'Ballin' on a budget'

How a displaced Louisiana family manages its finances.

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[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What's your money worth? A new series from the frontline of the cost of living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Danielle Morris

Age: 37

Occupation: School health aid

Lives with: Husband Joshua (38), sons Ashton (11) and Josiah (4), and their puppy, Gracie (5 months)

Lives in: Dulac, Louisiana, United States. Currently living in a church after the family’s mobile home was destroyed by Hurricane Ida in August 2021.

Monthly household income: roughly $4,750 [Median monthly income for a family of four in Louisiana: $7,289]

Total expenses for the month: $3,834.55

A photo of Morris standing outside.
Danielle Morris stands in front of the empty lot where the family's mobile home once stood on Shrimpers' Row in Dulac, Louisiana [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]
Danielle Morris stands in front of the empty lot where the family's mobile home once stood on Shrimpers' Row in Dulac, Louisiana [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

The Morris family’s life has changed a lot this year.

Last August, Danielle and her two sons, Josiah and Ashton, might have spent the morning fishing off the dock across Shrimpers Row from their mobile home in the town of Dulac, catching crab or red drum fish in the Grand Caillou bayou. In the afternoon, they’d stroll two doors down to Danielle’s sister’s place, where the adults could sit chatting on the shaded porch and watch the children play with a dozen kids from the neighbourhood under the live oaks, or the rabbits in the hutch out back. Later, Danielle’s husband, Joshua, would get home from the oil fields where he works and Danielle would cook dinner. Their pug Mikey would beg for scraps. Danielle might open the screened windows to hear the frogs if the humidity lifted and the night was cool.

But that was last year.

On August 29, 2021, Hurricane Ida crashed ashore in southern Louisiana, cracking the live oaks, sinking shrimp boats, and destroying tens of thousands of homes, including the Morrises'. While sheltering at Danielle’s grandparents’ house, the powerful winds picked the Morris home up, moved it one metre (three feet), and dropped it. The winds also destroyed the school in Dulac where Danielle worked and toppled transmission towers, leaving the region without power for weeks.

In the ensuing days, the rabbits scattered and were lost. Mikey, the family’s dog, died of heatstroke. For the first week, they slept in their cars and then bounced around between relatives' homes. After a month, they moved into a church where Danielle had been volunteering, six km (3.7 miles) down the bayou, just temporarily until they could get new housing sorted. A year later, they are still there.

Today the Morrises are among the hundreds of families still displaced by Ida, some living in hotels or tents, all of them failed by a loose-knit patchwork of private and public support systems. The Morris home wasn’t covered by insurance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hasn’t given them enough for a new home, and nearly all the public housing in town was condemned after the storm. The Morrises live in one room towards the back of the church in a space the size of a grade-school classroom. Their housing troubles have been compounded by the rising cost of living, which has made their necessities - groceries, gasoline, dog food - increasingly expensive.

An illustration of a graph showing inflation in the United States from June 2021 to June 2022. It says in June 2021 inflation was up by 5.4 percent whereas in June 2022 inflation was up by 9.1 percent.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Danielle, her long dark hair tied back from her face, walks slowly down the church’s tiled corridor - lights off to save money - pausing to rub the belly of Gracie, their new five-month-old pug, who wriggles and squirms about her feet. “What were you eating?” she coos before Ashton scoops Gracie into his arms. He’s the spitting image of his father, though he has Danielle’s sun-kissed colouring.

Danielle opens the door to the family’s room, and points to each corner in turn: “That’s our closet. Our living room. Kitchen. Their beds, our beds, and that’s all of our belongings that we have left from our house.” Their possessions have been carefully arranged for space: the adults’ wooden bed is pushed against the far wall, separated from the boys’ single beds by stacked plastic shelving. Two grey recliners take up the centre of the room, turned to face the television. A stuffed clothing rack separates the door from the kitchen corner. Wedged on the shelves that line the whole far wall is everything else: pillows, toy guns, baby wipes, notebooks, clothes and a rolled-up brown tarp, the kind used to cover holes in a storm-damaged roof.

Even before they began living at the church, Danielle made regular donations. Now, since they’re living there without being charged rent, they try to give more when they can. In June, she says: “we gave a bit extra because they mentioned their electric bill has gone up.”

Danielle is grateful for the room, despite the close quarters. She is, generally, extravagant with her optimism: Sure, they lost most of their possessions to Ida, but she’d been meaning to downsize anyway. And yes, they're all living in a single room, but at least they aren't homeless: "We're lucky," she asserts more than once.

