For Eric Chiado and Kelly Knieling, it all started with a Christmas hobby horse.
The year was 1998, and they splurged to buy the horse for their 2-year-old daughter, Chloe. "And then she never used it," Ms. Knieling remembered, laughing.
The purchase put them over their $5,000 credit card limit and slapped them with a penalty, and while that wasn't a back breaker, it was a warning sign.
Mr. Chiado had a good job as an engineer, and they always paid cash for major purchases like appliances or furniture, and yet somehow, like many other middle-class families, they were always struggling.
"That was also the year we said we have so little money we can't even buy gifts for anyone else. We didn't buy for each other that year, and I remember my mother being horrified by that," Ms. Knieling said.
But it wasn't just a holiday crisis.
"At that time, he was paying the bills and he would often look at me and say 'All right, we have $60 left,' and I would say, 'But we have to eat for two weeks.' "
"We were in the place of every month having no money left, literally paying everything out and realizing we were one of those paycheck-to-paycheck families," Mr. Chiado added.
It has taken a lot of hard work and determination to climb out of that hole, they said.
It also took Dave Ramsey, a Christian financial adviser who has built a large following through a popular radio program and several books.
When they first heard about Mr. Ramsey, Mr. Chiado and Ms. Knieling were attending Forest Hills Presbyterian Church, but they couldn't afford the $80 fee to attend the Ramsey course that the church was offering.
Later, a friend loaned them all the Ramsey tapes, and they watched them back to back over two days, "like they were movies," Mr. Chiado said. "After we watched the first couple tapes, we thought, 'This is it.' "
The couple now teaches Mr. Ramsey's Financial Peace course, as well as following its principles in their daily lives. The oversimplified version of the Ramsey approach is that families should first build up an emergency fund of $500 to $1,000. After that, he recommends paying off all credit card and other debts, from smallest to largest. Finally, Mr. Ramsey is OK with people having mortgages, but ideally just for 15 years, "and he says whatever payment you can afford on a 15-year mortgage should determine what price house you can buy," Mr. Chiado said.
Over the past several years, they have paid off student loans of $10,500, several car loans totaling $58,000, and consolidation and home equity loans of $16,000.
Their student loans are one sign of how much has changed in the American economy.
Both of them were able to get contributions from relatives that paid for most of their undergraduate education -- a level of support that most families cannot afford today.
For their daughter, Chloe, a sophomore at Norwin High School, the couple has used Pennsylvania's 529 college savings plan to pay for about $9,000 worth of tuition credits, and Ms. Knieling recently returned to work in hopes that her salary can pay for much of the rest.
But they realize how much more challenging college costs are today than when they went to school.
"I talked to a guy at work who's about five years out of school," Mr. Chiado said, "and he said he and his wife owe over $100,000 in school loans. How do you get out from under that?"
"I mean, that's a mortgage," Ms. Knieling added, shaking her head.
Besides paying off most of their consumer debt, Mr. Chiado and Ms. Knieling, both 47, also have refinanced their mortgage twice to get lower interest rates, reducing the term each time, and are now on schedule to pay off their $76,000, 15-year loan in 11 years.
Their attractive, modest home north of Route 30 would sell for about $145,000 today, and they have accumulated $178,000 in retirement savings and stock in Mr. Chiado's company and a $15,000 emergency fund.
What would life be like if they hadn't changed their financial habits?
"We might not be living in this house," Ms. Knieling said. "We might have tried to trade up. We might be driving two late-model vehicles that we would have financed to the hilt."
"And our savings wouldn't be anywhere near where they're at now," Mr. Chiado added.
They believe Chloe had to bear the biggest impact of their lifestyle turnaround.
"Honestly, I think it was harder on her," Mr. Chiado said. "We had no cable TV, and all her friends would talk about these shows, and she didn't watch them."
But Chloe, 15, has gotten used to the family regime.
One day recently, she was shopping for a new winter coat, "and I noticed that the one I liked was $50 but there was one next to it that was $30. So I got that one." Her choice was darker and didn't have a fur collar, "but I was thinking I could spend that other $20 on another item like a shirt."
The Chiado-Knieling family also faithfully makes one other payment -- they tithe, or pay one-tenth of their pretax income, to their congregation, Norwin Christian Church.
They increased their church giving gradually starting several years ago, and now that they have reached the tithe level, Ms Knieling said, "I guess I've come to the belief that it's not my money. It's all God's money and he asks for 10 percent back. That's not my 10 percent to argue about, and if I just remove it from the equation, he will make sure the 90 percent is enough."
What income do Mr. Chiado and Ms. Knieling think a family needs to be middle-class today?
Mr. Chiado estimates it takes between $50,000 and $250,000 a year, "which is probably going to raise some eyebrows."
"I know the way we live on the money we make," his wife added, "and while I think a lot of Americans believe $50,000 gives you a middle-class income, I'm not so sure it does."
Mark Roth: email@example.com or 412-263-1130.