I’ve written before on the how hard it is to catch up if you’re even a smidge behind the curve on the American dream. We’ve come a long way since I wrote that piece. But I’m still uncomfortably aware that a series of ill-timed setbacks could toss us careening down the hill. We’re further away from the precipice than we’ve been in the past, but I can still see it clearly from here. It still keeps me up at night.
I sometimes feel that I project a confusing, contradictory image online. One day I’m in an airline lounge; the next I’m casting about for a dead-cheap vehicle because my car is too busted to drive, and too decrepit to fix. The truth is, for us “middle class” feels like it’s more about contrasts than about being at a recognizable middle ground.
Last night I wrote up some of those contrasts. The following is absolutely not a plea for sympathy. I’m very aware of just how privileged we are, in so many ways. It’s just a statement; something I can look back on in five or ten years and (hopefully) see progress. And maybe it’s also a little bit of a meditation on the difficulty and precariousness of being middle class in America today.
I’m a world traveler, but only on someone else’s dime.
We are debt-free apart from the mortgage. But our savings would barely get us through a month and a half.
Our kids have good food and quality shoes. But I have no hope of putting them through college.
We have a gorgeous house, one that finally fits our family (assuming two kids to a room) after a decade and a half of renting. But I worry about affording the upkeep.
We own our cars outright. But one is no longer safe to drive, and the other is only legal because we now live in a state with no inspections.
I am extremely employable. But I have no retirement savings to speak of.
I carry life insurance. But I’m scared it’s not enough to keep my family from a steep drop in quality of life.
I’m 35 and healthy. If I became disabled for an extended period, it would be disastrous. If my wife became disabled and required constant care, it would be disastrous.
I’ve built my own successful business. I have no way to be sure it will be sustainable over the long term.
We have decent health insurance. This month, so far, half of our entire monthly budget has gone to paying for that health plan along with various medical bills.
We can afford to take our kids to Dollywood. But we’ve only had one real family vacation in the last 15 years.
We are far from poor, but we are far from safe.
Ours is a life of stark, considered prioritization. Solid dependable luggage; but no A/C on the drive to the airport. Big house; minimal, decrepit furniture. Good beer; but not a lot of it.
That’s the state of our household in 2015. It’s been a lot of work getting us this far. We still have a ways to go.