personal finance

The budget breakdown of a nurse working on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic in Detroit


This story is part of CNBC Make It’s Millennial Money series, which profiles people around the world and details how they earn, spend and save their money.

Ron Navarro is a self-described “late bloomer” when it comes to money. The now-30-year-old didn’t really pay attention to his finances, he says, until he went to nursing school in the Philippines in 2010 at age 20. It took living — and budgeting — on his own in another country for him to get his money into shape. 

The Philippines shaped his financial viewpoint in other ways, too. Though he moved back to Michigan, six years ago, he still mostly uses cash to pay for things, he says, which is common in the Philippines. He splits his household expenses with his mother, Gertrudes, and his wife, Carmela. Everyone contributes what they can, and there’s rarely arguments over who bought what, or who pitched in more or less. 

“One thing about the Philippines is that not a lot of people have credit cards,” he says. “Even though people there might not have as much money, they really don’t have debt. They help each other out as a family.”

Ron Navarro preparing for a day at work as a nurse at Detroit Receiving Hospital.

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That family mentality also shapes how Navarro approaches his work in the U.S. As a registered nurse in the emergency department of DMC Detroit Receiving Hospital, Navarro is on the frontlines of the pandemic in one of the hardest-hit regions in the country. 

“People are passing away with loved ones on the phone. They’re usually alone,” Navarro told CNBC Make It in April, just as the city’s daily Covid cases and deaths were beginning to fall. “We’re the ones that take place of their loved ones.

It’s been especially difficult to see patients enter the hospital “walking and talking,” he says, only to be intubated – the term used when a person has a tube inserted to help them breathe — and unresponsive a few hours later.

But he views it as his duty to care for the community no matter the circumstances, referencing the Florence Nightingale Pledge for nurses, which puts the welfare of the community before individuals.

Ron Navarro and some of his coworkers at Detroit Receiving Hospital.

Courtesy of Ron Navarro

“I have seen and heard of coworkers, veteran nurses [and] doctors who teared up, something that you don’t really see,” he says. In the E.R. “people there are pretty tough. And we have to be because we see a lot of things.”

It helps, he says, that he is eligible for overtime pay. Navarro earned around $90,000 pre-tax last year with overtime. In the first few weeks of the outbreak, he worked 12-hour shifts, four-to-five days per week. Recently, though, he’s scaled back his time to his regular schedule of three, 12-hour days per week at the behest of his mother and wife, who worry about his exposure to the virus. He estimates he’ll make around the same amount this year.

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Navarro’s mother came to the United States from the Philippines in the 1970s, and she was a nurse at the same hospital where her son works. She retired in 2014. One of the big differences between their experiences, he says, is that his mother receives a pension from the hospital, which the family puts toward their bills. Navarro will not receive that when he retires, as it’s no longer offered to hospital employees.

Getrudes Navarro finishing nursing school in 1968.

Courtesy of Ron Navarro

But that doesn’t bother Navarro. It’s a blessing to be able to do what he loves while earning decent money.

“I love nursing, taking care of people,” he says. “It’s an honor to be helping those in need.”

Living and working in Michigan

Navarro lives in the house he grew up in in Troy, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, with Carmela and his mother.

He splits many of his monthly expenses with his wife and mother, and the exact breakdown of who pays for what depends on the month. “It is actually pretty common for Asians, and for Filipinos, to pass down what they have,” he says.

Ron Navarro sits with his wife Carmela and mother in their Troy, Mich., home.

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Though his mother and father had paid off the house before they gave it to their son, Navarro decided to renovate it in 2015. The couple also purchased a condo in the Philippines in 2018, where Carmela grew up and where Navarro lived for four years while he attended nursing school.

He feels like rushing the home renovation is not only his biggest financial mistake, but he admits it’s the biggest fight he’s had about money with Carmela and his mother. He took out a $180,000 mortgage on his house, and used $100,000 for renovations and $80,000 to buy an income property in the Philippines, which he plans to rent out to earn extra money. 

The kitchen renovation.

Courtesy of Ron Navarro

“Sometimes that’s how I am. When I want something, I do everything at once,” he says. In hindsight, he wishes he had padded his emergency fund more instead of spending so much renovating the house, but as the family is still living well within their means, he’s giving himself grace for the hasty decision making.

