Coming up short(Click to enlarge)
Coming up short (Click to enlarge) (Gregg Miller/Staff Artist)

GRANADA HILLS

As middle-class Americans, Kim Shekerlian and Stan Monterrosa have led the good life since getting married in 2003.

They own a home in Granada Hills, their two cars are paid off, they eat out, and they're looking forward to putting their daughter into an early preschool program.

But to finance the good life, the couple have dug themselves deeper and deeper into debt. They now live paycheck to paycheck and come up short about $380 a month.

"But I don't complain," Shekerlian, 28, said recently during her early morning two-hour commute to her job as a legal assistant in Century City. "I look at other people at work. They complain. If they knew about my commute in order to make ends meet, they'd feel different."

As the global credit squeeze puts a chokehold on economic growth here and abroad, American families are finding it tougher and tougher to borrow money to maintain the lifestyles they've grown used to.

The Bush administration hopes the $700 billion bailout package - approved by Congress and signed by the president on Friday - will kick-start the bank-to-bank lending that is a critical first step to making consumer credit more available.

But even the president said the effects of the bailout might not be felt for months. And economists like UCLA's David Shulman said the immediate outlook is not bright.

"We're having a credit crisis," Shulman said. "This means that lenders are extremely reluctant to lend and it's beginning to constrict the economy.


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Grappling with their bills and barely making a dent in the mountain of debt they've taken on since getting married, Shekerlian and Monterrosa are feeling the burn of living beyond their means - even with two jobs.

The bills keep coming - the mortgage, car insurance, gasoline, groceries and utilities, to name just a few. They also have a 2-year-old, Alysa Monterrosa.

Monterrosa and Shekerlian bring home $4,600 each month. They get another $500 a month renting a room to a relative. But they still come up short and get by paying just portions of their bills to buy time.

Shekerlian works for a television cable company and Monterrosa, 30, works for a retirement funds company as a financial service representative.

Like many Americans, Monterrosa and Shekerlian started out with minimal debt. But easy-to-get credit cards and an inability to control their spending habits eventually got the best of them.

"I got a student credit card and I started doing good at first," Monterrosa said during an interview at his home. "When I first started working at my current job, there was a two-month lapse between the new one and my old job. I had small debts, but I never fixed it."

Even though Monterrosa knows that his family's financial snapshot isn't great, he still splurges regularly on restaurant lunches during the week.

Geordie Crossan, a certified financial planner at NBS Financial Services Inc., says the couple's financial straits are not uncommon. But with some trimming here and there, the family can make some significant savings, Crossan said.

"What's more important, that lunch or that home?" asks Crossan. "He needs to bring lunch to work because $8 or $10 lunches are ridiculous."

Shekerlian, who generally makes her own lunch at home and takes it to work, has a stricter outlook on finances. She was raised to pay off her credit cards every month - the right way, her grandfather told her.

"I was raised to believe that you needed to have good credit to get things," Shekerlian said. "It meant everything to me."

The roots of the couple's financial problems started not long after they were married - at a time when the economy was stronger, interest rates were lower and the real estate market was booming.

While living in their Granada Hills home, which they purchased in 2002, they were urged by relatives to buy a condominium in Florida as an investment property. They could not make the payments and eventually the bank foreclosed on the property.

"The foreclosure was devastating," Shekerlian said. "I felt like my livelihood was crushed ... I didn't know if we could pay the bills or if we would have enough money for food."

The pair's priority became making the $1,850 monthly payment on the 3-bedroom, 1,600-square-foot house in Granada Hills. It's always been a monthly struggle.

The couple's financial picture worsened three years ago when Shekerlian worked for a subprime mortgage company as a legal assistant. At first it seemed like a good move, then business slowed down.

It was then that the couple decided to have a baby, so Shekerlian took some time off. During the seven months the couple's high-interest credit-card debt grew because she was no longer able to pay it off each month. She later defaulted on the debt.

Now at $25,000, the credit-card debt is accumulating due to a 25 percent interest charge. Shekerlian is attempting to begin repaying some of the debt, but with monthly bills that exceed their take-home salaries, it's been difficult.

Monterrosa, who works in Woodland Hills, believes that he and his wife are going to get through their credit woes one day.

They haven't applied for a home equity loan, they said, because they have bad credit due to the foreclosure. They save money by having Monterrosa's mom baby-sit. Shekerlian gets free dance classes through a friend. In return she helps her with basic office work in the dance studio.

"I can't say it hasn't been difficult," Monterrosa said. "But we're trying to do well. As long as I don't get laid off or fired, that's good enough for me."

To make up for not spending time with her daughter during the day, Shekerlian attends classes for new moms where she can bond with Alysa.

Monterrosa's mother, Vilma Arce, takes care of her granddaughter and sometimes helps her son and daughter-in-law by making them meals.

"I like sending food to them because I know life is hard for them," Arce said. "If family isn't united, then what do we have left?"

Even though the couple feel like their debts are huge, Crossan believes they can immediately do things to start saving money. For a start, they could sharply reduce clothing expenses and eliminate restaurant bills. They could also take on part-time jobs or try getting overtime at their current jobs.

"Sometimes we're late on payments," Monterrosa concedes but still keeps an upbeat attitude. "We will eventually get to everything. That's always been our goal."

justino.aguila@dailynews.com 818-713-3722