It was October 2018 when I first met Agustina, a gracious woman in her late 30s. She came to LaMedichi Savings Clubs to inquire about how to start saving and better understand longer-term investments. Knowing that my first language is English, she had prepared a list of specific questions and had them translated to make sure she was asking the right things.
Originally from Mexico, Agustina moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2005. She works full-time as a housekeeper and a childminder and scrabbles for extra hours. Agustina met her husband, Jorge, also an immigrant, through a friend in the valley. It was love at first sight (“fue un flechazo”). Jorge was a dishwasher in a nice restaurant. With a giggle, Agustina recalled how each night when Jorge returned exhausted from work, he would proudly pronounce, “You know, without my work, the kitchen would stop functioning, and they would have to send all the customers home.” Given Jorge’s commitment, it was no surprise that he eventually came to manage the restaurant.
Agustina and Jorge have two children. Their daughter is studying biomedical science at the University of Denver on a scholarship. Their son is in high school. Agustina and I were talking about how juggling work and childrearing was worth it because now her children have the promise of a better life when she choked up and said, “No quiero envejecer y ser pobre!” (I don’t want to become old and poor!) The earnestness and intensity of her statement hung in the air as we set out to create a savings plan. The prospect of having no money in later life was genuine even though Agustina and her husband worked the equivalent of three full-time jobs. Combined, she and her husband earned slightly above the Federal Poverty Level of $33,383 for a family of four. Neither of them receives a pension nor have the type of job that pays Social Security.
The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Colorado, published by the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, is a more forensic measure than the Federal Poverty Level of the actual income a family needs to make ends meet. The amount varies according to family composition and geography. Two adults and two school-age children living in Baca County, Colorado, would require $44,399, whereas, in Garfield County, the annual income needed is $72,746, and in Pitkin County, $84,969.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in 2020, working at the minimum wage, a person needs to work 71 hours, 52 weeks per year, to afford a one-bedroom home at fair-market rent in Colorado. In Glenwood Springs, this number jumps to 96 hours each week because it is 35% more expensive to live there than elsewhere in the state (or country). That translates to working long hours to rent — not even buy — a one-bedroom place. Perhaps this is enough space for a single person or a couple, but it is insufficient for parents living with their children or their elderly relatives. Such multi-generational living arrangements are customary in the immigrant community.
The cost of housing places a harsh burden on low-wage workers. The Federal Reserve reports that the poorest 20% of U.S. households spend more than 50% of their monthly wages on rent. Thus, little remains for other essentials, including utilities, transportation, childcare, health care and food. Additionally, it makes saving money more complicated, whether for an emergency fund to protect against unexpected expenses and emergencies or wealth-accumulating investments, such as a down payment to purchase a house.
Understanding the challenges, Agustina and Jorge set a goal of saving at least $150,000, so they could “relax a little in their old age.” They committed to saving $300 a month, roughly 15% of their average monthly take-home, after accounting for taxes. They came prepared to make their first deposit, $1,422, their entire life savings plus the dollars they had in their pockets.
By April 2020, they had already saved $7,900. Whenever Agustina or Jorge worked additional hours, they saved the extra money. With these accelerated payments, they had started to believe that at least semi-retirement was someday possible.
Then the pandemic struck. First, both of Agustina’s employers stopped her work. Simultaneously, Jorge’s restaurant shut down. Although it reopened, the restaurant cut Jorge’s hours due to occupancy restrictions, and he lost paid work days due to multiple quarantines. In most low-wage jobs, people are paid only for hours they work with no time off or unemployment benefits.
The ultimate wrench was that Agustina’s parents contracted the coronavirus and died two weeks apart. The couple withdrew $4,000 to cover medical expenses and funeral costs in Mexico. However, the real heartbreak was that Agustina couldn’t be by her parents’ side before they died — and she had been unable to visit them in the preceding years.
Undeterred from reaching their financial goals, Agustina and Jorge have started saving again. The couple counts their many blessings. As Jorge said, “We’re lucky the restaurant didn’t close permanently. Our children are healthy and great people, and we can put food on the table. Most of all, we have each other.”
The question is, do we have to be content with this state of affairs? The reality is that there is nothing inevitable about these conditions. There are many viable strategies for addressing these financial burdens. The remedies are well understood. Only the will to implement is needed.
The topics of Money Matters will be compilations and reflections from Barbara Freeman’s extensive work with government and intergovernmental agencies and the nonprofit and private sectors across five continents. Her primary focus is on creating innovative, evidence-based solutions designed to improve the real-life chances of youth and families living in disadvantaged and difficult circumstances. To reach her, email Barbara at email@example.com.