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What’s Wrong With Being in the Middle Class?

A recent blog conversation mentioned on The Simple Dollar started me thinking about wealth and quality of life. One of the participants wrote

I think passive income, like most financial information on the internet, is aimed at keeping middle class people more comfortably middle class. (comment on this post)

My first reaction was “Is there something wrong with being middle class?”

Ideally, yes, I’d like to never have to work another day in my life. It’d be nice not to have to worry about money (though I’d still be careful how I spent it). But I know that I would still work because there are certain types of work I find challenging and meaningful. It’s quite likely that I’d have a part-time job shelving books (I love it) and spend the rest of the time quilting, writing, and blogging.

That said, I don’t really understand slamming the middle class. I don’t see anything wrong with not being super-rich or even rich. It makes me think of how Kiyosaki talks about his father, the “poor dad.” From what I remember, his father had a job he liked and lived comfortably if not richly. I didn’t see what was so “poor”about that. It’s been a while, but I don’t recall them going hungry. Correct me if I’ve forgotten that.

Most millionaires and such have poured excessive overtime into their businesses and work. If that’s what makes them happy, I’m glad. I enjoy blogging, which takes up a lot of my free time.

And along with those success stories, I’ve heard plenty of stories of people well on their way to wealth who suddenly drop out because it’s just too much work and stress. They’d rather be comfortable and happy. Maybe they want to see their family more often and actually use the money they earn.

A middle-class family who knows how to use their money wisely can do quite well at creating a pleasant and comfortable life for themselves. I enjoy reading books from my library, I enjoy writing a blog (and other things), I enjoy quilting (but quilt by hand which is more fun and engaging and also takes longer…and thus costs less). I don’t need to be rich to do any of that.

If passive income or personal finance and frugality skills I’ve learned can make me “more comfortably middle class,” great! I’m willing to settle for comfortable middle class and enjoy myself in it. That’s a heck of a lot better than uncomfortable—whether it’s uncomfortable poor or uncomfortable rich.

Do you think there’s anything wrong with being middle class?


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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Meg from All About Appearances April 6, 2008 at 4:22 pm

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being middle class at all — or even working class. I’d much rather prefer that people focus on just being “classy” than thinking that they have to become millionaires by 30 and that’s when everything will be solved for them.

Granted, I’d love to have more money, especially to pay for past mistakes. And part of me is planning to be wealthier, though I’m not counting on it like I once did.

I have realized, though, that people care more about whether you smile when you see them than what brands you wear and more about the way you treat the waiter than whether you’re dining at a 5-star or no star restaurant.

And while I could be making more money right this moment, it’s just not worth it because I’d rather do what I love and learn to live on less.

Aaron Stroud April 6, 2008 at 6:25 pm

I think a lot of this has to do with people observing other people’s lives instead of living their own lives. There seems to be two groups of people. The first, live as if they are rich, ignoring the consequences of their spendthrift.

And the other group seeks to improve their life and sometimes we get caught up in planning for the future, instead of living for today.

When we focus on responsibly enjoying our lives today, there is no need to obsess about matching other people’s ideals of financial success.

My Daily Dollars April 6, 2008 at 6:28 pm

I suppose the idea that there’s something “wrong” with being middle class stems in part from the old Marxist argument that those who are comfortable with an economic system are never going to overthrow it. While it’s fun to be young, radical, and critical, I’m learning that real change can also happen from within. I think I’d much rather live a good, honest life and use my money to help reform the world we have rather than be poor, marginalized, and “revolutionary” (but that’s just me.) I used to think Bill Gates was creating the next evil empire in the ’90s. It’s a little harder to think that now that the Gates Foundation is so active.

Mrs. Micah April 6, 2008 at 6:43 pm

Actually, MDD, I think this argument is coming more from the rich or those who think that they’re on the path to being rich (such as people who aren’t rich but are with Amway/Quixtar or somesuch).

