KIMBERLING CITY — For Ashley and Stetson Allen, life is a series of conscious, pragmatic choices that put long-term goals ahead of in-the-moment wants. Careful decisions and the willingness to compromise have put them on a track to career advancement and financial security.
But it hasn't been a straight or smooth path.
For now, their decisions center around their 14-month-old son, Jackson. Stetson, 26, works nights cleaning offices for a janitorial company, and spends his days taking care of Jackson and making sales calls to expand the company. Ashley, also 26, works as a real estate assistant during the day and takes over Jackson's care at night.
After graduating high school from the southwest Missouri towns of Reeds Spring and Pierce City, neither went to college.
"I originally kind of did want to do a trade school for interior design," Ashley told me. "The thought of a four-year college didn't appeal to me as much just because I felt like I didn't need to take other classes just to learn interior design.
"Now that I'm older I see that's a little naive, but that's how it goes."
For Stetson, it was a bit more complicated. He wanted to go to trade school and eventually train to be a police officer.
"That never happened," he said.
The obstacles, according to Ashley, were Stetson's parents. They didn't support his interest in law enforcement, in part because they are Jehovah's Witnesses.
And neither sets of parents had gone to college, so didn't feel the need to encourage their children to go. Ashley's father was an electrician in the Navy before becoming a ride mechanic at Silver Dollar City. Stetson's dad worked as a car mechanic before joining the line at the chicken factory in Monett.
After high school, Stetson moved to Springfield and began working in construction. Ashley found a job in Reeds Spring as a receptionist for a real estate office. When they were 22, a mutual friend introduced them, and they began dating. They were married that same year.
They struggled a bit to find a stable career without going to college, but they feel they are in a place now that they don't need a degree.
"I think we've lucked out. I was worried there for awhile when I didn't do it," Ashley said. "But we both work full time and enjoy ourselves, and have room to grow in our respective fields."
The Allens do want Jackson to have the option to go to college, as long as it's his choice.
Both Ashley and Stetson have done some training as they've gone along as needed for their jobs. Recently, Ashley received her license to sell real estate. They're hoping she'll start bringing in a bit more money through commissions soon.
That step forward came from another step back: Their income went down when Jackson was born, and Ashley switched from being a receptionist to an assistant to give her more flexible work hours.
Now their goals are in reach: "Own our own home within five years. Have some newer vehicles, actually get a second vehicle because we're down to one," said Stetson.
"That's hard," Ashley added, "but because we work opposite schedules it works out okay."
Stetson expanded on their wish list: "Hopefully be able to give Ashley the option that if she doesn't have to work if she doesn't want to."
"But don't tell my boss!" Ashley joked.
But the most important thing, Ashley said, is "to feel like we're not living paycheck to paycheck and not have a laughable amount in savings."
Right now, the Allens make about $2,400 a month. Most of it goes to rent, gas, food, cell phones and other utility bills. And there's another monthly bill they pay each month – to David's Bridal. Four years after their wedding, they're still paying for Ashley's wedding dress.
"It was worth it to get the dress I wanted, though," Ashley said.
This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.