Dispatches from the Formerly Middle-Class

11 Jun

Its been a crazy week so while I wanted to write this post a few days ago, I only just found the time to actually sit down and do it. If you are a regular reader to my blog, you know that I regularly write about my financial woes. I know there are some who may wonder why I choose to share so much but the truth is as a member of the class of folks who find myself only hanging by a thread to the so-called middle class, I think there are many more like myself out there. Problem is in America we will talk about any and everything but talk of money is considered taboo…which is crazy to me. Truthfully I would rather talk about money or my lack of money sooner than I would talk about say my sex life but that’s just me.

No, in America everyone likes to consider themselves middle-class, make 35K you are middle class, make 150K you are middle class. When you think about it the question should be what is middle class? Does it even exist anymore? The other day a friend asked me how am I defining middle class? She considers herself middle class despite having a small bank balance. Good question, what it is? Well I could get a technical definition but I don’t feel like it. Instead I will tell you my thoughts on what is middle class and why I consider myself a former member of the middle class.

Growing up, I knew we weren’t middle class as I joke on a good day we were the working class and on a bad day we were simply poor. In layman’s terms when there was enough money to take care of all our needs and the occasional want, that was being working class…never was there enough for a true savings account and growing up we never took a vacation unless you count the occasional trip to Arkansas or St. Louis for a family reunion. Even those trips were done as cheaply as possible, meaning we drove and stayed at a relatives house. I must add such trips were not regular occurrences and play a large part in why I have little connection with my extended family.

No, many times my folks robbed Peter to pay Paul, that meant light bills only got paid when the red notice arrived…for those who don’t know what that is, that means the letter to send to tell you your lights are about to be shut off. I am thankful that aside from the years we were phone-less (before the era of cell phones) we were never without lights and gas. We never went hungry but there were a fair number of meals that I am thankful I have not eaten since my childhood.

When I grew up and started working I slowly moved solidly into the working class when Iwas a single Mama. No vacations but generally after I paid the bills there was always a little left for a treat. At 17, my son still fondly remembers the pizza and Chinese food nights we had as a treat. I didn’t have a savings account but thankfully my bills got paid before any notices came out.

Then I later moved into the middle class, helped out by marrying the Spousal Unit and retuning to school, that meant actually having money in savings, taking vacations that did not involve sleeping on a relatives floor. For me being a member of the middle class meant having more than enough to pay for our needs and wants, stashing something aside for a rainy day though looking back I did not save as much as I could have. It meant when a car broke down it was not a crisis, it meant having access to good health-care, it meant when I needed five grand in dental work, we had the means to take care of it. It meant not thinking whether or not that $100 in the bank was going to last until payday because I had way more than that in the bank account. It meant knowing you were not one unplanned emergency away from devasation, as you either had enough on hand to handle it or access to those little plastic cards where you had more than enough.

Well thanks to the on-going financial crisis, there are more and more folks who used to live in that place I just described but sadly they are no longer there. This piece in the NY Times really does a great job of covering it. While the article focuses on the self employed and since I and the Spousal Unit have been self employed for years, really the piece speaks to anyone who now finds themselves in this brave new world.

Its a world where on the outside we may still have some of our creature comforts of the so-called middle class life, but the reality is whenever we leave the house we know exactly how much money we have down to the penny and we are are watching it, hoping for nothing unexpected to come up. It means I no longer just deposit my paycheck in my checking account but I cash it first and then deposit it because I need cash right away. When you are broke, you do not have the luxury of waiting for checks to clear, its one of the reasons the often ridiculed check cashing joint exist in low income areas. Money sitting in an account, waiting to clear is a luxury those on the edge simply don’t have. Thus the reason the poor will pay crazy fees to turn a paycheck into cash. Despite the fact its insanely expensive. Thankfully I am not quite there and am also fortunate my job uses the same bank I do which makes cashing the check first a fairly painless process.

If any of this resonates with you, it may because while you still see yourself as solidly middle class you know deep dowm you are in financial free fall. Yet do you feel comfortable discussing this your friends? Family? Even in a marriage or partnership, couples are often reluctant to discuss how bad their financial situation is, many times creating even more issues when one partner gets it and the other doesn’t. Thankfully we talk money allot here so no one is going out spending without the other being aware of it.

