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Family Life Circa 2008

It's the economy, folks.

That pretty much sums up several articles over the weekend in The Post. In a Karen Houppert magazine piece on the Dixon family of five turning to a life coach to help them be better parents.

Or rather, Dad Ernest Dixon was about to launch his own business -- and juggle two jobs -- and wife Sheila was worried about the heavy load about to fall on her shoulders and how to get her kids to pitch in more. Before the Dixons hired a life coach, Mom Sheila, who runs her own Internet business, was already feeling overstressed. "I'm just tired," Sheila said. Ernest Dixon's surprised reaction to his wife's suggestion to hire a coach was "a family what?"

Ultimately, family life coach Lisa Carey teaches the Dixons to let their 9- and 11-year-old sons experience life's "natural consequences." Don't clean your room and you don't get to go outside to play. Don't put your sports equipment in the right place and you won't go to practice.

Finding help with parenting, as the Dixons did, is part of a $2.1 trillion "mommy market," aimed at telling us that we really don't know how to parent and need experts to teach and help us. It seems to stem from our own insecurities of not being as good at parenting as we may want or expect, particularly in our heavily work/family scheduled lives.

The question I have, though, is whether this service aimed at parents is feeling a hit with the economy. After all, many families are pulling their children out of day care, leaving them home alone or with unlicensed care that costs far less. The phenomenon is not hitting the more affluent day cares, reports The Post's Donna St. George. Rather, it has struck in many middle- and working-class areas as lost jobs, reduced work schedules and foreclosed homes affect families with few reserves. According to the Families and Work Institute, 37 percent of families find it somewhat difficult or very difficult to pay for child care.

Even families where the parents' jobs are currently stable are feeling the strains of the economy. The Wheelocks are one such family. Both parents have good jobs as government contractors. Their cars are paid off and housing prices in their neighborhood have held steady. Still, given all the doom and gloom news going around these days, the Wheelocks decided to try an experiment on a whim: For two weeks, they didn't spend money, even on groceries

"The economic situation hasn't affected us as greatly as others, but there's the potential that it could. Or maybe it's more a fear that it could. We're so lucky that this was a fun experiment. What if one of us lost a job?" Katy Wheelock told The Post's Brigid Schulte.

How worried are you that your job could be in jeopardy? Are you, like the Wheelocks, spending less? Are you, like the Dixons, feeling such heavy work/life strains that you'll pay a consultant to analyze your life? Or are you somewhere in the middle?

In addition to our discussion here, Lisa Carey, Sheila Dixon and Karen Houppert will be live at noon today to discuss the article on family life coaching and answer reader questions.

By Stacey Garfinkle |  December 22, 2008; 9:00 AM ET  | Category:  Family Finances
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"How worried are you that your job could be in jeopardy? "

Hardly at all.

"Are you, like the Wheelocks, spending less?"

No. I live waay below my means.

" Are you, like the Dixons, feeling such heavy work/life strains that you'll pay a consultant to analyze your life? "

No. And I wonder what else is messed up in the Dixons' lives.

Posted by: jezebel3 | December 22, 2008 9:38 AM | Report abuse

"How worried are you that your job could be in jeopardy? "

Jezebel3: My job at Burger King is secure!

"Are you, like the Wheelocks, spending less?"

Jezebel3: When you don't have any means, it is hard to live above them!"

" Are you, like the Dixons, feeling such heavy work/life strains that you'll pay a consultant to analyze your life? "

Jezebel3: No, because my two favorite words are sanctimonious and self-righteous.

Posted by: anonthistime | December 22, 2008 10:04 AM | Report abuse

A bump in the road can happen to anyone. My very educated, very experienced husband was out of work for part of 2007, and then got laid off from another job this fall. Last time was brutal, but this time we were better prepared. This is what we did:
1. No more private school -- fortunately, local elementary school is terrific; we should have had her enrolled there in the first place.
2. Make a menu for the week's meals and plan before going to the grocery store. Build meals around whatever is one sale. This helps avoid impulse buying.
3. Shopping is not a hobby for us. No restaurants for now.
4. We saved. I pulled a chunk of money out of mutual funds when things started to seem a little shaky a few years ago.
5. We've having a very simple Christmas and have been very clear with our many relatives: presents only for the little ones, and we're scaling back. Period.
6. Instead of the $2600 a month COBRA option, we signed up for catastrophic. It's not ideal, but it's something.
7. We are not using our credit cards. If we don't have cash for it, we don't get it.
8. Instead of replacing stuff, we fix them -- whether it's torn clothes or broken toys.
8. I'm a consultant -- I work a lot and my husband is really picking up the slack at home taking care of things while he looks for a job. It's actually been pretty pleasant having some help at home.
9. We count our blessings every day -- it could be so much worse.

Bottom line is we didn't need a consultant -- we were forced to slow down, catch a breath, and realign our spending.

Posted by: wilderfield1 | December 22, 2008 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Jezebel3: No, because my two favorite words are sanctimonious and self-righteous.

Posted by: anonthistime | December 22, 2008 10:04 AM | Report abuse

Incorrect. They are "pretentious" and "bore".

Posted by: jezebel3 | December 22, 2008 10:24 AM | Report abuse


Why yes, I would also describe you as pretentious and boring!

Posted by: anonthistime | December 22, 2008 10:29 AM | Report abuse

The thing that really got me in that article on the Wheelocks was how much they "normally" spent.

"In October, the Wheelocks had spent $844 eating out. In November, $200. In October, they had spent $1,171 shopping, and for the life of her, she can't remember what they bought. In November: $224. And in the "personal care" category, they'd spent $313 in October. In November, $0. "

it's not clear whether that "shopping" entry included clothes as well as groceries, but ... wow! We spend $1,000 or slightly less on groceries (food and ancillary stuff like paper towels, cleaners, etc.) and we have essentially 4 teens. They have two kids, 5 and 7.

