Updated November 27, 2014

23 Things the Middle Class Can No Longer Afford


Is the middle class doomed? Here are 23 things today's middle class cannot afford.

1. A big house with a big mortgage

Big House, Little House
Big House, Little House © daryl_mitchell (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

In recent years, people have been struggling to make rent, much less making a down payment on a new house. The real estate research firm Trulia found that in 20 of the largest 100 metro areas in the U.S., the middle class has been priced out of home ownership. In popular metro areas like New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, less than 30% of the homes on the market were affordable to median-income Americans. The silver lining: 80 of the 100 largest U.S. metro areas are still within reach of the middle class. At least for now.

2. A new, fancy car

New car
New car © Brian Teutsch (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Buying your first new car straight off the lot is a sign that you’ve made it and are living large. Unfortunately, a study by Interest.com shows that for most median-income families, new cars are out of their price range. The study looked at 25 of the largest cities in the U.S. and compared the median income to the average cost of a new car, taking into account local tax rates and insurance costs. According to the results, only Washington, D.C., residents are able to afford the average cost of a new car, which amounts to $30,550.

Of course, that doesn’t stop middle-class people from buying new cars; they’re just cutting corners elsewhere. Financial planner Mari Adam says, “If you spend too much on a vehicle, it’s going to take away from more important things. Often, when you see people run into money problems, part of it is that they’re spending too much on vehicles.” We couldn’t agree more.

Related: When is the Best Time to Buy a New Car

3. Gallons of gas for joy rides

© Upupa4me (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Once middle-class Americans jump through the financial hoops to purchase a new car, they face even more obstacles once they drive it off the lot. A survey from the non-profit think tank the New America Foundation found that a family of four spends more on transportation than health care and taxes combined, which demonstrates how profoundly gas prices are impacting the middle class.

Because most middle-class commuters can’t decrease their gas consumption out of necessity, they are being held hostage by the cost of gas. Gas prices in the U.S. are currently hovering around $3, but averaged around $3.69 a gallon last year. In his 2011 report, Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, stated that 84% of middle-class people are greatly concerned about gas prices, highlighting that “gasoline prices have become a middle class issue.”

Tip: Ways to Save Money on Gas

4. More than two children or any children

© Tony Alter (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

The 2008 recession has had a far-reaching impact on the middle class’ family planning endeavors. It costs $241,080 to raise a child born in 2012 to the age of 18, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Given such a daunting figure, it’s understandable that birth rates tend to drop when the economy is in a downswing.

Statistics taken from the National Center for Health Statistics show that the number of births dropped by 2% in 2008, right after the economy went south. A survey conducted by the Guttmacher Institute reveals that many middle-class women have changed their fertility preferences because they or their partners experienced a loss of employment or health insurance. And 44% of the women surveyed reported that they wanted to delay or forego having children because of the state of the economy. Whether this will have a lasting impact on birth rates is yet to be seen, but a study done by Janet Currie of Princeton University suggests that it may result in 427,000 fewer children born in the U.S. over a 20-year span.

Tip: How to Save Money with 3 Kids

5. Fido and Fluffy

Tommy
Tommy © Lima Pix (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Given that middle class Americans are more hesitant to start a family during an economic recession, it’s a given that pet ownership has seen a decline in recent years as well. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, pet ownership has decreased by 2% from 2006 to 2012, impacting the population of pets of all types. When the average cost of adopting a dog can be upwards of $1,314 within the first year, it makes sense that middle class families are postponing adopting Fido until their finances are in order.

Related: Pet Care Statistics

6. Childcare

© SkiStar (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

When it comes to childcare, many middle-class families find themselves in a double-bind. While one parent may want to stay home and take on childcare duties, the loss of that second income is a huge blow to their household finances. However, many parents are finding that the astronomical costs of childcare may not be worth it. The Center for American Progress found that the average median-income family spends 20% of their annual income on childcare.

