Your Thoughts on the Middle Class

I have been working on a post about “being middle class.” I originally wanted to ask all of you some questions before I put up the post, but then I thought that was bad blogging etiquette (asking you for your thoughts before I gave mine). So I started reading articles and writing the post. And the more I read about it, and wrote about it, and thought about it, the more I realized that I REALLY want to know what you all think before I post here. Basically, I want to sit down and have a conversation with all of you about this, and I want to hear what you think, because I’m still not sure what I think, and I’m hoping your thoughts will enlighten and inspire me.

So here it is. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about money and personal finances and how people get by in this country. It boggles my mind that we make as much as we do and still struggle to save money (and sometimes even to make ends meet). I have always considered myself “middle class”–upper middle class, to be more exact, and I wonder what the financial lives of others in the middle class actually look like. This led me to wonder what being “middle class,” really meant, what the actual parameters are (if any are agreed upon), and how people who are middle class feel about money and their own personal finances. So before I write more about all that, I want to ask you: Do you consider yourself middle class? Why or why not? How do you define “the middle class”? What does it mean to you to be “middle class” (whether you identify as belonging or not)? Do you ever think/read/write about “the middle class,” and if so, in what contexts? If you have anything else to share about this ubiquitous, and yet strangely elusive topic, please feel free to share.

And… Thoughts!

66 Comments

  1. I read a book once, a sociology study, that talked about people based on their social class. The author defined “poor” as people who received public benefits (food stamps, social security, welfare cash assistance, etc). “Middle class” she defined as people whose jobs required advanced education or who were in a supervisory role. The people who worked at jobs that didn’t require advanced education were “working class.” In this case she wasn’t looking at income. Which is interesting, because my job both requires advanced education and is supervisory, while K’s is neither. And yet he earns 3x what I do. Point being, I guess, that middle class is a series of attitudes and behaviors in addition to income.

    1. Aren’t the terms people use interesting? So far I’ve seen a lot of “lower-class” (shortened from “lower-economic class”), lower-middle class (which I believe is the “working class” your book was describing, “middle class,” “upper-middle class,” “upper class” and “wealthy.” I have also come across some interesting discussions about the difference between “upper class,” “rich,” and “wealthy.” I have not, though, seen anything that totally disregarded salary to concentrate solely on education. That is an interesting dichotomy, especially since, as you pointed out, people with advanced degrees don’t necessarily make much money (ahem, my husband with a JS making a starting teacher’s salary at a non-profit).

      I absolutely agree that that middle class is a series of attitudes and behaviors, in addition to income. Very well put.

  2. I grew up at an interesting intersection. My mom’s family is clearly upper class and my dad’s was “new middle class,” meaning my great grandparents were very poor immigrants and my grandpa was the first in his family to achieve the middle class. My parents acted very differently about most things as a result of those different perspectives. So the cultural attitudes toward money (why we need it, what we should do with it, how much we need to save, what happens if we are out of a job, etc). This is why my parents will never retire, because they never planned to. Our nuclear family is probably at the upper end of middle class now. We can afford a vacation every year and still save for retirement. Judging from those I see in the pharmacy, the middle class has shrunken and many who work in formerly middle class manufacturing jobs are in need of government assistance and often don’t notice or aren’t considering how much help they are getting to pay for healthcare especially. I think the middle class as it used to exist is gone. Nobody has the stability and support from their employer to afford a house, 2 cars, and a vacation every year with the rising costs of everything and the dwindling salaries, not unless their income puts them above middle class and they haven’t recognized it. I think about $15 an hour as the minimum wage goal and recognize that probably none of my 12 employees make that. My new hire who is experienced and licensed got a substantial raise from her last job and makes less than $15/hour still.

    1. “to afford a house, 2 cars, and a vacation every year” <-- it's interesting that you mention these indicators because they were in a few articles that I read about milestones of middle class life. And honestly, when I see the income parameters used to delineate the middle class, I can't imagine people who make that money could ever buy a house and a car and go on a vacation. Hopefully more on this tomorrow.

  3. I used to think we were upper middle class, but the numbers say we’re above that. What I find interesting is that I think of upper class as those with millions, living extravagant lives. That’s not us! We are able to save for college and retirement and savings, but e don’t live an extravagant lifestyle. I wish they’d redefine “upper class” into two groups, because out is misleading as one.

    Middle class…. What is it? What I know is that it’s not what it used to be – families that could support themselves, their homes, their cars, their retirement on a basic good job. It takes two workers in the family, in most cases, to attempt to have that lifestyle. The “upper class” is growing, the “lower class” is growing, and the “middle class” is definitely shrinking. People like to deny that, but it’s true. I used to deny it because I thought we were “middle class” and our friends were as well, but I was wrong. I was in denial. When I look at how hard people work today for less than 50 years ago, it is obvious. The middle class is shrinking.

