The Still-Secret Salary of a “Middle Class” American

I finally got around to reading the title Atlantic piece about broke Americans. You know, the one where the guy is holding a paper bag over his head. I thought I’d love this article, because I generally find it really cool when people take their own financial woes and talk about them as they fit in with patterns and our society.

It turns out the article does highlight a lot of terrible decisions (like lying to one’s spouse about money), but it’s really not clear how connected it is to macro-level problems. Helaine Olen claims that it’s so much privileged whining, and I ended up largely agreeing with her. I mean, c’mon, complaining about costs like buying a house in the Hamptons and sending two kids to fancy schmanzy schools is a bit, well, rich.

Still, there was one point that bothered me even more than the humble-brags and the strings of horrible decisions. Where, exactly, are the dollar signs? Financial decisions are categorized as bad, even ruinous, for reasons it’s very difficult to understand.

Now, having read a lot of personal finance articles and blogs, I can see why Gabler was hesitant to include these. Someone who writes about struggling to find affordable housing in San Francisco, for example, inevitably provokes a string of “I do just fine paying a $99/month mortgage for a huge farmhouse in Somewhere, NE” comments. And those comments are not particularly helpful, because they miss the point.

Still, I just can’t let him off the hook. It is a money article, after all, and it’s about the middle class. A class of which Gabler is, apparently, a member. It’s impossible to test the strength of his connection with a larger American narrative on the basis of vague mutterings about his aching wallet. Take his claim that he expected his income to rise. Did he make $40,000/yr two decades ago, and watch the value of that income fall? Or was he making twice that all along, keeping his actual income well above average? Did he spend a 401k worth half a million dollars on his daughter’s wedding, or did he blow a relatively insignificant sum? Neither is a good idea, obviously, but I know someone with high-earner neighbors ($300K/yr?) who went into debt for a daughter’s lavish wedding. That’s a far cry from someone pulling together $500 that she doesn’t really have in order to get the kid a wedding cake from somewhere other than Baskin Robbins.

Gabler falls well behind popular personal finance bloggers. Most bloggers include a lot of dollars and cents (sometimes with almost too much detail), though many of us are less than perfect. I’m not really cool with pf bloggers who claim to save a large percentage of their income, but won’t reveal what that income is. Are we supposed to extrapolate it from the spending? I like those who keep the income and the spending in nice, colorful charts. Mr. RB40 does a great job of this. It gives lots of detail and makes all of these goals seem more achievable. My position is that if you don’t want your income splayed out messily over a webpage, you can still blog.

Just don’t write about personal finance.

And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should reveal my own income. This year, it’s been 20,369.97, plus dividends (about $300 so far, automatically reinvested). 17K has gone into my TSP (401k). My nice, fat tax refunds (~3K) have gone into my Roth, so my take-home pay has been in the double digits. I actually think it’s less than $50. That’ll change, as I’m living off savings now, and I need to save up some more money before I quit my job. Spending has averaged about $1000/month, most of that going toward rent, food, and car insurance.

I’ll add more details on that in the future, because funemployment is great fodder for finance blogging! Stay tuned.

The Still-Secret Salary of a “Middle Class” American

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