Paycheck to Paycheck: Family matters

A mom with more chores than time finds that it's not too costly to pack up her family for a weekend of campfires and ghost stories.

By John Pendygraft, Times Staff Writer
Published July 2, 2007

For 7-year-old Amaya Bunyan it is a marshmallow mom kiss from a s'more-gone-wild day. A day to believe Paw-Paw has special powers because he can turn the campfire purple, then green with magic sticks he puts under the wood. Did you know you can talk underwater and people can hear you? Its a day to take a walk with a caterpillar on a stick. Your own caterpillar that you don't have to share. To shake a soda can and give it to your brother. To tattle on people that splash you in a canoe with water they know has fish doodoo in it. It's the kind of day when adults either don't notice or don't care if you only eat a few bites of dinner and then way too much cotton candy. A day that ends hiding deep under the covers because the ghosts of two teenagers killed by a man with a hook for a hand still walk these woods. Where you fall asleep knowing tomorrow will bring another perfect morning. For Melanie Rodriguez, 27, a.k.a. Mom, these captured moments are her reward for finding a way to afford a family vacation on a paycheck that leaves little room for frills.

"This is uninterrupted time with my kids. Normally we're up at 6; we're dressed. It's breakfast in the car, drop off Amaya at art club, Xavier goes to Acres of Fun in Pinellas Park, then I'm at work 7 'till 6. I come home for my lunch break, start dinner and laundry. By the time we eat it's time for showers, prayers and bed. Then we do it all over again. Its not just hard on me; its hard on them, " she says. "Today there is no schedule to follow, and that's what means the most. This time together is to not worry about anything."

Rodriguez, an MIS Specialist at WorkNet, decided family time didn't have to be expensive. She and her extended family rented cabins for a long weekend at the KOA in Madiera Beach, less than 5 miles from her home.

"Here you don't need money for plane tickets, don't have to figure out who's going to take you to the airport, or worry about airport security. The KOA is cheaper for a weekend than one night in a nice hotel. Plus we brought our own food and saved a bunch, and there are all kinds of activities. Canoes are $10. Swimming and fishing's free. ... I paid $113 for the cabin for two nights and I spent $80 on groceries, " Rodriguez brags. "And the gas needle didn't move 'cuz its right around the corner."

About this feature

Seventy percent of families in the United States say they live paycheck to paycheck. American savings are in the negative, the lowest level since the Great Depression. In the Tampa Bay area, the financial pressure for many is acute: Average wages are lower than comparable Sun Belt cities, and median home prices have doubled in a decade. Add a related surge in property taxes and insurance bills (not to mention higher gas prices) and the challenge to make ends meet is quickly becoming pervasive. It's not a fringe problem. It's your neighbor; it's us. Times photographer John Pendygraft is seeking stories that put a face behind the phenomenon.

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