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Money problems force families to bunch up

A Florida family's story shows how tense life can be in a crowded home near the edge of homelessness.

By Karen Datko Dec 30, 2010 8:58AM

This post comes from Marilyn Lewis of MSN Money.


Three generations of a struggling Florida family are jammed into a "recession-beaten," three-bedroom ranch house, prisoners of their inability to find stable jobs, in The New York Times' story of Holly Maggi, 26; her fiancé, James Wilson, 26; their 21-month-old daughter, Madison; and their "good-natured pit bull, Caley." The young family moved in with Holly's parents in February after they were evicted from their apartment.

It's an increasingly common tale these days. National Public Radio reports that the number of households with extended families -- including "boomerang" kids like Holly -- grew 11% in the last two years.


While you may have heard about the trend before, we don't often get to read in such vivid detail what it's like when economics force you to move in with family. Reader comments on how "doubling up" (as researchers call it) is working for them are scarce. It'd be great if you'd share your stories here.


The Times quotes the Census Bureau, saying extended-family households now are "the highest proportion since at least 1968, accounting for 54 million people."


The percentage of Americans in multigenerational households shrank from 25% in 1940 to 12% in 1980, then bounced back up to 16% this year, says USA Today

"Clearly, a big part of that is the economic recession and housing costs," says Stephanie Coontz, co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit research association. "We're seeing a shift away from the 1950s and 1960s mentality against extended families," when "modern" women did not take in aging parents for fear of hurting their marriage.

Other forces at work

Behind the statistics are stories of love, yes, but also of tension, sniping, and stress among unemployed and under-employed adults as they try to stave off homelessness. Doubling up, the Times says, is "frequently a final way station on the way to homelessness."


And yet, multigenerational households are formed by more than economics alone:

AdAge says this is "why you can no longer sell to the average American household" -- there is no average American household.


The stress

In the Fort Pierce, Fla., household profiled by the Times, however, finances are what's pushed everyone together. Holly and James had wanted to live on their own and investigated moving to a homeless shelter. But they learned they wouldn't be able to stay together as a family.


It was hard to ask her parents for help, she said. No wonder. Everyone in the family is teetering on homelessness, the parents included. Holly's dad, Jim, lost his job as a maker of high-end furniture in 2009. Holly's mom, Kathy, hasn't worked for years because of health troubles. Her sister, husband and two children had just moved out of the parents' home. They'd lost their own home to foreclosure in 2008, lived with the Maggis and got back on their feet just before Holly, James and Madison arrived.


Holly is the only member of the family with work, a part-time, minimum-wage job with a group that helps the needy. She'd been laid off from her job managing a self-storage facility in 2007, worked at a Häagen-Dazs and then lost that job. Wilson worked as a flooring contractor until his work dried up nearly two years ago.


One thing there's plenty of is stress. Holly and James argue. "Their sex life, they say, is basically nonexistent." Should her meager wages go to household expenses or to paying off their debts?

Every night, with her parents in the next room, Mr. Wilson and Ms. Maggi discuss in hushed tones how and when they might be able to move out. Their hopes were buoyed recently when she was promoted and got a small raise.
The new dilemma, however, is that Jim Maggi's unemployment benefits are scheduled to run out soon, which would leave the elder Maggis with no income and their savings exhausted.

Tips for bunching up

With less stress, doubling up can be a good way for adult kids to erase debts and get launched. Blogger "A.B." at Moolanomy, tells how she, her husband and their dog lived with her mom and stepdad for three years:

During this period of time, we were relieved from the pressure of rent and utilities to help my husband to finish school and for us to pay down some debt. In exchange, my husband and I do a significant amount of the cleaning, food shopping, and cooking on most nights. We managed to create a genuine symbiotic relationship. I really don't think my family would have ever gotten to know my husband if we hadn't done this.

A.B. has this advice for those who double up:

  • Give graciously; don't rub your generosity in others' faces.
  • Listen carefully and make sure you really understand before you act.
  • Keep each separate household functioning separately within the larger family.

You'll find more tips at the end of Mears' post on "The Waltons" and in this article by MSN Money columnist Liz Pulliam Weston.


What are your tips for cramming a bunch of family -- or friends or strangers -- together under one roof in order to make ends meet?


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