Frugal genes

FRUGAL GENES: Kim Estrada, right, recently took a second job at Starbucks and daughter Michelle, 16, is doing without a car to help keep their family’s finances afloat. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

Kim Estrada works two jobs, has two children at home and one in college and makes time to monitor mortgage interest rates, keep tabs on the consumer price index and take note of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke's utterances. "I think the best way to take out the stresses is to educate yourself about the economy," the 45-year-old Saugus resident says.

But it was daughter Michelle who really taught her a lesson. After seeing her mom fret over the cost of used cars and insurance, Michelle volunteered when she recently turned 16 to do without four wheels and ride a bicycle, saving her folks $400 a month. The Estradas -- Reuben, 51, is a firefighter -- were so pleased that they bumped her weekly allowance to $30 from $10 so she could save too. The nest egg will go toward an economy car when Michelle turns 18.

"It's like a family project," Kim Estrada says. "She's forgoing something now to get something better later."

The Estradas have an edge over many. They earned $160,000 last year, mostly from Reuben's salary but also because Kim, a part-time medical transcriptionist, took a second part-time job at Starbucks -- partly for the lattes. "That was my little luxury," she says, "and I hated to give it up."

She shops selectively, collecting food staples -- eggs, milk, cereal -- from Trader Joe's and household items -- toilet paper, toothpaste, paper towels -- from Target. She used to buy produce at Ralphs, but that was before she saw iceberg lettuce for $1.99.

"I was, like, $1.99?" she says.

She snagged a pair of black barista pants at a Goodwill store for $6, the same slacks she had purchased earlier at Ann Taylor Loft for $49. That was crafty, but one of the savviest moves came in January when the Estradas bundled their first mortgage and an equity line of credit into a 30-year fixed-rate loan at 5.25% interest, saving $500 a month.

They upgraded the minutes on their cellphones and stopped making long-distance calls from their land line, saving $35 a month. When they get their tax rebate, they'll save that too. They wash their own cars, mow their own lawn and clean the house together. He mops, she vacuums.

When Kim Estrada worries, it's mostly about the next generation. Where will they live?

"The one thing that troubles me the most," she says, "is how will these young adults, even out of college, afford homes?"

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Leslie Earnest