US families: times are hard but traditional values flourish

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

''To get ahead in America, you have to be willing to relocate.''

Dennis Feiock is voicing an old truism about American corporate life. But for him and his wife, Bonnye - and for an increasing number of middle-management executives like him - it is apparent that the well-worn ties between success and mobility are beginning to fray. Sitting in their living room as the late afternoon sunlight glows in the treetops outside, the Feiocks are not about to move.

Why?

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As we talk about personal finances, life style, and the direction now being set by the federal government, one subject keeps reappearing: America's housing crunch. In housing costs, both real and anticipated, the sagging national economy makes itself most strongly felt in the lives of many executives like Dennis, in the $30,000 to $40,000 salary range.

And those costs - reflected in mortgage payments, remodeling costs, and fuel bills - are making some significant changes in the life style of this upwardly mobile group.

In some ways, Dennis Feiock (pronounced ''Fowk'') is typical of the nation's fast-moving young executives - those whom Europeans caricature when they accuse the American businessman of getting out of bed in the morning and heading home to his job. Spend several hours with Dennis and it is obvious that he suffers no lack of ambition. He admits (and Bonnye agrees) that ''I'm somewhat of a workaholic.'' As assistant manager of industrial relations for the Henry Vogt Machine Company (a local manufacturer in nearby Louisville, Ky.), Dennis pours himself into his work.

Nor is Dennis unfamiliar with corporate ladders. For a dozen years he moved around the country, living in Florida, New York, and Arkansas as a personnel officer with General Electric before coming back to live in his hometown. He recognizes that his present position allows little room for advancement; the top slots in his firm are filled by members of the family that owns it. But that fact is more than offset by another: Louisville is the firm's only location, and the Feiocks will never have to move again.

It is not that they have suffered financially in their past moves. When Dennis and Bonnye were married in 1969, they bought a house for $24,000 - which sold two years later for $32,000. Their next house went from $41,000 to $68,000 in four years. They then bought a house for $45,000, kept it one year, and sold it for $52,000.

In each case, he says, they bought ''a good basic house that was run down.'' Not only did they make money. They also gained the experience that finally allowed them to embark on their own project - building a large (3,500 -square-foot) contemporary house of their own, doing all the contracting and much of the actual labor themselves.

Like many Americans, the Feiocks and their three young children are, as Bonnye says, ''very family-oriented'' - and consequently very house-oriented. To talk with them about family finances, in fact, is to talk about housing costs.

''We put money into housing more than anything else,'' says Dennis. Having decided to settle for good in New Albany - on a half-acre lot once owned by his parents, who still live in sight of their house - they drew up plans for their house in 1979 and set to work. ''For a whole year,'' he says, ''we didn't see anybody while we were building this house.'' The result: a spacious and elegant home worth, he estimates, $125,000.

Now, three years after they began building, the effect of their decision to build is still being felt. During the four months of basic construction, interest rates went from 8.5 percent to 13.5 percent - and their project went $ 10,000 over budget. ''We kind of overcommitted ourselves,'' says Dennis.

It was an overcommitment not uncommon in the housing market today. In the 15 years since 1967, while the nation's gross average weekly earnings have increased 2.6 times, the cost of financing a home - mortgage principle and interest, insurance, and taxes - has increased five times, according to November 1981 Department of Labor figures.

The result: An 80 percent mortgage on a modest $75,000 house costs, at today's rates, over $1,000 a month - which, by the old ''25 percent rule of thumb'' widely accepted in the banking industry, requires a family income of $48 ,000. According to the Census Bureau, the median American family with a mortgage devotes only 19 percent of its income to housing - simply because many have old, low-rate mortgages. But families who move encounter what Allan Groves of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston calls ''a stairstep function'' - a sudden escalation in the amount they must pay to maintain their standard of living.

Yet Dennis, like many homeowners, stands to benefit from the very thing that most worries the Reagan administration: inflation. Continuing inflation would drive up his salary, while his monthly mortgage payment remains fixed. The result: housing will take a smaller part of his salary - as long as he doesn't disturb the equation by moving.