    1. I think A LOT of people who read this blog consider themselves middle class, when the numbers would classify them as upper class. That is part of why I wanted to ask you all before I wrote a post about it, because I know that I always considered myself upper middle class, when in reality I’m not (not at all, actually, even when taking into account the COL in my area). And that has been very surprising to me. I think I have also thought of the “upper class” as those who make $250K+, but evidently they are the 5%. I think the people we have always envision as “upper class” are what economists would consider “wealthy,” or those with considerable accumulated wealth. Of course, there is a lot to be said about the person who believes they are making $200K a year, spending extravagantly, struggling to make ends meet and considering themselves middle class. Mindsets can be all over the place on this stuff.

      It’s true that the upper class is growing. People’s opinions seem to be conflicting about whether or not the lower class is growing (most seem to agree that they are making more, which I don’t really understand). In the end I think that the milestones of “middle class living” are better associated with the “upper class” these days, which makes sense when you take into account the fact that the cost of living has gone up while salaries have remained stagnant–a salary that used to afford a middle class lifestyle doesn’t anymore. It’s all really interesting (to me anyway).

        1. I will definitely be talking about it in my post… I doubt it will go up tomorrow. We’ve been having some rough nights here this week. 🙁

  4. I would consider us upper-middle. We have debt but we also have retirement. We can afford to pay for one of the nicest daycares around and pay for out-of-network or not-covered-by-insurance therapies. Our salaries are ridiculously high compared to where we were after college, and yet it still feels like we haven’t saved adequately. I mostly think about “the middle class” in the context of politics… politicians will say anything to win over “the middle class” but ignoring that most of “the middle class” is not at all secure financially and we (society) are not doing anything about that. And of course we (society) have a culture of blame about poverty, even though so many people are one illness or accident away from it.

    1. You’re right that the term/idea of “the middle class” is absolutely a political tool, and I hope to write semi-coherently about that later. And you’re also right that we have a culture of blame about poverty, even though most people are an accident or illness away from it. I once read that 75% of Americans don’t have enough saved to cover a $400 expense they haven’t budgeted for without using credit of some kind. Isn’t that insane?! I wonder how people do it, and the answer is obviously that they barely are. It’s kind of terrifying, actually.

  5. A model upper middle class used to be a family of 2-6 children with a Dad who worked in a non-blue-collar job and a mom who stayed who with the children. One worker supported that many children and a stay at home spouse and the family could afford to send all their children to state universities post high school. They had health care, good public schools, ate well and took road trip vacations staying in hotels, they also could afford to go to Disneyland, the movies and wore new clothes regularly. They were buying their own homes in San Francisco. Many blue-collar families did the same including union workers but their pay was slightly, not a lot, lower.
    This model does not work today. The 1% has taken virtually all of the recovery growth post the most recent recession. And they and major corporations pay very small amounts of tax and get government subsidies as well. We have the Very Rich who get massive pay increases and those in what used to be called ‘the middle class’ have not gotten pay increases and have not kept up with cost increases.
    Please register to vote and look closely at the programs and ideas of the candidates. Who is really advocating for you and what you value and who isn’t?

    1. You see, what you are describing is what I envisioned when I thought of middle class, and then I read more about it and assumed that I had the wrong lifestyle in mind–that what I imagined was actually out of the reach of the middle class. I appreciating you corroborating my original understanding.

      I really don’t understand how so few have taken hold of so much wealth in this country. It just boggles my freaking mind. And the fact that so many who vote for the people who perpetuate those policies have so little, but protect the wealthy because of some misguided belief that they may some day be wealthy themselves… it’s just really upsetting. The ignorance in this country is astounding, and I honestly don’t know how it can be fixed.

      1. Citizens United… Republican tax breaks…i’ve never quite understood how it can be justified that a hard-working person with an actual job where they actually go to the workplace and do actual work–sometimes hard manual labor–can be taxed say up to 28% or whatever on their income yet a rich person can just sit on their yacht and earn millions in capital gains and pay a much lesser tax rate…boggles my mind…

    2. This is exactly what has happened. I don’t know how people can deny it. It’s so obvious. What’s scary to me is that our kids won’t even remember middle class as you explain it here

  6. It is so interesting to think about all of this. I’m often confounded when I think about how other people are living. I feel like we are middle-class. Growing up I always thought my family was at the very bottom of upper-middle-class. We were in the older neighborhood of a very well to do suburb. We had everything we needed. Both my parents worked, my father would be considered blue collar. My mother was a nurse but that was before it required a college degree. There were 4 kids, and we didn’t want for anything, we couldn’t take a vacation every year, but we did every few years, my parents were able to buy us all cars, and they were able to pay for the majority of my bachelor’s degree at a state school. They managed to save for retirement and though my mother worked longer than she wanted, they seem comfortable now that they are both retired. My husband and I make 10k more now then my parents did when they were in their 50s. We’re in our late 30s. We both have Bachelor’s degrees and work for the state. We live in a nice neighborhood but we have the smallest house on the block, we have 2 children, and cannot afford to take a family vacation, though we manage one for just the 2 of us every couple of years. We have not saved nearly enough for retirement or college for the kids. We are not good with our money. We are essentially living month to month. I know we could be more frugal. Maybe we would have what my parents had if we did. But I’m not sure. I often find myself wondering who all the people with larger homes in the neighborhoods around us are. We could not afford them, how do they? We make what should be considered a very good amount of money, and yes, we have lots of luxuries, but I’m pretty sure they do too? How can there be that many people making more money? Or are they in more trouble than we know. And how do people make it on a lower salary than ours? I know we really are so blessed, but it does seem harder than I thought it would be. It is disappointing, to have more education than my parents, make more money, have less children, and have a smaller home and feel like we are not doing better than they did. And are maybe doing worse.

