At the end of each month, I look at our bills and figure out our finances for the month. It has proven to be a time of high anxiety for me as I work on what feels like a cruel jigsaw puzzle. One in which I navigate when each bill needs to be paid, when paychecks hit the accounts, and deciding when to pay because paying too soon could result in not having money for things like gas and groceries. Some months are easier than others.
Every few months, I question again how this is even possible. How is it that two adults with multiple graduate degrees, white collar jobs, and living simply can find themselves juggling their finances to make sure they have enough to buy necessities? All of this comes with a tremendous amount of embarrassment and shame because there’s a stigma surrounding anyone who has financial difficulties.
For a quick definition, middle class encompasses individuals making between $40,500 and $122,000. As of 2016, that was still over half (52%) of the American population. While salaries have remained stagnant for many secure professions, cost of living has increased by 30% over the past 20 years. Meaning, while many of us have the same annual income working the professions our parents did, things like housing, childcare, education, and health care costs have increased significantly. The costs of these setbacks vary slightly depending on where you live, but for many of us, they are setbacks.
Houses cost a couple hundred thousand dollars and this is likely for a house in a semi-decent area with low performing neighborhood schools. In 2018, we paid roughly several thousand dollars for health insurance for only my daughter and me that covered three wellness visits, not counting prenatal care, my second child’s birth, visits to a lactation consultant, and a five-hour hospital stay for what we thought was pre-term labor totaling around $8,000 – all of which my health insurance did not cover and we had to pay out of pocket. Then there’s the childcare cost for a family with two children that averages $17,000 — that’s outrageous! It’s no wonder fertility rates are dropping despite the fact that families are wanting to have more children.
So what does this all mean?
I am not blaming my financial problems on anyone. I do believe there are many things we have done that have caused us to be in our current situation. To begin with, back when we found out I was pregnant with our first child, we were living in an apartment. Despite us not being ready to buy a home, we felt pressured because of the belief that is imbedded in our culture that a family has to have a house, so we bought one well before we were financially ready. The house was charming, but it ended up having significant problems and we found ourselves spending more and more on repairs. Pretty soon we were charging many house expenses on our credit cards.
We both chose to go to graduate school to pursue different career paths than our present ones, and while we tried to pay as we went, often taking several semesters off because we couldn’t afford it, we got to the point where finishing was more important, so we took out a school loan.
We chose to buy a second car, regardless that it was a used, eight-year-old car; we still chose to buy one. We chose to have a second child. We chose to adopt three dogs. Then there are the choices we make on a day-to-day basis like buying certain produce only in organic versus conventional. After selling our house, we chose to rent a house in Dallas where we are paying a bit more than other cities because we wanted to be around good schools, a good community, and quick access to green spaces for our kids to play in. These and many more examples I can reflect back on and admit that we made the choices that set us back financially in one way or another.
However, there is something to be said about our society, our system, that isn’t very fond of families and the middle class. As mentioned above, the astronomical costs of childcare are enough to send parents into a tailspin of anxiety. While there are resources for families, from getting free health insurance and childcare to getting free exterminators for your home, middle class families are typically over the income brackets putting us in the “you make too much annually” category.
The emphasis our culture places on consumerism is another concern. We all recognize the Mastercard priceless commercials where there is upbeat music, a father and son bonding over nachos and hot dogs while they watch the Yankees hit a home run, all brought to you by Mastercard, but rarely do we see commercials warning us about debt. And for those of us with children, there is pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” by making sure they have the cute expensive Mary Jane shoes, participate in three different sports, and attend the best schools, all of which adds more pressure to the already struggling middle class.
I have no grand answers or solutions, but what I can say is this: I understand, because we have been there. We have been stressed as we have waited for payday with nothing more than $135 in our accounts knowing we still had childcare to pay and groceries to buy. There are many websites dedicated to helping people get out of financial debt. There are many things you can do like staying away from credit cards and slowly paying off the debt you have acquired.
For my family, we are no longer in our lowest point, but we still have months that cut it close. We are slowly working toward becoming debt free. Again, I don’t have the answers, but if you are or have been in financial distress, I understand you. You don’t have to be alone in this, and it is okay to talk about it and get help.