Making Ends Meet: How One Vermont Family Survived Lean Financial Times

Jul 21, 2015

Statistics abound of families plunged into economic hardship. The reasons are many: Bad luck, bad choices or a bad economy. In their case, Pat Keogh and his wife Cathleen Branon-Keogh found themselves struggling to get by despite their best efforts.

Pat Keogh jokes that the couple and their four children learned to make lemonade from lemons when times were at their worst.

On Saturdays, Pat, Cathleen and sons Noah and Ben greet customers at the bustling Burlington Farmers Market. The boys sell lemonade and herbal iced tea while Cathleen sells the herbal salves, oils and balms she makes at their Fairfax home.

Cathleen started selling at the farmers market nearly 20 years ago. 

The lemonade came along much later. It was a way to make extra money during the family's six years of financial hardship.

Sticking to the budget

Pat is in his late forties; Cathleen is a few years older. They grew up in Burlington and graduated from Rice High School.

After one year of college, Cathleen’s plans to get a degree were sidetracked by a family tragedy and she never went back to school. Pat also attended one year of college, then started working. Years later, he completed his associate’s degree by attending night classes.

From the beginning of their marriage the couple made out a monthly budget. They were never able to save money, but they managed by sticking to the budget.  

As the family grew, the budget got tight, but they lived within their means and were able to buy a home in Fairfax in in 2004. Eighteen months later, things began to unravel.

Six months of unemployment

Between 2006 and 2009, Pat was laid off at three different jobs. Then he injured his back, which kept him out of work for six months.

The couple recalled those times one recent afternoon as they sat at their kitchen table.

"Six months of unemployment. That was really difficult. That was really, really hard." - Cathleen Branon-Keogh

“Six months of unemployment. That was really difficult,” says Cathleen. “That was really, really hard. The next job he took was at almost 30 percent decrease in salary.”

We had no fat in our budget to begin with,” Pat adds. “We didn’t go out to dinner, we didn’t go to the movies, we didn’t buy our kids new clothes every school year, even when times are good.”

“We were already bare minimum. The only place you can really cut is groceries. I remember buying groceries was just anguish. Awful,” Cathleen says, describing how she struggled as she bought cheaper processed foods instead of healthier choices to feed her family of six on a budget of $160 per week.

In the red

The family received some assistance from the Three Squares Vermont food stamp program.  

They got Dr. Dynosaur health coverage for the kids, but Pat and Cathleen went without coverage and hoped for the best.

Each month the budget numbers turned a darker shade of red. They were $400 short, then $600, then $800.

When things bottomed out, the family of six was earning less than $30,000 annually. Pat was also receiving some unemployment.

Despite their growing budget shortfall, Pat and Cathleen paid their bills on time.

Pat and Cathleen were open about their financial difficulties with daughter Grace, son Ben and their other two children.
Credit Steve Zind / VPR

But they had to max out credit cards and take a second mortgage on their home. They wanted to refinance at a lower interest rate, but they couldn’t afford the costs of having the house re-appraised.

They didn’t think selling was an option, partly because it was during the recession and they owed as much as the house was worth.

“Even if you sell the house, you still have to rent a place to live. And rent for a two- or three-bedroom apartment for six people was the same as the mortgage payments,” says Cathleen. Plus, she needed space for her business, Healing Earth Vermont Herbals.

Avoiding bankruptcy

The couple talked about declaring bankruptcy but decided that whatever debt it might relieve, the downside was too costly.

“Bankruptcy ruins your credit,” says Cathleen. “We watched another family anguish after they declared bankruptcy and then found out how difficult it was for their son to get enough funding for college with no one to cosign his loans.”

During the day Cathleen worked on building her business, and she waitressed at night.

The couple delivered phone books and newspapers to make some additional money. Sometimes they took turns attending their kids' school basketball games, to save a few dollars on the admission charge.

The couple delivered phone books and newspapers to make some additional money.

Sometimes they took turns attending their kids’ school basketball games, to save a few dollars on the admission charge. If they had to ask for help, they did.

“I had to call the president of Little League and ask her if I could pay $35 in $10 payments,” Cathleen says. “That’s how we could afford everything we did. If something came up – let me make a $10 a month payment for that.”

Help from friends and family

And during the tough times, which lasted for six years, help sometimes came unbidden from family and neighbors.

“We had a family in Fairfax, as soon as they heard that I was out of a job, she came over and filled our freezer with meat,” Pat recalls. “We had a secret Santa that dropped $300 off in our mailbox for Christmas.  My family took up a collection when I got laid off right before Christmas.”

Pat says they tried to pay it forward. They recruited kids for a summer basketball program after a generous coach offered to let their son attend at a reduced rate.

"We had a secret Santa that dropped $300 off in our mailbox for Christmas. My family took up a collection when I got laid off right before Christmas." - Pat Keogh

They were open with their kids about their financial difficulties. 

An optimist by nature, Pat saw it as a character building experience. He says every morning for five or six years, he got up and imagined he was a day closer to being better off, instead of another day deeper into a financial hole.

“Doing that every day and committing to not giving up, us staying together through it all rather than taking pot shots, blaming, making excuses,” he says. “This was our adversity.”

A turn for the better

Things began to turn around three years ago when Pat got a job selling industrial air compressors for a New England company.

Today, they’re able to live within their budget and have they hopes their finances will improve and they’ll be able to save.

“Knowing we'll have enough each month is huge for us, and we’re making a plan now to try to save as well,” Cathleen says.

"Knowing we'll have enough each month is huge for us, and we're making a plan now to try to save as well." - Cathleen Branon-Keogh

Two of their children are in college. Pat and Cathleen may not be able to help them with the cost, but because they maintained their good credit they could co-sign their children’s college loans.  

Despite the fact they qualified for the loans and needs-based assistance, the costs were daunting.

“When we filled out the first Free Application For Student Aid, we had zero money in savings, we had no retirement saved, no assets,” Cathleen explains. “And still our expected family contribution was over $3,000. With a $6,000 merit scholarship for good grades, $7,000 need-based scholarship from the university, a Pell Grant, and a VSAC Grant, we still had to cosign a private $13,000 loan. And that was with in-state tuition and after government loans.”

Their son has already taken on $70,000 in loan debt. Ironically, as Pat and Cathleen’s situation has improved, he no longer receives as much needs-based grant money.

Pleasant surprises

Cathleen says the past year has been the best in a long time.

They can finally afford to rip out the brown carpet and repaint the dark walls that have been a fixture in their old Fairfax farmhouse since they bought it.

And these days, life’s surprises tend to be more pleasant ones.

“We pulled up the carpeting to find this beautiful, maybe maple floor. It’s going to be gorgeous once we refinish it,” Cathleen explains as she describes the improvements they’re making.  

Cathleen and Pat say they feel some anxiety about ending up back where they were, but they find comfort in the belief that having dealt with it once, they could weather it again.