Over the course of June, Danielle tracked her family's monthly expenses in collaboration with reporter Delaney Nolan.

Here are the expenses that tested her family's finances the most.

The family's expenses over one month

A photo of the Morrises, from left: Joshua, Ashton, Gracie, Danielle, and Josaiah (seated).
The Morrises, from left: Joshua, Josiah (seated), Ashton, Gracie the puppy, and Danielle [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]
The Morrises, from left: Joshua, Josiah (seated), Ashton, Gracie the puppy, and Danielle [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]


Danielle begins each day at about 6am, waking up the children by playing some soft piano recordings or Christian worship music. With the school in Dulac destroyed, she has to drive an extra 27km (17 miles) inland to Houma, to work at Josiah’s school as a health aid, dropping Ashton off on the way. Stopping to fill up the family SUV, she notes the climbing gasoline prices anxiously: they hit record highs this summer at $5 a gallon (3.8 litres).

The Grand Caillou Elementary School, where the Morris children attended and where Danielle worked as a health aide, was damaged by Hurricane Ida in 2021. Now they travel 30 minutes inland to Houma, Louisiana while the school is being repaired.
The Grand Caillou Elementary School, which the Morris children attended and where Danielle worked as a health aide, was damaged by Hurricane Ida in 2021 [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

In order to save money, Danielle makes a concerted effort to drive as little as possible. But June brings a heatwave, and the church is too far from neighbours or shops for her to walk anywhere in the heat. They no longer live near Danielle’s sister’s shaded porch. There’s no dock across the road. So it’s a steep price for her to pay: When Danielle decides not to drive to save petrol, it can mean she doesn’t leave the church for days or a week at a time.

Last year: $67.78* to fill up the SUV
This year: $107

A photo of a street with a sign that says
McDonald's is a convenient meal option for Danielle's family given that it is on the drive home from school  [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

Fast food dinner

On a Friday night, Danielle and the children get a treat: 20 pieces of chicken nuggets and two medium fries from McDonald’s. They’ll share the nuggets and fries among the three of them. Danielle uses coupons from the McDonald’s app to save $5.13; in fact, she uses coupon apps for “everything” to save money wherever possible. The coupons may only save a couple of dollars, but it all counts, now.

Danielle occasionally gets McDonald’s because it’s quick, conveniently located on the drive home from school, and relatively affordable. She prefers to cook since that’s cheaper, but sometimes it simply isn’t possible as she juggles commitments including work, the children’s school, and Ashton’s football practice. On top of that, Danielle is studying to become a registered nurse, which is made more challenging by the church’s occasional power outages during heavy rain. Luckily, a scholarship covers her tuition.

Last year: $12.63*
This year: $13.39

An illustration of a graph showing the rising price of milk, gasoline, bakery products, meat, poultry and fish and fruits and vegetables.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]


Danielle picks through the shelves at Family Dollar, noting its bare patches. Today the discount shop, the de facto supermarket in Dulac, doesn’t have bottled water, sliced turkey, or Powerade. She doesn’t remember the shop having shortages before Hurricane Ida.

Last year, she would’ve done a big monthly shop and bought groceries in bulk. But these days, the budget is too tight to make such a large purchase at once. So she does small shops, getting enough for just one day or week at a time. Today she purchased milk, white bread, canned spaghetti sauce, and ground beef. She picks store-brand most of the time since it’s cheaper, meaning that instead of the pricier Golden Grahams cereal, she reaches for Great Value: Honey Graham Crunch for the children. Danielle is relieved that the dollar store “started selling fresh produce after the hurricane. That’s a lifesaver because I don’t have to go to an actual grocery store.” Dulac is a “food desert” - the nearest grocery store is in Houma.

Hurricane season runs from June through November, so Danielle has also been stocking up on storm supplies like bottled water, canned food, batteries, and petrol for the generator. This year, petrol prices have been so steep it’s been hard to stock up more than a few cans. “It has to be enough,” Danielle says. “We’ll just figure it out. Maybe this year there won’t be any storms.”

The Morrises, like many residents of Dulac, are members of the Grand Caillou/Dulac tribe, which resides in the Louisiana bayous and has to contend with some of the most acute effects of the climate crisis, including more frequent and severe storms and rapid land loss. Indigenous communities in the US are already disproportionately vulnerable due to centuries of forced displacement, sterilisation, and genocide, and are now the first to shoulder the costs of the climate crisis. More than a quarter of Indigenous people in the US live in poverty, the highest rate among all minority groups in the country. A recent poll found that inflation has caused 69 percent of Indigenous people “significant financial problems”.

