Sunday, January 08, 2012
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Making it series: A mom's shift to frugality [with video]

Having grown up poor in Appomattox County, Danielle Murray strives for financial security so that her daughter will never know that worry or shame. The first story in our Making it series about getting by in uncertain economic times.

Coupon clipper Danielle Murray strategically buys groceries, culling the dented-can specials at Kroger and buying boxes of frozen meats at O’Brien Meats, a butcher shop on Main Street in Salem. While pregnant with her daughter, she bought one set of cloth diapers per paycheck and figures she’s saved $2,500 from not buying disposables.

Ryan Loew | The Roanoke Times

Coupon clipper Danielle Murray strategically buys groceries, culling the dented-can specials at Kroger and buying boxes of frozen meats at O’Brien Meats, a butcher shop on Main Street in Salem. While pregnant with her daughter, she bought one set of cloth diapers per paycheck and figures she’s saved $2,500 from not buying disposables.

Danielle Murray plays with her daughter and their dog in their back yard in the Hollins area.

Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

Danielle Murray plays with her daughter and their dog in their back yard in the Hollins area. "We’re by no means poor if I have a full stomach, a roof over my head, and my daughter is content," she said. "If my needs are met, then that should be enough."

Danielle Murray tapes coupons to her calendar. She obtains some of them online.

Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

Danielle Murray tapes coupons to her calendar. She obtains some of them online.

Wrap your spindly checkbook around this feat: Danielle Murray feeds her family of three on just $150 a month -- and they're not just eating beans and rice.

The Hollins-area mother has two part-time jobs. She's married to a Botetourt County firefighter who puts in extra hours working nights and weekends for retail and landscaping companies.

At 24, Murray captures perfectly the zeitgeist behind Making It, an occasional newspaper series that begins today and features area savers and skinflints who are bravely fording uncertain economic waters. Some have experienced the indignities of the unemployment line as more than 20,000 jobs evaporated from a region stretching from the Alleghany Highlands to Henry County in 2008 and 2009. Unemployment rates peaked in early 2010 and hiring resumed, but jobs have been slow in coming for many of the chronically unemployed or underemployed.

Others have joined the growing ranks of people asking for public assistance for the first time in their lives. While Roanoke historically has the highest level of poverty in the valley -- and still does -- numbers provided by the Virginia Department of Social Services show poverty is growing fastest in the neighboring counties.

The number of people receiving food stamps in Roanoke, Botetourt and Franklin counties has soared by more than two-thirds in the past five years, with a combined total of 11,222 recipients in that suburban/rural ring compared with 6,695 five years ago.

Having grown up poor in Appomattox County, Murray went without power as a child and recalls having to borrow water from a neighbor's hose. She's determined that her 17-month-old daughter, Kayleigh, will never know that worry or shame.

"We're doing well right now, but I don't know that we will be forever," she said. "So it's really just a matter of shifting your mindset: Do you want to do it this way, the smart way, or do you want to be like everybody else?"

*   *   *

It's the "spend now, worry later" mindset that worries Irene Leech the most. A Virginia Tech associate professor and consumer-rights advocate, Leech sees a growing disconnect between the college students she teaches and the fact that they could end up among the 25 million Americans who are either unemployed or underemployed. Nearly 2 million college graduates under 30 are underemployed -- working in jobs that don't require college degrees.

"Most of my students think they're going to make more money than I think they actually will make," Leech said.

Parents who are footing the bill often don't share their own economic realities, and children end up with unrealistic views about real-world living expenses, she added.

Update

Danielle Murray’s blog

  • So many readers asked Danielle Murray for housekeeping tips in the wake of this story that the 24-year-old homemaker extraordinaire started her own blog.
  • It’s at whyyesiuseclothdiapers.blogspot.com and on it she breaks down exactly how she manages to feed her family of three on $150 a month. She also shares recipes, menus and tips on everything from repurposing leftovers to making homemade diaper wipes.
  • Do you have tips for stretching your dollars? Email Beth Macy at beth.macy@roanoke.com.

