We are the median: Mom and son scrimp and plan to get by

Dec. 13, 2011 at 7:35 AM ET

Nathan Weber for /
Mark Dominas, 46 and his mother Connie, 77, live together in a house they purchased about four years ago as part of an investment and a way to conserve money.

Mark Dominas, 46, and his mom, Constance, 77, share a home in Zion, Ill. Mark’s business as a real estate photographer has dropped off sharply in recent years, leaving him more dependent on his part-time job as an overnight operations supervisor for UPS. Between his earnings and Constance’s Social Security payments, the two bring in about $50,000 a year.’s Life Inc. blog interviewed Mark Dominas as part of a series of stories on what it’s like to live on around $50,000 a year, the nation’s median household income.

What’s it like to live on around $50,000 a year?

It takes a lot of planning. Fortunately for me, my mother has had many years of experience planning a family budget. Married for over 50 years and raising three children on a blue-collar budget, she is keenly aware of what it takes to “get by.”

How has the weak economy affected your finances?

As for my business (photographing virtual tours for the real estate market) I’ve seen my orders drop from nearly 400 in 2008 to what will be almost 100 by the end of 2011. Fortunately, my part-time job at UPS has given me modest increases over that same period, but increases in health care premiums and a couple of hospital stays have all but abolished those gains in income.

As for my mother, she has not seen any increase in Social Security for a while so she continues to adjust accordingly as day-to-day expenses like groceries and gas continue to rise.

Do you worry about money?

Every day. My business doesn’t provide a consistent source of income so it’s hard to budget when I don’t know how many orders I will get from week to week.


Nathan Weber for /
Mark Dominas, 46, prepares to make pictures of a house for a real estate listing.

What are your biggest expenses?

Our house.

What do you splurge on?

Home improvements. We always keep in mind the possibility that we may have to sell our house so we try to keep it in “marketable” condition.

Is there anything you wish you could afford but can’t?

I could use a new computer and my car is getting pretty old.

Is it difficult to pay your bills every month?

We sometimes have to pay the “roof over our head” bills like the mortgage and utilities before bills like cable or credit cards.

What kind of debt do you have, and do you find it hard to pay off your loans or other debts?

All the usual debts. I have some medical debt, which was unexpected and hard to budget for.

Are you able to save money for the future?

No, unless “the future” means within the next week or two.

What are you most proud of in terms of your financial situation?

I’m proud of my mother. She is far better at keeping us above water.

Are there any financial mistakes you think you’ve made?

Starting my business 10 years ago really trashed my credit. Even though I started to make significant improvements five years ago, the economy started to tank and now I’m falling back in to that same hole.

Over the next few years, do you expect things to get better or worse for you financially?

(It) really depends on the economy and the marketplace for my business. My part-time job at UPS will probably never become a full-time opportunity since I don’t have a college degree and I can’t afford one at this point. I’m 46 and going to school part-time would put me at retirement age by the time I received a degree. And who hires 55-year-old recent grads?

More on this series:

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