Mrs Micah's Mom April 6, 2008 at 8:23 pm

Today a friend of ours told us a story. He was at a party for people who retired from his company ten years ago. One was a woman who had been high in management. Now she spends her time as a volunteer in a number of boat-related jobs, including scraping barnacles off the Kylmer Nickel [a replica of the ship that brought settlers from Sweden to Delaware]. She is working harder, using her management skills less, and reports she is much happier.

Artistotle argued that a strong middle class was essential for a mixed (constitutional) government. He said that the poor had to concentrate too hard on surviving to serve the state and the rich wanted to gain more riches from the state. He felt that the middle class had a stake in the state because they owned property and had energy to serve the state because they had already provided for their actual needs.

Along similar lines, Proverbs 30:8a-9 says: “Give me neither poverty nor riches–feed me with the food allotted to me; lest I be full and deny You, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.”

I’m in favor of being in the middle class.

guinness416 April 6, 2008 at 8:50 pm

I find that statement bizarre … it strikes me as a very American idea that you can just earn your way into or out of “classes”. Where I come from, you can be stony broke and middle class or quite wealthy and middle class … it has more to do with career, education and family background than just income. (And no, of course I don’t see anything wrong with being middle class, or a need to compare myself with anyone else).

Vered April 6, 2008 at 8:51 pm

Nothing wrong with middle class. I think that some people perceive it as settling down for “less” when you can get “more”, but that “more” often comes with a hefty price tag (more money, but less family or leisure time).

Debt Free Revolution April 7, 2008 at 12:35 am

Hey, I’ll be quite content with being middle class again LOL That would be a small step up from where I am now 😉

And your mom is spot-on with that Aristotle quote!

Nancy April 7, 2008 at 7:21 am

Thank you for your comments on this subject. That posting hit a sour note with me as well. I think comfortably middle class is a nice place to be. As I’ve grown older my focus has changed and I am happily downsizing my life.

plonkee April 7, 2008 at 8:13 am

I’m with guinness416 – to be fair Ireland and England are relatively similar in this respect.

I’m middle class because that’s who I am. If I was the richest person in the world tomorrow, I wouldn’t be upper class for years. I’d have a choice between being middle class and wealthy, or nouveau riche. And since I am middle class, I’m never going to want to be nouveau riche.

It’s funny how it’s American’s who have weird class issues 😉 .

Funny about Money April 7, 2008 at 9:54 am

Mais c’est si bourgeois!

IMHO the distaste for the middle class is a form of reverse snobbery. We can show we’re better than a bunch of other people (in the U.S., than a LARGE bunch of other people) buy looking down on them.

As your mom points out, the U.S. as we have known it since the end of WW II would not exist without the presence of a large economic middle class. That middle class is an artificial construct of the federal government, brought about by amenities such as the GI Bill, federally sponsored home and student loans, Social Security, Medicare (think of what your finances would be like if you had to support your parents and cover their medical bills!), and the like. When those things go away — or federal support shifts to the very wealthy, as it has of late, or to the very poor — the middle class goes away.

In the the United States as in any other culture, “class” also denotes a set of behaviors and values that have little to do with money. Class means not just wealth but the way you speak; the way you wear your clothes and your hair; your apparent level of education; whether you smoke; whether you do drugs and if so what kind; your taste in music, cars, furniture, food…. It may mean your class and ethnicity. We conflate those values with economic issues, but they’re really not the same thing. That’d why in polls people who are economically pretty wealthy or pretty poor identify themselves as “middle class.”

Carla April 7, 2008 at 10:57 am

Your mom put it perfectly and I’m actually storing her quote in my bank of useful quotes.

I’m happy being middle class. To me making enough money is having enough to adqueately provide for my family (this includes saving for college and retirement), give charitably, and travel once a year. I don’t need fancy cars or fancy leather handbags or a giant mansion.

I’m satisfied enough with who I am and the choices I make to love the lifestyle my husband and I have created.

SavingDiva April 7, 2008 at 11:12 am

I’m middle class and I love it! I have a cozy apartment, a used car, and I’m able to bike to work every day…what’s not to like?!

