American Dream deferred: Couple committed to love of frugality

For Christmas this year, 3-year-old Carter Ray will receive three store-bought presents from his parents, a sure sign the recession is over.

Two Christmases ago, as the economy foundered, the Ray family took to frugality with a passion. Out of necessity, of course.

They also had a new-found fear that money was fleeting, jobs could disappear with the flick of a corporate finger and their once-comfy, middle-class lives could evaporate as quickly as snow in Atlanta.

“I’ve become more content with much less than I was three years ago,” said Chris, 39, who found a job right before Christmas 2008. “Hopefully people are getting that same mentality to sink into their lives. With my faith I believe that, as long as we are good stewards of what God has given us, all of our needs will be met.”

The Rays of Marietta, like the families of 200,000 other Atlantans who lost jobs during the recession, are economic refugees scarred by layoffs, lost homes and decimated bank accounts. They are determined to never again live on the financial edge.

Chris, for example, lost three IT jobs in nine years, the last one in July 2008. The family’s $24,000 nest egg was cut in half. Cokes no longer made it into the family shopping cart. Date nights occurred only when enough change could be scrounged from pockets, purses and couches.

Their newfound parsimony was widely copied, according to a variety of reports. Metro Atlantans’ average credit card debt is down 13 percent since the recession began. Americans now save 3 percent of their income, double the amount a year ago.

“I’m so practical. I want to keep working, keep saving and keep spending only on necessities and plan for retirement,” said Laura, 42. “People will think twice about the cost of a new home, job security and how stable their career is.”

Will they?

“Simplicity, to be sure, has continued to be a perpetual ideal, but it has never been embraced by a majority of the American population for any prolonged period of time,” said David Shi, who wrote the book “The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture” and is an Atlanta native. “During the post-Thanksgiving shopping season Americans are showing signs of going back to the centrality of the consumer culture that’s been so permanent in American life since World War II.”

The Rays vow to be different. The frugality they embraced at the height of the recession remains. Laura clips coupons and shops consignment stores. Do-it-yourself recycling saves $100 every six months. Chris takes tuna or ham sandwiches to work. He also wears dress shirts donated by the husband of his boss.

Home repairs cut into their savings this year, but they water-proofed the basement, repaired the water main and hired pest control to clear the attic of squirrels with cash from the emergency fund. The 35-year-old roof, though, will last another year.

Of paramount importance, Chris said, “Our main focus is to build our emergency fund back up to six months worth of expenses or about $24,000.”

With steady, good-paying jobs, they can do that. Laura’s home- and office-organizing business, post-recession, is up 40 percent. Chris loves his job as a project manager in the health care industry.

With job security comes a bit of financial leeway. A seventh wedding anniversary was spent in the Bahamas, though frequent-flier miles and hotel points defrayed much of the cost. And Carter will receive fewer second-hand presents this year for Christmas.

Under the tree he’ll find a new Dr. Seuss book, a Veggie Tales DVD and an alligator-themed golf game.

“Three brand new things is unusual,” Laura allowed, “but I couldn’t find them used.”