The Wall Street Journal

August 20, 2002


Low Cost of Living Helps
One Iowa Family Live Well


DEWITT, Iowa -- The cost of a trip to the movies in this tiny town would make any big-city family jealous. A ticket to the matinee showing of "Stuart Little 2" runs $2. Add a small popcorn with butter and you're up to $2.80.

Marty and Jennifer Murrell say it is this low cost of living that helps them maintain a comfortable lifestyle for themselves and their two-year-old daughter, Moira. Their 1,700-square-foot, three-bedroom home -- it cost them about $59,000 -- sits on a quiet, shady corner just a few blocks from the main street in this community of 5,049. With a household income of $41,000 in 2001, just shy of the Midwest's median of $44,646, the Murrells own two cars, have in-home child care and pursue work they enjoy. Though they lock their doors at night, they know many of their neighbors never have.

This article is part two of the Stuck in the Middle series. Read part one.1

"The high quality of life is what really attracts people here," explains Mr. Murrell, 37 years old, who finished his term as president of DeWitt's Chamber of Commerce in June. "And there's a lot of opportunity."

Mr. Murrell has reason for his optimism. His work as an investment representative for Financial Network Investment Corp. has rebounded thanks to his recent success in recruiting clients. With his client base now at about 370 from some 335 last year, his income is on track to surge this year from the $37,000 he earned in 2001.

Despite his initial nervousness about the gyrating financial markets, Mr. Murrell says his business is growing as more people in the area seek professional investment advice. Though Mr. Murrell's salary is partly tied to the performance of his clients' investments, it also is based on the amount of investment he brings to his company. So far, business has held steady, and Mr. Murrell is confident his income will be higher next year as well.

Last August, Ms. Murrell, 31, was offered a part-time teaching position at a family-planning clinic that provides sex education to schools. The work added about $4,000 to the family's income last year and will bring in $12,000 this year, a welcome change from the unsteady pay of the free-lance reporting Ms. Murrell had been doing for local newspapers.

These factors have helped the Murrells make progress against some significant financial strains. Just before Moira was born they found out she had a cleft lip and palate that would require special precautions during her delivery and two surgeries afterward. Ms. Murrell also suffered complications during pregnancy.

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While Mr. Murrell's health insurance through work covered much of the cost, the Murrells still were left with thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses. The couple was forced not only to use up their emergency funds, but also amass over $10,000 in credit-card debt, which they're still paying off.

"Having weathered the storms we have over the past three years, we have more experience and more knowledge under our belts," says Ms. Murrell. "We now have confidence that we can get through this."

In addition to her teaching position, Ms. Murrell is also finding a growing amount of free-lance work copywriting brochures and designing Web sites for area businesses. She's hopeful this side business eventually will generate significant income.

Like the Murrells, the city of DeWitt is also a story of economic rebound. With its fortunes tied almost entirely to farming, DeWitt was hit hard by the agriculture crisis of the 1980s. In response, business leaders initiated a small business park to attract different industries. The group helped bring in 13 new businesses, including a glass manufacturer, an air-freshener company and a specialty-packaging maker. "Little by little we started rebounding because we became more diversified economically," says Mayor Don Thiltgen. "We've added 1,000 jobs in the past 10 years."

Such economic progress doesn't seem to have pushed up the cost of living, however. A sandwich and fries at the Old Candlelight Inn runs $3.95, and a yearlong adult membership at the fitness center, which boasts a fully equipped weight room, indoor track and lap pool, is $34 a month. Prices like these mean the Murrells can treat themselves to dinner and a movie about once a month "without having to worry about which entree we order," says Ms. Murrell.

The family estimates that about 25% of its monthly expenses are related to Moira's medical bills. Other monthly bills include a $500 mortgage payment, heating or cooling costs of about $180 and cable TV for $45. To save on long-distance calling, which had been running $200 a month, the couple bought a cellphone and subscribed to a plan with free long distance for $45 a month.

Insurance on Mr. Murrell's nine-year-old truck and Ms. Murrell's seven-year-old Mercury sedan costs $100; both vehicles are paid off. Moira's sitter, who comes to the Murrell home three times a week, charges $3.25 an hour, or about $150 every two weeks. Groceries run about $200 a month, and since many of Ms. Murrell's relatives farm in the area, the couple's freezer is regularly stocked with free steaks, pork and corn.

As the Murrells work to pay down their debt, they also hope to take up some home-improvement projects that they didn't have the income to do before, including redoing both of their bathrooms and replacing the flooring in their kitchen and dining room. And they just found out they are expecting another baby in February; they plan to buy a new car before the baby is born.

As an energetic Moira scribbles in a book she pulls off the shelf, titled "14,000 Things to Be Happy About," her parents look on and laugh. "We put a lot of faith upstairs and things just work out," explains Mr. Murrell. His wife agrees. "We're doing just fine. We may not have everything we want, but we're happy."

Write to Ellen Byron at ellen.byron@wsj.com2

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Updated August 20, 2002

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