Finding Out if You Are in the Middle Class

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Politicians love to talk about doing things “for the middle class.” The very term makes political points because it connotes hard-working people with decent values, dreams for the future, a house with a white picket fence, a dog, and a fish. That’s an awful lot to hang on a single number. However, the middle class is an important financial and cultural touchstone, as well as an aspiration point for millions of American households. What is the middle class? Are you in it? If not, what will it take to get there? Are “white” and “picket” necessities. How about stained maple? Let’s look closer at the issue. Bring a calculator because we can’t do this without some math.

The middle of anything is the center point. So, it should be easy to find the middle class. It would be that center point and moving up and down by, let’s say, 20% either way. Looks like we’re done here. Let’s have a hot tub party!

Not so fast. The middle class is found at different center points depending on a number of factors. In other words, it is a movable feast.

How many folks are in your household? A family of two requires less than half the income to be considered  “middle” than does a family of six. Those kids had better take care of you when you’re old because they’re costing you a bundle.

*Calculator Time* It costs the average family $260,000 to raise an only child from 0-18. Divide by 18 and discover that families with one child must make $14,400 a year more than a childless couple to be middle class. Fortunately, additional children cost less per child due to group child care rates, bulk food buying, clothes migrating from one child to another etc.

Where do you live? The median income point, and therefore the start-point calculation for middle class, is a vastly different thing in different parts of the country. Let’s give the average cost of living town or city the number “100” and work from there. That means somewhere where the cost of living is rated at “110” requires 10% more money in which to live than the average. Likewise, “90” would mean requiring 10% less, and so on.

*Calculator Time* According to Bert Sperling’s excellent website, Coquille, Oregon (pop. 3,858) is about as close to the midpoint cost of living that one can find. He rates Coquille at 99.9. That means, according to the Washington Post’s middle-class calculator, a family of four in Coquille would need at least $48,501 a year to be middle class. A city rated at “80” in our cost of living equation, El Reno, Oklahoma for example, is a different matter. There, $38,985 a year, for a family of four, lands them in the middle class.

Is there more to a middle-class lifestyle than money? To some folks, there is indeed. Money Examiners knows people who need to be homeowners to consider themselves successfully middle-class. Other folks want to take a family vacation every summer to feel they have arrived. To others, a showroom new car every two years is the answer. In other words, your middle class is yours alone.

“But, does the fence need to be white picket?”

Yes, it does. Don’t ask us why. It’s one of life’s little mysteries.