Meg from All About Appearances April 7, 2008 at 11:13 am

What an excellent discussion!

I agree that class has to do with a lot of things other than money, even here in the U.S. That’s a big point of my blog — that class (or at least having class) is not just about money.

I wonder, though, how fluid is class structure is here. It is certainly easy to act lower in class than we started by birth. Some heiresses come to mind whom I’d never consider upper class, though on the other hand, are they then middle or working class? And how does one become truly upper class and not just wealthy? I think “upper-middle class” is a much clearer goal. And in fact, much of the fluidity of our class structure seems to be between the working and middle class and then within the middle class itself.

Do we even have an upper class anymore? Or is it just: Dirt poor, working class (i.e. hard labor for next to nothing class), middle class (lower, mid, and upper), and then filthy rich?

Kyle April 7, 2008 at 11:19 am

I agree. After a certain amount of wealth, it’s just a pissing contest. I know I will probably never be worth $20 million because I’ll stop at $5 million. That’s enough for me to live the life I want to live. No amount over that will make me happier. Financial accumulation for the same of accumulation strikes me as silly.

deepali April 7, 2008 at 12:26 pm

There are multiple definitions of “class” being used, I think. For the most part (traditionally), class is something you’re born into, and it could take generations to move in or out of a “class” (marriage can shorten that timeline).
In America, we don’t have nobility or any of the older land-owning class structures, so class for us is based on earning power/income. Thus, it’s much more fluid.
I had an interesting discussion with a Kiwi who now lives in the UK. We were talking about discrimination – his observation was that in the US, race and discrimination were closely tied together. In the UK, it’s class and discrimination. Perhaps in the US, we’re moving towards the latter?

Hadias April 7, 2008 at 12:57 pm

I believe that middle class is the largest economic category that we could place ourselves in. Within that category their are many levels. I have friends who are middle class he are able to afford a more lavish lifestyle than I can and friends who can’t afford to vacation like I do.

What it ultimately boils down to is asking yourself “What makes me happy?”

I personally have always valued family time where as my husband believed that family time could be sacrificed in order to provide a desired lifestyle.

My husband could be making more money than he does now, but we would be giving up more time with him.

We would rather have more time with each other than to be wealthy. Most of my upper middle class friends don’t get to spend much time with their husbands, since their husbands are often out of town.

For me it’s about asking the question “What makes you happy?”

Fabulously Broke April 7, 2008 at 3:50 pm

I don’t think so. I don’t classify myself although I think I AM middle class… I just want to be happy.

Michael April 7, 2008 at 5:09 pm

Mrs. Micah’s Mom, you are right, but he also thought the middle class should mostly be self-sufficient farmers and be taught to think and speak carefully and effectively. He would have been disgusted by our specialist professional culture and thought our poetry, memory, manners, and rituals very poor. He would have called the American middle class barbarians and have said they should be ruled by the Greeks!

Anonymous April 7, 2008 at 7:21 pm

I think the distaste actually stems from the rejection of middle-class values, since in modern society they connote conformity, passiveness, stagnation, bad taste, the banality of time wasted just existing in security. It’s the devolution, in a way.

Minimum Wage April 7, 2008 at 9:24 pm

In the UK, it’s class and discrimination. Perhaps in the US, we’re moving towards the latter?

I’ve been saying that racism is fading and classism is rising.

People play the race card when it would be more appropriate to play the class card because the race card still works to some extent, and the class card has never worked in the US.

Also, if you play the race card, you can ascribe blame to others and avoid considering your own blame.

AndyS April 7, 2008 at 10:25 pm

What a great perspective. Refreshingly honest. I am relatively new to blogging at http://www.savingtoinvest.com, and was told you are one of the leading pf bloggers out there so also wanted to say hi! I am already a subscriber and look forward to read your posts.