Once a week, I would like to have a post from someone who is struggling financial and how you are coping in this brave new world. If you are interested in doing a guest post email me blackgirlinmaine@gmail.com

9 Responses to “Dispatches from the Formerly Middle-Class”

  1. em connell June 11, 2009 at 2:45 pm #

    i guess ive never thought about what class i am. my parents are middle class…. but in the spirit of never feeling like a grown up–ive never classified myself.
    i guess im just poor. i have to be on state aid for health care & food…& i get WIC…but in my head it’s always “just ’til things get better….” though im not sure HOW they’ll get better. when i publish a novel???
    at the WIC interviews they always ask, “do you ever have to go without food?” & i can always answer, “no.” so i guess, realizing there are people who answer “yes” to this–i just never consider things that bad.
    ive got a place to live, food, clothes…i can even keep pets. i can’t go out much–i can’t do the things my friends can afford to do…but im happy & my kids are happy.
    maybe im rich.

  2. 32B June 11, 2009 at 10:54 pm #

    I like your comment em connell. It depends on your perspective for a lot of people…but perspective just won’t cut it for many others.

    If you have been there (poor) then, when you get more than you’ve ever had, most take measures to NEVER get back to where they were. Of course I say “most”. I grew up but I think I qualify as working class right now only because any unplanned financial emergency would deplete my savings although I do have one.

    Most financial mess that people find themselves in is due to their own mistakes along the way whether they want to admit it or not. It doesn’t matter what the banks have done, who is getting a bailout, what real estate bubble burst, or what the Dow Jones is says. The same financial principles apply as they did then like they do now…if you never had those principles that’s one thing. If you ignored them, then that’s another.

    Find some bootstraps, put them on, and pull yourself up by them. I’m just glad I don’t struggle to pay my bills anymore….that said, I’m rich too.

  3. Chi-Chi June 12, 2009 at 10:45 am #

    I’ve never quite understood class in the sense that the definitions, like you said, always seem so broad and vague. You get the sense that money isn’t the only thing that makes up a person’s class (i.e. you can tell a person’s class by their priorities and by what they focus on) but it does seem that the primary thing that dictates class is money and in this country where it’s all about money and possessions and the supposed ability to get more money and possessions if you just apply yourself enough, class really is just . . . what is it, really? So in the context of living in the U.S., I can’t really say class is a real thing–I think it’s just more of an idea that we like to hold on to sometimes just to make us feel better about ourselves or at the very least define ourselves. The difference between working class and middle class, as we’ve so startlingly come to see is so . . . unreal. I mean, I’d never really thought of myself in terms of my class until very recently. I’d say despite my parents both being well educated, growing up we lived a working class lifestyle and struggled in a lot of ways because of my parents’ bad financial decisions. Right now, I’d say, being a one income family, it’s not like the money being brought into the house is more than what my parents were bringing in together (they both worked). Technically, we’re working class, i.e. we need to work and pull overtime (unless I go to work to) but life is a lot more comfortable for me now–still no great vacations and stuff but nice little (usually second-hand or refurbished) extras. 🙂 The difference is responsible use of money. And we have been responsible but we’re learning a lot just like everyone else. So in that way, I agree with 32B. Many folks who were not being financially responsible (and didn’t really have to be) and are now learning how to be. And in that, they’re realizing, “Hey, maybe I was never really middle class to begin with” and that’s hard. A lot of our illusions are being shattered. And I think that’s a good thing. We’ll all get through if we’re willing to look at things realistically.

  4. BlackWomenBlowTheTrumpet June 12, 2009 at 2:43 pm #

    Hi there Shay,

    This is sooo true.

    I have met many people who didn’t know that “working class” is actually on the BORDER of the lower class tier and the middle class. I know so many people who thought that “working class” meant SOLIDLY middle class. Ummm…no.

    Working class is actually right on the border of being in the lower class…basically those who would lose their home or car with the loss of a job.

    You make a great point that people define “middle class” differently.

    Among whites, even the factory folks were considered “working class” – eventhough some of those factory guys had wives who didn’t have to work!

