Families must shop smarter, eliminate luxuries to meet expenses during recession


October 21, 1991|By Randi Henderson

Most of us are struggling to get by in today's tight economy. Starting today, look for tips to help you make do with less. They'll appear every day this week, and in future weeks we'll offer readers' ideas on how to cut costs.

If you've got a money-saving tip to pass along, use a touch-tone phone to call Sundial at 783-1800 (or 268-7736 from Anne Arundel County). Once the system answers your call, enter code 4400. Or write Making Do With Less, Features Department, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278.

Complimented on the outfit she was wearing, Kathleen Harris quickly provided a brief history of its parts.

"I remade the shirt, the skirt I made, the shoes were $5 on clearance, the pantyhose were a special offer, the pearls were on sale for $5," she said. "And the earrings are old."

Asked about his family's vacation plans, Paul Moore responded with a sarcastic laugh.

"Well, you feel like you need a break, that's for sure," he said. "But current economics just take that out of reality."

Kathleen Harris and Paul Moore don't call themselves poor. They look at the world around them -- at welfare lines, at people who are suddenly unemployed, at the homeless -- and they know they are better off than many.

But recession is no abstract concept for them. They and their families -- along with thousands of other Americans -- struggle every day to meet daily expenses. And, in the short run, they know the only reason things may be getting better is not because there's more money coming in -- but because they've learned to live with less.

Once the American dream was to do better than your parents, to give your children the resources to do better still. For many that dream is now on hold. The new dream is considerably more modest: to have enough at the end of the month to pay the bills, to make a dent in the credit card debt, to maybe celebrate a wedding anniversary with a dinner at a nice restaurant.

Just ask the Harrises and the Moores. They're living it.

Thomas and Kathleen Harris

"Not every kid gets to go to Disney World."

Her children, Caitlin, 2, and Colin, 2 months, are a bit young to be clamoring for the trip, but Kathleen Harris, 26, is already putting out the word. Even as her husband added ruefully, "I never did [go to Disney World] and that's one of my dreams."

But the $490 Tom Harris, 25, brings home twice a month from his job in the registrar's office at Towson State University won't stretch quite that far.

It covers the rent on the family's Reisterstown town house ($329 a month, in a federally subsidized program), the car payment ($160 a month for a stripped-down 1987 Isuzu), the grocery bills (about $200 a month, and that includes diapers and formula for the baby), the utilities and not much more.

Mrs. Harris rattled off the numbers with the certainty that comes from running them through her mind and through the checkbook week after week, month after month. She doesn't work; the cost of day care would just about wipe out anything she could earn so she chooses to stay home and be a full-time mother -- and bill-payer.

She thinks a lot about which corners to cut. "A good recipe file is a lifesaver," she has found. The family saves on groceries by shopping at Pace, a discount warehouse. Forget coupons; they almost never buy brand-name products. They eat meatless dinners at least a couple nights a week. She's figured out how to stretch two chickens (70 cents a pound) into a week's worth of meals.

Mrs. Harris makes many of her own and Caitlin's clothes. Mr. Harris takes his lunch every day to work.

Yet Tom and Kathleen Harris don't think of themselves as deprived, and looking around their small but comfortable living room they don't seem to be. "The VCR -- that's our big extravagance," he says, although they rarely rent movies. The stereo system was pieced together with gifts and components they owned before their marriage three years ago. They both look back on their single days as a time of financial ease.

Like many young couples, their dream is to own their own home. Off-the-top deductions from Mr. Harris' paycheck go into a down-payment fund, and if things don't get any worse, they envision being able to scrape together enough for a small town house in about five or six years.

"Don't be too proud to accept help," Mr. Harris advised other struggling young couples, noting that the down payment for his car was a gift from his parents. "If we didn't take what was offered, we'd be in trouble."

Paul and Brazzer Moore

After 21 years in the car business, Paul Moore thought he knew what ups and downs were all about, but the downs of the past couple years are something he never quite anticipated.

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