On Living in the Median


U.S. Census Bureau

Over on msnbc.com, the Life Inc. section has a fascinating series of articles on living on a salary of around $50K/year, which is roughly the median income in the U.S. It is very interesting, because they have interviewed people from different parts of the country in different stages of life with differing family sizes, which creates a fuller picture of the complexity of this sort of measurement. $50K in Manhattan is not the same thing as $50K in rural Kansas, and supporting a single person on that salary is far different than supporting a family of 6 people.

There are several interesting things this series is making me think about, some about the people being profiled, and some about the commenters.

Many of the people interviewed are doing fairly well. None of them are claiming poverty, which is good, because this is clearly not a poverty level salary, even in New York City. The woman living in NYC is moving in with a friend temporarily, but she is also helping her son to pay for college. Overall, the people interviewed seem to think that this level of salary is doable and it is even possible to get ahead with careful planning.

However, most of the people interviewed couch their discussions in terms of the struggle and effort of living on their salaries. Many have debt, and not all are saving for the future. Even those that are doing well in terms of debt and savings describe the work they do to maintain their lowered bills. Many of the parents talk about not being able to afford another child, and lots of people are trying to pursue education to get a higher paying job. One family even mentions that they would love to have a dog, but can’t take on the extra expense.

In my mind, the worst part is the families that worry about medical bills. So many people are one major medical event away from poverty, which is really frightening. This sort of thing can happen to anyone, no matter how healthy their lifestyle is, or how careful they are. Cancer hits people who eat healthy food and don’t smoke and buses hit people who are careful drivers. Even a relatively minor illness like pneumonia or mononucleosis can be devastating for people who live from paycheck to paycheck with no paid sick days. Add on big medical bills, and savings aren’t much help, either. It is frightening to me to think how easy it is to lose a relatively modest lifestyle, even if you are doing the right things.

I find the comments interesting as well. I am a bit surprised at how many people think that moving away from an expensive place to live is a good option for everyone else. First of all, it is hard to leave a place where you know people and have family to move somewhere else, even if everything else were equal. Secondly, jobs aren’t easy to come by anywhere, so moving seems like a poor choice without a guaranteed job. And finally, moving is expensive! Most people don’t have the kind of money an out-of-state (or even out-of-town) move costs just sitting around.

The other thing that commenters don’t seem to take into account is the idea of paying to live in a good neighborhood, with good public schools. I make a bit over the median, but I still feel like I am struggling at times, because I pay a lot for my mortgage. I am not complaining, because this is how I chose to spend my money. I want my kids to go to good schools, surrounded by kids who come from families that value education. I want to live near cultural opportunities, like the zoo, theaters and museums. I want to give my kids options in extracurricular activities like sports, music and art. I wish everyone could do these things. I don’t understand people who act like doing this sort of thing makes you an elitist that is spoiling your children.

One of the things that I find most interesting about these articles, though, is that these families seem so much more real than the hypothetical family that so many lifestyle articles are aimed at. When I read about all the latest technology gear, and vacations in exotic places, I wonder where all the people that can afford these things are. Even cheap room makeovers seem unrealistic. Who has $1000 sitting around to redo one room in the house? Obviously, there are people that do, and since they are spending more money, it isn’t surprising to see a lot of media directed at them. It is nice to see more normal families in the media, though, and a realistic depiction of what their lives are like.

2 responses »

  1. I think your statement about how you choose to spend your money is the key. There is an acquaintance on Facebook who makes about the median range and is always complaining about being broke (on Facebook!). She has even made comments as to how she doesn’t know how she will pay rent that month. However, she is also posting about her new tattoo, where she eats at for lunch and dinner every day and has taken numerous trips this year alone. I don’t say anything, but I certainly do think she’d have more money for bills if she stopped spending frivolously.

    The fact that people are unable to save is what I find most concerning. Not having an emergency savings or retirement fund can add a lot of stress. Plus, can we really count on the government to spend our money wisely so that we’ll have social security when we need it?

    BTW, wanting your kids exposed to the arts, sports and sports doesn’t NOT make you an elitist. What would like be like if we didn’t have people who were nurtured as children. Even if ones “art” isn’t Da Vinci or Monet; the graphic novelists, script writers and film directors need inspiration from someone!

    Thanks for sharing the article points.

    • Exactly how I feel, Liz! Every child deserves to be exposed to the arts and sports and other extracurricular activities, and every child deserves to live in a safe neighborhood. Also, I know lots of people who choose to spend their money unwisely, but everyone wants to be able to splurge sometimes. I think being in a situation where you can never or very rarely splurge wisely makes it harder to be disciplined, if that makes sense. If being good all the time just leads to more being good, that is hard to take. But, I also teach my kids the importance of delayed gratification, so I know what you mean, too.

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