    1. The price of college has gone up significantly so that may partially explain why you feel that you haven’t saved enough. It’s possible your neighbors got help with their downpayments which gives them a significant cushion.

    2. “Or are they in more trouble than we know. And how do people make it on a lower salary than ours? I know we really are so blessed, but it does seem harder than I thought it would be. It is disappointing, to have more education than my parents, make more money, have less children, and have a smaller home and feel like we are not doing better than they did. And are maybe doing worse.” <-- This is exactly what I think/feel. To a T. I do think that most people are in more trouble than we think they are. I was talking to a woman whose family was going to Ecuador and I was wondering how they could afford it--they were meeting up with her husband's family, some of which live down there, but still--and eventually it came out that they were putting it all on a credit card, and that they put ALL their vacations on a credit card. That was really eye opening for me, because I would NEVER put a vacation on a credit card that I couldn't pay off. Probably a lot of people pay for things with credit, and for those of us who don't do that, we think they are paying with cash. You never know how people are affording things (or not affording them, but enjoying them anyway).

  7. There are multiple financial and cultural dimensions to class. Financial when it comes to earnings from employment and accumulated wealth, and cultural in terms of our current and past values and experiences with money. People can exist in different classes for each of these dimensions and that incongruity is, I think, the source of a lot of the mental and emotional upheaval people experience around issues of money.

    My nuclear family is currently upper class for earnings, but we feel middle class because we don’t have the accumulated wealth I typically associate with upper class people, plus we had middle class upbringings. Most of our peers are in the same boat: in the top 10% of household income, but identifying as middle class because of our financial values (which are fairly humble) and because we lack enough wealth to rely on during hard times. We’re all still slaves to the paycheck, even though we have emergency, retirement, and college funds.

    Familial financial support is one of the dirty little secrets that allows young families with incomes that seem pretty average to live upper class lifestyles. In almost ever instance where I’ve wondered, “how do they do it?”, about families who make what we make, but who live much more lavish lifestyles, there is always family support in the picture. And it’s not just inheritance I’m talking about, even just having parents foot the whole bill for college gives young people a huge advantage, the effects of which are multiplied years down the road. We receive no financial support from family and really never have (my husband was completely cut off at 18 while I received some help to pay for college but nothing since) and when I take that into account I feel really good about our financial situation and how far we’ve come.

    1. Wow, this comment is amazing. Do you mind if I quote part of it for my post (giving you all the credit, of course). I just don’t think I could say it so succinctly, or eloquently. I’m hoping the post will go up Friday, but it’s looking like it might be Monday.

      Familiar financial support is definitely a dirty secret for young families. We are guilty of having family support. My parents can’t really give us money (my father used to make VERY good money but was unemployed for six years during the recession, so their retirement has taken a massive hit), but they did “gift” us $100K when they refinanced their house so we could put down 20% on our house and avoid mortgage insurance. In that way $700 that we pay a month goes towards our “principal,” and isn’t wasted on insurance. We’re paying that $100K off over 15 years at 2.9%, so it was a good deal, especially since the mortgage payment requirement went from three years to however long it takes to pay off 20% when we were buying. We have gotten other help as well, and lots of it. I’m sure there is more of that than people realize, and I really respect those of you who can make it on your own. Having so much familial financial support is just another way I feel like I’m failing as an adult. It’s a long, long list. 😉

  8. I haven’t read books on it, but before answering I went to an article to try to help me figure out where my family lands. To start, I came to a shuddering realization a couple of years ago that S and I may be considered upper class based on our household income. And then if you look at “wealth”, we were fortunate to be able to sock away a ton of $$ in retirement pre-kids based on several factors: S took a leap of faith with a very small company that gave him enormous bonuses and contributed to a retirement account. Meanwhile, we lived in his sh*tty house that didn’t cost much while I finished my master’s degree and didn’t even think about looking for a new house until I got my degree and a new job. (With all that awesome planning came the infertility punch, so take all of that how you may. Yes, financially stable, but emotionally took a beating). We are definitely consumers and struggle with that from time to time. Both of us are college educated and in technical fields, which automatically makes us middle class, if not upper class.

    Although, I have a really hard time viewing two engineers as upper class. It’s not a field that has the cache of attorney/doctor/investor/business.

    1. ….and now that I’ve read all the other comments, I have more to say on the matter. Let’s pretend that I wanted to quit my job, that would drop the household salary to in the middle of the “middle class” since we roughly make the same salary, and we would but the amount we put into retirement, probably wouldn’t be able to contribute to college funds (actually we can’t contribute yet, we’ve gotten some from grandparents and wrote the initial check to open the account). We would severely cut where we spend money. So, if middle class is defined by having a stay at home parent and being able to take a vacation plus save money? We’d be struggling.

