How We Make it Work: Raising a Family on $155K Outside Buffalo, New York

A general contractor and father of two living in upstate New York explains how he and his wife make ends meet.

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It’s a question that’s often on the minds of anyone who’s ever looked at the high cost of raising kids today: how do parents make it work? Well, we wondered too. Which is why we’re asking parents around the country for a peek into their financial lives: what they earn, spend, save, and invest as well as what financial headaches they face, what tricks they’ve learned along the way, and what, if anything, they have figured out. Will the answers we receive get the okay from financial advisors? Not always. Are they honest looks into families trying to provide for their kids? Absolutely. Here, Frank, a 43-year-old married father of two who lives outside of Buffalo, New York, discusses how he and his wife invest, splurge, and spend now that he’s finally found steady work.

My kids are 8 and 4. And I’m finally feeling confident about our finances. My wife and I fell into a rhythm and routine that felt maintainable about a year ago. It allows us to pay the bills, put a good deal of money away, and have a little fun, too.

We had some tight times for sure. When my wife was pregnant with our first, I had agita for six straight months. I knew what costs were coming our way in terms of medical expenses and the general cost of raising your kid. But we made it through. By the time our second came along, we were feeling much, much better.

I’m a GC – general contractor. For the past five years, I’ve been the lead on a project that’s building all the units in a new residential community. It’s an extensive project. I pull in $125,000 a year. My take-home after taxes is roughly $86,000.

My wife? She’s a school teacher. She makes $40,000 a year. Her take-home is about $31,000.

With those salaries up here? Life is pretty good. We’re not complaining, that’s for sure.

We live in a four-bedroom split-level. It’s a wonderful home that we purchased four years ago after I was a year into my current job. We have a very standard fixed year 30-year mortgage at four percent. How I locked that in I do not know. But I’m not complaining. My monthly payments are $1,295 which are quite reasonable all things considered. We could put more down and pay it off sooner, but we’d rather invest the money somewhere it will grow instead.

Our kids both go to public school. This was the 4-year-old’s first year of kindergarten, which means we didn’t have to pay for daycare. Glorious, let me tell you. Until now, it cost us about $8,000. My wife is home with them during the summer.

Budget-wise, we’re pretty rigid. We put everything into a spreadsheet. We’re not nickel and diming one another about spending, on, say, an unaccounted cup of coffee here or there or anything like that but we like to keep everything figured out. My wife is great at keeping an Excel sheet together and making sure we’re not spending too much.

Our grocery costs come to about $600 a month. Utilities, all told, including things like internet, electric, Netflix, and my Sunday Ticket Max cable package, come to $500. My truck is paid in full; gas costs us another $400. All manageable.

My schedule doesn’t allow me to get home to my kids for bedtime all that much. So we go out to breakfast every Saturday, the three of us. That’s our little thing, plus it gives mom a couple hours of peace and quiet. That’s a recurring cost: $200 per month.

Our credit cards are paid off, finally, after three years of having interest accrue. Now, we’ve had nearly six months of paying the full balance off every month, which is a nice feeling to have. We put everything from groceries to gas on that bill. Those points come in handy.

I have a financial portfolio that I think is pretty strong. It’s some mid-level investments – a bit of aggressive spending in there, but nothing too severe. It’s been treating me well and I have a nice deal of money squirreled away for my wife and I so far. I put away $500 or so per month into that.

We also have some standard college savings accounts for the kids. I put in $600 into those every month, too. Those are already set, as my father-in-law set up and put money into a 529 for them when they were born.

We have good insurance and our out-of-pocket costs are pretty low. Our spending there has been no more than $500 month on average for everything.

Of course, I know that that always won’t be the case. My oldest son has some crooked teeth and I know braces and more are coming down the path. But we have an emergency account that’s been going to prep for such things. We toss in $400 in that every month too.

We went on a weeklong vacation this year. Took the boys this past summer to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. It was lovely. I hadn’t had a vacation in a number of years. We went fishing, ate lots of peel-and-eat shrimp, enjoyed the beach. We splurged there. Cost us about $2,500.

It hasn’t always been like this. For years, I eeked out a living going from job to job until I was given an opportunity and worked myself up from there. Times were very tight. They were for a lot of years.

My work can change by the day, but I’ve already got a future job lined up after this one’s done — knock on wood. It’s another new renovation project. So that’ll keep us in a good place for the next six, seven years at least.

Will it stay like this? No. It’s only been like this for a few years. But understanding that will help us survive and plan for whatever comes our way.

We’re saving now for the unknown later.

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