Our troubled economy

Doing well, but still feeling a pinch

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 21, 2008 - 11:53 PM

Saving and living simply, these newlyweds are nervous about their financial future.


Craig and Tina Larson in the living room of the Maple Grove home Craig bought for $235,000 in 2006. They wouldn’t mind selling it to ease Tina’s commute, but sinking home values have that plan on hold.

Photo: Jennifer Simonson, Star Tribune

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Theirs began as a thoroughly modern romance. Tina and Craig Larson were matched by not one but two online dating services.

But two months into married life, the Larsons face a thoroughly modern reality. Despite good jobs, a combined annual income of more than $100,000 and a cautious approach to spending, the newlyweds are weighed down by student loans, one monster daily commute (hers) and a gnawing anxiety (his) that, no matter how cautious they are, it's not enough.

"We're doing pretty well financially," said Craig, 42, as he snuggled with Tina on the couch of their simply appointed Maple Grove home. "But if, God forbid, something should happen, we're one accident away from disaster."

Even the house causes anxiety.

Craig bought the three-bedroom home for $235,000 in 2006. And while the couple wouldn't mind selling it to ease Tina's 60-mile-a-day commute, sinking home values have put that plan on hold. "It might be four or five years," said Craig, who commutes less than 10 miles.

"We'll have to see. If we have to, we'll take a hit and sell."

Craig, a librarian at North Hennepin Community College, and Tina, a media specialist for District 112 in eastern Carver County, grew up in solid Midwestern families. Growing up in northern Iowa, Craig remembers his mom cooking dinner most nights -- the family of four rarely ate out. They had two cars and cable TV. His parents were educators.

Tina's family owned a resort in northern Minnesota, where her parents taught their four children from an early age about pulling their own weight. "I sold six-packs of beer and ice cream, and ironed pillowcases and sheets," Tina, 45, recalls. "We ate well, because my dad hunted and fished."

Working for a community action program in her 30s, Tina got her first whiff of the potential challenges ahead. "Fellow employees who were perfectly lovely human beings were reduced to tears because they were in their 60s, nearing retirement, and they had nothing," she said.

Making some change

She made a dramatic shift, earning her master's degree in library sciences from St. Cloud State University, a move that boosted her earning power but left her with $25,000 in student loan debt.

She's had her Chaska schools job for a decade, and has a retirement plan and health insurance.

Craig, who has two master's degrees, also has retirement and savings accounts. But his wife says he worries about unexpected expenses, such as a recent veterinarian bill for their Siberian husky, Nikita, "that drained our checking account balances down to uncomfortable amounts."

While they've discussed joint savings, they separate income and expenses. He pays the mortgage and utilities, she buys groceries (more chicken than beef), toiletries, pet food and household supplies.

She shops at Target, J.C. Penney and Kohl's, instead of her preferred Macy's or Coldwater Creek. They seldom eat out, and view an upcoming delayed honeymoon to Australia to visit Craig's sister as a huge luxury.

As careful as they are, Tina says she is frustrated by how hard it feels to gain financial footing. Besides the student loans, she came into the relationship with credit-card bills, which she is paying off herself. "I don't expect Craig to take care of my past debt," she said. Lately the biggest killer is her daily round-trip commute of 60 miles that, even in her fuel-efficient 2003 Saturn Ion, means filling up every five days.

Craig also feels pinched. Utility costs have doubled since Tina moved in (for the record, he's not complaining, just observing), and the couple seldom drive to his mom's cabin up north anymore because of gas prices.

"Craig feels as though he's remaining stable, as long as he's careful," Tina said. "I think he's worried though, about what rising fuel costs will do to our winter energy bills."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350

  • about this series

  • The Star Tribune's coverage of the housing crisis, the credit crunch and their effect on Minnesotans.
  • Second in an occasional series on how middle-class Minnesotans are dealing with today's everyday economics. Yesterday: Millions of middle-class families are losing ground, with one notable study recounting the most pessimistic assessment of personal progress in nearly half a century of polling. Find the story at startribune.com/business.


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