      But, I wonder if that definition is changing since there are more 2-income households. We spend more of our income by choice by hiring daycare providers, household cleaners, food delivery…things like that. Those kinds of services help us keep our lives running more smoothly.

      I completely agree with the politicians using the “middle class” and talk about the shrinking middle class or bringing the middle class back or whatever. I don’t know who they are talking about. It isn’t me. But maybe it is to some extent, because both of us have to work to maintain whatever status it is we have. And one more point…both S and I have felt the pinch of the 1%. This past year, his bonus did not reflect how well the company did overall. It was pretty damn crappy. And for me? I had a salary freeze for, what 3 years? And since then my COL raises have been 1% per year, they don’t come close to inflation.

    2. It’s interesting that you don’t engineers as upper class, because here they make loads of money (maybe they are not the same kinds of engineers you are)? I would definitely think of engineers as being in one of the higher(est) earning fields. It is quite shocking to realize that one is upper class when they assumed they were middle (this happened to me as well), which is why I have been thinking a lot about this and am hoping to post about it more soon.

        1. Earnings wise, engineers can make a lot of money and I’d say we are maybe middle in that spectrum considering the type of engineering we do. Plus it’s a more stable profession (except for petroleum and mining engineers and maybe pharmaceutical) but the ones in volatile professions like those make loads more, especially right out of school.

          I think my mindset has more to do with how society in general holds other professions in higher regard like the ones I referenced in my original reply, and engineers get the introverted geeky nerd label instead of the “that’s cool” label. I think that’s changing though and I’m really happy about that.

  9. I feel like we are middle class. But for coastal California. If we earned what we earned say in Iowa, we’d be considered upper class. But then again our equivalent jobs wouldn’t earn that much there. So it’s definitely geographical.

    I don’t see middle class as being able to have a sahm. That’s so outdated and frankly I consider people who can afford that to be upper class.

    1. Today middle-class does not have SAHparent. The description I wrote was middle class life style in the 50’s and into the 60’s. Middle-class today involves 2 working parents just barely making it with one or two children. My description was to establish what your generation was raised seeing as middle class for either your parents or more likely your grandparents.
      Thanks for pointing out to me where I was misleading in setting my stage. People who did “middle-class’ after that period had two working incomes and vacations were harder to achieve and families maxed out generally at 2 children. But the educational expectation was still there that children would go to university OR College. The downgrade of middle class expectations from the 50s is slow steady and really major within my lifetime.

    2. I always wonder what the percentage difference is between COL and salaries in a given place. There are places where you can get a much bigger house than mine for 1/2 or even 1/3 of what we paid–but I doubt that teachers and city employees are making 1/2 or 1/3 of what we make. I do think in some places your dollar just goes a lot farther than it does in costal California, where everything is so g*dd*amned expensive.

        1. This is hysterical. CA 120K is upper bounds of middle class!!!! NOPE. Not when in Bay Area and I bet in the SanDiego and LA greater areas you cannot buy a CONDO for four times that income! Because you really are not supposed to spend more than 4 times your take home on housing…. Which is an out of date figure these days as well. Not Real Life.

          1. The numbers for “middle class” were ALWAYS lower than I expected, most time much lower. It’s really surprising actually.

          2. Yeah maybe like in Bakersfield or Fresno but not on the coast…not even in the “less desirable” parts of the Bay Area

        2. Ha, so in CO $40k-$117k is to be considered middle class? That’s quite the spread. Weird. We are definitely middle class then, and most definitely not on the upper end!

          I’ve never heard to not spend more than 4x your take home on housing. That’s hysterical. Most people would not be able to buy a 1 bedroom condo in my town in CO if that was the case.

          1. It is a big spread, huh? I’m not sure how that sight is determining the middle class. Also, showing an entire state might make sense for some states, where there aren’t significantly more expensive and less expensive areas (like California), but in California, the Bay Area, LA and San Diego are SIGNIFICANTLY more expensive than the Central Valley or other areas.

          2. I had heard that no more than 30% of your monthly gross income should go to rent or mortgage. That’s the definition of affordability that the federal government uses when subsidizing housing through vouchers. The family pays 30% of income toward and the government pays the rest of the rent.

        3. For my state (Iowa) and the city I live in, this is pretty accurate. But my sister lives in Virginia outside of D.C. and they make more than the upper limit and would never consider themselves upper class. Their house payment is more than ours because of the cost of housing there and their house is small and in need of big repairs. And I agree the spread for every state is laughable. If you made $34k in des Moines, you would definitely not be middle class… You would struggle greatly. Interesting though…

      1. I don’t know you’d be surprised in my field how little some attorneys are paid in part certain parts of the country…probably does vary by job though

  10. Do people in the US only define their class by their income/wealth? It is not that way in the UK, here you can be very wealthy but would still be considered middle class or working class as the judgement would be made on not your wealth but on …….how can I say it ……….. your back ground, how you act and speak and conduct yourself. Many people considered to be upper class are no longer wealthy (families have lost all their wealth long ago) but they still act as though the are “upper class” and move in upper class circles.Many middle class people are quiet wealthy but would
    never consider themselves upper class. The UK has a very screwed up class system though!

