The middle-class shame of living paycheck to paycheck By Josh KrugerAdd Comment Add Comment|Comments: 15|Posted

Photo by slasnyi – Fotolia

Shut off a man’s phone and he can still hear his push notifications. That’s the bizarre thing about our technology-integrated society: In the absence of our doodads, we still imagine them pinging and buzzing in our pants. Such was the case recently when my phone was shut off for non-payment of the bill. Like a phantom, I heard it calling to me, and my thigh felt the pangs of the loss of data.

Moments after I cracked open my laptop to tell my editor to find me on email for the next few hours, my best friend pinged me on Facebook. “Your phone off?” he asked.

“Yes, but,” I responded, explaining that there was a very good reason for my phone being shut off and that I was going to pay it in a few hours.

I didn’t particularly want to admit that I had to wait on someone to pay me money they owed me so I could pay my own phone bill. I mean, I’m 30 years old. I’m supposed to, if not own a car or a house, at least have $60 somewhere—anywhere.

The fact is, though, I don’t have $60 somewhere or anywhere. Like a lot of hardworking Americans, I have no money. After paying rent and buy groceries, and after ensuring I’m walking around without holes in my shoes, I’m left with little else. Considering that economists say the buying power of the average American is at its lowest level in decades, this isn’t too surprising.

The most frustrating part about this for me is that I’ve built myself up from literal homelessness. During that period of my life, I had nothing. Gradually, as I pulled my life together and started working my ass off, I earned back all the trappings of everyday American life—which includes, in addition to the apartment and the phone, the class insecurity and the staring into the abyss of existence, wondering what the point really is.

Because you’d think things would feel more stable now. You’d think that working hard and playing by the rules would count for something, anything. And, okay, yes—I don’t minimize the fact that my basic needs are taken care of now: I have a warm house, food, a career, the Internet! Some days, I even eat out. But, like it or not, as I accumulate more things, more activities, more hobbies, more friends, more clothes, more everything, I also start to accumulate more expenses—and more wants.

How do the wants pile up so quickly? It disturbs me that I’ve gotten so literally fat and figuratively soft. There was a time when I slept outside and was happy to wake up unmolested. Now, if my Internet connection slows down, I panic. And if my phone is shut off, even for a few hours, I’m ashamed.

The shame of being middle class and having no money is different from the shame of being homeless. I’m not sure it’s less, though.

Today, identifying as middle class has less to do with income and more to do with culture—with the act of participation in America’s familiar, everyday luxuries and tribulations: updating Facebook, getting clothes at Target instead of Goodwill. We’re nowhere near Skid Row, but we’re nowhere near Rittenhouse Square, either. Or maybe we are somewhere near Rittenhouse Square, but for that extravagance, we pay rent that’s two or three week’s pay and eat disgusting freeze-dried noodles on the regular.

Being this type of middle class is a tradeoff, after all. You can either have a nice apartment in a nice neighborhood and nothing, or you can live like a king in the cut. The choice is yours. I make choices that land me in the middle of both worlds, with a prepaid data account and a Center City adjacent address.

I’m not alone. When I posted recently to ask how many of my circle were living paycheck-to-paycheck, dozens of people immediately responded. Even baristas at the Center City cafe I frequent enthusiastically and spontaneously volunteered themselves.

“What are you writing about today?” one of them asked as I began to plug my MacBook in. (My computer was, of course, purchased refurbished, not new.)

“Living paycheck-to-paycheck,” I responded.

She immediately brightened up. “Oh, I can tell you about that!”

Then her colleague turned around. “Me too,” he said.

I looked around, and another patron had turned to face us, too, his eyes bright with solidarity.

This got me thinking: If we’re all living on shoestring budgets, why—in the absence of a sympathetic invitation—are we so reluctant to discuss it?
“You have to plan for the ‘What-ifs’ of life,” financial guru Suze Orman says matter-of-factly on her website. “Keep saving until you have at least eight months to one year of an emergency fund.” She says you can easily accomplish this feat by living on half your take-home salary and saving the rest.

I can’t even pay my phone bill, and I’m supposed to half my salary? Now I feel even more like a loser!

Wait, I tell myself: Remember all those newfound kindred spirits. Is Orman’s advice even practical for those of us whose income has us constantly scrounging?

“No, not at all,” says Alison Evans. She lives in Lansdale, works full-time and has a part-time job on the side. Like a lot of millennials, she rents a home with someone else and attributes her lack of savings to student loans. “With rent, utilities, groceries and school loans, saving half of my paycheck would be impossible.”

She makes sure to nail those student loan payments, though, even though they’re holding her back from saving any money. “I want a house one day,” she explains, “and good credit.”

Jef Tomas, 22, is one of the baristas at the cafe I frequent. He lives in Center City, and despite working full-time, he has trouble saving money. “It’s a combination of things,” Tomas says. He agrees with Evans that “the largest [expense] is probably student loans—and rent.” So he wouldn’t be able to live on half his income, either? “No,” he laughs. “In my neighborhood, that would at most buy me a thing of eggs and half a gallon of milk. [She’s] clearly sitting on more money than me!”

While he admits Center City life means a pricier rent than the very cheapest Philly has to offer, Tomas insists it’s more than that. “It’s the cost of being alive and healthy,” he shrugs, explaining that he prefers to sustain his metabolic processes by consuming actual food, which costs actual money, rather than with a diet of dollar-menu crap, which can cost one’s long-term physical well-being.

Then there’s Walter Kowal. “I usually pay my rent first to secure a roof over my head,” the 52-year-old Pennsport resident tells me. He rents a room and he works two jobs, one full-time and one part-time. After rent, he says, “I typically pay whatever the next crucial, necessary payment is”—he pauses— “like my cell phone, so it doesn’t get turned off.” (I probably should have talked to him a week ago.)

Kowal’s been getting back on his feet after a long period of unemployment, and the financial hit he took was severe. A great deal of his earnings, he says, goes toward paying down debts he accumulated during those two years of joblessness.

“There is no way I could save half my paycheck,” he laughs. “It’s extremely hard for me to manage my debt and pay my bills [as is].”

Sorry, Suze—three strikes and you’re out. I like you as a person, but I call bullshit on your advice to the low-income earner.

It’s not news that people are struggling. What’s interesting, though, considering how widespread American financial insecurity really is, is that we rarely want to talk about our personal situations. People accustomed to thinking of ourselves as middle class are particularly disinclined to publicly acknowledge how we’re barely scraping by. By maintaining that old-fashioned etiquette, maybe we’ve allowed our insecurities to fester unnecessarily, to grow in the dark. Because the more that I talked to everyone—the more I realized I was in the majority, not the minority—the less I felt like a loser.

I got my phone turned back on later that day, and promptly texted the friend who’d previously hit me up on Facebook. “I’m back on the grid,” I thumbed happily. And then I stopped and considered what I’d just said.

Back on the grid.

Was I really so thankful to have climbed back inside a finite network of middle-class behavioral lines?

And how many of us here are ever going to make it from the grid we’re in now to one where the lines aren’t so damned close together?

    More Popular Articles

    Upcoming Philly Events