In these first years, however, the family finances are stretched. Both Bonnye (who was a personnel specialist before she married) and Dennis are capable planners, and each January they sit down and draw up a yearly budget. For the past several years, the figures showed an income lagging $2,000 to $3,000 behind expenses. Although they have ''quite a few'' bank certificates of deposit, stocks, and savings bonds, they do not want to sell them for cash. And the Feiocks have determined not to live on credit. ''What you can't afford, you don't do,'' says Dennis.The question, then, is how to bridge the $3,000 gap. The answer has two sides:

* Increase family income. ''We scrounge around and try to make money in other ways,'' admits Dennis. Bonnye earns $20 to $30 per week caring for a child whose mother works. She will earn $300 this spring for a more intensive two-week babysitting stint.Dennis increased his salary by $1,000 when he moved from his previous employer in Louisville to join Vogt last summer. He also taught a night course in industrial psychology at Indiana University-Southeast here in New Albany, which brought in another $1,000.For a while they even sold Amway products evenings and weekends. And they got into a small farming venture: When his mother inherited a 10-acre farm, Dennis spent $200 tearing down buildings and readying the land. Last year, however, the crops were poor, and he made only better.

* Decrease family expenditures. Both Bonnye and Dennis are conscientiously thrifty. ''We furnished our first house and most of our second house with stuff off the junk pile,'' says Dennis proudly. On a tour of the house they carefully point out the bargain furniture - including a refinished dining room table, some reupholstered chairs, and a ''$15 flea-market bed.'' They could have a new dining-room suite for $25 per month, Dennis estimates, but they prefer not to buy things that way. For anniversary gifts, they often give each other a piece of furniture.Another form of savings comes from their own handiwork. ''Whenever anything breaks,'' says Dennis, gesturing at a torn-apart lawn mower on the basement floor, ''I fix it. This is another way you can live beyond your means.'' Bonnye, too, is competent with her hands: she did much of the painting and staining of the house, maintains a large garden, and last year canned 100 quarts of vegetables. ''I don't like to can,'' she admits. But the results show in her food bills: Not counting beef (which they buy in bulk to freeze) she spends an average of $300 per month for food.Vacations, too, are a flexible item in their budget. Last year they watched pennies until December to see whether they could make a trip to Florida to visit Bonnye's family. They do, however, have four horses in the barn beside their house, and frequently go horse-camping on weekends. The horses, Bonnye estimates, cost perhaps $500 to $600 per year.When the conversation turns to national issues, the focus is, predictably, on the domestic economy. Dennis, who supports President Reagan, describes himself as a moderate. Like many, he would like to see a governmental system that would ''reward the people who are doing well'' rather than a system which ''lacks accountability'' and provides ''no incentive for quality.'' A former Navy officer, he backs up his comments with examples of inefficiency and waste that he feels are built into the military system.Bonnye, from a housewife's perspective, offers her own example: the government's recent cheese-giveaway program. She says Dennis's elderly aunt was recently given five pounds of cheese - even though she protested that she disliked cheese and didn't want it. The cheese came anyway, so she handed it along to his mother, who also dislikes cheese. The result: The Feiocks' well-dressed and well-fed children eat free federal cheese.The problem, says Dennis, is that ''we've spent 40 years going in the wrong direction, developing a welfare mentality.'' But he admits that ''it scares me a little bit to turn that around too fast.'' He does, however, applaud the President's ''new federalism'' movement to return spending authority to the local level.As for the much-vaunted tax cut, Dennis says it hasn't helped him much, since his salary adjustments keep pushing him into higher tax brackets. He is perturbed, however, at what he sees as a deep-rooted inequity in taxing procedures: the fact that the government taxes interest earned on savings but allows tax deductions for interest on debt. For Dennis, the result is obvious. ''Our economic system encourages debt,'' he says, ''and debt encourages inflation.''That brings him around once again to the issue that drives his own personal expenditures: housing. He admits that, under a different system where he could not deduct the interest on his mortgage payments, ''I wouldn't own this nice a house.''But if that were necessary to help lift the nation out of its economic stagnation, he says, he would not grumble at making a change.

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