    1. It’s very different here. I remember all the talk about how Kate Middleton was a commoner and how shocking it was that the William was marrying her and then learning her parents were actually millionaires. That distinction just doesn’t exist here.

      That being said, it isn’t only about income and wealth. Education plays into it as well.

      1. It exists on the east coast of the US and sometimes in wealthier circles. One set of my great grandparents were “old money” and looked down on anyone who was “new money” because they lacked many social cues and behaviors of the upper class. I learned all those skills but I don’t use them much because I don’t run in wealthy circles. I need to fit in with working class and middle class folks so being folksy matters.

        1. I think it totally exists here. Maybe not to the same extent as in England, but definitely money is only part of the story. I’m of middle class background (high-middle on the education side but my parents and I have always chosen slightly lower-paying professions for personal reasons), and when I first encountered the truly “old money” it was immediately evident that they were culturally different from me, and that they had many social norms that I could not begin to understand.

          Likewise, merely having money will not fully transform a lower-class person into middle-class. I had a friend in high school whose father’s plumbing supply business was very successful, but they spent it on all kinds of tacky stuff like enormous speakers for the back of a pickup truck. Middle class people do not boast about being able to drink an entire 2-liter bottle of soda in one swig, nor do they tote a 2-liter bottle to orchestra practice in order to demonstrate. It just isn’t done. A more socially skilled person could have adopted middle class behavioral norms somewhat successfully– I’ve seen it happen– but not this guy.

          1. I definitely think there is a distinction between old and new money, but I think to be upper class in America, you actually have to HAVE money, whereas it seems like in the UK you would be upper class even if you had no money, so long as you come from the right family. And I don’t think it would be shocking if an old money individual married a new money person.

    2. I agree with previous commenters that it exists to some extent on the East coast. I’ve heard of it, but never come into contact with it myself, except for briefly when I lived in Madrid and was studying through a program that worked with mostly East coast schools. I went to UC Berkeley, which is a VERY well regarded school in California (and I think most of the country), but with these East Coasters, they kept assuming I meant the Berkeley College of Music, and when I corrected them they definitely looked down on me for going to a public university, which I found hilarious (and kind of astounding). So yes, it does exist, but much less so on the West Coast.

        1. I’m a product of west coast prep schools and while certainly no one looked down on Berkeley, there was this sense that the best went to east coast private colleges and universities — maybe about twenty schools had this elite status. I think that the schools pushed this in part because it justified spending a ton of money on prep school tuition — a top public school student could probably go to Berkeley but may not get into Williams for example.

    3. Yeah, that was interesting for me when I first arrived in the US from India too – that middle class or upper class seemed defined completely on the basis of income. That is certainly not the case in India, where things like family background, education, your taste, the kind of work you do all play a much bigger role than they seem to here. Though if you read Paul Fussell’s Class (which is hilarious, if rather dated), it would seem that they do play a big role here as well, just less acknowledged.

      Anyway for me the middle class has always meant some mixture of income and other stuff. When my husband and I were in graduate school we made around the average household income between the two of us, which I’m ashamed to say I considered very hard to live on – but we always had the safety net of parents willing to help us out (especially in my case). My parents in particular were very willing to buy plane tickets or help me out if I suddenly realized I didn’t have enough money in my checking account. I never used credit cards at this time, and both of us went to college outside the US and our parents paid for the (small) tuition for that.

      No we’re both in the upper class according to income, but living in one of the most expensive areas in the US (the Boston area — not as bad as SF, but still bad). If I’m honest, I would say that I have always considered myself upper middle-class whether I was in India living at home with my parents, in grad school or now. To me, the reason why middle class seems like such a slippery concept in the US is because inherent in the notion of upper class is a strong sense of security, which is very difficult to really get in the US. When your savings could suddenly be wiped out by a surprise medical bill, when you know you’ll have huge amounts to pay in college tuition a few years down the road, when there’s little job security, it’s hard to not feel insecure. I think being in the upper class would require that sense of security – that not only you but your children, and your children’s children would be fine; that there’s no bad news that could unexpectedly wipe our your savings; that you’ll never be turned out of your house because you own it. I think that security doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of money. Family connections and a tight social net can help you feel secure as well. In other countries, with less crazy healthcare and college tuition costs, the threshold of income to feel secure in this manner is much much lower – which might explain why the richest Americans feel the need to keep accumulating more and more money, thus perpetuating the cycle.

  11. I’ll be very interested to see the post about this. I honestly don’t know where I fall, but I know that we are probably “upper-middle class”. Even where we live, I can afford to stay home, we have two cars, new technology, and can afford luxuries for birthdays and special occasions. We have some debt, but also savings and stocks. But, even with all that, we can’t afford to buy a home in our area. I honestly don’t think the middle class (as defined as what it was 20-40 years ago) exists in this area.

