Lizzie Monzón (center) and her five kids (from left): Idania Marie, 21 (with her son, Nevin, 1); Juan, 3, with Manuel, 17; Cecilia, 4; and Marilyn, 13

Lazara Ester "Lizzie" Monzón, 43
: Cleanup worker, CCA Fire Restoration
Income: $7 an hour; no benefits. Defined as poverty (below living wage)
Savings: None
Retirement: Relying on Social Security

Money is a simple concept for Lizzie Monzón, one that comes down to bitter choices. Should she fix the brakes on her van-lately grinding metal on metal-or avoid being two weeks late on the rent? Should she pay the full heating bill or buy a modest birthday gift for one of her children? Should she try to save a paltry $5 a month, or keep that pittance on hand in case the family needs a bar of soap or a few rolls of toilet paper?

Such are the dilemmas of a $7-an-hour single mother trying to provide for five children, including one with autism. "It's very difficult," says Monzón, who came to the United States 30 years ago when her mother and father emigrated from Cuba. "It comes down to pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters to pay the rent every month. Sometimes I have to make spaghetti without sauce. Sometimes I have to make eggs and rice. My children say, ‘Again?' I tell them, ‘You've got to work with me until I get my paycheck on Friday. Then we'll see what we need from the grocery store.'"

To earn her hourly wage, Monzón works for a company, CCA Fire Restoration, that helps restore burned-out buildings. For her, that means clawing through the rubble and ashes of a charred structure for anything salvageable-cups and Tupperware and picture frames. She packs the items and then spends her day cleaning them at the company's warehouse.

Supplementing her income are $293 a month in food stamps and a few hundred dollars in child support from her ex-husband. "I don't even make $800 [a month]," she says. With rent for her three-bedroom house in Alsip costing $1,300 a month, she doesn't use terms like "discretionary income."

"You know how long it's been since I have been to a store to buy something for myself?" she asks. "A long time." She moved to Alsip from Chicago 12 years ago because, she says, "I wanted a place where my children wouldn't have to face gangs and drugs. Plus, the schools are so good here. I don't want to take them back to the North Side of Chicago again." She says the owner of the house offered to sell it to her, but she told him, "I'm in no position to afford a house. I'm just barely making ends meet."

She is looking for a cheaper home, but uprooting her family again would bring fresh trauma to her children. One of them, Idania Marie, 21, graduated from college and now has a retail job. Her other children include Marilyn, 13, Cecilia, 4, and Juan, 3. Her older boy, Manuel, 17, suffers from autism, a malady that magnifies the family's hardships. When Monzón let slip that she was looking for a cheaper home for the family, for instance, "he starts to cry and says, ‘Are we moving again?'" she says.

Meanwhile, her tight budget necessitates stark choices. She recently delayed paying her rent-the third time she has been late in a year-to fix the brakes on the Dodge Caravan a friend sold her for $1,500. "Fortunately, the landlord was kind enough to wait," she says. Occasionally she's forced to make partial payments on things like utilities. "The bills are always escalating. Thank God I don't have any credit cards." Meanwhile, she says, "I've got a 17-year-old who eats a loaf of bread every day and a half. He tells me, ‘I'm sorry, Mother, but I need my bread.' How can I tell my child he can't have bread? I'm a mother first."

Asked about retirement plans or putting money toward a college fund for her children, she manages a wry chuckle. Saving money is as out of the question as quitting her job. "I have to work," says Monzón. "I have a car; I have a home to maintain. I can't just sit here." It is a reality for which she pays yet another heavy price. "Sometimes I say, I'm tired. I wish it was . . ." She pauses for a moment. "I wish it were all over. But I have to keep going on for my children."





The Schroeder family (clockwise from left front): Alyssa, 2; Hannah, 5; Taylor, 12; Nicholas, 14; Eric; Vincent, 7; and Kristen

Kristen, 33, and Eric Schroeder, 34
: Kristen, public school teacher, the Keller Regional Gifted Center on the South Side; Eric, Cook County sheriff's deputy
Income: The "average" range for most tax filers, defined as $55,000 to $99,000, combined
Savings: Monthly contribution to college savings plans for each of their five children.
Retirement: Eric contributes to his work 401(k); Kristen contributes to a 403(b) for teachers.

