median

We are the median: Living on $50,000, military-style

Dec. 6, 2011 at 7:51 AM ET

Jim Seida / msnbc.com /
Jason Ruediger carries his 2-year-old daughter, Aureus, while his wife pushes their 1-year-old son, Crichton, on the Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado, Calif.

CORONADO, Calif. – Just a few years ago, Jason Ruediger was a single guy with a military salary and little more to spend it on than his car, insurance and meals out.

“When you’re single, I mean, your whole paycheck goes to you,” said Ruediger, 25, a petty officer second class with the Navy.

But now his paycheck has to stretch to cover his wife, two young children and two large dogs.

“I’ve actually gotten really good at budgeting,” said Ruediger, who is based at Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado, Calif., where he works as aviation support technician IMRL manager, meaning he helps manage inventory.

The military plays a big role in helping Jason, and his wife, Mariecor, 37, make ends meet on a little less than $50,000 a year in an expensive area like Coronado, outside of San Diego.

Jason estimates they would have to take in a civilian salary of $80,000 just to maintain the standard of living they now have for less than $50,000.

TODAY.com's Life Inc. blog visited the Ruedigers in Coronado this week as part of a series of stories looking at what it’s like to live on the nation’s median income of about $50,000 a year.

The family’s cozy, recently remodeled yellow house is part of the Navy’s partially subsidized military housing. The Ruedigers get groceries from the commissary with no added tax, aid for their education through military programs and help with things like holiday gifts for their children, ages 1 and 2, from charities focused on military families. Living on base saves on gas and other commuting expenses.

Perhaps most important, the couple’s military insurance covered the hefty bills stemming from the premature birth of their daughter Aureus, 2, and later her hospitalization due to Kawasaki disease, which causes inflammation of artery walls.

Jim Seida / msnbc.com /
Aureus Ruediger, 2, suffered medical problems but was covered by her family's military health care plan.

“The military takes care of you really well,” Ruediger said.

Still, the couple sometimes find their budget stretched by unexpected expenses, and it’s hard to afford things like travel. Mariecor has not been able to get to her native Guam to visit her mother, who had a serious stroke three years ago.

The couple also says deployments take a toll. Jason left on a mission to the Gulf with the USS Nimitz just two weeks after Aureus was born at 29 weeks.

Although he was home in time to hear Aureus say her first words and take her first steps, he doesn’t want to miss any more of his children's big milestones. That’s why he has decided to leave the military in May, after about six years of service.

“Those are things that you’re not going to get back,” he said.

Jim Seida / msnbc.com /
A to-do list of financial goals hangs in the bathroom wall in the Ruediger home.

The couple keeps a five-year plan taped next to the bathroom mirror. It’s a constant reminder of their personal, professional and financial goals.

Jason says the couple have made some financial mistakes, and they do have some debt. But they’ve learned from their experiences.

“We’ve had a few headwinds, so you just learn and keep going,” he said.

Their baby girl was in the hospital for two and a half months after she was born, and every day Mariecor either took the bus, walked two miles to the taxi stand or got a ride to the hospital to spend time with her daughter, who is now a healthy, active toddler.

It was during those early days as a mother that Mariecor said she decided she needed to go back to school. Although she would love to be a stay-at-home mother, she wants the family to have the financial security of two incomes.

“You know how every parent wants that their child has a better life?” she says. “I wanted that.”

Mariecor has an undergraduate degree in biology and is pursuing a master’s degree in organizational management. One of her goals is to become a published author, and she hopes that eventually she and her husband each will be making $75,000 a year.

Jason also is already thinking ahead to how he will provide for the family once he’s a civilian. He’s studying for an associate’s degree and plans to eventually get a bachelor’s degree in Web design.

Meanwhile, he’s already started a Web-based business selling birthday party supplies, and he’s talking with the Navy about the possibility of doing his military job as a civilian once he’s discharged. They have put off having another child because they will no longer have military health insurance.

“I don’t want to have a $50,000 medical bill,” he said.

More on this series:

Click here to see previous stories in our "We are the median" series. We’re also sharing our thoughts — and yours — on Twitter (hashtag #median), Facebook and Google Plus. We invite you to comment on our posts — but keep it civil and on topic, please!

Finally, please share your story of what it’s like to be living on about $50,000 a year by clicking here to send me e-mail. We’ll feature some of your stories in future Life Inc. posts. 

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