Farm family expenses under scrutiny

Farm family expenses under scrutiny

As grain prices continue to ebb lower, household costs must be examined. Part one in a series.

Tractor pulling competitions are a tradition in the Jon and Tracey Layden family of Hoopeston, Ill. For two decades the couple has traveled the Midwest with two tricked-out trucks to compete at tractor pulling events, and continued the tradition when son Mason, now 20, joined the family sport as a 13-year-old.

Now, all that may be coming to an end — at least, temporarily. With grain prices going nowhere, farm families like the Laydens are looking to make cuts — both on the farm and elsewhere.

Mason (left), Jon, Tracey and Trey Layden of Hoopeston, Ill., are scrutinizing family living expenses as grain prices continue ebbing lower.

“I have two very expensive toys,” says Jon. “It could come to the point where we don’t run them next year. I’ve seen a lot of guys take down their farms because they don’t know when to stop. If things aren’t better next year, I’m not going to lose the farm so I can keep pulling.”

Jon and Tracey, along with Mason and 16-year-old Trey, are not alone in sacrifices being made on the home front. Family living expense is one area that has doubled in the past 10 years for most farm operations; yet, economists say it is the most difficult area to cut because of family intangibles. With crop prices in the doldrums, farms need to make sacrifices at home as well as in the business.

“Cutting the family living budget is probably the hardest conversation that has to take place,” says Curt Covington, senior vice president at Farmer Mac. “Turning the boat around on living expenses is very difficult because many of those become fixed expenses in the budget — the second home, the big toys. We can talk about cutting back living expenses, but in many cases, it means selling assets you bought in the good times. That’s a difficult thing to do.”

Making changes

How can you make changes? Is it just cutting big-toy assets like fishing boats or exotic vacations? Or is this about monthly living costs?

Yes and yes, says Dale Nordquist, associate director at the University of Minnesota Center for Farm Financial Management. “There’s not one big area to hit — we must tighten up everywhere,” he says. “It’s an all-out warfare. You can’t make a great impact by just cutting in one area. It takes cutting a little here and a little there.”

Once many farm expenses are cut, Nordquist says, the next cuts come in the home. Food expenses are one of the largest household expense categories, so eating out less can be a logical place to begin.

Tracey says she has always tried to seek bargains when buying groceries for a family with two active boys. But it’s easier to grab fast food before or after late-night sporting events. Now more than ever, though, she’s cooking meals at home.

“I try to buy groceries where they’re less expensive and purchase the name-brand items only if I can truly tell a difference in quality,” she says. “We’re also trying to eat at home a lot more. I’ll cook a meal in the afternoon, so that it’s ready for us when we get home from basketball games at night.”

Nordquist says the next logical area to evaluate is recreation.

“It doesn’t take a family long to get to $5,000 on a vacation,” he says. “The easiest things to cut are the non-necessities. Unfortunately, that’s what makes life fun. But at times like this, we may have to make those sacrifices. Those killer toys? It may just not be the right time, for now.”

Standard utilities, including Internet and phone, are required for business and are an obvious necessity, Nordquist says. However, possibilities for bundling these services or cutting back to less-expensive plans could be an option.

Couch Lee writes from Wellington, Ill.

Next: prepare a budget and cash-flow projection for your family

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