  12. Interesting post and comments. I consider myself upper middle class as either a matter of “background,” which is how I tend to think of such things, and probably marginally also in terms of income, though there we’re probably toward the lower threshold. I was mulling this (your question, the comments) and thought of 2 examples of what I’d think of as relatively higher class behavior/attitudes, neither of which I think I associate much with money. One was returning shopping carts — to me, not returning shopping carts (either to the corral or the store) is phenomenally lower class, outrageous behavior. One (of many) examples of behaviors that reflects a lack of care for the commons (in the sense of public space)/picking up after oneself, which is something I associate with upbringing/class. The other is cars; to care what other people think of what one drives I would also associate with lower class in the sense that anyone who’d judge me by my vehicle is clearly someone who themselves lacks the values/sense/upbringing to have an opinion that should matter to me.

    Weirdly snobby, no?

    As for income and this generation’s relative to earlier. Well, first off I guess I’m a generation ahead of you (am closer to 50 than 40)? And my DH is arguably a generation ahead of me, as he’s in his 60s. So our educations were a lot cheaper (I’m guessing) than yours — his was basically free, mine ran about $30K for four years worth of tuition and fees going out-of-state to a state university, (and I think even my stepkids’ tuition ran about $5K per year in state when we paid for them to go to school — they’re about your generation, now in their early-to-mid 30s, but historically, our state was GREAT about subsidizing education, though that’s changed…). But perhaps more important still (and this probably applies to us about as much as to you), I noticed in your immediately prior post (in the comments) you mention planning to work until you’re 75. Looking to prior generations in my family, only one of my grandparents even lived past 75 — they died in their 50s (grandpa1), 60s (grandma1), at 75 (grandma2) and almost 90 (grandpa2). Even my own/DH’s parents have survived only into 70s/80s (3 have died, at 78, 81, and 84; one is still alive, mid70s). Now grandma2 never worked, grandma1, I’m not sure whether she was or wasn’t working prior to her illness/death, grandpa1 worked until his death and grandpa2 probably worked a bit into his 80s (he was a college professor, so he might have been teaching 1 class, or — well, his area was in the arts, so having private students and/or producing art were part of his career, and I think he persisted in those roles quite late in life, though not in ways that were hugely remunerative. And of my and DH’s parents, his mom worked until her health failed (76?) and mine into her late 60s, my dad into his late 70s; the only one to retire at “normal” retirement age was DH’s dad. So at least in my own immediate family history the sense that most people enjoy long retirements isn’t accurate, but perhaps more to the point, while that’s partly about how long they worked it’s also and I think more clearly about how long they lived (or didn’t) — and that had big impacts on how much they needed to get by in retirement. It’s also, of course, about retirement systems and the change from defined-benefit to defined-contribution, so certainly there are systemic as well as demographic changes shaping what you describe…

    1. Oh! And, I’d note that when I was growing up, which was shortly after the Civil Rights movement — well, of course the changes that it wrought did not have immediate effects in terms of education, economic opportunities, etc. — any more than did the feminist movement. So when my mom sought household help, there was a plentiful supply of African American women in our community (US Southeast) for whom much of the employment market was off limits — in other words, cheap help (for my mother). Similarly, childcare was relatively accessible — I can’t speak to the cost of the preschools we attended, but I believe my mom paid $.25/hour, by the hour (flexible as needed) to the grandmotherly type near campus who provided in-home childcare. I don’t doubt that my mother rounded up nor indeed that she probably “overpaid” her household help and certainly she’s always been diligent about things like paying into Social Security where applicable, including paying the employee’s portion for low-paid workers who’d otherwise prefer to be “off the books,” but that said, I don’t think there’s any question that middle class women of my mother’s generation had more ready access to cheap help than does my generation (or yours). And that (the opening of economic opportunities to people who previously lacked them) is of course a good thing.

  13. As many have articulated above, I think we are technically “upper class” in terms of income (but more like the 20th %ile, not anywhere near 5% or 10%) but what we can actually afford falls at or below what I used to think of as “middle class”. I fully admit my expectations were skewed, especially living/working along lots of people in 5th-10th percentile…fancy vacations, nannies, expensive clothes & beauty treatments seem to be the norm. And we can’t afford that! Either those people make a lot more than us, or they are (as you mentioned) putting it on credit, or not saving what they need for retirement/college. But when you go back to the “2 cars, a house, a vacation’ definition—none of those things were as fancy for my family growing up as what we tend to see these days. First of all, the “typical middle class” family that we envision in the ’50s (or even the ’80s) lived in middle America, not in the heart of a major city. Cars can be bought used and kept forever, doing a lot of self-maintenance. A vacation meant saving up, driving somewhere, staying in a motel, bringing lots of food from home, and then hanging out at the beach. Not flying the whole family to Europe, staying in hotels, eating out every meal, etc… People didn’t buy as much STUFF, clothes were minimal and kept for longer, eating out was a luxury for a couple times a year, food was simple (I admit, I like fancy food! we never ate raspberries or romaine lettuce or brie growing up! lots of beans, iceberg, blocks of cheddar bought in bulk and frozen, potatoes, apples)
    I think its really complicated. I do think income inequality is growing, and many politicians are really pushing for that to continue & worsen. I don’t know if the “middle class” is disappearing, but a lot of what are considered rights of the middle class may be out of reach to a lot of people. Maybe people are comparing themselves to the wrong crowd (i.e. your friend putting a vacation on credit) and then wondering why they can’t make ends meet. Maybe we could be happier if we recalibrate our expectations to what is affordable for the middle class today. If we are all trying to live like the upper class, we are definitely going to feel deprived.

