SANDY GUERRIER HAS A FULL-TIME JOB in social services and lives in a nice three-bedroom house just outside Roslindale Square. Her refrigerator is stocked with organic greens and her dining room table is set with napkins folded inside wineglasses. On weekends, she and her three daughters like to visit the Museum of Science or take the commuter rail to explore new places out in the suburbs.
But every month Guerrier drains her bank account to the last penny. She has no car, no savings, no safety net.
The 35-year-old single mother is one of many Americans who appear to be comfortably middle class but are actually holding on by a thread. Including help from her children’s father and various side jobs, Guerrier makes around $50,000 a year, which is roughly the median annual income in the United States. The government says that should be enough — she makes too much to qualify for public assistance — but it’s not, especially not in one of the most expensive cities in the country. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, Guerrier would need to earn roughly $80,000 a year to adequately support her family of four in Suffolk County.
Guerrier works full time at the Boston anti-poverty nonprofit Economic Mobility Pathways, helping homeless people find housing. To supplement her $43,500 salary, she picks up work landscaping, painting, and housecleaning. Once, not long after cleaning a Back Bay brownstone filled with framed photos, she found herself in a work meeting with state housing officials — including a woman she’d seen in those photographs. The woman didn’t know that the housing-search specialist across the table had recently scrubbed her kitchen floor for $12 an hour.
In relation to her income, Guerrier’s expenses are staggering. The $2,500 rent for her house swallows up nearly 60 percent of her gross income, close to double the maximum amount recommended by experts. When she adds in utilities, day care, cellphone, Internet, and groceries, her expenses sometimes exceed her regular income by several hundred dollars a month. She estimates she’s more than $17,000 in debt, though much of that is from utility accounts and credit cards opened in her name without her knowledge. Another large portion is made up of money she borrowed from friends.
Guerrier recognizes she’s doing better than most. Half the working residents of Boston make less than $35,000 a year, a median income that, when adjusted for inflation, hasn’t risen in decades. Amid a national push to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, Guerrier makes well more than that at her main job. Yet she still has trouble holding it together.
She sometimes works 80 hours a week. She is constantly juggling which bills to pay and scouring thrift stores, yard sales, and discount grocers for the best deals. She is vigilant about turning off the lights to keep her utility bill down and doesn’t run the dishwasher or washing machine in her house to save energy. Despite all that, Guerrier occasionally has to raid her daughters’ savings accounts to make ends meet.
At the beginning of each month, she has a stomachache until the rent is withdrawn from her bank account.
“I’m always thinking about money,” she says. “I’m pretty sure none of my neighbors know that I can barely afford to have food on my table 90 percent of the time.”
THE WALLS OF GUERRIER’S HOME are covered with inspirational quotes and framed pictures of her daughters, among the only nonessential items she splurges on. But you won’t find photographs of Guerrier as a child. No one takes pictures of foster kids, she says.
Born in Haiti, Guerrier was just 7 when she and her three siblings joined their father in the United States. Her mother died in Haiti less than a year later, shortly before she was due to move to Massachusetts. After her father found himself unable to care for his children, Guerrier and her siblings grew up separated in the state foster care system, moving between residential facilities and family homes. When she turned 18, Guerrier was on her own.
Guerrier is determined to give her daughters — Amma, 4, Imanie, 9, and Amurah, 15 — the stable childhood she didn’t have. On weekends, they get discounted museum passes at the library and ride the commuter rail around the state. They make frequent trips to visit the foster family in Haverhill with whom Guerrier lived for six months as a teenager; she considers them her adoptive family and calls the parents Mom and Dad.
A few years ago, things weren’t as difficult. Guerrier was making about $40,000 a year, plus overtime, as a behavioral specialist at a Needham school for children with special needs. She had managed to squirrel away around $8,000 in savings and felt stable, hopeful that the “American dream” was within her grasp. Then, in late 2013, after a management shakeup, she was let go. Guerrier couldn’t find a full-time job for a year and a half and drained most of her savings. During this time, a woman who had offered to rent her a house defrauded her of nearly $6,000, putting her in an even bigger hole, she says.