Although costs vary due to location and the age of the child, the study found that the annual cost of childcare is more than the annual median rent in all 50 states. Their report states, “The high cost of childcare means that families have less money to allocate to housing, retirement, and savings — all of which they need to be firmly middle class.”

Related: New Moms Statistics

7. A college education without debilitating debt

© Sterling College (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

While income is often used to delineate who is middle class, the White House Middle Class Task Force found that the common thread among those who identify as middle class are their aspirations, not their income. Most middle-class parents believe that a college education will give their children job opportunities and economic mobility.

But as of late, many middle-class college students have seen themselves in a catch-22 regarding their college education. Jason Houle of Dartmouth College found in his research that by virtue of being middle class, many students do not meet the income requirements to receive financial aid and must take out hefty student loans to fund their higher education. Middle-class students ended up with 60% more debt than lower-income students and 280% more debt than wealthier students. A separate study done by the Kresge Foundation found that student debt actually reduces lifetime wealth over time, which suggests that middle-class students aren’t guaranteed to be better off than their parents. Middle-class parents are having to make tough decisions regarding their children’s college education.

Related: Is College Worth It?

8. Dinners out at restaurants

© Mike Mozart (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

When money’s tight, one of the first things to be slashed from the family budget are restaurant outings. The writing’s already on the wall when it comes to middle-class dining habits. Middle-class Americans have cut back on their restaurant spending, and restaurants that cater to median-income earners are suffering. A NY Times article pointed out that restaurant chains that cater to the middle class, like Olive Garden and Red Lobster, are finding it hard to stay afloat when their customer base has virtually abandoned them. Recent surveys revealed that for those who plan to dine out less in the next year, the major reasons were their current finances and the high cost of restaurant food.

Related: Restaurant Credit Cards

9. Brand name items

Publix Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Publix Garlic Mashed Potatoes © Josh Hallett (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Just as the middle class is tightening their wallets when it comes to eating out, they’re also being more prudent in their purchases of brand name items. Retailers that appeal to the middle-class demographic have been affected by their customers’ decreased buying power. In the same NY Times piece, Nelson D. Schwartz writes that Sears, JCPenney, and Loehmann’s are all in trouble, with Loehmann’s liquidating 39 of its stores. It’s not just clothing stores that are seeing a shift. People in large numbers are also skipping middle-class staples like Walmart and Target and opting for dollar stores instead.

Tip: 10 Ways to Waste Money

10. Expensive gym memberships

© Health Gauge (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Health has always been a priority among the middle class, but due to smaller household budgets, people are having to give up their expensive gym memberships and find other ways to get fit. Market research by IBISWorld shows that gym memberships have actually increased in the past decade, but when the cost of an all-inclusive gym averages $800 a year, many middle-class gym-goers are choosing smaller gyms with fewer amenities over their larger counterparts. Small-budget gyms are expected to grow in the next few years because of their willingness to cater to a more budget-conscious clientele, which is good news for middle-class people who don’t want to sacrifice their health in order to save money.

Related: Gym Membership or Home Gym?

11. Dry cleaning

Dry cleaning
Dry cleaning © Simon Law (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

For middle-class office workers, it used to be part of one’s weekly routine to drop off their slacks and dress shirts at the dry cleaner’s to get them cleaned and pressed. In recent years, dry-cleaning has taken a backseat to more urgent expenses, and middle-class Americans just don’t have the expendable income to dole out $15 each week on dry cleaning. The dry cleaning industry has seen a large portion of its business wither away since 2008, with annual revenue dropping at a rate of 2.6%. The loss of business can be attributed to unemployment rates, a cultural shift to casual office wear, and the finances of its client base. Many middle-class people are waiting longer in between dry cleaning trips or finding cheaper options, like home dry-cleaning kits.

Related: How to Save Money on Utilities

12. Pay cable

© Ken Teegardin (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Cable TV was once thought to be a recession-proof industry. Even when people had cut costs in their household budgets, they still needed a healthy dose of entertainment broadcast into their living rooms each night. However, in the past year, many middle-class families are cutting the cord for good because of more affordable options. The rise of online streaming websites, like Hulu and Netflix, are replacing pay-television giants because they are more convenient and affordable. The research firm SNL Kagan found that the number of video subscribers for pay-TV dropped from 251,000 to just 100,000. Considering that online streaming services typically cost less than $10 a month and pay cable costs around $50 a month, the annual savings is substantial for middle-class families.