  14. Very interesting comments on this post. I’d consider ourselves middle class, though I’m not sure what the income levels are that define those categories. My parents were very poor when I was growing up (farmers in rural MN), but money became more plentiful for them when I was in my 20s. Charlie grew up with more familial money, but when the economy crashed here 6 years ago they lost nearly everything and almost went into foreclosure on their home. Money is an interesting thing. We both work full time, we don’t exactly live paycheck to paycheck, so I suppose we’d be considered upper-middle class, yet we’d be screwed if one of us was out of work because no way could we afford our bills on one salary. Currently we have a nice enough house, 2 cars, and take vacations — but we have almost no savings, only about $30k in retirement, and always sort of feel on the edge of disaster when it comes to debt. Hm…

    1. Per Wikipedia -“…Upper middle-class parents expect their children to attend college. Along with hard work, these parents view educational performance and attainment as necessary components of financial success….Members of the upper middle class tend to place a high value on foreign travel, the arts, and high culture in general. This value is in line with the emphasis placed on education, as foreign travel increases one’s understanding of other cultures and helps create a global perspective.” <– this is TOTALLY me. It is also totally NOT my husband. We also make nowhere near 6 figures.

  15. I devote my entire blog to this question yet I don’t feel I can properly answer your question. I think a lot of people are middle-class in their minds, but the expectations of the middle-class are from the previous generation when it was possible to buy a house on one /lower salaries.

    Also, I do think we have different expectations due to exposure via media, travel, education etc.. Even though I’m middle-class (lower to middle-middle, depending on freelance income), I sort of think that yearly vacations and nicer clothes (even designer) should be attainable on my salary. And I think a lot of “nicer” things would be accessible if salaries haven’t remain stagnant for the middle and lower classes for years!

    No one has the solution on how to or if we should correct income inequalities. However, I think that a salary ‘correction’ so that the average professional (non-managerial) could make as much as previous generations adjusted for inflation would be so beneficial for a stable society AND for companies as well.

    Example: Let’s say AT&T’s highest priced data plan is $120/per month. One rich person would utilize one plan. However, if more people could afford this higher priced plan, AT&T would make more money. Same goes for other products and services.

  16. Back to that 120K as upper limit on middle class in CA. Take 30% off for normal tax withholding, middle class does not have tax dodges, you have 84K left. Take a middle class Not in SF house rental for 3 bedrooms 2 bath. That costs 48K a year. Yes, this is an actual cost for rental house of that description where I am located…. in fact I under stated the cost at 4K per month. This leaves 36K for renter’s insurance, water, electrical and gas, garbage pick up. Also it covers food, car insurance, perhaps a car payment, Transportations costs to job in urban center ( this is $9.80 round trip but let’s round to $10/day as you also have to get to the Bart station so 2,500 a year), you need something reasonable to wear to work, you also have medical co-pays and you need to clothe your children/ spouse (who also works so commutes which means that is really 5k a year for commute costs). And then there is food, gas, telephone, internet, “voluntary’ school fees which are not really voluntary. NO you are NOT hitting a middle class life standard in CA with 120K in income representing the upper bounds of middle class life.
    In fact with 40K as the lower bound of middle class as shown in the chart you will be lucky to have a two bedroom apartment because those run 36k a year in this area….
    That chart is not making any reality sense to me. Or perhaps it assumes a marriage couple with no dependents, in a one bedroom apartment and both earning in that range which would mean a joint income of 80-240K………. but. My eye balls roll.

    1. A number like that isn’t going to apply to all areas of a state, especially not one like California where the expensive areas are VERY expensive. I have read in a few places that the upper end of SF’s middle class (specifically) is around $150,000, based on the median income here. That seems low to me, and maybe it is nowadays, since most data people are using come from the 2010 census data, and a lot has changed here in five years. One site I saw used the median housing price to determine middle class (and then if you were LIVING in (either renting or having bought) a house of that value you were considered middle class). I think that is a better determiner here, because housing is so insane. I’ll be talking more about this in my post (which should be up Monday).

    2. I guess the way I see it is if you can afford to live in San Francisco you’re not middle-class… And vice versa if you’re middle-class you can’t afford to live in San Francisco… I don’t see it as though to be described as middle-class you have to make 250 K or something…to me living in San Francisco is like living in Manhattan…it’s like an unattainable dream

      1. “Middle class” is relative to where you live. Middle class should exist everywhere. Are you saying that if you can “afford to live in SF” that you’re automatically upper class? That’s how you’re comment reads, or maybe I’m not reading it correctly? Are you saying the person who lives in complete squalor in San Francisco isn’t middle class because they can afford to live there (an assumption you’re making since that person does, in fact, live there)?

