How Do Median Income Families Spend Money?

Two families who live thousands of miles apart share at least one thing: they both earn the median American family income: $54,000 a year.

But what they do with it is a different story — and a reminder that depending on where you live, and more importantly, how you live, the average median family income of $54,400 can go in very different directions.

It can go towards helping you live comfortably, or it can lead you to live from paycheck to paycheck. Good Morning America's Financial Contributor Mellody Hobson met with the two families, and got an inside look at how they spend their money, and what improvement each family needs to make.

Slices of Life

Michelle Spicer, a divorced mother of three boys, lives in the heart of Chicago in a three-bedroom condo that she rents for $1,300 a month. A manager at a major clothing retailer, she pays $94 a week for groceries, uses Chicago's public transportation system, and enrolls her children in public schools, which saves her a bundle.

Greg and Kari Marzola and their three children live in the suburbs of Baltimore, in a house they've owned for nine years. Their monthly mortgage is $697. Greg, a phone company technician, did a lot of the work on the house himself. They spend $100 a week for groceries. The family car is paid for, but their pickup truck costs $436 a month. They pay $370 a month for their son's private school.

If you look at fixed expenses — housing, food, transportation, education — the two families' lives and locations make the costs different, but their monthly "must have" money is pretty similar. It totals about $1,662 for the Spicer family, and about $1,507 for the Marzolas.

But take a peek into the rest of their piggy banks.

Another Day, Another Dollar

Maryland Family: Kari Marzola works mostly as an at-home mom, but she puts in a few early morning hours at a daycare center.

On the way to work, she stops for a small luxury at a gourmet coffee shop — a caramel cooler coffee drink.

Kari's husband says he takes no money to his work — but brown bags his lunch every day.

"And the guys joke about it," Greg Marzola said. "When I buy lunch out, it's a big ordeal: 'Oh my goodness, he's buying lunch out.'"

While Greg makes breakfast for the boys, Kari is at the store. She shops at stores with the best prices, even if they are not the most convenient.

"Neither one of us will go out and spend money on something we definitely can't afford," Kari Marzola said.

Chicago Family:

Over in Chicago, Spicer makes a coffee stop at Starbucks also, spending $5 a pop. She then makes another stop for a bagel, hits the newsstand, and heads for the ATM. By mid-day, her workday tab is adding up.

"Lunch is usually about $7. It's $5 for coffee, $2 for the bus or the train there, then back is another $2," she said. "[Plus,] maybe a bagel, maybe a snack during the middle of the day."

The average daily out-of-pocket expenditures are $35 for the Marzolas, and $25 for Spicer. Spicer admits she could be a more disciplined spender.

"I'll buy shoes for the kids or movies for the house, an outfit for the weekend, a purse, those shoes I saw that I just have to have," Spicer said. "I think if I thought about, and made, more responsible choices that it probably wouldn't be as tight."

What About Savings?

If money is tight when it is rolling in, what if a sudden need arises?

"I'm not sure, you know, that I'd be able to cover an emergency," Spicer acknowledged.

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