    Here’s a relevant piece from MSNBC:
    “Who and What Is Middle Class?”
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21272238/

    Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!
    Lisa

    P.S. BTW, Karyn just responded to you at my blog.

  5. BlackWomenBlowTheTrumpet June 12, 2009 at 2:50 pm #

    Oh… I didn’t comment on my financial situation in my comment and I think you wanted personal experiences…

    I consider myself to be a middle class person (in spite of the fact that I was born into the upper class) because my vocation as a minister places me in the middle class in terms of income.

    I grew up in a household where we traveled around the world and had full-time domestic help. I didn’t think we were wealthy kids – not even when we moved into a home that had servants’ quarters in the back for two families to live in. I’m serious.

    My lifestyle as a minister is very low-key and very “middle class”. I have a stylist but I don’t believe THAT is a splurge. It is a necessity for me to look polished because my external image is an investment in my professional mobility. You can’t look like a complete hag and then say “but my so-and-so degree is from Harvard!” *LOL*

    I don’t spend whatever I want without watching my accounts – but there was a time when I did live that way. That changed for me last year.

    Sorry if this is long, I just wanted to add my personal situation.

  6. Deacon Blue June 12, 2009 at 4:59 pm #

    I think BGIM wants some commentary here, but I also think she’s inviting folks to do some more hefty writing and submit it to her via e-mail as something she can post. Sounds like she wants to post these things once a week give or take and make it a regular reader-contributed series.

    BGIM, I’ll see if I can shake out some of my own readers to help. I’ve discussed a few financial and life issues over at my blog.

    And I’ll see about submitting something of my own for your consideration.

  7. 32B June 13, 2009 at 3:12 pm #

    I haven’t emailed because I am sure I don’t “qualify” as there are surely some who have gone through major changes than mine.

  8. robyn June 15, 2009 at 11:30 pm #

    have you read barbara ehrenriech’s [sp?] piece in the sunday june 14 new york times?
    i’m a tax accountant, i see income slippage every year. not just my own, my clients.
    [see comments in http://holyhell.wordpress.com/2009/05/22/career-notes/ ]
    just finished a conversation with the BF, who for the past year has been trying to get a transfer within his company [BIG corporate america]
    BF: well, this may happen, and we’ll be only 70 miles apart instead of 160. this recession talk is so overstated.
    me: are you real? do you not see the domino effect of every business closing leading to support businesses closing? every car dealership [we live in florida, MASSIVE dealership closings here] that closes leads to PERMANENT layoffs of dealers, service persons, mechanics, only a tiny fraction will find jobs in their field again and allthe peripherals business, the lunch counters, groceries, kinko’s, et al within a 2 mile radius will be adversely affected, probably close due to loss of business. the school closing we’re facing in orange county will lead to whole neighborhoods being stripped to their bone. i saw it growing up in new york, i saw it here, when the anchor store closed next to my old office [a storefront tax prep] we lost all our casual walk in business because there was no one walking by. YOU THINK THE RECESSION IS OVERSTATED? ARE YOU MAD?

    politics and economics are about the only thing he and i fight over. he’s sort of a ultra-liberal republican, i’m a lefty socialist. he thinks i’m naive, i think he refuses to see the bigger picture because it scares him.
    btw, we are both 50+, he’s always worked corporate customer support, i’m a tax accountant with a strong background in sociology, macroeconomics and an MBA. and you wonder why i’m a socialist? how can i NOT be? i see brokers, bankers, ‘financial wizards’ ripping the guts out of our country and replacing it with nothing in the quest for short term profits and increased immediate stockholder equity.

    i had a freelance position with a newspaper, writing on the arts and places of interest, tax code and the literary field. the paper has lost a significant amount of its advertising, so it cut pages, went from a biweekly to a monthly and eliminated all freelance writers.

    oh yes, what socio economic strata do i put myself in? i’d like to say middle class, i’m overeducated, have had every advantage etc etc BUT if i was honest, i’d say borderline poverty. this is partly the result of being constantly underemployed [but overqualified], partly putting my head in the sand while my ex screwed up our finances. i see no improvement in the foreseeble future. none.

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