Chris Ledford has a plan. If everything goes perfectly, in five years he'll move out of his parents' home. When he's 35.
"That's a perfect-case scenario," said Ledford, a salesman for a golf course supply company with an associate degree in applied science from SUNY Cobleskill.
He will be getting married soon, and his bride-to-be, Virginia Nilsen, 27, will move into his basement apartment in his parents' Shirley home. She'll leave her childhood home in Port Jefferson, where she now lives with her mother.
With a combined income approaching $100,000, they hope it will be easier once they are living together to make payments on their $150,000-plus in student loans, their credit card debt, their routine expenses, and to maybe save for a house down payment and a future family. But for now, there's not enough money to get a place of their own.
"Yeah, I definitely feel trapped a little bit," said Ledford, whose monthly expenses include $800 rent to his parents and a $900 student loan payment. "It just seems like I've been working so long and so hard to keep myself above water and I have nothing to show for it. At the end of the month, I'm broke with barely any savings."
He's not alone. Census figures show more young adults are living with their parents -- from waves of recent college graduates confronting a sluggish job market, to men and women in their 30s. Many are burdened with debt, and earn just enough to get by, with little or no room in the budget for unexpected expenses such as replacing worn car tires or a medical emergency. While some say they are still optimistic about the future, the long wait for better times has been dispiriting and ego-bruising.
"Sometimes I feel really down about it," said Dora Limongelli, 32, who works in a hair salon and attends classes at Queensborough Community College, prerequisites to pursuing an education degree. She moved back in with her mother in Williston Park three years ago when her massage therapy career -- which she took on $20,000 in debt to prepare for -- proved unstable and ill-paying. "I feel like I shouldn't be here right now. I'm going backward. This wasn't the plan."
Yet, she added, she is grateful she can help her mother with rent and that she has a home to go to. "I know people who can't make it and have nowhere to go. They want to go back to school, but they can't."
Experts: Sign of hard times
The Census Bureau's "America's Families and Living Arrangements: 2011" report, issued earlier this month, found that 19 percent of men ages 25 to 34 were living with parents in 2011, up from 14 percent in 2005. Ten percent of women in that age group live at home now, up from 8 percent in 2005.
Among those 18 to 24, 59 percent of men and 50 percent of women remain at home, up from 53 and 46 percent respectively in 2005.
Pearl Kamer, chief economist of the Long Island Association, said those figures reflect the grim picture for young people entering a poor economy where jobs are scarce, benefits are down, wages are stagnant and housing costs are high. While the economy affects all age groups, young people may find it harder to get a first job, or, if they have a job, may be the first to be laid off. Also, they can expect fewer salary increases and promotions.
"It's clear the middle class is being squeezed and the middle class we knew on Long Island thirty years ago is not the middle class we see today," Kamer said. "Today, so called middle-class families are living paycheck to paycheck, and some are using food pantries. And children of struggling families are more likely not to go to college, and [if they do] are more likely to assume high levels of debt, which puts them at a huge disadvantage."
Noting that Long Island's housing costs are higher than "virtually anywhere else in the country," she said, "The fact that you have debt and expenses means even so-called affordable rentals may be beyond your reach."
Many in their 20s and 30s are remaining at home longer than they'd prefer.
They'd move out, but 'stuck'
"I take it one step at a time," she said. "If I look at the bigger picture, I feel crippled. I am crippled. I want to be optimistic about the future, but I just don't know for sure."
In the meantime, living with her mother and stepfather, she can't have friends over, and on most nights, she has to be in by 10 p.m.
"They don't want me coming in and making noise," she said, noting that she and her brother, 21, create extra expenses and disruption for her parents. "Everyone tries to be polite about it, but you know it's not easy for anyone. There's definitely rules, and I can't really say anything. It's hard. I feel like a child, and I'm 27."
Carrie Gillen of Bohemia, at 22, would love to be on her own, but finds herself, like many other recent college graduates, living with her parents. She graduated in May from Eastern University in Pennsylvania with an education degree and -- like many education majors -- with no teaching prospects. She cobbled together work as a baby-sitter, and a catering attendant, until recently landing a job as a teaching assistant at a school for disabled children.
"It's not specifically what I graduated for," she said, "but it's in the teaching profession." As she studies to take the New York State exam that would allow her to teach math here, she said she plans to save money toward her own apartment.
Meanwhile, she is not the only child at home. One brother is away at college, but a younger brother in high school is still at home, as is her older brother, 23, a New York City police officer, who sleeps in a basement bedroom while his girlfriend uses a bedroom upstairs.
Their father, Timothy, a retired police officer, drives a car with the license plate "FULHOUSE."
He and his wife like having Carrie at home, he said, "but I wish it was under better circumstances. It's a nightmare. These poor kids. I was coming into the workforce in the late '70s and it was a recession then, but I think this one is worse."
Hurt by prospects, debts
Timothy Gillen added, "Most of the kids, they have a good work ethic, and they all got jobs, but it's not in their field and it's not the salary they should be making."
Virginia Nilsen, for example, has a bachelor's and master's degree in education from Dowling College, but could only find a relatively low-paying teaching position in a private preschool. She supplements that salary with an evening secretarial job. Recently, she had to buy two new car tires, and could do it only with help from Ledford.
Larena Conti, 25, tends bar at a restaurant where she's seen a decline in patrons and tips. Her income fluctuates widely from week to week. She lives with her mother and younger sister in Islip, and isn't happy about it.
"I feel it's a social stigma," said Conti, who has a two-year business degree. She's searching for a new career path and would like to go back to school if she could afford it.
"At a certain age you're supposed to be on your own, starting a career, starting a relationship and, you know, it's tough. It's nearly impossible for someone my age to survive on my own without help," Conti said.
She added, "I'm tired of being a bartender and don't want to be doing this the rest of my life, but how am I going to change that?"
And at any age, survival can be rough in a poor economy.
Last year, Sean Moody, 38, lost his job as a chef. He'd moved into his mother's house in Westbury a few years ago when he returned to New York from another state, but he intended to remain for six months or so. He stayed on, helping his mother, Barbara, who is 64 and works part-time, with the rent. Now, he has a girlfriend and infant child, and no income. He recently completed a course in asbestos removal and is looking for work.
"Of course I appreciate everything my mother has done," he said. "But you want to make it on your own."
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Nilsen's mother was widowed. She was divorced from Nilsen's father, who is deceased.