Image: Don McCoy, son
Keith Srakocic  /  AP
Don McCoy, right, removes clean dishes from the dishwasher as he prepares to feed lunch to his 3-year-old son, Marcus, at their home in Coraopolis, Pa. In one year, McCoy has gone from being a top executive in a high-tech startup to Mr. Mom.
updated 2/1/2009 3:33:43 PM ET 2009-02-01T20:33:43

In a year, Don McCoy has gone from being a top executive in a high-tech startup to Mr. Mom. Now he cares for his two children while his wife tries to make her fledgling walking tour business meet some of the financial demands left open by his long-term unemployment.

Like millions of Americans hit hard by the recession, the McCoys are struggling with the financial and emotional difficulties caused by the unexpected joblessness of the family's main breadwinner. In this case, McCoy was earning more than $100,000 a year.

Over the last year, McCoy has dipped into his retirement savings twice, canceled his family's health insurance coverage, bundled utilities, cut his daughter's dance classes, reluctantly come to terms with the idea that he will not retire by 60 and that he may have to relocate outside the Pittsburgh area that has been his home since birth.

At the same time, playing "Mr. Mom with the kids" has given him a greater understanding of his wife's life and made him realize that when he goes back to work he has to have a better balance between his job and his family.

"It really, really hurts deep inside to have to take my retirement savings away," McCoy, 42, said. "It's been an emotional experience and a spiritual growing experience."

A fruitless job search
The struggles began in January 2008 when McCoy's employer, the Pittsburgh-based high-speed data storage company Panasas, restructured its executive branch, eliminating his position just as the economy began slowing down.

Eighteen years of experience in Pittsburgh's high-tech arena made McCoy confident he would be working within months. He filed for unemployment and began networking.

Every few weeks, McCoy began a months-long interview process. Some companies were becoming so finicky they were making decisions based on what would normally be minor credentials.

Several jobs didn't pan out at all. Rounds of interviews, phone calls and e-mails would end with a hire from within, elimination of the position or a hiring freeze.

"The economy has definitely created a caution and so companies aren't growing as fast and what happens then is that growth plans get put on hold, expenditures become more scrutinized," McCoy said, folding and unfolding his fingers on the kitchen table.

Meanwhile, McCoy's wife, Sylvia, 36, who left her marketing job to be a stay-at-home mom to 4-year-old Isabelle and 3-year-old Marcus, decided in June to venture back into the business world. She launched 'Burgh Bits and Bites, a culinary tour through Pittsburgh's trendy Strip District — a food lover's paradise.

Still out of work, McCoy could build a Web site for Sylvia's new company and care for the kids while Sylvia was out. With unemployment only bringing in about 20 percent of McCoy's salary, any extra money would help.

So McCoy dipped into his retirement savings to pay for business cards and bags, while Sylvia spread the word through neighborhood associations and business groups. Today, the business generates an average profit of $1,000 a month.

"We were very, very blessed that it grew as fast as it did," she says. "Now, it's to a point where I have two other tour guides working with me and I'm expanding into other neighborhoods."

Making sacrifices
After McCoy's 26 weeks of unemployment ended, an emergency act passed by Congress gave them another 11 weeks. But other sacrifices had to be made, and 4-year-old Isabelle was taken out of dance classes.

The family stopped any discretionary spending: restaurants, vacations, weekend getaways and clothes shopping were discarded. McCoy found a package of services that allowed him to get utilities from one carrier, saving a chunk of money. Sylvia learned to comparison shop, buying groceries in several different stores to get the best deals. Hair appointments stretched out for months from the normal six to eight weeks.

The family also stopped subscribing to an organic produce cooperative. Instead, McCoy planted peppers, butternut squash, tomatoes, a variety of herbs and even sunflowers in his backyard, turning the plot of land into a moneysaving device and a fun activity to share with his children. A rainy-day fund and retirement savings helped make the mortgage payments and the insurance and taxes associated with the property, a $2,400-a-month expense.

After Congress' emergency act expired, the McCoys found themselves with no unemployment compensation, so their cost-cutting took on a new urgency. At the end of September, they canceled their $850 a month health coverage. McCoy estimates he will save about $500 a month if he can get into a state-subsidized program he has applied for.

Helping others
"It's been just over three months now without health insurance, and fortunately the family has been healthy and we haven't had any difficulties," McCoy said, his brow creasing. "It's very tough, especially with children, because there's illness with children and that's always been at the back of my mind."

A third emergency act passed by Congress granted the McCoys another seven weeks of unemployment compensation — but that too is about to expire. This means the McCoys' next step might be to relocate out of state, a move that pains them almost as much as cutting costs.

On a recent day, Sylvia is trudging through the Strip District's slushy streets, plying a group of 39 culinary students with authentic Middle Eastern hummus and the hundreds of cheeses sold in the neighborhood's mom-and-pop establishments. McCoy is home with the children, their preschool canceled due to a winter storm.

Sylvia talks about the importance of contributing to her community despite the family's difficulties. No longer able to assist monetarily, she takes leftover bread from a Strip District bakery to an impoverished community a few miles from her home. Along with the children, the McCoys volunteer at different charity events, trying to stay positive and remember there are always those worse off.

"Some days are easier, some days are harder," Sylvia says. "I mean there's some days where at night when you wake up and you have a wave of anxiety and you think how long can we do this? And again, you just rely on your faith. That's kind of what brings us through."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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