Tennessee Family of 20 Relies on Thrift and Teamwork to Make Ends Meet

Gil and Kelly Bates -- and their kids -- practice graduate-level home economics.

August 23, 2011, 1:15 PM

Aug. 24, 2011— -- The first question one might ask Gil and Kelly Bates, the Tennessee couple with 18 children, is "How do you do it?"

After listening to their sincere answers about faith and love, the follow-up question might be: "But how do you actually do it?" How do you manage the practical, everyday side of life? Most of all, how do you pay for it?

The answer is a Harvard Business School-worthy case study of home economics that includes multiple income streams, cost-cutting, division of labor, strategic leverage and tax savvy.

Watch the full story on "Primetime Nightline's (Extra)Ordinary Family" special, airing TONIGHT at 10/9c on ABC

The foundation of the Bateses' finances is Gil's income as a tree surgeon. It provides just enough to get by.

How do you make a small income work for a family of 20? Thrift, for starters.

"I'm a real penny pincher. I'm probably worse than a penny pincher," Gil said. They buy only what they need, he said, and they buy it on sale.

Clothes, a potential bank-breaker, are either hand-me-downs -- from older siblings and from other families -- or bought at thrift stores. "Going to the mall, I mean, with 10 girls, can be pretty pricey," said Alyssa, 16. "We can go to Goodwill and get twice the amount of stuff for all of us and … it might not last as long, but it's definitely a lot cheaper."

"Shoes are definitely thrift-store items," Kelly said, chuckling.

Then there's manual labor. All the kids do chores around the house. Alyssa is the family chef -- she said she started cooking for the whole family when she was 12. Michaela, the oldest daughter, is the seamstress, making most of the dresses the girls wear plus her siblings' modest bathing suits, which are custom-tailored to the family's evangelical Christian values. She's also the laundress, doing six or seven loads per day.

Lawson, 19, plays a crucial and many-faceted role. He started a lawn-mowing business when he was 13 that makes enough money to provide a rolling no-interest line of credit to his parents and siblings. Gil and Kelly reject debt of all kinds: no mortgage, car loan or credit cards. Lawson is their only creditor.

"They're good for it," Lawson said. "I don't need the money right now anyway."

"We call him the bank financier, because he is always lending to siblings, or lending to us, or he's the one that always has money in the account when the rest of us don't," said Kelly.

Lawson loaned Zach $1,000 for a car and Erin $2,000 for college. "Dad borrowed $4,000 or $5,000 for … well, mostly just to pay bills," Lawson said with a laugh.

Lawson is the self-appointed grocery shopper.

"Nobody else likes to do it, and I don't mind, so it works out pretty good," he said. Usually it's a one-cart affair, but "sometimes I end up getting another one."

It figures: The Bateses go through 7 gallons of milk and nine loaves of bread per week. If a sibling's birthday party is coming up -- as they do every month but two -- he has to buy four cartons of ice cream and two boxes of cake mix. If Gil hasn't been paid yet that week, Lawson puts the groceries -- a recent haul totaled $375.53 -- on his own debit card.

A Typical Shopping List of the Bates Family

Here are some other average figures from the operations of the Bates family:

The Bateses do not use food stamps. "I don't take anything from the government. We probably qualify for a lot of things but … I don't want to be a burden on everybody else," Gil said.

They do take full advantage of the U.S. tax code, claiming all 18 deductions. "That's a wonderful thing," Gil said with a laugh. "America's a great place to live."

Watch the full story on "Primetime Nightline's (Extra)Ordinary Family" special, airing TONIGHT at 10/9c on ABC

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