How To Know If You’re Truly Middle Class (Hint: It’s More Than Just Your Income)

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In recent years, defining the middle class has become a slippery issue for economists. That’s largely because the income range that institutions like Pew Research Center uses to define this cohort is so broad. With the median U.S. income being about $80,000 a year, a household of four earning between roughly $52,000 and $175,000 a year is considered middle class.

Explore: Here’s How Much You Need To Earn To Be ‘Rich’ in 23 Major Countries Around the World
See: States Where It’s Easiest To Go From Middle Class to Upper Class

But you can do a lot more with $175,000 than you can with $52,000, surely. And then what if you’re making $175,000 in, say, West Virginia; while another family is making $52,000 in San Francisco?

To define the middle class solely by income range is weak and unreliable because there are just too many other variables to consider.

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Home Costs, Worth and Mortgage Are Substantial Indicators

“To know if you’re truly middle class, you have to judge yourself within the context of where you live and the cost of living,” said Katie Gatti of Money with Katie. “The most obvious marker of someone who’s middle class is if the majority of their net worth is tied up in their home. In other words, if you’re worth $500,000 and your home constitutes $450,000 of that, you’re middle class.”

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Sarah Marsden Greene, a lecturer of economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, points to the amount of mortgage payment as a more direct indicator of class status.

“I think a mortgage payment (principal and interest only) in the amount of $1,500-$2,100 per month is middle class,” Greene said. “Property taxes need to be moderate at $5,000-$8,000 per year. A mortgage payment or property taxes higher than these figures indicate that the house is above what would be necessary to have a nice, but normal standard of living (including some luxuries, like quartz countertops and better than average appliances), but not luxuries like a three car garage, extra large rooms, or super luxury kitchens and bathrooms.”

The Middle Class Are (Likely) Not Renters

If the amount owed on a mortgage signifies whether one is middle class, what does that mean for renters?

It means, usually, that they’re beneath the middle class.

“The lower class may be renters, or live in conditions considered antiquated,” said Chris Motola, financial analyst at MerchantMaverick.com, who went on to explain that on the other side, you have the upper class which has more aberrant cultural tastes and a more capital-focused relationship toward money.

“If you want to get semi-Marxist about it, a middle class could be the professional and management layer between the capitalist and working classes,” Motola said. “They would be part of the working class, but one that’s more invested in the success of capital. The fact that we struggle so hard to define the ‘middle class’ is interesting, isn’t it? And yet it’s such a mythic concept in America.”

They Have an Emergency Fund

However complex the issue of defining the middle class may be, some indicators of this median status are almost obvious. For instance, in an emergency, those in the middle class are financially well-prepared to handle it.

“Having an emergency fund indicates that you are a middle-income earner,” said Alan Harder, a mortgage broker. “If one form of account is necessary for attaining and maintaining middle-class status, it is some rainy-day fund that you can tap in an emergency.”

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Try: 50 Easy Things You Should Do To Save Money

They Are Able To Invest

“Apart from income, a good sign of middle-class status is a willingness and ability to invest,” said Hutch Ashoo, founder and CEO, Pillar Wealth Management, LLC. “If you have a sufficient salary, you can live comfortably in the middle class for some time, even if you spend everything you earn; however, unless you invest some of those profits in long-term assets, your middle-class status may diminish.”

They Have Confidence To Quit

Those who participate in the emerging phenomenon dubbed “The Great Resignation,” wherein they are quitting their jobs for another, may also be considered middle class not only because they have the luxury of being able to quit, but because they recognize that they have only themselves to rely on.

“Middle class people will likely feel freedom to act on job dissatisfaction by leaving their current employment because they have a certain level of confidence,” Greene said. “They know their future depends only on themselves and no handouts from anyone or anything.”

Read: 21 Tips To Climb the Career Ladder

Debt Isn’t a Stressor

Another factor to consider when assessing whether one is middle class is how affected they are by debt.

“Being saddled by debt, such as student loan debt, or any debt which makes paying the simple cost of living difficult indicates that the middle class has not been achieved,” Greene said. “If debt causes stress on a regular basis, then this indicates a lower income class (not middle) and that social safety nets are important.”

They Can Pay For Their Kids’ College Education

“One indicator that you are in the middle class is the ability to provide a college education for your children,” said Jennifer Harder, founder and CEO of Jennifer Harder Mortgage Brokers. “Assisting children in achieving success in life is a fundamental objective for middle-class households. The expense of a college education for a child can range from the low tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the university or college to which you choose to admit your children.”

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Last updated: Oct. 27, 2021 

About the Author

Nicole Spector is a writer, editor, and author based in Los Angeles by way of Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Vogue, the Atlantic, Vice, and The New Yorker. She's a frequent contributor to NBC News and Publishers Weekly. Her 2013 debut novel, "Fifty Shades of Dorian Gray" received laudatory blurbs from the likes of Fred Armisen and Ken Kalfus, and was published in the US, UK, France, and Russia — though nobody knows whatever happened with the Russian edition! She has an affinity for Twitter.

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