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rob carrick

Determined to live within their means, the four members of the Bell family made a drastic move about a year ago.

They went from a rented 1,400-square-foot townhouse in their town of Guelph, Ont., to what the 25-year-old Ms. Brianna Bell describes as an above-ground, two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot basement apartment in a house. "It's really nice," she says of her home. "People think when you say basement apartment that it's going to be really dark and dreary, but it's not."

We focused a lot in Report on Business this month on inflated personal debt levels. Now, it's time to look at a family that has largely avoided debt by living within its means and following its own path of inconspicuous consumption.

Ms. Bell stays home with her two daughters, three-year-old Penny and one-year-old Georgia. Her husband Daniel, 26, works as a youth pastor at a local church. Mr. Bell earns about $41,000 a year and Ms. Bell stretches that money to cover all the family's needs without running a credit card balance or using a line of credit. A budget rules the family's finances. "It dictates where we live, what we drive, what we eat and if we go on a vacation," Ms. Bell said.

Let's hear more from this tiger mom of personal finance. She says home ownership is definitely a goal for the family, but they're determined to save a big down payment over time and minimize the amount they have to borrow through a mortgage. She marvels at friends buying homes with a 5-per-cent down payment and ending up with a mortgage of close to half a million dollars.

Ms. Bell plans to save for a house down payment with money earned through a freelance writing sideline she's just getting started. Meantime, the family is focused on living somewhere that fits within their budget. That's the reason why they moved to their apartment about a year ago from the townhouse. "We realized we couldn't afford it, so we downsized," Ms. Bell said.

The apartment is in an upscale neighbourhood of 3,000-square-foot homes, so the surroundings are comfortable. But how does a family with two young kids fit in a two-bedroom apartment, anyway? "It's fine," Ms. Bell says. "What we've done is give [the girls] the master bedroom and we have the smaller bedroom. They have a lot of space."

The Bells drive a new base-model Dodge Caravan purchased in February after deciding their small sedan, paid for in cash a few years back, was too small. They now have monthly payments of about $200, but they're also benefiting from a $50 per month car insurance saving since buying the minivan (it has a better safety record).

On food, Ms. Bell says the family eats well but rarely goes to restaurants. Mr. Bell takes a lunch to work. Vacations, just behind houses and cars on the list of ways Canadians spend beyond their means, are possibly the family's biggest sacrifice. "We don't go on vacations, really," Ms. Bell said. "We might take one- or two-night trips in Muskoka with our family, but we're not going to Florida or Mexico. We can't afford anything like that."

Ms. Bell tends to do her shopping for clothes and toys at thrift shops, and she feels she's getting great value because of the quality items she finds. "I like to say our kids are dressed in the best name brands for really, really cheap."

A few other notes on the Bell family finances: Both parents had student debt, but it's paid off. Charitable giving is important to them and they make regular contributions. Also, they're putting money away for retirement every month and trying to maintain an emergency fund.

Ms. Bell says she's connected with other parents of young kids in her neighbourhood, and they tend to be a little older. The typical pattern with these families is for there to be two working parents, a house with a huge mortgage and two cars. "I struggle with the fact that I'm not keeping up appearances," she says. "But I know that I would be a wreck if I had a huge mortgage. I would be way more emotionally distraught than I am living in a basement."

Forget the basement – the Bells are simply living within their means.

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