We Are The Median: Carefully Budgeting For Food, Health Care Costs

When Jamie Wilson learned she was pregnant with her daughter, Samantha, she fully expected that she would be a full-time working mom.

But when she tried going back to work, she said it was too hard to be away from her daughter.

“Once she was born, it changed my whole outlook on everything,” Jamie said.

Instead, Wilson, 31, opted to go back to her job with Shasta County Health and Human Services just one day a week. Her husband, Jeremy, works four 10-hour shifts as an analyst, also with Shasta County Health and Human Services, so he can watch Samantha on the day that Jamie works.

That’s left the couple living – with a very careful budget – on the nation’s median income of about $50,000 a year.

TODAY.com’s Life Inc. blog visited the Wilsons in Anderson, Calif., this week as part of our series of stories on what it’s like to live on around $50,000 a year.

The Wilsons say they have a general budget and are careful with money. They also are relieved to have family that can help them out in an emergency.

“We’re pretty lucky in (that) we’re able to cover our necessities, and if there’s something we couldn’t get we’re pretty fortunate that we can go to our families,” Jamie said.

Still, they live paycheck to paycheck and sometimes find themselves squeezed.

“There are times when we get down to a couple of days before the next paycheck when we think, ‘OK, let’s scour the cupboards,'” Jeremy said.

One big expense is food. Jeremy, 30, and the couple’s daughter, Samantha, both suffer from a number of food allergies. That severely limits the family’s diet – and bulks up their food tab.

The Wilsons estimate that a five-pound bag of gluten-free flour costs $14.43, versus $2.12 for a bag of wheat flour. A loaf of gluten-free bread costs double the equivalent wheat bread.

In all, the couple estimates that they spend around $600 a month on food.

To save money, the couple gets what they can at Walmart and online. But Jamie also occasionally makes trips to a nearby health food store, where she can pick up things like vanilla coconut milk, gluten-free bagels, brown rice pasta and cheese substitute.

They even plan those grocery trips carefully; it takes about $7 worth of gas to get there and back.

Health care costs are another huge expense. The Wilsons pay about $600 a month for health insurance, and they also are paying off bills for Jeremy’s appendectomy and Samantha’s birth. Even though they have insurance, they have to pay some portion of their bills out of pocket.

They have a small amount of credit card debt and some student loan debt. In addition, Jamie is taking on additional student loans to get her master’s degree in special education.

Jamie likes the idea of a career that will give her more time with her daughter, although she said the thought of more student loan debt sometimes weighs on her and her husband.

Still, Jamie says she thinks she has learned from the financial mistakes she made in her first marriage, which ended in divorce – and with a foreclosure.

The couple does little things to save money. They bought reusable cloth diapers instead of disposables, and Jamie nurses instead of using formula. They moved to Anderson, in northern California near Redding, in part because it was less expensive than other parts of California.

Her past foreclosure meant the couple could only get approved to buy a $125,000 house, instead of a $200,000 house they wanted to buy. But now, Jamie says she is relieved they bought the cheaper house because it’s easier for her to stay home with Samantha.

Still, the couple says they don’t know whether they can afford to have a second child, especially since Jamie will have to start student teaching in a couple of years and they’ll need child care.

Even a pet is out of the question, for now.

“We would love to have a dog, but we can’t afford one,” Jamie said.

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