Eventually she found steady work, and her current home in Roslindale Square, borrowing $10,000 from friends to secure it. She had looked at more affordable parts of the city, but decided that it was important for the girls to stay in their same schools and that saving a few hundred dollars a month to live in a cramped triple-decker with no yard and the frequent wailing of police sirens wasn’t worth it. “If I lived in the hood,” she says, “my children would be deemed at-risk inner-city youth.”
The girls’ father, who lives nearby with his mother, works odd jobs and contributes at least $500 a month to the household. Guerrier wants him to be a part of their daughters’ lives, asking him to come over to cook dinner when she’s working late and making sure he shows up for school plays and soccer games.
Guerrier’s three-bedroom home is in a safe, quiet neighborhood where she feels comfortable letting her kids play outside or walk together to the corner store. The house has creaky wooden floors, a deck overlooking a patchy backyard, and a long front porch where she and the girls like to sit on stormy summer nights and watch the rain.
On its face, the $2,500-a-month rent in a neighborhood Guerrier can’t really afford seems like a poor short-term decision. But research suggests it makes long-term economic sense. Raj Chetty, a former Harvard University economist now at Stanford, is an authority on income inequality. He and his Harvard colleagues found that low-income families that moved to areas with less poverty, lower crime rates, and better schools significantly improved their children’s rates of college attendance and future earnings.
This is something Guerrier understands at a gut level. “At the end of the day, the world I expose my children to matters more,” she says. “I know I can’t afford how I live, but my kids can’t afford to live how I can afford to live.”
EVERY OTHER FRIDAY when she gets paid, Guerrier puts $1,000 into the bank toward rent and deposits about $30 into each of her daughters’ savings accounts. She doesn’t want them to be obsessed with money, like people she knows who grew up poor and spend whatever they make as soon as they get it. By also giving them a weekly allowance as well as paying them for chores, she hopes to show them what it feels like to have money and to spend it wisely.
To teach her daughters how to live frugally yet comfortably, Guerrier insists on involving them in her budgeting process. Once a month, they gather as a family to write down all their expenses on a calendar.
It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon last summer, and the four of them sit down at the dining room table, the calendar spread out before them. On the first day of the month, Amurah writes down $2,500 — the day the rent is due. On each Friday’s square, Guerrier fills in day-care costs, then she marks when the gas and electricity bills are due.
The girls’ allowance — $10 each — gets accounted for on the calendar each Saturday. This is money they can spend on family activities, like going to the movies or ordering a pizza. Guerrier likes them to see that if they pool their money, it will go further. They can spend what they earn from their chores however they want, except for the 10 percent they tithe to their church in Dorchester. Guerrier also tithes several hundred dollars a month to the church, which she and her girls attend every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening. It’s a sizable chunk, and Guerrier knows she could breathe easier if she kept the money, but she gives because she believes God will provide.
Tithing is a financial decision that might seem irrational for families struggling to get by, yet it can be anything but, says Jonathan Morduch, a New York University economist. He’s the coauthor of the upcoming book The Financial Diaries, which examines the budgets — and lives — of more than 200 low- and moderate- income families. Tithing is common and a way to maintain ties to a community that can offer support in times of need, he says. And especially for those who can least afford to tithe, this connection can be a lifeline. “We saw again and again that the church and church community . . . becomes a really, really important safety net,” Morduch says. Guerrier says she wouldn’t turn to the church for help but likes the idea that her money could help others in more difficult circumstances.
Back in the dining room, in the middle of filling out the mounting expenses on the calendar, Imanie — recently returned from an outing with her Big Sister — tries out a new joke: “Why didn’t the toilet paper cross the road?” she asks. “Because it got stuck in the crack!” The four laugh uproariously, then return to their expenses. For July, they come up with $3,316, already more than Guerrier brings in every month, not counting groceries and other variable expenses.
“We’re not spending that,” Guerrier says, noting that some bills will have to wait. She knows exactly how far she can push each one before the late fees kick in. “The [calendar] visual is for the kids,” she says. “When I say we don’t have it, they know we don’t have it.”
BEFORE GUERRIER TAKES her daughters into stores, they have a ritual to keep begging at bay. “I don’t want to hear ‘Mommy I want,’ because you know I don’t have it,” she says one afternoon, crouching in front of the younger two before they leave the house.