Last year: $39.60* for a two-day shop
This year: $44.95

A room is filled with the beds and belongings of a family with two children and a puppy in Louisiana
The Morrises have lived for more than a year in one room at the back of a church [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

Secondhand children’s clothes

Danielle already shopped at thrift stores for her children’s clothing but, lately, the aisles are more crowded. More and more Americans are turning to thrift stores to cut costs, which in turn means she’s competing with more shoppers to find clothes that will fit her family. Sales in the secondhand market are up more than 50 percent compared with last year. The prices are hard to beat: at Goodwill, stocked with donated goods, Danielle picks out a pair of used sneakers for Josiah for just $5. That makes a difference when the prices of everything else, dollar by dollar, seem to be creeping up.

Last year: $27*
This year: $29

A photo of a birthday cake with a candle shaped like the number four on it and it has the words
Josiah's fourth birthday cake was smaller this year than what Danielle would usually purchase [Courtesy of Danielle Morris]

Birthday cake

Josiah's fourth birthday falls on a Saturday in June. To celebrate, Danielle sets up a folding table by the free splash park and lays down a pink plastic tablecloth, three Costco pizzas and a dozen cupcakes. In the middle sits the birthday cake, with “Happy 4th Birthday Josiah” written in blue frosting. In each corner, there are tiny dogs from the children’s movie Paw Patrol.

The Paw Patrol cake that Danielle chose is “itty-bitty”, barely larger than an adult's hand. It’s smaller than what she would usually buy due to rising costs, but otherwise, she didn’t want to cut corners. “I try to give my kids as much as I can,” she says.

Danielle knows the toll that displacement has taken on her children. They miss Mikey and their old home. On a Tuesday afternoon at the waterfront one-acre property where their home once stood - what Josiah calls “our broken house” - Ashton brought his fishing pole to their dock while Danielle looked over the empty lot with bare patches of grass still showing where the flagstone path used to be. Out on the water, one of Ashton’s friends went by on an airboat.

“Wonder what they’re doing,” Danielle said, as they watched them noisily motor by.

“They’re just having fun,” Ashton said quietly.

Last year: $26.74*
This year: $30.59

A photo of Josaiah holding Gracie, the pug.
Josiah attempts to hold Gracie, whom Danielle describes as 'very wriggly' [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

Puppy vaccines

One afternoon, Danielle took Gracie to the vet and got an estimate for the cost of a first-time wellness visit for their puppy. The exam, including a round of shots and heartworm meds, would cost about $200 - too much.

So instead, Danielle, who used to work in a veterinary office, bought distemper and parvo vaccine shots at the feed store and administered them herself. They’ve also been trying to cut costs by switching brands of pet food and trying out a different, less effective flea medication.

They hadn’t expected to get a puppy after Mikey’s death. “I was like, ‘Never again can I love another dog. I’m absolutely not getting any more,'" Danielle says. But she was worn down by the children’s pleading, especially when they saw some puppies while visiting her brother. The children “fell in love. And dumb me, I don’t know why, but I’m crying when I see these puppies,” she recalls, laughing self-deprecatingly. So she caved and got Gracie, whom Josiah adores. “She sleeps in the bed with him,” she says, watching Gracie wriggle around in Josiah's arms in the church hallway. “She’s their best buddy.”

Last year: $24.49*
This year: $26.28

Five quick questions for Danielle:

1. What’s the hardest financial decision you had to make this month? Deciding we couldn’t take the kids on vacation. Normally we take a trip once a year during the summer and drive to Destin, Florida [500km (311 miles) east] to visit family and go to the beach for a week. Gas prices were outrageous this summer, and I like to take my kids to do things and don’t want them to miss out on stuff. We took them to some free little water parks and splash pads instead.

2. Which is the most worthwhile expense this month? We brought my grandparents - my father’s parents - to Texas so they could see one of their sons. We spent a little extra on that, but they don’t drive and haven’t seen him in years. They were really excited. My dad passed away, so it was nice for me, too, to see his brother.

3. When finances get tough - what advice do you have? If you can’t pay for it in cash, you don’t need it. We’ve been trying to live by that.

4. What’s your biggest money worry? Having no place to live. And on top of that, not being able to provide for my children’s needs and wants.

5. What’s the saving hack you are proudest of? Using coupons, shopping at sales - we call it ‘ballin’ on a budget’. And at Christmas, we just take all the kids from the whole extended family to the dollar store and let them pick out gifts for each other. They love it, and it only costs a few dollars to get Christmas presents for everybody.

*Last year’s prices are estimates calculated using data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index.

Source: Al Jazeera