'There's basically nothing left for splurging'

As luck would have it, Cheryl Charles' twin daughters both found careers in the mortgage industry. One was laid off just before the holidays and returned home to live with her mom, and the other moved back in to save money as the real estate market went south.

At least one of the 39-year-old twins can help pay the rent on Charles' condo in Chatsworth, which is no small matter. Americans' biggest average annual expense, by far, is for housing, including utilities and property taxes. For the typical family, housing gobbles up 33.8% of the annual budget, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (The next-largest expense is transportation, with the cost of a vehicle accounting for 7.1% of a budget, while fuel eats up 4.6% and insurance and repairs an additional 3.2%.)

Charles, an executive assistant at Cal State Northridge, says she hasn't had a raise in three years, "thanks to Arnold." So she recently took a second job doing data entry for an insurance company. She works 60 hours a week and makes about $45,000 a year.

And she worries, about the economy, retirement, medical insurance and the rising costs of milk, bread and fruits and vegetables.

"Things that you want to eat on a daily basis to have a healthy diet keep going up," she says.

She cuts back where she can. If her hair needs color, she dyes it herself. A trim? Her sister does that. The only thing she has bought to wear lately was a dress for her father's funeral.

"You have to prioritize, making sure the rent is paid. You've got to get gas to get to work and you've got to maintain your car," she says. "There's basically nothing left for splurging."

She's even given up Costco. "They have good deals," she says. "But you have to pay that membership, that big $50 -- and that's a tank of gas."

She wishes that, someday, she could buy a home in the San Fernando Valley, near her office. "When you walk across the campus and see squirrels in the trees, it's so beautiful," she says wistfully. "So relaxing."

Like so many others, though, Charles doubts that she'll ever be able to make such a purchase.

"I wish it was easier for the people who were born here, and worked here all their life, to at least obtain the American dream of owning your own home," she says. "You're kind of forced to move elsewhere, where the cost of living is cheaper."


Leslie Earnest

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