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LOCAL COUPLES WHO MAKE THE MOST OF ONE INCOME

When teachers Kevin and Maura Rustowicz married 11 years ago, they could easily afford necessities and even some luxuries like a truck and a boat.

But these days, it's hard to imagine when such luxuries will again be possible. Not only have there been additions to the family -- Michael, 6; Katie, 4; James, 2; Maggie, 10 months -- there has been the subtraction of one income.

After their third child was born, the Rustowiczes decided that money wasn't as important as a full-time stay-at-home mom.

Though conventional wisdom says that an American family can't make it on one income, some local couples say it can be done -- but perhaps not easily, not conveniently, and not if you're trying to keep up with anyone else.

John and Michele Mogavero, North Buffalo parents of Marissa, 4; Jocelyn, 2; and Madison, 6 months, also decided that what they gained in money wasn't worth what they gave up in family togetherness.

"For me, it means stability to have Michele here," said Mogavero. "It's the way I grew up. My mother was always home."

These families are now in the minority. Last year, 70.8 percent of women with children under 18 were in the work force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Statistics, though, aren't nearly as interesting as how couples come to the decision to make a change that affects them financially, emotionally and professionally.

To better understand how such choices are made, we asked two couples -- with a total of seven children -- what went into their decision and how it affected their lives.

Kevin and Maura Rustowicz

Maura Rustowicz, 34, never saw herself as a full-time mom.

She was a math teacher.

"I have a strong work ethic," she said, while being interviewed in a picture-perfect room she calls "the museum," the rest of the house having been given over to Tonka trucks, Legos and baby paraphernalia.

"I never, ever thought I'd do this. I always assumed I'd be teaching."

Now, rather than explaining equations, she uses her skills to push each paycheck to its limit.

Though it wasn't easy, the couple each held a full-time job when they had their first two children.

She'd pack two diaper bags the night before. In the morning they'd rouse two sleepy children and take them to the baby sitter's house still in their pajamas, still not fed.

When she became pregnant with James, their third, she went into her math mode to figure out if five people could survive on one income.

It helps that they slipped into a lower tax bracket and that she knows how to be frugal. They eat at her parents' house at least twice a week. Her parents provide the food and she does the cooking. And often the grandparents buy shoes and clothing for the youngsters.

The couple has disciplined themselves to deposit $10 per child from each paycheck, every two weeks, into a college fund.

"I've always been money-conscious, but when I had more money it was a different feeling," said Mrs. Rustowicz.

She's even aware of how much money is ticking away on a baby-sitter meter.

It happened on a rare outing to a Buffalo Bills game with a fire company where Rustowicz is a volunteer.

"For us, $27 is a huge expense," she said.

Going into their seventh year of child rearing, the couple continues to use cloth diapers, which has saved them $5,000, they estimate.

The last movie they went out to see was "Apollo 13." They buy in bulk, they use coupons, and they've consolidated two cars into a minivan, one of their biggest expenses.

When they buy on credit, they pay the bill before interest accumulates. "I can't stomach having a balance," Mrs. Rustowicz said.

"I tell my friends I enjoy my life of poverty," she said. "What makes me feel weird is to ask if I can buy something, because I always earned more than Kevin did. When I got a check for some proctoring I did, I was so excited because I could do what I wanted."

Rustowicz says that while some of his friends who don't have children rib them occasionally, he has exactly what he wants.

"I think you change your views," said Rustowicz. "I think it's great that we can do this."

If, however, they should win a lottery, there's no doubt where the first chunk of money would go -- into a bigger house. The kitchen, which served them fine in the early years of marriage, now feels tiny with six people around the table.

They spend most of their free time doing things that revolve around the children. One thing they've lost is time together. When they both taught, they saw each other during their commute and at lunch.

"Now we have no time together," Mrs. Rustowicz said.

"It's a lot of work to be out working. And it's a lot of work to be here, but it's different."

Now she enjoys far different luxuries from the ones money once bought. She and Katie can bake together, which they do several times a week. She can hang laundry outdoors. She can take leisurely walks.

And she's right there when the baby wakes from her nap and, simultaneously, children bound in from school.

"How did you do on your spelling test?" she asked Michael, a first-grader. "Did you get 'insect' right?"

Michael nodded and his mother said, "Yes!"

That she could be there to hear the news is worth something that another paycheck can't buy.

John and Michele Mogavero

When the Mogaveros were married, they traveled where they wanted, including trips to a dude ranch and a Caribbean cruise. They ordered off expensive menus and bought new cars.

"It was always the feeling that we had extra money, so we'd spend it," Mrs. Mogavero said.

Some of that money came from the administrative jobs Mrs. Mogavero, 36, held at Buffalo State College.

When she worked full time she earned $35,000 a year; when she left, working part time, she was earning $22,000. What has surprised the couple was that even with a substantial cut in income and more mouths to feed and bottoms to diaper, they've saved money.

"For some reason, we're doing better," said Mrs. Mogavero.

She liked her jobs and always considered her career "very important," but when they decided to adopt a baby, her attitude took a 180-degree turn.

More than four years ago she got an unexpected call from a nurse friend: "There's a baby here. Do you want her?"

"The minute I saw her, I didn't want to leave her," said Mrs. Mogavero. Within 48 hours, she had told her boss she wanted to work part time or she'd leave.

Because Mogavero works a typical firefighter's shift of long hours on and long hours off, the couple took the tag-team approach to parenting for a while.

"I was working days and he was home," she said. "Then he'd work days and I'd be home. It was working OK, but it didn't leave any family time."

When their second child was born 2 1/2 years ago, the couple decided it made more sense for her to be home full time. The addition of their third child confirmed the choice.

"You really only have them for five years," said Mogavero. "And then they're in school. Maybe it's because we tried so long to have children that it feels like we appreciate them more."

Now, instead of traveling to the Caribbean, they go to Toronto for the day to see friends they met on a cruise. It's trips to zoos in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, not a week in Disney World. It's home cooking, not restaurant meals. It's do-it-yourself remodeling, which Mogavero willingly tackles, rather than hiring out.

They visit parks, they borrow library videos, and they socialize with couples who live and think the way they do.

Because they have so much time together, they consider their family privileged rather than deprived.

Mrs. Mogavero said she now realizes that she doesn't need as much as she once thought she did. "I have a whole closet full of suits that I only wear to church," she said.

What she misses is her independence.

"A part of me can't wait to go back to work," she said. "I miss sitting down and having coffee without having to wipe someone's rear end. I miss traveling and checking into a hotel. I went from telling everybody what to do to having kids tell me what to do.

"I miss being me, instead of being Mom."

That kind of wistfulness comes and goes against the surety of knowing that they've made a choice that works well for the five of them.

"We don't look at this as a sacrifice," Mrs. Mogavero said, cuddling Madison. "We see it as a choice. Every night I ask God to forgive me for any grousing, because God forbid any of it is taken away."