By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Show us the money

There has got to be something missing [or maybe not? see below] from Maggie Jackson’s account of the Ayanna family in today’s Boston Globe. She reports that the Ariel and Amiri Ayanna and their two young kids are living in Somerville “on $35,000 a year in unemployment and savings” now that Ariel has lost his job as a $170,000-a-year corporate lawyer.

Jackson writes:

[T]he job loss had some unintended perks: The family was able to save money — and spend more time together — on a two-week camping trip to attend a cousin’s Texas wedding. And Ariel, who is considering becoming a stay-at-home dad for a year, is around more often to cook, practice violin with their 5-year-old son, and play with their 9-month-old son.

“It’s hard to slow down. It’s hard to step back,” says Amiri Ayanna, who plans to begin a master’s degree program at Harvard Divinity School this summer. But “it’s a blessing in disguise.”

Well, fine. But don’t you think there’s something awfully suspicious about that $35,000-a-year figure? We’re not told if the Ayannas rent or own. But Somerville is a high-cost community. If they were somehow able to get away with paying just $1,500 a month in rent or mortgage payments, then they’ve only got $17,000 left for everything else — heat, electricity, food and (unless he’s teaching himself) violin lessons for the 5-year-old. Their trip to Texas — which they write about on their blog — may have been cheap, but it surely wasn’t free.

Either there’s a large pile of money lurking in the background or the Ayannas are truly miracle-workers. But Jackson leaves us in the dark. Given how many people are struggling these days, it’s pretty cavalier to suggest, on the basis of no evidence, that we could all live like the Ayannas if we were only willing to eat at home more often.

Update: Amiri Ayanna checks in, and says it’s all legit. Hard to see how they make the numbers work, but there you go.

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23 Comments

  1. Tony

    I truly hate these kinds of articles because of the reasons you have stated: The figures and analogies often just don’t add up. As well, it looks like they’ve had it pretty good – a lot better than a lot of folks ever had it or will ever have it. So, why bother? Does this really tell the story of the heartache and anguish going on in the wake of this crisis? I don’t feel it from this article. And it must be nice to live off hubby’s unemployment and then go to Divinity School … someone must have had quite the awakening to leap in that direction! Good luck to them, but considering the lives they have had so far, there are some real horror stories out there that aren’t being told at all.

  2. Johnny

    The New York Times publishes stories like this all the time. Stories about rich people who think they are poor (or rather, rich people who the Times thinks are poor).

  3. Neil

    If he lost his job in December, then the $35K figure is only a projection, presumably extrapolated from what they’ve spent so far. Some months you can get by cheaper than others. Over the course of an entire year though, expenditures must be made that can raise the short-term cheapo monthly amount. Things that can be procrastinated for a month or a few like car repairs, a new roof etc., must eventually be done. I’d like to know what their rent is. The Globe is clueless in this area. A few months ago the Sunday mag had an article about a young woman who had so many clothes her closet collapsed. Poor thing!

  4. One Crazy Family

    Hi this is Amiri, and thank you for the comments! We are very frugal, and being so young has helped us keep our standards pretty low in terms of defining what we actually “need” (I am 27). We are trying to restructure our mortgage via the stimulus plan and we may need to move into a studio again, just as we were both in grad school when our first child was a baby!Check out the blog at http://www.roadtriphouston.blogspot.com

  5. One Crazy Family

    Also, we spent 250 dollars on our road trip to Houston! And we learned how to deal with each other, to boot!

  6. GFS3

    Fuzzy math – I agree.I had the same reaction as you. My guess is that he got a 3-4 month severance package and that are just now starting to live without his pay.No way a family of four can live on $35,000 in Somerville after living on $170,000 without a massive restructuring of their lifestyle. That’s an enormous cut (The federal poverty line is for a family of four is $21,000 (2008 stat)).The reporter should have delved into the hows first.

  7. One Crazy Family

    Massachusetts gives $625 plus 25 for each kid every week in unemployment benefits. And thank goodness! Because it may be a while until Ariel finds work in his field again! We are living on unemployument compensation, but we are downsizing big time, and we know this is not forever, of course. Hopefully things will look better soon! And we will have learned a lot in the leantime!Contact me at my blog if you have any specific questions as to how we live on so little cash in Somerville! Amiri http://www.roadtriphouston.blogspot.com

  8. HNG

    I read that $35,000-a-year figure as an estimate of the cash they actually spend, not the money that they earn. I assume they saved a bundle when the man was hauling in that $170k a year. It’s hard enough for a single person to live on 35K, let alone a family of four.

