Gilles and Colette Dufresne and their four school-aged-children live comfortably on two salaries totaling $41,500 a year before taxes in this wooded suburb southwest of Paris, but they complain that, to get by, they still must scrimp and make too many little sacrifices for their taste.
The Dufresnes are a rare French bouregois family willing to talk about their finances with an outsider and to be quoted.
The Dufresne family has made the deliberate and atypical choise of concentrating its expenditores on a $1,000-a-month, four-bedroom luxury apartment in green surroundings, sparing themselves the usual Parisian bourgeois hassle of the weekend bumper-to-bumper rush to and from the country house.
Gilles Dufresne, 41, is the manager of the 530-room Arcade Hotel, the Paris member of a fast-growing chain jointly owned by Wagon-lits, the European equivalent of the Pullman Car Co., and a big Paris bank.
Colette Dufresne, 42, works part-time as an executive assistant to the president of Wagon-lits.
Gilles says he brings home $33,000 a year after paying the heavy French social security payments and the 6 percent of his gross pay that goes into his pension plan. (His employer contributes the equivalent of another 10 percent of his salary into the independently run retirement fund that should give him and his wife a comfortable pension).
Colette Dufresne brings home an additional $8,500 out of which nearly $3,000 a year goes for a maid who also helps with the children three hours a day, five days a week.
Gilles said that his wife's income has pushed the family into a higher tax bracket.
"I don't save money because I can't" said Gilles. "I would have to have second-rate housing and not take vacations. When I do have some extra money, I buy a piece of antique furniture. We make the rounds of the antique dealers when we go on an outing. We need an extendable dining table and some wardrobe chests."
The Dufresnes are also unusual French people because they are willing to move around. He opened his chain's first hotel in Bordeaux and has also run a resort hotel in Megeve in the French Alps.
"It's my ace," said Gilles. "My classmates had only one concern to lay anchor somewhere, find their little thing and live quietly in their little corner, to attach themselves to something. Me, I've moved five times in the past 15 years. It would bother me to get stuck here in Paris. I'm part of a young, growing chain. I speak good German and English. We are branching out, to Spain, England, Mexico. We are considering a hotel in America. I'd like to go there."
Despite his privileged position in his company, Gilles said of his family finances, "We are always living on the edge." The Dufresenes seem to spend an extraordinary amount of time hunting for bargains and short-cuts. As a member of a consumer cooperative, Colette gets a 20 percent discount on her beauty products and keeps her hair trimmed short so she does not need to go to the coffeur. She is active in a neighborhood food-buying co-op. The six-foot-four-inch Gilles buys his suits in January sales.
"We search for sales and deals," said Colette. The large television set in the spacious living room was bought at what the French call "a price" -- a bargain -- from the same dealer who supplied the Arcade's room TVS. The family vacation this year will be in Cirsica at another of the chain's hotels that Gilles used to manage.
He talks nostalgically, as do many French executives, of how much better off he was in the provinces. In Corsica, he drove a company car and had free lodging in the company hotel.
The Dufresnes take three weeks of vacation in summer and two weeks in winter. He is entitled to a week extra for working holidays and he saves up one of his regular four weeks for winter.
"There are lots of things we don't do that we'd like to," said Gilles Dufresne. "We'd like more luxurious vacations. We don't go skiing. I deprived myself of the pleasure of a beautiful car."
The Dufresnes drive a Simca 1000 bought second-hand three years ago. Gilles says it is too small for the family and that he would like a Volvo or Peugeot station wagon, "but they cost mort than $12,000, and paying out $2,000 a year to buy one strikes me as nuts."
Friends come about twice a month for what Colette described as a simple dinner. One such meal recently consisted of a bottle of red wine, an hors d'oeuvre, tasty stuffel veal rolls stewed with vegetables, cheese, ice cream, coffee and brandy.
The family is staisfied with the state schools which three of the four children attend. The eldest son, Christopher, 13 1/2, goes to a private progressive school because he was having learning problems. His tuition costs about $1,500. The second son, Nicholas, 11 1/2, seems to get the maximum out of the Meudon city programs, such as the week long camping trip he went on last month.
The family finances received a setback with the birth of the twins Martine and Valery, now 6.
"You can't imagine the effect of having to buy two of everything," said Colette. "Somehow, it seems like a lot more than double." But, since the twins came, the family gets $250 a month in government family allotments, which are not taxable. The Dufresnes do not count that $3,000 in their income. The children also provide heavy tax deductions.
The Defresnes are conscious of living better not only than most other French people, but also than most other peuropeans.
"I'm better off than an Englishman and certainly than a Scandinavian who has to pay 60 percent of his income in taxes," said Gilles, who pays 12 percent.