Brip Blap April 7, 2008 at 11:21 pm

I’ll toss out two comments: first, plonkee and guinness416 are dead-on: the American idea of class has nothing to do with education or breeding, simply money. A wealthy plumber is upper class. A poor professor is lower class. This definition is neither good nor bad, it just IS. Americans are weird about their dosh.

Second, what’s wrong with wanting more? I am technically “upper class” according to economic definitions, I guess, and I come from a middle-class background. I do think that many government policies and the ideas that we’re taught about money ARE designed to keep us happy with our piece of the pie: work hard, get a good job, save money in index funds, retire at 65. All of that is great advice, but it is true that rich people don’t follow this advice themselves – they build businesses (they aren’t employees), they INVEST instead of saving, they retire early to pursue other interests. It doesn’t make it bad or wrong to be middle class. I think middle class people, though, work harder and get less return than “upper class” people. When I worked hard for my employer, I made more money for them. Now that I’m a contractor, when I work hard, I make more for me. I make a lot more now and work a LOT less than I did as a (poorer) employee.

There is nothing wrong with being contented with your life, but there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to wealth, either.

Shanti @ Antishay April 8, 2008 at 12:01 am

I’m glad that you brought this up. I don’t think it should matter what class you’re in, so long as you’re happy! I mean, what is it called if you make an “average middle-class” income but are financially independent and don’t work? Are you middle class? Are you high class because you have a lot of assets? Are you low class because you don’t make any money (from work)?

I guess it has to do with lifestyle… those people who live a “trashy” lifestyle but made a good income (say $40,000 or more for an individual), are they “poor class” or “middle class?”

If you’re happy, you’re happy. What should it matter if you have a load of money or not? Thank you for bringing this up! Now you’ve got me thinking 😀

Brip Blap April 8, 2008 at 6:33 am

@Shanti: I agree it’s more important to be happy, but if you’re happy and poor you are exposed to risk. Just think about health care – one bad health problem for you or your family and you could be devastated. I’ve seen it happen.

It’s still better to be happy with more resources and assets at your disposal, to prevent against disasters. Nothing can complete prevent it, but having a bigger safety net is better.

That’s why I have to disagree slightly with Mrs.M! There is nothing WRONG with being middle class, but unless you are debt-free, have great insurance and a guaranteed stream of income, your happiness can be at risk. Doesn’t mean you can’t be happy “in the moment”, though!

Steve

Jesse April 8, 2008 at 11:45 am

Hey Steve I agree with you for once 😉

There is nothing “wrong” with middle class but I personally want to be rich. Rich in life, rich in spirit, rich in family, and yes, rich in money. I don’t find any of them mutually exclusive 🙂

Mike April 8, 2008 at 11:58 am

It’s human nature to yearn for improvement in our lives. That’s the reason we want our kids to find more success then we did, just as our parents hoped for us. I look to improve myself in all aspects of my life. It’s not that I’m unhappy with being middle class, or that I think that there’s anything wrong with it, I just want to be smarter, happier, richer, healthier, etc than I am today. If that ultimately moves me out of my current, arbitrarily defined, class I doubt I’d even notice.

LJ April 9, 2008 at 2:17 am

I could go on and on about this topic, but I am just going to say this:

Any person who thinks there is something “wrong” with being middle class is lacking any “class” of their own. Meaning:jerk.

Oh, and this:

Most Millionaires start from boring old middle class roots and because it takes a little money to make a lot of money middle class is probably the best place to start in life.
AND not everyone needs to be “rich” (whatever your definition happens to be) I think everyone just needs to be secure financially. Middle class is a nice place to feel secure.

Joshua at A Path Together April 9, 2008 at 1:50 pm

I think these discussions are good – they encourage people to think about what they want and need in relation to “class”.
My need is to provide security for my family. My ‘want’ is to be slightly better off financially than my parents (which is the goal my parents have for their children).
What class does that put me in? Oh, I don’t really care. I like my job, my spouse likes hers. We will never be very wealthy, but hopefully money concerns won’t keep us up at night.