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Hello, Amiri: I do have two questions, and I hope you will answer them here:1. What is your monthly rent or mortgage payment?2. What is the source of the Globe’s claim that your yearly income is now $35,000? Is that all the money that is available to you? Or are there, say, savings that the Globe didn’t take into account?Thank you.

  10. One Crazy Family

    Hi Dan, Thanks for the questions, I’m happy to answer them! I do really appreciate your genuine interest.1. We pay just under $1850/month for our mortgage. This probably won’t be sustainable for too long, though we do basically break even on a monthly basis even with the mortgage. We contacted our mortgage company (Chase) about working to reduce our interest rate under the Obama mortgage plan. At first they were nonresponsive, but when we did the same thing through a HUD counselor they were quicker to respond. So hopefully this will ease payments. If that doesn’t work, we may have to move into a smaller place. We lived for three years in 250 sq. ft with a small child, so we wouldn’t mind. We’re actually thinking the closeness might be nice, and if we move closer to school, etc., it would cut back on gas also.2.The $35,000 figure is the approximate figure my husband gave multiplying out unemployment over a year. These days, unemployment can last up to 59 weeks I believe in MA. The actual figure I think is one or two thousand more. We don’t have much in the way of savings. Most of it is either tied up in retirement funds or went toward the condo, which we bought only a few months before Ariel was laid off 🙁 So this is all the money available to us, although we could fall back on more student loans if absolutely necessary since I will be in school next year (we’d really like to avoid this, and I’m pretty sure we can). I understand the skepticism here of course, and we were truly lucky to have such high income for a few years. But I don’t come from a well-to-do background, far from it, so those two years were more like an unexpected boon than anything else, and not something that I can’t live without.I’m happy to talk more in depth via email if you like. You can contact me over my blog: http://www.roadtriphouston.blogspot.comThanks!Amiri

  11. One Crazy Family

    Also, I wanted to clear up one other inaccuracy stated in the Boston Globe article: Ariel is enjoying his family time now, out of necessity, but is very actively and strenuously looking for work, since, as I stated, our financial situation is fairly tenuous. Though, of course, I still feel blessed and lucky despite this recent (and in the big picture, very moderate!) spat of bad luck. We know there are so many other people suffering much more than we in these times, and our hearts go out to them all.Thanks for keeping the conversation going, Dan! I checked out your blog, and it looks fascinating.Best, Amiri and family

  12. Don, American

    There are millions of families living on less than $35,000. Look around. They just hope taxes won’t take too much of it away.

  13. Mike from Norwell

    1810×12=21720. That’s PITI, but excluding such frivolities as paying utility bills.Amiri, we’re NOT dumping on you, just the Globe portrayal.Even if you get that adjusted to 1500 (a leap) that’s still 18000 (assuming that you shut off the electricity and heat).And Unemployment insurance is taxable income. Hope your husband finds work soon (and might want to reconsider going to school next fall – sorry).

  14. Dan Kennedy

    Amiri: I just want to second what Mike said — it just seemed obvious that the Globe columnist was overlooking something big. Although perhaps not, according to what you’re telling us. But no, we’re not here to give you a hard time at all.

  15. One Crazy Family

    Dan and Mike: We are hoping for a larger adjustment than just down to 1500, but we’ll see. It’s really not as hard as it seems. We used no heat at all last winter and hardly had to break out the sweaters, so the condo must just be well insulated. There are also social services, which non-lower class people often overlook, which help with everyday expenses to a great extent. Programs related to unemployment bring COBRA down to negligible amounts monthly. Energy efficient light bulbs, no AC, no dryer, those sorts of things also really do add up.Can’t back out of school. I’m an academic and the degree is necessary. I’m not just changing careers on a whim. I have a scholarship covering tuition and fees, but no stipend.What else, we did receive some severance into this year, and were taxed to high heaven, so unemployment the rest of the year still shouldn’t be enough to generate tax liability.All that said, we may indeed need to move out, or luck out on the job front. But we’ll make it work :)Thanks again everyone, it’s nice to have an open dialogue on this stuff. also, check the visual evidence of Ariel teaching Henry violin on the blog. That plus financial aid from the New School of Music in Cambridge (highly recommended!!) covers that one.Amiri

  16. Peter Porcupine

    Ms. Amiri:”unemployment the rest of the year still shouldn’t be enough to generate tax liability.”Unemployment is 100% taxable, and no money is withheld towards the payment of state or Federal taxes. Next year, you will have a bill to pay approximating 25% of that income, just like you were self employed. You cannot even set aside what used to be your withholding, as you will be paying the full amount, not the 7% you were responsible for as a W-2 employee. And it will be due in full on April 15.You had better try to set aside some of that now.