Save Money on Cable

13. The latest and greatest electronics

Panasonic 3D video wall
Panasonic 3D video wall © Eliot Phillips (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Most Americans can’t live without their smart phones, but even median income earners are drawing the line on discretionary spending, which includes everything from clothes to electronics. Many middle-class families are cutting out expensive items like TVs and electronics. And it’s hurt the businesses behind the gadgets: The electronics industry’s revenue has dropped steadily over the past five years, from $84.08 billion to $76 billion. Best Buy, a middle-class favorite for everything electronic, experienced a negative sales growth of -3.4% in 2013 because its customer base is scaling back.

14. Super-healthy foods

© Jules Morgan (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Various studies have been done about the lack of access to healthy food among low-income families, but what many don’t know is that median-income earners are beginning to feel the same pressure. A study out of the University of Washington in 2007 reported that the price of healthy food had increased by 20% within two years, while prices for high calorie foods remained the same. Researcher Andrew Drewnowsky stated, “Eating well is really becoming unaffordable for many, even in the middle class.” In 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted that the retail price of food will increase by 2.5% to 3.5%, suggesting that the healthy food predicament will get worse for middle-class Americans.

Related: Farmers Market Statistics

15. Top-of-the-line health care

© Roger Wollstadt (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Health care is a basic necessity, but it’s becoming less and less affordable for middle-class Americans. When it comes to health insurance, many median-income families find themselves in a familiar predicament, in which they make too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to be able to afford high premiums. According to a study by the Center for American Progress, health care costs for median-income families rose by $9,000 between 2002 and 2012, which has had a serious impact on middle-class families’ budgets. The Center for American Progress also found that between 2000 and 2009, health insurance premiums rose by 5%, but hourly wages and salaries increased by less than 1%, demonstrating that incomes aren’t keeping up with the rising costs of health care. Still, families have to find a way to pay for their medical needs, and families that have experienced major medical expenses have an average credit card debt of $11,600.

Related: Medical Expenses Statistics

16. Marriage before turning 30

© Takashi Hososhima (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

While marriage may never become obsolete among the middle class, many young people are postponing marriage because of economic reasons. In a report published by the National Marriage Project, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy, and the Relate Institute, researchers found that the average age of marriage for both sexes is at an all-time high, with 27 being the average age for women and 29 for men. Both men and women are delaying marriage until they have achieved economic independence, which has become increasingly harder for new college grads.

Related: Marriage Statistics

17. A timely divorce

© Kate Ter Haar (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

If you thought getting married was expensive, then you should try getting divorced. LegalZoom estimates that the average cost of a divorce in the U.S. is between $15,000 and $30,000, most of which is legal fees. Researchers have attempted to link the recession with divorce rates, but their findings have been inconclusive. Sociologist Philip N. Cohen from the University of Maryland hypothesized that divorce rates may be lower in states with higher rates of unemployment and foreclosures because couples form a stronger bond from the economic hardship, or simply because divorce is not affordable. His hypothesis still lacks strong evidence, but it’s safe to assume that for middle-class couples who are worried about housing costs, lawyer fees, and splitting assets, divorce may have to wait.

18. Travel to far off places

View from House Reef (COCOA ISLAND/MALDIVES)
View from House Reef (COCOA ISLAND/MALDIVES) © Chi King (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Vacations may not be a necessity per se, but it’s come to be a distinct indicator of those who identify as middle class. Most can agree that spending two weeks of vacation time away from their daily grind is necessary for their sanity, whether it’s in the next town over or at an exotic locale. Due to the shrinking median income and rising costs of travel, middle-class people are having to budget in order to make their vacation more affordable.