Moneymonk April 9, 2008 at 6:13 pm

The subtitle of the Robert Kiyosaki book is -What the Rich Teach Their Kids about Money

I think he just got the title to attract people to his book.

His father was a middle class – which meant he was not poor.

RK just like to hype up the matter

Steven April 10, 2008 at 10:15 am

What a fascinating post!

I became rich by accident, but I have never left my middle class roots. I worked for the same company for forty years (until my retirement in 2005). I have always lived beneath my means. I have saved 20% of my take home pay since I was 28 years old. I’ve never owned a house or a new car. I’ve never cared about name fashions or exclusive addresses. I live a very quiet life, travel occassionaly, and donate my time to several organizations.

Ten years after my mother died in 1974, a friend of mine told me I should take the money she left me out of the bank and invest it in the stock market. I did and it was the best advice I have ever received. I opened a brokerage account, split the twelve thousand dollars between two companies I understood, and told the brokerage firm to reinvest the dividends. I have never touched the money I have made from The Walt Disney Company and Bank of America.

I have always been proud to be middle class. And my good fortune is going to be donated to education.

thebaglady April 11, 2008 at 4:46 pm

When my parents brought me to the United States we were dirt poor. I mean, my mom came with $200. Now they make quite a bit of money. However, we never felt so much class distinction in America. I guess they would be considered upper middle class now, but it’s not so different from when they were dirt poor. They still have the same friends and same habits. I don’t think there is anything wrong with being in any “class” as long as you are not a criminal.

dawn f April 11, 2008 at 7:40 pm

Mrs. Micah-
I loved this discussion and wish there were more like this on the web. I was thinking of you when I ran across this article in the chicago tribune yesterday about the different levels of middle class & the perception of how much money you needed to have to be middle class.
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-middle-class_10apr10,0,2191398.story
I will definitely add you to me regular feed. I came via the digerati life link.
Aloha
Dawnf

Lisa April 13, 2008 at 11:40 pm

What I’ve always understood the distinction to mean is that the “middle class” have well-paying jobs, but are always working for someone else. Whether you’re being paid $10/hour or $100, you’re being paid less than you earn for the company (or they’re doing something wrong). And the way money is presented to us – get a house with a morgage, get a car with a payment on it, have a job that can pay your bills but if you have extra it means you can buy more things – will just trap you.

The woman who dreams of going and working with boats isn’t really going to be happy if she lets this mindset trap her in her upper-management “success”. With debts to pay, you need the paycheck to keep coming in and can’t really take the risk.

Flaime April 14, 2008 at 9:50 am

I don’t see anything wrong with being what ever class it is you are as long as you are able to do what makes you happy.

I want to cook good food, play computer games, and play with my dogs. Being wealthy would allow me to do these things without the distraction of work (oh that I could get a non-stressful job that involved 2 of the 3:)), but I can still accomplish them as a member of the middle class.

Jaylin April 15, 2008 at 11:47 am

BagLady has it right – of course there is nothing morally wrong with being middle class – or upper class – or low class.

I think the culture in America is to overstate the possibility of upward mobility. The streets are not paved with gold and has anyone tried “pulling themselves up from their bootstraps”? The physical impossibility of such an act should be a clue to how difficult it is to move within the system (that in my opinion is sabotaged by government subsidies).

What I really see in my life is the rich getting richer and the poor/middle class working hard, but also reasoning as to why they wouldn’t want to be part of the upper class. Yes, some millionaires work overtime and barely see their families – but the point is no one invited the middle class to join the VIP club of wealthy elites. It’s just not in the American psyche to admit that no matter how hard you work your entire life, you could still never get out of the middle class.

And I have to disagree with the statement: “Most millionaires and such have poured excessive overtime into their businesses and work.” Of course this is anecdotal, but the first 10 millionaires I know don’t work overtime because they don’t have jobs. They inherited their money and wisely invested it. From my personal experience, I have yet to see a rags to riches story unfold, yet have seen plenty of the rich get richer. But if you do have a rags to riches story, I am all ears. Feel free to post your story on my blog.

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