look up the numbers and see that at least 57% of Portland married-couple families either fall into our income bracket or make less than we do. Actually 40% of Portland families make less than we do. If we can barely scrape by on our income, how is everyone else doing it?

Neither my partner nor I came from families with money. My parents split when I was quite young and my mom powered through, sometimes working three jobs, finding partners at different times before landing in a lasting relationship and slowly building the type of life she wanted. My dad never made much money but is also doing the best he has ever done now, as he nears retirement. I got my first regular job at 15, worked 15-24 hours per week during the school year and full time in the summer. I paid for my car costs, bought my own clothes, paid for all social things that I did. I never really considered saving. No one talked to me about money. I moved out and supported myself completely —  travelling the world, going off to community college, housing costs, all of it.

My spouse also grew up without a lot of money in his family. His parents are still together but their work and choices were never made for the purpose of making money. He moved to Portland straight out of high school and had been working since he was 15 as well. No one in our family has money to spare or share. So how do we get ahead of this?

I am a first generation college graduate, who eventually got my masters, but still only works part time so I can be the primary caregiver to my kids. The reality is that none of the jobs I can get would cover the cost of childcare nor would they be worth the sacrifice of not being with my kids. So what do we do? Move somewhere cheaper? Do we have to give up the things we love? My spouse and I are both performers and creators, do we stop doing the things that bring us joy and stop being part of these creative communities so that we can have more money? I, personally, can’t do that. I would be an emotional wreck and worthless to my kids if I didn’t have space to express myself creatively. I am a thousand times better a parent because I take care of myself too, as is my spouse. He was terrible to be around when he tried to give up performing to be “a better dad” — that almost broke our family.

What do other families do? Our one extra expense is our kids’ school. They go to a private school called the Village Free School. We pay on a sliding scale, so it is so little in comparison to other private schools, but it also the most we can afford. This was a necessity for us though, because another part of our story is that our oldest son has been diagnosed with a number of developmental differences (anxiety disorder, ADHD, OCD and Tourette’s Syndrome) making the classroom a battlefield for him in every way (that is a story for another time, or you can read a little about him and us here). Regardless, we can’t afford anything extra beyond what we pay for school. No camps (except maybe a couple weeks of Portland Parks and Rec camps scattered throughout the summer), no extra activities or extra lessons/classes/etc., no big trips. We just can’t do it. And, to be honest, I’m mostly ok with that but not always. Sometimes I want to be able to eat out with my family just because, or take a weekend trip somewhere on a whim, just because — but we can’t.

I don’t have any answers to this problem, or the questions I raise. I often feel powerless when it comes to fixing this problem in my family. It’s a catch 22 of what is more valuable to us, money or time. Up until now we have valued time and have made a lot of sacrifices to make that work, but I fall into deep bouts of anxiety around when we will no longer be able to make our current system work and what that will look like. It’s exhausting to worry about money and to think about the possibility of having to make choices and big life changes for the sake of money. I also recognize we are lucky to have what we do have, which makes it complicated to feel that we can’t make it on what we have.

I was actually thinking about sitcoms families and money when I was driving earlier today, which family-centered sitcoms did I watch growing up or that are on now that hint at financial struggles. Most of them took place in big, comfortable houses (with a butler or maid) and not much was ever said about how they afforded it or what things cost. The only one that really got into it, that I can think of, was Roseanne. They got deep into it. I still question that when I watch tv shows or movies. What is the base reality these shows are creating about money and what a successful life looks like? Are we as a culture buying into it? What is it teaching our kids? Do we feel like we are failing in comparison? I guess I am curious. Portland — does this affect you? Do you want to talk about? Why are we ashamed to be real about money? Let’s get into this, let’s talk. Leave some comments and let’s share resources and ideas.

Amy Conway
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Amy Conway

Calendar Director at PDX Parent
Amy Conway
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