A few weeks ago, I got into a fight with someone on Facebook because I claimed that certain parts of Seattle were “wealthy.” (My writer’s group friends would pipe in here and congratulate me for offending someone on the internet—easy to do, I know!) I tried to talk with this person and clarify what I meant, but at the end of the day, this whole discussion just reminded me of the bizarre ways we Americans talk and think about money.
70% of America thinks of themselves as “middle class,” at least 20% of them are wrong! But we don’t talk about how much we earn, or what we spend, so perhaps we can be forgiven for being ignorant on the topic. A recent Seattle Times article said that the median income in Seattle is now $120,000. And while Seattle is a very expensive city, (rent/mortgage can easily hit $2000/mo on a modest 2-bedroom, gas is $3.20/gallon, milk is $2.50-3.00) I think that if you earn six figures, it’s not a stretch to say that you are wealthy.
So why can’t people admit that they are rich? I think it’s because we are constantly comparing ourselves to those who have more. Every character on TV, whether they’re a barista or a public school teacher, seems to live in a massive house or apartment with giant, granite-topped kitchen islands. They wear expensive clothes and obviously have the time and money to hit the gym on the regular. Our TV and movies have become commercials, offering us an aspirational lifestyle always just out of reach. If we only buy this, our lives will look as beautiful as those we see on TV.
In the early nineties, I knew exactly zero people who owned designer handbags. Now dropping a few hundo on a purse by a name seems de rigeur. We are all, it seems, trying to keep up with Kardashians.
I don’t think most of our spending actually makes us happier. What does is the radical notion of being intentional about our spending. My husband is a methodical (some would say crazy) budget maker, and it really helps us to think about how we spend our money. While our budget still has a lot of silly spending in it, (was that takeout order really worth it?), we work towards being intentional—particularly about giving. We designate 10% of our income for charity, and spending that money actually makes us happier. It reorients our focus away from aspirational TV-land living and toward reality. The reality is that there are a lot of people who are homeless, hungry, and fleeing violence. When we give, it makes us feel grateful for what we have instead of wishing we had more.
Our combined pre-tax income is roughly $125k. According to the data, that makes us thoroughly Seattle middle-class. But I feel wealthy. And I think that if more of us “middle class” could focus on helping those who are less fortunate, we’d ALL be a lot better off.