To Amma, the 4-year-old: “Do you need clothes?”
To Imanie, the 9-year-old: “Am I getting you a lot of things?”
Later that day, outside Family Dollar, Guerrier runs through the drill again. “Are you going to ask me for anything?” she asks Amma.
“Because we have what we need,” Amma replies in a singsong, echoing a frequently used refrain. A few minutes later, however, she is running down the aisle, joyfully calling out, “Mommy, we need bubbles.” The bubbles go back on the shelf.
On another day, a gray Saturday in July, Guerrier sets out to buy groceries. She’s driving her children’s grandmother’s minivan with a rattle in the roof — she occasionally also borrows it for work. Her first stop is at a bank drive-through to cash a $250 check from work, reimbursing her for mileage. She takes $175 in cash to buy two weeks’ worth of food and supplies, then deposits the rest.
At Village Market in Roslindale Square, she buys ham, cheese, yogurt, and Honeycomb cereal, noting on her list when something is less than she budgeted for.
Around the corner at the Roslindale farmers market, she haggles with vendors. “Will you give me two for three dollars?” she asks a lettuce seller in a hoodie. The woman refuses, and Guerrier moves on. She ends up with a sage plant for Imanie to grow in the backyard, along with beets, kale, and chard, which she plans to make into green smoothies. Guerrier has sickle cell anemia and drinks them to help boost her iron levels.
Next up: Stop & Shop. Guerrier passes on $1.99-a-pound grapes (not cheap enough) and four-for-$1 plantains (too skinny), but scoops up organic collard greens for 99 cents a pound — cheaper, and better looking, than at the farmers market. “You see?” she says with a grin.
Back home in the driveway, after five stores and several hours of vigilant comparison shopping, Guerrier counts the money left in the envelope — $38, which will go toward a few remaining items at BJ’s.
Good job, Guerrier, she says to herself. You’re a good girl.
SOME PEOPLE HAVE TOLD Guerrier that she is living beyond her means. That she shouldn’t spend so much on her rent. That she shouldn’t give the girls allowances. That she shouldn’t work extra cleaning shifts to buy Amurah expensive sneakers when she gets an A at the Snowden International School, a public high school in Copley Square where Guerrier sends her eldest in hopes of exposing her to “the comfortable part of Boston.”
“There’s this mind-set that poor people have to live a certain way,” Guerrier says. “You have to look poor, you have to feel poor.” But Guerrier sees paying a few hundred dollars a year for sneakers as an investment in Amurah’s future. She hopes that the treat will encourage her to keep getting good grades, which might even lead to a college scholarship. Guerrier steers her daughter away from cleaning and fast-food jobs — that’s my world, not hers, she says.
Society judges low-income residents harshly when they try to live like everyone else, says Rachel Schneider, senior vice president at the Center for Financial Services Innovation and coauthor of the upcoming The Financial Diaries. “We hold people to a different standard about their spending choices when they’re poor.”
Inside the laundromat another day, Guerrier does some calculations in her head. She does laundry once a month, and she figures she’ll need $59 today. (After studying the utility bills from doing laundry at home, she discovered that the laundromat was cheaper.) Cleanliness is something she does not scrimp on, and she washes rugs and blankets, too. “When you walk into my home, you would never assume that I can’t make ends meet,” she says.
After finding $6.75 left on the laundry card, Guerrier gives her daughters $10 to split for snacks. Next door at Park Ave Market, the girls pick out two-for-$1 bags of popcorn and Doritos and bottles of juice and iced tea. The total: $5.79. The four of them head up the hill toward home, single file, happily dipping their hands into packets of Doritos and cheese popcorn as they go.
At the end of the day, Guerrier is poor, and she knows it. She works constantly and worries about money incessantly. She has next to nothing for retirement. She has no time for hobbies, no money to take vacations.
But in moments like this, her daughters happy and healthy, she considers herself “filthy rich.” She’s overcome enormous odds to get this far. Every sacrifice she makes for them — the weekend cleaning shifts, the juggling of bills, the stomachache when the rent is due — is worth it for a brighter future. If not for her, at least for them.
“I’m very mindful,” Guerrier says, “of the price that I choose to pay.”