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Navarro completely remodeled the first floor of the house, ripping out carpet and wood paneling from the 1970s, and adding new appliances to the kitchen. They also updated the landscaping and added a new staircase to the basement. 

Now, he’s in a comfortable spot. With his salary, his wife’s income (Carmela works in accounts receivable for Beaumont Health Systems in Detroit) and his mother’s pension, the family makes well above the $97,000 median household income for his area.

Ron met Carmela’s family in the Philippines in 2010.

Courtesy of Ron Navarro

They are also able to send $300 to Carmela’s family in the Philippines every month. They have helped send both of her younger siblings to college. Navarro thinks of it as repayment for the help and support the family provided him when he lived in the Philippines for four years. “I can never pay them back fully,” he adds.

“Like the saying goes, money doesn’t buy happiness, but it sure can help.”

How the Navarro family budgets

So far, the pandemic has done little to change the family’s budget. His wife is still working, and Navarro is bringing in more money than usual thanks to overtime. 

Ron Navarro driving to work at Detroit Receiving Hospital.

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Even before the pandemic, Navarro and his wife spent most of their time at home: Because of his atypical work schedule, they went out once every other weekend at most. “My wife and I, we don’t really buy a lot of stuff,” he says, aside from travel — the couple went to Japan last year — and their two cars, which they hope to pay off in full this summer. The couple put their stimulus relief checks in their emergency fund. 

Here’s the family’s estimated monthly spending as of May 2020:

  • Savings: $1,600
  • Housing: $1,515
  • Transportation: $1,232 for car and truck payments, gas
  • Insurance: $902 for car, dental, health, life
  • Food: $600
  • Utilities: $480
  • Family support: $300
  • Phone: $150
  • Subscriptions: $71 for Amazon Prime, his gym, Netflix, etc.

While Navarro is the breadwinner, the three family members split monthly expenses between themselves. His mother helps with groceries, for example, and pays for her own medical expenses. “We all pitch in in our own ways,” he says. “We just all help each other out.”

Navarro personally saves $1,600 per month: $400 goes to his liquid savings account, $700 is invested in his 401(k) and he invests an additional $500 in a Roth IRA. He has $1,400 in savings and nearly $40,000 saved for retirement.

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Ron and Carmela at their civil wedding service.

Courtesy of Ron Navarro

After that, his family’s biggest expense is housing, including a $50 monthly fee for their condo in the Philippines (the rest of the condo is paid off) and the monthly mortgage payment on their home in Troy. They also pay around $480 per month for cable, Wi-Fi, heat, electricity and other utilities.

The family of three spends around $600 on food, mostly on groceries to prepare meals at home.

What the experts say

CNBC Make It asked Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, president of Charles Schwab Foundation and certified financial planner, to comment on what Navarro is doing right with his money and where he could improve.

Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz is the president of Charles Schwab Foundation and a certified financial planner.

Courtesy of Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz.

Schwab-Pomerantz is impressed with where Navarro stands now. 

“With zero credit card balance, the investment property paid off, and his vehicles almost paid off, Ron is in a great position to secure his financial future,” she tells CNBC Make It.

Contributing to both a 401(k) and Roth IRA is a great way to have diversified income streams in retirement, she says. He should keep that up as long as he can. 

And while he’s saving a not-insignificant portion of his salary now, she says increasing the “buffer” of his savings account should be his priority going forward. This is especially true with an investment property to take care of — where unexpected costs may creep up — and with the family contributions he and Carmela are making.

Ron and Carmela Navarro outside of their Troy, Mich., home.

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“When Ron finishes paying off his cars, he should consider increasing his savings rates that much more,” she says, which means he could save an additional $900 or more a month. Carmela, too, “can contribute earnings to her own retirement accounts.”

Finally, Schwab-Pomerantz says it’s crucial for Navarro to put his mental and physical health first, especially in such a demanding field. Overtime pay is great, but he also needs to take time for himself and his family.

“While Ron has opportunities for over-time as a registered nurse, it’s important that he takes care of his health and doesn’t overdo it,” she says. “Taking care of his mental and physical health is the best way for Ron to protect his earnings potential and continue taking care of his family, and patients.”

Ron (C) with his wife Carmela (L) and mother (R)

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