You know things are tight when Kristen Schroeder and her husband, Eric, both chuckle at the question, "When was the last time you went out for a romantic dinner?"

"I can't tell you," says Kristen. "Rarely," says Eric. In a family with five children, ages 14, 12, 7, 5, and 2, where both parents work decent-but-not-great-paying, middle-income jobs, money doesn't go to such extravagances, they say.

Not when two of your children want to join the band and need instruments. Or when you have a daughter, Taylor, who needs pitching lessons for her softball team. Or a son, Nicholas, who is hoping to make the high-school baseball team as a catcher and also needs training. Not when any of those children could get sick at any time. Or develop a toothache that means a visit to the dentist.

Tack on the several hundred dollars a month in mortgage payments the couple added when they sold their creaky 100-year-old home in Mount Greenwood on the Far South Side in favor of a much larger four-bedroom dwelling in the Will County town of Manhattan, and making their finances work requires not only priorities but sacrifices-not to mention a fair amount of sleep deprivation.

With no babysitter or nanny to help out, the biggest sacrifice for the couple is time-for themselves and each other. A color-coded Dry Erase calendar hanging in the kitchen of their new home attests to the minute-by-minute line the family must toe to make their lives work. Kristen, 33, rises at 4:30 a.m. to prepare breakfast for the children. The kids help out by having laid out their outfits for the next day on the stairs-with each child assigned to a step. Then Kristen readies herself for work and is out the door by 6:15 at the latest.

Eric, who gets home from work around midnight, goes to bed an hour later and rises at 7 a.m., too late to see Kristen. Consulting his own daily to-do calendar for the kids, he prepares them for school-showers, clothes, books in book bags, band instruments-then herds the four school-age children to their buses. While Kristen is at work, he is at home taking care of the baby.

At 1:30 p.m., it's Eric's turn to get ready for work. He showers, dresses, and leaves at 2:15 for the sheriff's station in Markham, with a car full of kids home from school. Kristen meets him in the station's parking lot at 2:40, and they pull the daily "switch." The kids pile from his car into hers. They exchange a hug and a kiss. Then he leaves for work. She heads home to make dinner and help with homework. There are baths to take, stories to be read, games to be played. Then it's time to get ready for bed.

At some point Kristen has to grade papers and somehow steal a few minutes for the online college classes she is taking to earn a master's degree in education administration. "Maybe around 11:30 or midnight," says Kristen, after Eric comes home, "we'll get a few minutes to spend together and ask how our days were." Not easy when Kristen has to be up at 4:30 a.m. to start all over. "She tries to stay up [later] on Saturdays so we can have some time together," Eric says. "But we're always a little tired."

As the two recount out loud the schedules they have to follow, they acknowledge how much easier their lives would be if either one made a lot of money. "Of course it's a money thing," says Eric. "We never go out. Maybe on a birthday or an anniversary. My only regret, though, is that I feel like I don't make enough money to let my wife go back to school. She is brilliant and sometimes I feel a little like she was held back."

Kristen appreciates that, but says their lives are, and have been, about choices-and the choices they've made have rewarded them beyond a fat bank account. "You have to weigh the pros and cons," says Kristen. "We're not rich in money, but we don't miss things like their softball games, like their first home run. We get to share in great things. Eric has found time to coach. If a child is sick, one of us is always there to pick them up."

Not to sound too much like a Capra film, she says, but "in some ways it really is. We consider ourselves the richest people in the world."





Nikki and Andrew Stone downsized their income and upsized their family.

Nicole (Nikki), 33, and Andrew Stone, 36
: Nikki, lawyer; Andrew, owns small business that provides litigation support
Income: Top 5 percent of earners nationally, defined as a combined annual income of at least $157,000
Savings: Creating a special "moderately aggressive" mutual fund account as a college fund for their baby
Retirement: Continue to build Andrew's 401(k) and separate investment portfolio of real-estate and mutual fund investments

Small caps or large caps? Everest or Trotter's? Saks or Zegna? A couple of years ago, in the flush world of the "dink"-double income, no kids-these decisions were what passed as money worries for Nikki and Andrew Stone. As a lawyer representing insurance companies, she pulled down a salary in the high five figures. Andrew, 36, did even better as the owner of a business providing trial documents and exhibits for defense teams. No kids. No debt. Their condo, an upscale three-bedroom flat near downtown, fell well within their means, leaving piles of discretionary cash that they could dump each month into a fattening savings account and investment portfolio.