They spent $844 in one month eating out? Wow. Okay, that could have been an exceptional month, but we never come anywhere close to that.

It's their life, it's their money, they can spend it how they want. But wow, that just hit me as a LOT to be spending.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | December 22, 2008 11:02 AM | Report abuse

No, we are not too worried about our government jobs. In fact, both of us are really busy lately.

But we try to live below our means and be careful in general.

I think anyone who is paying attention is somewhat affected by the economic crisis. Whether it is your 401K, college savings, or even your job, it hits all of us.

I think we have scaled back a bit. It hasn't affected our holiday shopping too much because we shop all year round sales for our kids. If we see something that we think they would like on sale, we grab it. So 95% of our kids gifts are purchased before December.

We have bought less for friends and family because a decent number of people have requested no gift exchanges. I think the gift giving aspect has gotten out of hand anyway. It seems like everyone feels the need to give a gift. I think we would all do better on a simpler christmas (except retail-I do feel sorry for them).

Posted by: foamgnome | December 22, 2008 11:20 AM | Report abuse

I would say that both of us risk getting laid off. Both of us have seen lay-offs at our companies but were spared.

We can scrap by on my income so if he loses his job we are in good shape. The brunt of his job loss will be born by his ex. I might be able to afford our expenses but there won't be anything left over for child support.

The problem crops up if I lose my job. He makes significantly less and his income does not cover our expenses. It would pay our housing and maybe food. That is assuming that none of his income goes to child support which is highly unlikely.

Consequently, I worry quite a bit about losing my job. We had been taking our extra money and paying down one of the car loans. I think we will likely continue doing that to get rid of the debt. Things should look better on the financial front by next fall. And things are better this Christmas than last. Last Christmas, we incurred a significant amount of debt dealing with all the immigration stuff for him and his children.

Bit by bit we are getting back on track and hopefully the recession will not put our recovery plan into a tail spin.

Posted by: Billie_R | December 22, 2008 11:41 AM | Report abuse

I can't for the life of me imagine spending money on a parenting coach. I'm not saying I'm better than that or that I'm beyond help, I just wouldn't spend my money like that. You're better off buying a pair of sneakers and running, I would think. Therapy and exercise for a low price.

I also was amazed at how much the Wheelocks spent on eating out. I don't think we've ever spent even half that much, except maybe (maybe) during a month we were on vacation or something. I mean, that was over $200 a week for a family of 5 to eat out. How often and where are they eating out?

Posted by: WorkingMomX | December 22, 2008 1:01 PM | Report abuse

WorkingMomX - even worse, they're a family of 4. I thought about that some more at lunch. We're a family of 6 when oldest DD is home from college. We don't go to fast food places. And yet a dinner out for the family is rarely more than 100 dollars (and I still cringe at THAT number!) So, at eight hundred dollars in a month, we'd have to all go out twice a week, every week. I have a pretty good job, but I know that that's far beyond my means.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | December 22, 2008 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Well I think almost every parent could use a good coach and if more had them beforehand maybe they'd be better parents once they start. But this is a middle class issue. The ones who need the help most with basic functioning problems are usually the ones least able to pay for help.

Posted by: EmeraldEAD | December 22, 2008 2:23 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if the high "eating out" number for the Wheelocks included things like buying breakfast and lunch out, too, not just dinner. I'm not very proud of it, but when I was working, I almost never ate breakfast or lunch at home (or brown-bagged it). I think that, coupled with a few nights a week ordering out and at least one or two restaurant meals a week, could easily add up to 800+ dollars in a month.

Posted by: newsahm | December 22, 2008 3:18 PM | Report abuse

From Katy Wheelock's blog:

First week-

" I dropped my son at pre-school, and was ready to head to the YMCA where we have a monthly membership, so no need to pay. But I realized I forgot my water, and though my first thought was to go directly there and buy a bottle at the Y, I realized I had to go home to pick up my own free water bottle. On the way back to the house, I was also tempted to stop in at Caboose Café to grab a muffin, because I somehow had forgotten to eat breakfast. Since I was headed home to get the water, I knew I had just enough time to make some breakfast at home. I was pretty surprised that I had been tempted by purchases 2 times before 9am."

"But I'm afraid on December 16, one month after we ended our experiment, we're almost back to our old spending habits."

Posted by: jezebel3 | December 22, 2008 3:49 PM | Report abuse

I thought $800 was a little high, but not outrageous. I’ve had this discussion many times with friends, and I'm truly curious as to how dinner costs so little. Just to use Army Brat’s example, let’s just say that tax and tip total 20% (if this is true, you’re a bit of cheapskate - it’s probably closer to 25%, but let’s use 20% for the sake of argument). Even if you all drink water, and never order a soda or iced tea (never mind a beer or glass of wine!) I don’t see how you keep it under $100. Maybe I’m just eating at the wrong places - lord knows I love good food - but since we had kids we’ve moderated our restaurant choices considerably. Even so, I’m thrilled (and it’s rare) if it’s under $50 for the two of us, without even throwing our kids in the mix.

Posted by: dcd1 | December 22, 2008 3:56 PM | Report abuse

You ask: "Are you, like the Wheelocks, spending less? Are you, like the Dixons, feeling such heavy work/life strains that you'll pay a consultant to analyze your life? Or are you somewhere in the middle?"

The last question implies that these two cases are representative of the ends of the spectrum - no-spending as a fun experiment at one end and hiring a consultant to help you deal with the strain at the other. However, if the Dixons can afford to hire a consultant to help them sort out what they want to do, they are hardly at the bottom of the ladder in terms of financial strain.

Posted by: trishclay | December 23, 2008 11:21 AM | Report abuse

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