Unemployment is up. The economy is down. What are you doing to balance your family's budget? Many of us are forgoing new cars, canceling vacations and cutting coupons. But what you can't trim are your taxes. It's why KPRC Local 2 investigative reporter Amy Davis is taking a closer look at how Houston-area members of Congress are spending your tax dollars.
WATCH IT: FIND IT: Statement Of Disbursements
We asked all eight Houston-area Congressional members whose expenses we compared to talk with us on camera.
They all answered our questions in writing, but only the three lowest spenders agreed to an on-camera interview.
On the floor of the house, members of Congress are debating health care. But, back at their district offices, the debate is about the cost of paper and printer ink.
"We try to spend the money wisely," said Congressman Ted Poe. "It is the taxpayer's money."
Every member of Congress gets an allowance. They can use the money for travel, paying staff, even to pay rent and utilities at their district offices.
The yearly allowance is use it or lose it. Any money your representative doesn't spend goes toward paying down the national debt.
"I'm really kind of proud that we turn money back every year," said Congressman Gene Green.
Each Congress member gets about the same allowance based on the size of their district and the distance to D.C.
John Culberson gets the most at $1.4 million. Ted Poe gets the least -- $1.3 million.
To be fair, we did the math to find out who spent the biggest percentage of their budget.
It seems saving money has little to do with being red or blue.
Republican Michael McCaul spent 97 percent of his budget in 2007 and 2008.
Republican Kevin Brady saved the most, spending just 77 percent in 2007 and only 80 percent of his allowance in 2008.
What does that mean to you?
In 2008, McCaul sent $45,445.53 back to taxpayers, compared to Brady's $272,700.64.
"It's just a conscious decision, you know. These are not our dollars," said Congressman Kevin Brady. "These are tax dollars."
Here is where everyone else fell in 2008.
Representative John Culberson comes in under McCaul, spending 94 percent of his allowance. He's followed very closely by Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, also at 94 percent, just a fraction of a percent behind him.
Ron Paul spent 92 percent. Al Green spent 89 percent. Ted Poe spent 83 percent; and Gene Green spent 82 percent.
None of our Representatives went over budget and there's a reason for that.
If a member spends more than they were allotted, they have to pay the difference out of their own pocket.
"It makes you wonder if such a rule were in place for the federal budget of some kind or another, would that give them an incentive to stop adding to the federal deficit?" asked Pete Sepp, the vice president for the National Taxpayer's Union.
Sepp studies the fine print in the records, just like we did. They are huge volumes of expenses released four times each year called the "Statement of Disbursements." While they're public record, they're not so easy to get or read.
"Thousands of pages, yet despite all of that ink, we still don't have a good idea of exactly where the money's going," said Sepp.
We had to ask the elected officials for clarification on some of the line items.
Congressman Ron Paul's office paid "John's Original Photography" $974 for Paul's new portrait, the sitting fee and pictures for his district offices.
When we asked Al Green's office about spending $1,400 on a Nikon camera, his staff told us they use the camera for pictures in the Congressman's newsletters, and since they don't hire a professional photographer, they said "a one-time expense for a high-quality camera saves money."
Sheila Jackson Lee paid a company nearly $10,979.70 in a three-month time period to take still pictures at various town hall meetings and hearings. Her staff told us, "This documentation provides resource material for our legislative work in Washington D.C. based on what we hear directly from our constituents."