According to an American Express survey, the average cost of a vacation is $1,145 per person. That’s $5,725 for a family of five! A Statista article revealed that people are scaling back on eating out, purchasing electronics, and buying new clothes in order to save up for their next trip. So some middle-class families are not skimping on their travels, but they’re making daily sacrifices to make it happen.

Related: Travel Credit Cards

19. Financial risks that could pay off

Happy Fence Friday
Happy Fence Friday © Rachel Kramer (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Whether one is born into poverty or grows up comfortably middle class, part of the American Dream narrative is to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, climb the economic ladder, and ensure that your kids have a better life than you did. For many American families, their dreams for the future have been put on hold indefinitely because their immediate necessities take precedence over taking a gamble with a big financial risk. The middle class has always been a risk-averse group in general, but the recession has put many families in survival mode and especially wary. Investing in the stock market, buying a house, going back to school, starting a small business, or trying out a new career are luxuries that many in the middle class just can’t afford.

Tip: Why Invest in Stocks

20. Retirement funding

© Frederick Dennstedt (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Let’s guess what’s on your life plan… go to college, start your career, work until 65, then spend your retirement traveling the world. Sound familiar? Most people know that saving for retirement is important, but very few are disciplined enough to contribute to their 401(k) on a regular basis. When times are tough, it’s even harder for middle-class people to think about the long term, especially when they have other pressing concerns. A study done by Wells Fargo found that 41% of people from the ages of 50-59 aren’t currently saving for retirement, and 19% of all respondents have no money saved for retirement at al. Their reason? 61% stated that it was “harder than they anticipated,” and 38% are making sacrifices to be able to put some away for their golden years.

Tip: Best Roth IRA Providers

21. An emergency fund

© Chris Yarzab (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

It’s always advisable to have just-in-case money. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to do because of the high costs of daily living. The Federal Reserve’s 2013 Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households revealed that many middle-class people are living hand-to-mouth and don’t have enough money saved for emergencies. In the study, 43.4% of people who made between $25,000 and $49,999 annually reported that they spent as much as they earned for the year 2012. And 38.1% of people who earned between $50,000 and$74,999 reported the same.

This leaves no room for setting aside money for emergencies. When asked whether they had enough savings to cover three months of expenses, 64.2% of people who earned between $25,000 and $49,999 did not, and 51% of those who earned between $50,000 and$74,999 also did not.

Related: No Emergency Savings

22. Hobbies and side projects

© Taber Andrew Bain (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

In order to be able to afford basic necessities, many Americans are having to make some lifestyle adjustments that include cutting out the very things that keep them sane. Hobbies can get expensive, and when faced with the decision to buy groceries or the next Call of Duty game, most middle-class people would choose to put food on the table. Adults aren’t the only ones suffering, either. The Wall Street Journal reported that youth participation in team sports has declined between 2008 and 2012, which is a sad consequence of the recession. Whether you’re an avid comic book collector or a swing dancer, your hobbies may need to take a backseat to other expenses.

Tip: How to Make Some Extra Money

23. Free time

Leisure
Leisure © Hash Milhan (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Leisure time has become something of a luxury for the middle class. Although the length of the average workweek hasn’t changed dramatically over the years, many middle-class employees are seeing their work obligations encroaching on their personal life. The fear of unemployment keeps middle-class people from setting limits with their employers, and it’s making their professional and personal lives more difficult to balance. Unemployment, lower wages, traffic, and the lack of affordable childcare means that the average middle-class parent is more pressed for time. Unlike other material items on this list, time is a precious commodity that middle-class Americans can never get back.

Tip: Why Volunteering is Good for You

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Comments about 23 Things the Middle Class Can No Longer Afford

  • Greg from Alberta
    on November 27, 2014 9:54 AM said:

    I have all the above except 2, 17, and 21, and I still feel poor.

  • Liquid from British Columbia
    on December 2, 2014 2:33 AM said:

    I feel like at least some electronics are getting cheaper. Physical retailers like Best Buy may not be growing their sales, but I think many consumers are choosing to buy their electronics online these days. :)

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