As a Middle Class Guy, to say that I am a member of a fragile class of persons when it comes to finances is a gross understatement.
Having just received my October 2017 bank statement that, once again, shows more of my family’s financial energy flowing out than in for the third consecutive month, I could feel my blood pressure rising. Upon reporting our outflow exceeding our inflow by $4,000 last month, I concluded that I will shift my review to a quarterly basis instead, which would better reflect our income versus expenditures, since an individual month can be an outlier as a higher-earning month or a higher-spending month due to expenses like property taxes, auto and home repairs, dividends received or higher sales of my existing eBook.
All told, I was not very surprised to see that $4,400 more left our checking account in the third quarter of 2017 than came in.
Specifically, $28,966 left our account versus $24,539 that came in. Outliers included having to pay $2,300 for our property taxes in late July and three payments to our son’s college totaling about $7,500. I also paid off two round-trip airline tickets from Chicago to Orlando for my wife and son, as well as the first night lodging expenses as required for their December Disney World trip. We also had our home’s gutters fixed, purchased a beautiful dress for our daughter, and paid to replace a shattered car window and more of this and that.
I also continued Paying Ourselves First and contributing $400 to our daughter’s 529 plan on the first of every month, investing a total of $3,300 from July through September $1,200 went to our daughter’s college account and $2,100 was split between my wife’s and my IRA accounts, or $300 per the seven paydays in the past three months.
We typically collectively eat out thirty times or more per month, and we spend in the neighborhood of a grand per month on our groceries.
Considering that we also pay a mortgage, insurance costs, fill our cars with gasoline regularly, purchase wanted and needed articles of clothing and partake of our fair share of entertainment, it is not hard to see how our suburban family spent or invested $29,000 during Q3 of 2017.
Our family’s trend of overspending is set to continue as I have to stroke a check later today to pay off our daughter’s marching band trip to Disney World this coming December and also pay off our new central air conditioning unit, which my wife paid on her credit card.
More Than Just Money
I strongly feel that being a member of middle class America is more than just about income.
Middle class membership is a function of many characteristics and values including, but not limited to, educational attainment, occupation, cultural factors, beliefs, feelings, lifestyle and shopping habits in addition to one’s income and wealth.
Manners, speech patterns, vocabulary, music preference and what one does for leisure time are additional class indicators, although most of those are closely tied to income factors.
Of course, where one shops and how far and where a student obtains an education can be directly linked to one’s income. Whether one shops at Wal-Mart and sends their kids to community college or no college at all versus someone who shops at Ralph Lauren and sends their children to Ivy League schools is closely tied to income. I have friends and relatives on both ends of this spectrum, with my own family in the middle.
Part of the American Dream is the ability to seek more education, and a high-quality education has historically been one of the most important ways to access the middle class and above. This has now become more important than ever as the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen year after year with no end in sight.
Nobody wants their children to only be able to obtain low-skilled jobs like cashiers, truck drivers, data entry, customer service or other jobs that will soon be replaced by automation or outsourced to lower-cost countries. I want my children to master the latest technologies and be the ones who can profit by the latest advancements rather than be replaced by them.
Workers in these low-skilled categories requiring relatively few skills have special concerns, as their wages typically cannot keep their family out of poverty. Even if they put in all their hours, they most likely cannot afford a middle class lifestyle and are a precarious missed paycheck or two away from poverty.
It may not be fair, and people smarter than I can dissect and debate the merits of this fact until the cows come home, but all the analysis and talk in the world cannot and will not change the fact that these low-skilled workers, and many or most of us middle class workers are fucked.
The typical middle class solution to keep your children out of these dire straits is obtaining a strong education and to master the latest and greatest technologies. The problem is, higher education has become so expensive as to become nearly impossible to obtain without incurring large amounts of debt.
College is fucking expensive, even for prolific savers like myself. The $2,500 that I just sent yesterday, and every other month save June and July, to our son’s college, puts quite a strain on our budget. As will the future payments to our daughter’s college. But I would not trade paying for that for anything, not a nice new car, not an iPhone, not a smart TV or a vacation to Hawaii, although I would love to buy all of those.
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But no, instead of buying things that would please me and mine in the here and now, I am paying toward our children being able to obtain better-paying jobs within the future economy, which will mostly require extensive schooling, including advanced degrees.
