Americans Cope With Financial Pain

One family's multigenerational tale of struggling to pay for college.

Oct. 6, 2008— -- The stock market has been on a wild ride, causing many investors much heartache and sleepless nights.

But the strain felt by many American families has roots far away from Wall Street.

Colleen and Guy Brognano struggle like many others with increasing utility bills and mortgage payments, but the real pressure for the Pennsylvania couple comes from college bills for their twin sons.

"We're going to be working until we're 80," Colleen Brognano said, half jokingly. "The harder you work and the more you try to save, the more you get compounded with taxes, prices going up."

The Brognanos work full-time jobs. But with both sons in school, they have racked up $90,000 in debt, and they still have one more year worth of tuition left.

"My husband says that I can't believe with both our incomes we don't have anything to show for it," Brognano said. "We don't want to deny our children any opportunity because they are great kids -- hard workers, good grades."

Guy Brognano is an electrician for Valvoline, and his wife is an executive administrative assistant for FedEx.

At one point, Colleen Brognano took a second job on weekends to help with the bills, and her husband was traveling a lot for work and only home on weekends.

"It takes a toll on your marriage," she said. "You just get irritated, and sometimes it's just not worth it.

"We're both pretty thrifty," she added. "We don't even have a $200 balance on our credit cards."

In 2006, with the value of their house rising, the couple refinanced their mortgage, took on more debt and used some of the extra cash to buy a new vehicle. But they were lucky and got a fixed-rate mortgage at 5.2 percent, and the payments haven't increased.

The family used to take three to four vacations a year, driving to the beach or the ski resorts.

"We used to travel a lot more and we don't now," Colleen Brognano said.

She is trying to join a carpool to work, but one possibility would require a shift change that would conflict with her boss' schedule -- something that just wouldn't out. With higher gas prices, the family is "making sure that we take the car that gets the best gas mileage wherever we go," she said.

The financial crisis hasn't directly affected the family. But its consequences still trickle down.

"It hasn't changed my daily life," Colleen Brognano said. "What it does do is it keeps the thought in the back of my mind as to what's going to affect interest rates for us when we do have to get another loan for college."

And the company that the family borrowed from the first two years has stopped doing student loans because of the credit crunch. Now they need to find another lender.

Planning for Retirement

Colleen, 48, and Guy, 58, both have a 401(k) retirement plan through their employers, and Guy also has a pension. But they still worry about retirement.

"He was planning on retiring in three years," Colleen Brognano said of her husband. "That's not going to happen. He's going to have to go into his late 60s because we have one more year [of college].

"You just try to save as much as you can," she added. "What we worry about" are the college loan payments -- $480 a month total for both sons now. Next year, the payments will almost double.

Like most parents, they are trying to do everything they can for their kids.

Jason Brognano is a junior at Penn State College and understands the sacrifices his parents are making to put him and his brother, Brian, through college.

"They're putting the money upfront now," he said, "but it's my job to pay it back and give them a better life later."

He is also well aware of the debt that he personally will have after school. He's in a five-year architectural engineering program, and his brother plans to go to dental school, hoping to be an orthodontist.

"I don't want to graduate with so much debt that if I don't get a good job out of college, that I'm not going to be able to get any loans paid back," Jason Brognano said.

With the nation shedding 159,000 jobs just last month and 750,000 so far this year, that is a concern for many college students.

"My major is architectural engineering, which right now is very bad if you're going into that profession because the housing market is so far below par where it should be. It's not looking good for my major," he said.

But Jason Brognano is still hopeful he'll find a job after graduating, maybe in the growing area of designing environmentally friendly buildings.

"Although the residential housing industry is down, it seems that commercial and [industrial real estate business] are still growing, and there's still need for mangers and engineers in that area," he said.

Jason Brognano works at a hardware store in the summer and takes internships, but only if they come with a salary. Most of that money goes for rent or textbooks.

The problem for him is figuring out how universities deal with financial aid.

"We have a low income relative to other students at my school, but we don't get any financial aid because we're not so far in debt that we need to be bailed out," Jason Brognano said. "We have what we need, what is necessary to get by. We pay our bills, stay on top of our credit and yet we get nothing."