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The following is a post by MPFJ staff writer, Kevin Mercadante, who is professional personal finance blogger, and the owner of his own personal finance blog, OutOfYourRut.com. He has backgrounds in both accounting and the mortgage industry.
We hear a lot these days about the “shrinking middle class;” is it true?
When we say “middle class,” it conjures up visions of a family living comfortably—but not extravagantly—in a leafy suburban community with good schools. Most people, I think, consider themselves to be middle class whether they’re actually below it, above it, or right about there, financially speaking. It’s pretty accurate to say that the term “middle class” is really more subjective than actual.
Let’s work past perceptions, and take a look at what it costs to be middle class based on typical living expenses.
Here’s my shocking conclusion: it costs a lot of money to be middle class! And because of that, many people who used to be middle class may no longer be.
Defining our mythical family
Let’s start by setting some definitions. We’re going to use a family of four, with a husband, wife, and two children, living in an unpretentious suburban community. The family has a modest home, two cars, both adults are employed outside the home, and the children attend public schools.
We’re going to exclude factors like child support or alimony, daycare, one or more kids in college, a second home, excessive debt levels, and private school attendance. As suburbanites go, this family lives on the down low.
The cost of an ordinary middle class life
Now we’re going to look at the cost of living that this family incurs in living this modest lifestyle, broken down individually. To keep it simple—and for easy reading—we’re going to keep these numbers nice and round.
Payroll taxes. The couple earn $75,000 per year between both their jobs. FICA taxes eat up 7.65%, or $478 per month. For federal income taxes, the family pays little, since they have significant deductions plus the $1,000 per child tax credit. Estimate, $300 per month. State income taxes, $200. Monthly total, $978, or let’s say $1,000 to keep the numbers round.
Housing. The house is worth $200,000 and carries a $120,000 mortgage. They recently refinanced to a 30 year fixed rate loan at 4%, so the monthly payment is $573, plus $77 for homeowners insurance and $350 for property taxes. There’s homeowner’s association dues of $50. Total house payment is $1,050—nice and round, but totally credible at the same time.
Monthly utilities: gas, $100, electricity, $100, water and sewer, $50, trash, $25, cable TV/internet/cell phones, $200. Utility total: $475. House payment plus utilities: $1,525.
Health insurance and medical costs. One of the spouses has family health insurance coverage through work. The plan costs $1,000 a month, but with a 60% employee subsidy, the monthly cost is $400. We’ll add $100 per month for co-payments and deductibles, bringing total monthly medical costs to $500.
Car expenses. One car has a monthly payment of $350 ($10,000 loan balance), the other is owned free and clear. Neither of the children are of driving age yet. Monthly car insurance is $150. The couple drive about 2,000 miles per month and consume 80 gallons of gas (25 mile per gallon average), so we’ll put gasoline at $300 per month. We’ll also add $150 a month for repairs and maintenance. Total monthly car expense, $950.
Groceries. The family do a lot of shopping at food warehouses, and are moderate coupon clippers. Monthly grocery bill: $600.
Clothing. The family shops at moderately priced department stores, mostly Kohl’s and JC Penny, but also a bit at Wal-Mart and even some thrift stores. Monthly average: $200.
Entertainment. Two or three dinners out, and maybe one movie are the family’s extent of obvious entertainment costs. Monthly average: $200.
Annual vacation budget. $3,000, or $250 per month.
401K contributions. Both spouses have a 401K plan at work, and each get a 50% employer match up to 6%. Though they’d like to contribute more, it’s hard to find the extra money with raising a family. They each go with the 6% contribution, hoping to increase it in the future. Monthly contribution: $375.
The kids college funds. Once again, though they’d like to save more, they’re limited to payroll deductions at $100 per month per child. Monthly total: $200.
Charitable contributions. They’d like to give more, but $100 per month is the best they can do right now.
Miscellaneous expenses and short-term savings. There are always significant home repairs, unexpected expenses, and furniture and appliances to be replaced. On top of that, there’s funding and maintaining short-term savings to have for emergencies. Estimate: $350.
Payroll taxes, $1,000
Health insurance/medical, $500
Car expense, $950
401K contribution, $375
College fund, $200
Miscellaneous expenses and short-term savings: $350
Total, $6250 per month, or $75,000.
That fits nicely within the family’s $75,000 annual income.
Being middle class is expensive!
If your household income is at least $75,000, you may be asking “what’s the big deal?” But here’s an interesting statistic; according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median (50% above, 50% below) household income in the United States is $49,777. A little bit less than 32% of the households in the country earn at least $75,000.
What that means is that the average household in the U.S. cannot afford the stereotypical middle class lifestyle!
Remember that at the beginning, we excluded some costs that would complicate this family’s cost of living, like childcare, child support payments, and possible debts from car loans, credit cards, or even possibly payday loans that have been accumulated over the years.
Another significant factor we didn’t account for is geography. The living costs we used assume that the family lives in a moderately priced region of the country. If you live on the West Coast, in the Northeast, or in many large metropolitan areas in between, the cost of living is significantly higher. The $1,000 per month base house payment we used doesn’t exist in those areas.
Then, there’s the employment situation. We’ve assumed that both spouses are comfortably employed in salaried positions with full benefits. If you’re self-employed, not only will you have to pay the matching FICA taxes (7.65%) but there’d also be no employer subsidy on the family’s health insurance plan. The combination of the two would raise your cost of living by many thousands of dollars.
Being middle class is no longer truly about being in the middle. It’s about being somewhere above the middle—maybe well above it.
What are your thoughts about what it costs to be middle class? And, do you think that the middle class is shrinking?
***Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/billward/5792348338/sizes/s/in/photostream/