How 3 Latina Moms Make Their Big Families Work
Sergeantsville, New Jersey
Kids Liliah and Alexia, 7; Victoria and Edwin, 5
Gabrielle Ocasio was reeling from an ugly divorce when she decided to move back to her native Brooklyn, New York. She had been living in Columbus, Georgia, and craved the closeness of family, but after a few months, it became clear that she could no longer afford to live in her hometown. While Ocasio had always looked for ways to save a buck—cutting cable, trimming her kids' hair, shopping for clothes on sale—as a single mother, she needed to make a bigger change if she was going to stay afloat financially. So the Puerto Rican mom relocated to rural Sergeantsville, New Jersey, near the Pennsylvania border, where she is still relatively close to loved ones: Her father is just over an hour away, and a favorite tía is closer. "I love the city I grew up in, but my goal was to become self-sufficient and provide for my kids," says Ocasio, a contracts manager for an amateur sports company.
In Sergeantsville, Ocasio rents a three-bedroom townhouse with a washer and dryer, backyard, and driveway for what a studio apartment costs in New York. The extra space translates into additional savings: The kitchen has a walk-in pantry, which allows her to buy bulk groceries and stockpile sale items, saving about $50 a month. She also takes advantage of New Jersey's year-round tax exemptions on clothes, shoes, gas, medicine, and even household paper goods, such as toilet paper.
Moving from a familiar city to a smaller town might seem like a scary step, but it can make a big difference for big families, says Ramona Ortega, of New York City, founder of financial-advice website midineromifuturo.com. Smaller towns often mean more affordable housing, easier access to good public schools, and, in some cases, proximity to a bigger job market that gives you the opportunity to commute for a higher-earning salary while enjoying a cheaper suburban lifestyle. Ortega even suggests relocating for future savings in areas such as education. "States such as California and Texas have excellent public-university systems that can cut costs by half or more for residents," she notes.
Saving for college is definitely a priority for Ocasio, who has started putting away $25 a month for their education. ("No amount is too small," she says.) She's also intent on passing on some finance wisdom to her children. On trips to the dollar store, she gives each a $1 bill and helps them understand how to get more for their money. It's a hard-won lesson she practices daily.
Naomi Peña and Raul Torres
New York City
Kids Jonah, 15; Elijah, 9; Lila and Lucas, 6 Naomi
Peña thought she had the family finances figured out: As an executive assistant whose partner is an artist without a steady income, Peña was able to support the couple and their two boys while saving a little money in investment accounts. But then they tried to conceive a girl only to later find out that Peña was carrying boy-and-girl twins. "I panicked," says the Nuyorican mom. "I immediately knew that I had to look for ways to save."
Their biggest expense: takeout. Peña had gotten into the habit of picking up Chinese food or pizza after an exhausting day at work. But all those seemingly cheap meals were adding up to $600 a month. That was on top of the $500 she was spending on groceries that went bad in the fridge. "I immediately stopped," she says.
The couple committed to sharing cooking duties at least six nights a week. They focused on making simple meals with four or fewer ingredients, such as baked chicken with rice and beans. "Thirty minutes and we're done," says Peña, now an office manager at a software startup. On Sundays, she makes one big dish they can easily divide into smaller portions for a quick dinner later in the week.
The couple has even developed a smart supermarket strategy: Not only do they make a list and stick to it, but they also steer clear of the middle aisles, where the more expensive processed foods are generally stocked. Instead, they shop from the fresh-food aisles on the perimeter of the grocery store. Food can quickly become a large family's biggest expense after housing, Ortega says. The bill gets even bigger if snacks, soda, and juice make it into your shopping cart. "All those things cost a premium and cause your bill to balloon," Ortega says.
In making their own meals, Peña's family has slashed their monthly food bill by $500 and lowered their fat and sugar intake substantially. "I've noticed a difference in the kids' energy levels," says Torres, who has lost 40 pounds since tightening finances. "Saving money has made us healthier!" Talk about a win-win for the family.
Denise and Sergio ZapataInland Empire, California
Kids Victoria, 12; Jessica, 8; Sergio, 6; Daniel, 4
Mexican-American mom Denise Zapata knew early on that having a big family wouldn't come cheap. So rather than take on a mortgage for a huge house, she and her husband bought a 900-square-foot starter home near Denise's parents, who provided free child care as the couple built their careers. It's a strategy Denise, a financial advisor, often recommends to couples with multiple children. "Sharing bedrooms saves money and brings kids together," she says.
Now that the couple enjoys established careers and a comfy six-figure combined salary (she has her own firm, and he's an independent insurance adjuster), you might think that they'd indulge in the occasional finer things, and you'd be right, but only when those luxuries are significantly discounted.
Denise, a seasoned mega-saver who rarely pays full price for anything, says her first step in buying big-ticket items is research— lots of it. When the family was ready for a roomier house, they found a good deal on a home with an outdated kitchen that they renovated for 40 percent off simply by buying refurbished and floormodel appliances and fitting in cabinets bought directly from a manufacturer.
Later, when they decided to splurge on new wheels, Denise wasn't above haggling. After missing out on a car advertised as on sale by a local dealership, she challenged another dealership to match the offer. "Often, dealerships will have a 'loss leader'—a vehicle that's been sitting around for a while because someone doesn't like the color or it doesn't have certain features, and you can get a great deal," Denise says. In the end, she drove away in a new SUV for $9,000 below the asking price.
"Research is what makes or breaks a decision," she says. "Your first reaction might be, 'Oh, no, I can't afford that.' But you'll be surprised how much you can save by doing your homework and asking questions." It's something she's teaching her kids. When it comes to buying gadgets and toys, Denise encourages them to find ways to earn the money themselves. The kids sell paletas, ice cream, and other treats in their neighborhood, borrowing the "startup capital" from their mom to purchase the goods in bulk and returning her "investment" when they make a profit. "It teaches them to work toward what they want," she says.
A study recently found that less than a third of college-educated Latinos had basic financial literacy. But we can change that by rethinking the way we handle our dinero.
Skipping life insurance "You don't want your kids to live in poverty if something happens to you," says Ortega, of midineromifuturo.com. A basic policy can cost as little as $30 a month for a healthy woman in her 20s or 30s.
Not planning for your retirement Many young Latinos don't have retirement savings plans, such as a 401k or Roth IRA, Ortega says, because they expect their kids to care for them in old age. "I don't want to change that we take care of one another, but let's do it in a way that doesn't suck from our or others' income." b
Overspending on celebrations From renting a limo for a first birthday party to spending thousands on a Quinceañera bash, Yesi Morillo Gual, an executive director at a bank in New York City, has seen it all. "Put that money in a college fund," she says. Adds Ortega: "Cultural values aren't about showing how much money you have."
Focusing on paychecks instead of wealth "You can be broke even if you're making Benjamins," notes Ortega, who advises clients to grow their money through investments. Apps like Acorns and Betterment make it easy.