        I think this comment makes it very clear that “class” is defined by more than just the ranges of income defined by whomever defines them. It’s location, money, education, lifestyle, etc.

        I’ll say this, we can “afford to live in SF,” but it would not be fun from a financial standpoint and our lifestyle would change dramatically. The income ranges would still say we’re “upper class” but we wouldn’t even be able to buy a home. That’s not “upper class” at all. And it isn’t “middle class” as defined in our parents generation.

  17. We’ve been married for almost 19 years now, with a 3 and 5 year-old. Before kids, when I was teaching and we had a home in San Diego, we were middle class I’d say. Maybe making around 100k. Now, we are low class. We do get government insurance and WIC. We don’t qualify for food stamps. We rent our home. But the weird thing is that I still consider myself middle class. I have a graduate degree and my husband has a degree. We look middle class. We are white. (I’m actually not white but I pretty much look it). We live in a middle class neighborhood. We have one car and it’s a lease. We never ever go on vacation. I buy clothes at Walmart. People are amazed when they hear how little we make. I can’t go back to work because of B’s issues, but if I could, I don’t believe I would anyway. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that we will be poor…I’ve chosen to homeschool…I won’t own a home again until maybe someone leaves me with one. It’s taken many years to get to the point that I’m okay with this. Our last home we owned had five bedrooms and there were two of us. I insisted on it. Now, if we had just bought a little condo we could still be living in it. I was dumb. Our lives have exploded with B’s entrance and we’ve lost it all, but we’ve gained it all too. We had to do BK. It was humiliating, but I know I am where I’m supposed to be. BTW…yours is the only blog that I still read from those years ago. I love love love your blog. It is a dying breed.

  18. I don’t know what class we are. Living in Vancouver, BC we have accepted we will be life long renters if we stay here. This past summer we moved into a building where for the first time we are surrounded by our class. There are two others families on our floor who have one child each. Everyone works in arts, academia, or non profit sectors. I work one non profit job and multiple contracts so we can live primarily off of one income while my husband completes a MFA in creative writing. We have savings but it’s back up and used sparingly. Vacations are cheap with extended family or camping. We can not afford a second child. But we have never been into stuff and don’t completely understand our consumer society. That being said I want to provide soccer and music lessons to my daughter and be able to buy her new clothes. I would love to cut back at work and spend more time with her. I think the version of middle class of our parents is gone and a new one is taking shape. My concern is middle income earners continuing to earn less especially those working in caring fields or the non profit sectors.

    1. I think “But we have never been into stuff and don’t completely understand our consumer society.” this makes living in any class much easier. We also can’t afford a second child, which makes me sad some days, but also makes it easier to provide things like you mentioned to the ones you mentioned.

  19. This discussion is fantastic. I think there is another perspective that’s important, though. The American middle class is a social success story in that it is an example of unprecedented prosperity distributed throughout a population rather than highly concentrated in the hands of a very few (and yes, re-concentration is the name of the game). But the consumptive habits of middle and upper class Americans (and members of other wealthy countries) have had devastating consequences for other peoples and species.

    There is no technology or discovery in sight that would allow every person on this planet to access the lifestyle that we are defining as middle. And even we are coming to the point where we can no longer pass off all of the negative consequences of our habits elsewhere. I know that this all sounds very doomsday and guilt-inducing, which makes it difficult to confront, but what I really want to say is that I think there is a fundamental need to redefine middle class, at least in terms of resource use.

    I hold onto a vision of a lifestyle that is far less consumptive but maintains other class privileges like access to education, health care, and non-violence.

  20. I’m rather late to the party, but this is fascinating. I remember when I was around 10 hearing the poverty line on the news and then telling my mom that we fell under it. She replied that we were middle class; in America, everyone thinks they are middle class. I grew up lower middle class, my Grandmother moved in to help after my parents divorced, which greatly influenced how we could afford to live.

    Currently, we are pretty middle-middle class. We do take vacations (usually long weekends within driving distance, often with travel hacked hotel points), but that is due to lifestyle choices, aka we have 1 kid, 1 car, live in a low cost of living area, we rent a very affordable apartment & don’t want to own, no smart phones, no smoking or drinking (except socially), no expensive hobbies except said vacations. It’s not easy, and would be much easier if we didn’t pay for daycare, or if we had socialized medicine and paid maternity leave like the rest of the world, but we’ve made it work.

    We wouldn’t be able to do those things living somewhere like you do. I was offered a job in Honolulu last year and the cost of living combined with being 17 hours from family meant that at this point in life we couldn’t justify it. But we’re pretty happy where we are hanging out in the rust belt and the opportunities it provides.

  21. I have no idea where i fit in. I am retired military and also a 100% disabled veteran. I collect military retirement, VA disability, and SSDI. I make $68,400 a year. All my medical is paid for because of the VA disability. I am single and live in Texas. I have looked at different charts and I would say I am UMC. Not bad for starting out in life as working poor to maybe middle class family in the military and then me poor-lower middle class till I retired and not UMC. What does everyone think?

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