Jan. 31, 2013 at 6:45 AM ET
“Will we ever be able to afford to have children?”
Personal finance is never really about the money. It’s about what you can and can’t do. To Melissa Will, personal finance is about starting a family – specifically, why she just can’t have a baby now, or anytime soon.
“I would like to have some realistic idea of when we can afford to have kids,” says Melissa. “But I looked at what it costs to have a baby, and it’s about the same amount that we have in our checking account right now.”
In some ways, Melissa is living the American dream. She married long-time boyfriend Ryan in 2011 when he got out of the Army, and they purchased a small ranch-style three-bedroom in her hometown in the Pacific Northwest soon after. Hard-working and responsible, she ran the numbers, and the conclusion is inescapable -- they are just getting by. So for the foreseeable future, that means no babies.
“The hardest part about personal finance for me is it always tends to get in the way of my marriage,” says Ryan, who wants to start a family soon, too. Ryan is 26, and Melissa is 25. “It’ll stress me out just thinking about not having money, and then if my wife is thinking about the same thing, it just brings it into we’re against each other.”
Melissa is a college graduate – she went to Whitman College in eastern Washington, where she studied politics, and even held a brief internship in Washington, D.C. with NBC. But she wanted to live near her family, so she moved home three years ago. Now she's a legal secretary working in downtown Seattle, which means an hour-long ferry ride every morning and every night back to her home in Silverdale, across Puget Sound.
Ryan served in the Army for eight years, working as a mechanic. Now he goes to school during the day and works at a motorcycle shop at night. It was very hard to find time to talk with them together. But producer Matt Rivera and I cornered them at their home in December just long enough for a Red-Tape-Chronicles style grilling of their spending.
The Wills struggle with the usual cell phone data plan overage fees, and wonder each month if they should cancel cable to save money. We talked about saving money in more constructive ways – we called banks and learned they could refinance their auto loan from 4.9 percent to 3.19 percent rate, which would save them $1,000 during the life of the loan. There’s plenty more details in the video.
But the reality of their personal finance math is harsh: They earn about $3,000 each month, and they spend about $3,000 a month. They are homeowners, and they have avoided deep student loan and credit card debt that plagues many 20-somethings, putting them on solid footing. But they aren't getting ahead. If they moved forward with their family plans, they couldn't afford the $1,000 monthly health insurance bill that would come when Melissa tried to add family members to her employer’s health care plan.
We're starting a new kind of Red Tape Chronicle series today called "Protection." Web videos will anchor the piece, because we want you to see and hear from people facing the same kinds of struggles you are. As we find with Melissa and Ryan, there's no magical tip that can suddenly change people’s financial lives. The best ‘trick’ of all is no trick at all: take the time to sit down and talk about money matters with the people you love, and to make plans. Watch them together, and see where the money discussion takes them, and they’ll warm your heart as they create their own 21st century version of “The Gift of the Magi.” Hint: She doesn’t offer to cut her hair at the end, but almost.
We hope to spur these kinds of discussions for you, too. The Protection series will include financial "Gotcha" interventions, like this one. We'll be publishing animated videos designed to make complex financial and economic issues simple, fun, and sharable. We'll sit down with experts who offer unusual advice, and we'll have some fun quizzing consumers about the meaning of fine print they read. But most of all, we want to talk.
Melissa and Ryan are charming, they've served the country, they love their hometowns, they are the kind of young couple you'd like living next door, and they are the kind of family you’d think define American family values. And they have a bit of good news to share: Melissa said on Wednesday that she's just started a new job. She's still working as a legal secretary, and still taking those long ferry rides, but she got a nice pay increase, and her new employer offers much more affordable health insurance ("We're talking less than a third of what I would have had to pay at my old job to cover myself and my dependents," she said.)
Still for now, their future family plans are hazy. Sound familiar? Comment below.
If you’d like to be the subject of a future Red Tape fiscal intervention, write to BobSullivan@feedback.msnbc.com