For the past year, Mike Hutson and Heather Rhodes have lived in a tiny, $450-a-month, one-bedroom apartment with their infant daughter. They drive a 1993 Mercury Sable that leaks transmission fluid and has more than 200,000 miles on it.
Their monthly income is $1,150 to $2,000, depending on how much work Hutson can get through his $8-an-hour temporary agency job.
They clip coupons, shop for bargains and frequent thrift stores. To save money, Rhodes learned to cook instead of buying pizza and other items in the frozen foods aisle. If they can afford it, their weekly splurge is to order from the $1 menu at a fast food restaurant.
But the couple doesn't consider themselves poor. They have a roof over their heads, pay their bills and save money.
The poor, they say, are the people they know who still live on the streets, use drugs and crash at friends' homes.
The poor, they say, are the people they know who make more than they do, getting disability checks and collecting bottles and cans only to use the money to rent a motel room and party, ending up back on the streets once the money is gone.
Poverty, they say, is a state of mind.
"We're not poor, we're not rich, but we get by," said Hutson.
Hutson and Rhodes aren't alone in Stanislaus County, where 37.9 percent of the households had annual incomes of less than $35,000 in 2010, according to the Census Bureau.
The couple's road map to a better life is Hutson's five-year plan, which spells out each milestone the couple expect to achieve.
Moving into a bigger, $600-a-month, one-bedroom apartment this month was one such milestone. Others include Rhodes earning her GED once Taylor, who was born in March, is a little older, and then enrolling at Modesto Junior College to earn credentials that lead to a good job.
Hutson's milestones include landing a permanent job. He wants to learn a trade, such as welding or carpentry, so he can better support his family.
Next year's milestones include getting married.
The five-year plan ends with the couple buying a piece of property in the country where they will live in a trailer while Hutson, 30, builds their dream house.
"We want to do good," said Rhodes, 23. "That's why we want to have this home. We want to have a normal life."
'I'm ready to live'
They have come a long way in a short amount of time.
Rhodes has been drug-free for more than a year, her longest stretch of sobriety since she started smoking marijuana and drinking as a young teen.
Hutson has been drug-free for more than 18 months, his longest stretch of sobriety since he started using drugs at 14. His methamphetamine use landed him in prison four times. He has been arrested more than a dozen times in Stanislaus County, mostly for drug-related offenses. None involved violence.
"I'm just done, man. I've wasted too much of my life," Hutson said. "There comes a point in a person's life, you choose to live or die. I'm 30 years old. I'm ready to live."
Hutson's desire to change has impressed others.
"He was one of my better clients," said job developer Mike Poole with Friends Outside, a Modesto nonprofit agency that helps prisoners and former prisoners. "He was really diligent about completing the program. He had an excellent attitude and always went on the job leads" provided him.
Poole said Hutson worked to improve his skills while in prison by earning his GED, learning how to drive forklifts and milk cows, and gaining experience in warehouse and janitorial work.
"He stepped up and got a job and is taking care of her," Heather's mother, JoAnn Shelby, said about Hutson. "He did not let her go on welfare and live off her, like a lot of the young guys do. To me and my husband, that's a lot.
"He saves money. He actually saves money. I think they are doing awesome."
Ways to make ends meet
Rhodes said she learned to cook by watching Rachael Ray's "30 Minute Meals" on the Food Network and by checking out cookbooks at the library. Her reading included a book titled "It Pays To Be Cheap."
"I thought it was a funny title, so I checked it out," Rhodes said.
Rhodes and Hutson avoided spending $8 for an outfit for Taylor at Wal-Mart in favor of buying her clothes at thrift shops for a fraction of the cost.
Hutson gets $750 a month from an annuity his mother left him in her will. She died in December 2010 and the annuity ends in 2016. He also gets $5,000 every two years from his mother's will until 2016.
And for the past nine months, he has earned $8 an hour working through a temporary agency. That enables him to bring home $100 to $250 a week, depending on how many hours he gets.
Rhodes receives WIC benefits for Taylor. The government nutrition program for women, infants and children provides the family with a monthly allotment of 10 cans of baby formula, a $10 voucher for fresh fruits and vegetables, three gallons of milk, 32 ounces of cereal, 64 ounces of juice, 16 ounces of cheese and 16 ounces of dry beans.
The couple once received food stamps, but no longer are eligible now that Hutson is earning more.
Their monthly expenses include $42 for cable and the $65 Hutson pays toward child support for his two daughters, ages 9 and 12, who live in Arkansas. The couple have basic, land-line telephone service for $15 a month through a government program which also gave them a cell phone and charges them $2.50 a month for 250 minutes.
"We get help," Rhodes said, "but we try to do as much as we can by ourselves."
Hutson and Rhodes were born and raised in Modesto.
She moved to Redding with her family when she was 11. She quit school in the 10th grade and had two daughters, who are now 4 and 5 and being raised by Rhodes' parents. But the girls have sleepovers with their mother and Hutson. When the couple is more financially secure, they want the girls to live with them.
Hutson said he attended more than a dozen Modesto schools before dropping out of Elliott Alternative Education Center in the 10th grade.
Both smoked marijuana and used methamphetamine as teenagers.
They met in 2009 after Rhodes had completed a drug rehabilitation program at the Redwood Family Center. Rhodes met Hutson while visiting a friend from rehab who was dating Hutson's older brother.
Hutson and Rhodes became inseparable, but it was hard for Hutson to visit Rhodes at her family's home because her father was leery of him at first. So the couple spent their time together riding city buses, visiting parks and hanging out at the Transit Center in downtown Modesto.
They took Rhodes' two daughters with them as often as they could.
Within three months, both started using meth again. Hutson went back to prison and Rhodes moved to San Francisco, though she returned to Stanislaus County to visit her daughters.
They found each other on Facebook after Hutson was released in April 2011. He rented an apartment in Modesto and moved Rhodes from San Francisco to live with him.
The struggle continues
Their new life has not been without worry.
Hutson and Rhodes encourage each other when life gets tough and talk about their problems.
"I'm his cheerleader," Rhodes said, "when he has a bad day at work."
And when it came time to renew their car's registration this year, they found out they owed $500 in parking tickets from when Hutson was visiting Rhodes in San Francisco. But they scrimped and saved and came up with the money to pay the tickets and renew the registration.
"We were so stressed out that the car would be taken," Rhodes said. "If he doesn't have a car, we'd be totally screwed. People say money doesn't buy you happiness, but it sure will buy you a lot less stress."
When Rhodes learned she was pregnant, she went through two months of long, deep discussions. Rhodes said she didn't want to raise her baby unless the couple were committed to a life of sobriety. Abortion was never an option, she said, but adoption was.
On Monday, Hutson got a call he dreaded: His temporary agency told him his assignment of the past few months at a warehouse had ended.
He said the agency told him they will call once they find him another assignment. The worry in Hutson's voice is evident as he talks about being without work. But that has not stopped him from taking action.
He drove out to a dairy that was hiring milkers and applied for a job, one of several he had applied for by Thursday. He and Rhodes used a friend's computer to search for jobs, and Hutson talked to Poole with Friends Outside.
"In reality, there will be bumps in the road, there will be setbacks," Hutson said. "But like I said, you got to keep moving forward.
"Things happen for a reason. Maybe the reason this happened is so I get a permanent job. I'll do anything. I'm a fast learner."
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.