"People are having to live with less now for an extended period of time," Leech said. "Our entire country is going to have to embark on a lifestyle change."

When Murray finished her associate's degree in early childhood education and began working in day care, she made the same mistakes her friends did -- charging living expenses to make ends meet and ending up with what she likes to call "more month at the end of the money."

"I went through my stupid phase, too," she said.

Inspired by financial guru/radio-show host Dave Ramsey, she and her husband, Daniel, cut up all their credit cards and vowed to shop using cash only.

"Spending cash literally alerts the pain receptors in your brain in a way that using a debit card doesn't," she said. "It makes you say, 'Do I really need this?'"

Following Ramsey's protocol, they're paying off their debt first, dedicating the money she earns from her after-school child care business toward their $6,000 credit-card debt. (She's also a part-time children's pastor at Genesis Community Church.)

They've built up a $1,000-plus emergency fund, another must according to Ramsey, who advises devotees to raise the money by selling excess belongings at yard sales and on eBay so that the next unexpected car repair doesn't bump them right back into debt.

The shift to frugality has been a holistic one for Murray, from turning Swiffer dust pads over to reuse them, to washing a shower liner in bleach rather than replacing it with a new one. While pregnant with Kayleigh, Murray bought one set of cloth diapers per paycheck -- resulting in a $2,500 savings over her daughter's babyhood compared to disposable diapers.

She uses coupons -- many gleaned at krazycouponlady.com -- and saves on groceries by shopping Thursday nights, when her Hollins-area Kroger restocks its stash of discount dented cans. Dried rice and beans are cooking staples, and relatives who hunt give the couple deer meat.

She makes monthly treks to O'Brien Meats, a Salem butcher that sells batches of frozen meat at bargain prices. She recently paid $30 for 3 pounds each of beef roast, chicken and hot dogs and 2 pounds each of pork chops, ribs, bologna and ground beef.

She takes Kayleigh to a solo-practice family doctor instead of a pediatrician and gets her daughter's immunization shots at the local health department. "We have a relationship, and if I can't pay my doctor co-pay one week because money's tight, he'll let me wait until I can," she said.

*   *   *

Forging relationships is critical in a lean economy, Murray said. She knows Famous Anthony's waitresses who steer her family toward the best deals and customer reward cards; grandparents who have them over to eat on Sunday nights (and send leftovers home); a friend who'll barter the Mary Kay makeup she sells in exchange for child care.

When Murray finds herself with a free night, she uses Facebook to alert friends that she's available to baby-sit. When her husband wanted to upgrade his cellphone, he sold his old one first on Craigslist.

During the summer, they vacation in a pop-up camper they bought used, sharing the cost with her in-laws, and every year before the holidays they treat themselves to a long weekend Christmas shopping at Gatlinburg's outlet stores, using Daniel's bonus money.

The Murrays' long-range plan once the credit cards are paid off: Pay off the car loan, then double up on the mortgage payments. All told, they owe $148,000 on the house, car and credit cards -- "which is pretty good considering that's less than what most people pay for their houses," she said. (Her in-laws gave them the family land upon which they built their three-bedroom ranch.)

She's already researched the kind of IRA and 529 college-savings plan she wants to set up once her credit cards are paid off.

"A lot of families think you have to pay for your child's entire college. But if they help, it becomes their responsibility, too, and that's a good thing."

Living frugally is not unlike dieting, Murray said, echoing that old Weight Watchers charge that "nothing tastes as good as thin feels."

For Murray, nothing -- not even a pedicure, her favorite splurge -- feels better than financial security.

"We struggle with wanting to do stuff, but we're by no means poor if I have a full stomach, a roof over my head, and my daughter is content," she said. "If my needs are met, then that should be enough."

 

Video by Ryan Loew | The Roanoke Times | Music by Father Sleep

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