  17. Aaron Read

    I’ll echo what Peter said. I was a dot-commer until 9/11 and was laid off, and foolishly maintained my lifestyle more than I should have since unemployment was paying about 90% of my take-home pay….but I wasn’t setting aside 25-33% for the taxes I’d owe on the unemployment checks. After six months of that, April 15th came around and I ended up owing a (compared to my fiscal state) pretty big wad to Uncle Sam. If my parents hadn’t bailed me out, I would’ve been waaay behind the eight ball fiscally. Enough so that, even at only 23, I probably could’ve been screwed for the next 10 years.Don’t make the same mistake I did, thinking you’ll get another job in time to earn the money to pay the taxes you’ll owe next April. It NEVER works out that way.

  18. O-FISH-L

    Have Sasha Baron Cohen, “Amiri” and “Ariel” been seen in the same 250 square foot room? Given the Globe’s dismal history of being duped, (see Howie Carr’s recent material for a very partial list,) would anyone be surprised if the next Borat movie is based on Cohen duping the Globe and blogs controlled by academics in the Athens of America?

  19. Neil

    The Globe published a somewhat related story back in February, in which the laid-off dad dared to suggest that he was not altogether miserable at all times. He foolishly said something along the lines of well of course I’m looking for work, but in the meantime I take some pleasure in spending more time with my family.This was picked up by Rush Limbaugh with the result being that the comment section of the online article was inundated with shut up and get a job you freeloading liberal asshole type comments. These were obviously from people who were not regular Globe readers but who had been directed to the article by a link on Rush’s site. Several of them didn’t even bother to read the article or listen to the video.The comment section of that article now seems to be gone. Just as well. The Ayanna’s should be thankful the dittoheads haven’t seen this story, else they might be subject to the same venom. Harvard Divinity School and non-WASP names are red meat to a certain crowd.In this case I’m still pretty skeptical about the finances but, similar to the other story, I think most of the misunderstanding is the result of whoever writes the article titles, which are frequently misleading, and often downright stupid. Amiri says they’ll “make it work” but she seems to be referring to the cohesion of their family and long-term career goals, rather than the sustainability of their current financial situation. If the Ayanna’s had to do without heat, and might have to actually vacate their home, then they weren’t able to “make do” with $35K/yr and that’s the sense in which the article is misleading I think. It implies that there’s some general solution available to others in a similar situation, involving things like hanging up your clothes rather than using the dryer.You could use the same logic to say that although our family has had to leave our home and live in our car, we’ll make do. Our family will get through because our love for each other is strong enough to overcome mere physical deprivation. While true and wonderful, it’s sort of a different point.

  20. One Crazy Family

    Yeah, I agree our finances were painted way too rosily by this article (many things were selectively excluded from the lengthy interviews with both myself and my spouse, and our family was used as a story “hook” because we were willing to disclose specific dollar numbers, I think). And I appreciate the tax tips! It would be nice, however, if the Globe followed up on our finances and living situation over the next few months—the invitation is open!Amiri

  21. Steve

    This is an important article for those of us contemplating retirement. Even if one has a decent nest egg (albeit one that’s 30% smaller than it used to be), upon retirement you will experience a sharp drop in income when that happens.The figures I’ve seen indicate that a couple needs about $40K/yr to live comfortably (before taxes). That was a sobering figure, considering my family’s current rate of expenditures.I find it hopeful that it’s possible to live adequately on less. Thanks, Ayannas, for providing a template, and good luck!

  22. GFS3

    Hi Amiri:I’d also like to chime in and say that the issue is not with you and your family – but with the Globe story.I’m glad you said the Globe painted a way too rosy picture of your situation. The article certainly makes it look like your just cutting back on a few things and doing just dandy.I think it is misleading to say you are living on $35,000 a year when you have only been “unemployed” since December. You’re also not using heat and in danger of losing your home. That was NOT the picture we got from the Globe piece.I’m also glad when you said your husband is looking for work – because the Globe piece makes it seem as if he’s not and that could mean a loss of unemployment benefits.I don’t like stories like this because it glosses over the hardship people face when they lose work and not just from a financial aspect. Being laid-off is very difficult emotionally as well. So stories that make it seem like being downsized and marginalized isn’t so bad.

  23. One Crazy Family

    Yes, it was definitely weird how the article stated that Ariel is somehow looking to be a stay at home parent. Of course Ariel is looking for a job, and it was ridiculous that the article implied otherwise. He loves time with the kids, but we certainly want to be able to provide for them most of all. It would be a more holistic view if the story included my descriptions of family screaming arguments over money, sleepless nights, and our chilly winter wearing 2 pairs of socks. I hope the Globe checks in a few months to see if we could stay in our condo, at least. Amiri

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