Now? "Things have changed dramatically," Andrew says. No, theirs is not the wrenching tale of a catastrophic illness or a business that went south. Their incomes still place them safely in the top 5 percent of earners. Rather, life, and what they want from it, have simply intruded in a way that has left their ends just barely meeting, rather than long enough to tie in a pretty bow. The result has been a growing and uncomfortable feeling they've been lucky to avoid until now: money anxiety.

They know, they know-pity the poor yuppies. They can't go to a fancy restaurant anytime they want. Boo-hoo. The truth is, however, their choices and some real life adversity make their story all too understandable.

Nikki, 33, loved her job as a trial lawyer for insurance companies. But in October 2004 her father died suddenly of a stroke. People cope with grief in different ways. Nikki tumbled into a deep despair. She took a month off from work, unable to muster the motivation even to pick up part-time cases. Fortunately, Andrew's business was flourishing, and their savings account provided a safe cushion. But after Nikki returned to work, she realized that she wanted to start a family. She quit for good and began doing per diem work. Shortly after, she got pregnant.

The couple's income diminished negligibly, but their expenditures ballooned-not on fancy dinners or clothes but on things for the baby, such as sweaters, monitors, diaper bags, rockers, toys, teddy bears, and blankets.

A few months later, Nikki was riding with a real-estate agent, window-shopping neighborhoods where their small family might one day like to live. "We figured we'd stay in [the condo] for at least one or two [more] years," Nikki says. "Then re-evaluate as the baby got older."

But on a whim, the agent showed her a house in Andersonville. Huge kitchen, huge family room. Four bedrooms. Hardwood floors. A two-car garage, a deck, a security gate. "I fell in love," Nikki says. She called Andrew. "I told him, I've found our dream house."

"My first thought was, Whoa, we weren't even going to start looking for a new place for a year," Andrew recalls. But when he saw the house the next day, he agreed it was too good to pass up. Affording it would be a stretch, "but the bottom line was, she really wanted it," he says, "[and] I knew how happy it would make her. I started thinking, Maybe we can swing it."

They made an offer. Suddenly, they had to come up with the down payment on a house with a mortgage 60 percent higher than the one for their condo. They also faced the reality that they would have to furnish a place more than twice as big as their current dwelling. As it turned out, selling the condo wasn't easy, either. Because they made their decision in January, typically one of the slowest months for real estate, they found themselves paying two mortgages. To help make it through, they took out a line of credit, which made for three large payments.

Instead of the carefree yuppie couple with only themselves to support, they had the three payments, a baby on the way, Nikki working only part-time as a freelancer, and a new house to furnish. For the first time since they've been married, they are eyeing their savings. "When we get to the point where we start spending that, it will be a reality check," Nikki says. Already, she says, their "cushion is deteriorating every day."

The couple just recently paid a $12,000 credit card bill-for one month's expenditures, she says. "We had a ton of money and now it's just going down, down, down." Adds Andrew, "We are going to have to make concessions, a lot of concessions."

"We did purchase over our heads," Nikki admits. "But we really consider this to be our permanent home."

The spending isn't done. Because they live much farther away from downtown, they'll probably have to buy a second car. And then there is the issue of whether they will hire someone to help Nikki care for the child, an expense of hundreds of dollars a week.

It all amazes Andrew. He's making more money than ever; Nikki is still earning a good living freelancing. And yet in some ways they're just breaking even. "My dad once said to me, ‘It never seems like enough,'" Andrew says, "‘because as soon as you make more money you're going to buy bigger and better things.' So you can make more, but you're going to spend more. It's frustrating. I think I was a little naïve before. But these are choices we made. And I think, eventually, they will work out as good choices."



Photography: Andreas Larsson