Our son recently informed me that he may even go all the way and obtain his Ph.D. I would not put that past him at all. He happily told me that when someone refers to him as “Mister,” he would love to correct them, telling them that “Mister” is me, his father, and that you can call him “Doctor.” He knows that I am prepared to foot the $100,000-plus cost for his undergraduate education, but beyond that, he is on his own. After all, we have another $100,000-plus undergraduate education to begin paying for in 2021.
In a Fragile Position
Last year, when I was still a subscriber to The Atlantic, I read Neal Gabler’s story titled “The Secret Shame of the Middle Class” with great interest, as well as dozens of stories and blog posts about it that followed.
The gist of it was that 47% of Americans including the author would have trouble finding an extra $400 to pay for an emergency. My first reaction was to not believe it, and my second reaction was somewhat judgmental, figuring that a majority of those who would have trouble coming up with that small amount probably own iPhones and better cars and TVs than I do. Gabler owns a house in the Hamptons.
But it also got me thinking about why we’re so judgmental when nearly half of us are facing the same cash crunch as the author. My own family has had in excess of $500 in “extra” and “unplanned for” expenses twelve months out of the last twelve. I wondered what those people who cannot afford to pay for it do when their air conditioning units give out, when their cars break down and when their children want to go on trips with their marching band.
I guess that they sweat it out without AC, charge the car repairs or go without wheels, and tell their children the Disney trip with their band is a “no go.”
I joke with my wife that we spend an extra $400 to $500 per month like it is water, but that is not actually far from the truth.
That kind of money crunch means that tens of millions of us are not shopping beyond basic necessities. We’re keeping that old beater car like mine, brewing our coffee and taking it to work in a Thermos and not purchasing new clothes, eating out or going on vacation.
For a reader whose income is lower than mine, the $29,000 that left our account in the past three months may sound like a whopping amount. Six or seven years ago, we would not have been able to afford it. But to my brother, my best friend and my very successful uncle, that amount would seem pretty low. It all depends on your perspective.
However, it has become painfully clear that our finances, based about 90% upon what I earn at my job and supplemented by my wife’s very part-time income and a very few eBook sales, are very fragile and a few missed paychecks would have us fall out of the middle class, and fast.
That fact puts me in the same boat as tens of millions of other middle class folks, as the central economic problem for me and my family has become the risk of my job loss. As a middle aged Middle Class Guy, a job loss at my age could be tantamount to a forced retirement which would force me to either relocate my family entirely for a new job, rely on part-time gigs and my writing skills to put food on the table, or end up completely broke and in massive debt.
Sometimes it feels as if I am in survival mode at work, always seeking out a better opportunity and doing my best to please my young, aggressive and inexperienced new boss.
Why Fired Up?
So if things are so precarious and difficult and we are all going to be replaced by robots or Mexican or Indian workers, then why am I so fired up?
There are a number of reasons why. Some that come to mind is that I have been learning to gain a greater appreciation for what I do have, I have made a commitment to begin creating more and consuming less, I have become excited by the prospect of making some money by doing what I love, i.e., writing about things that interest me and a New Year is soon upon us with the many possibilities that it brings if we can set a list of goals and resolutions that we can attain and then stick to our guns.
I am fired up about getting grittier. I have been becoming a better writer the more that I have worked at it, and it is showing with increased sales last month of my 800-plus page eBook published many years ago, simply by adding a cover to the damned thing.
I made about $90 on it last month, and there is no reason that the amount shouldn’t double or triple. When I have two additional titles coming out by the end of next year, I hope to make $500 on my eBooks in a month, and then to just go up from there.
I not only preach (can writing be preaching?) self-improvement, but I live it every single fucking day of my life. It is not an easy process by any means, but it is a worthwhile one.
I am fired up thinking about the possibilities for myself and my readers. Much of what has held us back has been self-imposed, and much of it has been due to our way of middle class thinking. It is not my fault or your fault, it is more or less pounded into our heads from the first day that our parents sent us to preschool and reinforced daily from there.
If you can change the way you look at things, they will begin to look different.
I thought that I had come up with an original quote, but someone by the name of Wayne Dyer beat me to the punch.
But I can attest to the fact that it is true.