Has your mom or dad ever lost a job? Or had to work an extra job to earn more money? Or told you that your family just can't afford the shoes or bike you want because they're too expensive? If lots of families are having those problems, that's one sign that the country's economy is not healthy.

"The U.S. economy" is kind of a grab-bag term for the money people earn at their jobs and the profits companies make from the goods and services people pay for. A president usually gets the credit if the economy is doing well and the blame if it's not. The economy is usually a big election issue. But listening to the two major candidates describe America's economy today can be confusing:

Strong and getting stronger, says President George W. Bush, who has been in office nearly four years.

Pretty crummy, says Senator John F. Kerry, the challenger.

To figure it out, you really have to pay attention. Bush notes that nearly 1.7 million new jobs were created in the past 13 months. True.

Kerry points out that, if you look at the four years since Bush took office, the total number of jobs actually dropped. Also true. Figures show that the number of jobs has fallen by more than 821,000 during the Bush years.

The president says the job losses are not his fault. The economy tends to move in cycles, which means it's in really good shape for a few years and then has a few not-so-good years. Bush says the economy was starting to head into a down period as he took office.

He also says that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, hit the economy very hard. Lots of businesses, such as the airlines, lost money and jobs because of the attacks. Bush says the jobs added recently show that the economy is moving into a good cycle. Still, he will be the first president in 72 years to have the country lose jobs during his term.

Finding jobs for Americans isn't the only economic problem a president faces. The government's own finances are in bad shape. Americans should care: It's their money the government is using. Adults pay taxes, a percentage of their paychecks that goes to the government, which uses the money for schools, highways, the military and other things. Ask your parents what they pay in taxes.

One thing that's adding a huge cost is that the government has been spending more than it has -- $413 billion more in 2004. That's called a deficit. As a result of several years of overspending, the government has a total debt of $7.4 trillion.

The government works like any household: Tax money comes in (like your parents' paychecks) and budget money goes out (like what your parents spend on food, a house, a car). If families spend more than they've got, they go into debt and have to borrow money. Then they have to pay extra to whatever bank or credit card company loaned them that money. That extra payment is called interest.

In the case of the U.S. government, the gigantic debt means this year the country owed $168 billion in interest alone. That's more than the government spends on education, police, help to other countries and the space program put together. Bush and Kerry both have promised to cut the deficit in half, but the only ways to do it aren't easy or popular: Spend less money or bring in more tax money.

The government actually had extra money four years ago, roughly $5.6 trillion projected over 10 years. Where'd it go?

Well, the president cut taxes for Americans at the same time the country was going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tax cuts are generally popular with voters. They give people more money to spend, and some people say that can help a slumping economy. But wars cost the government a lot of money (the war in Iraq has cost $120 billion so far). With less tax money coming in and more money going out to pay for the wars, the country finds itself with a big debt.

Managing money can be tough, whether it's your allowance, a parent's paycheck or the national budget. These candidates have very different ideas on how to manage the economy.

-- Fern Shen

BUSH AND KERRY ON . . . THE ECONOMY