It’s the end of the year and most of us are looking forward to a new year and a new start. Many of us will set new goals, choose new mantras, and hope for change from the previous year. Whether 2018 proved to be a good or bad year for you, many of us anticipate the opportunity to reset and say goodbye to things we no longer want to be bound to. While I haven’t set goals in several years I do spend time reflecting on the previous year and thinking about how I want to grow as a person in the year to come. Often I’ll also choose a new word I hope to embody in the following year.
This post has little to do with the New Year and new goals. What I do hope to share is a simple truth for our family and many families that often comes with too much shame to even talk about: the life and struggles of being middle class.
At the end of each month, I look at the bills and figure out our finances for the month. It has proven to be a time of high anxiety for me as I work on what feels like a cruel jigsaw puzzle. One in which I navigate when each bill needs to be paid, when paychecks hit the accounts, and deciding when to pay, because, paying too soon could result in not having money for things like gas and groceries. Some months are easier than others. Every few months, I begin to again question how this is even possible. How is it that two adults with multiple graduate degrees, white collar jobs, and living simply, can find themselves juggling their finances to make sure they have enough to buy necessities? All of this comes with a tremendous amount of embarrassment and shame because there’s a stigma surrounding anyone who has financial difficulties. There’s a perception that anyone who struggles financially has done something wrong or worse they are bad people. Perhaps there is some truth to that which I will address shortly but, there is more to it for most of us who have or are currently in financial turmoil and that comes with being middle class.
For a quick definition, middle class encompasses individuals making between $40,500 and $122,000. As of 2016, that was still over half (52%) of the American population. While salaries have remained stagnant for many secure professions, cost of living has increased by 30% over the past 20 years. Meaning, while many of us have the same annual income working the professions our parents did, things like housing, childcare, education, and health care costs have increased significantly. The costs of these setbacks, as I will call them, vary slightly depending on where you live but for many of us they are setbacks. For us living in Dallas proper housing costs average around $260,000 and this is likely for a house in a semi-decent area with low performing neighborhood schools. In 2018, we paid roughly $6,000 for health insurance for Sofia and I that covered three wellness visits, not counting prenatal care, Remi’s birth, visits to a lactation consultant, and a five hour hospital stay for what we thought to be pre-term labor totaling around $8,000 – all of which my health insurance did not cover and we had to pay out of pocket. Then there’s the average childcare cost for a family with two children ranging from $17,000, that’s outrageous! It’s no wonder fertility rates are dropping despite the fact that families are wanting to have more children.
So what does this all mean?
I am not blaming our (MY) financial problems on anyone. I do believe there are many things that we have done that have caused us to be in our current situation. For starters, back when we found out I was pregnant with Sofia we were living in an apartment. Everyone knows you can’t raise a child in an apartment and you’re not considered an established family until you buy a house, so, we bought one well before we were financially ready. The house was charming but it ended up having huge problems and we found ourselves spending more and more on repairs. Pretty soon we were charging many house expenses on our credit cards. We both chose to go to graduate school to pursue different career paths than our present ones and while we tried to pay as we went, often taking several semesters off because we couldn’t afford it, we got to the point where finishing was more important so we took out a school loan. We chose to buy a second car, regardless if it was a used, eight year old car, we still chose to buy one. We chose to have a second child. We chose to adopt three dogs. Then there are the choices we make on a day to day basis like buying certain produce only in organic versus conventional. After selling our house, we chose to rent a house in Dallas where we are paying a bit more than other cities because we wanted to be around good schools, a good community, and quick access to green spaces for our kids to play in. These and many more examples I can reflect back on and say that we made the choices that have set us back financially in one way or another.
However, there is something to be said about our society (our system, if you will) that isn’t very fond of families and the middle class. As mentioned above the astronomical costs of childcare are enough to send parents into high stress, anxiety, and depression. While there are resources for families, from getting free health insurance and childcare to getting free exterminators for your home, we are slightly over the income brackets putting us in the “you make to much annually” category. The emphasis our culture places on consumerism is another concern. We all recognize the Master Card priceless commercials where there is upbeat music, a father and son bonding over nachos and hot dogs while they watch the Yankees hit a homerun, all brought to you by Master Card but rarely do we see commercials warning us about debt. Then for us with children there is a pressure to “keep up with the Jones’” by making sure they have the cute expensive Mary Jane shoes, participate in three different sports, and of course attend the best private schools all of which adds more pressure to the already struggling middle class.
I have no grand answers or solutions but what I can say is: I understand, because we have been there. We have (mostly me because I tend to be the more anxious one) been stressed as we have waited for payday with nothing more than $135 in our accounts knowing we still had childcare to pay and groceries to buy. There are many websites dedicated to helping people get out of financial debt. There are many things that you can do like staying away from credit cards and slowly paying off the debt you have acquired. Last month I was able to delete a bill pay account for a loan that we paid off and it felt good. So good! While I can say that we are no longer in our lowest point we still have months that are particularly harder than others. And while we still have debt we are trying to pay off I was thrilled to find out four days ago that we received financial aid for the $4,000 hospital bill we were billed after my pre-term labor scare. That’s $4000 free-er (yes, I just made that word up).
Again I don’t have the answers but if you are or have been in financial distress, I understand you. You don’t have to be alone in this and it is okay to talk about it and get help.
Meanwhile back in OLH: We welcomed the new year by doing what we love most, going outside. It wasn’t long, the weather wasn’t exactly pleasant, but as always it was nice to be outside. As I stated earlier I haven’t set goals for the new year in a few years. It hasn’t worked for me in the past because I think I set myself up for expectations that are too high and like most, after three months I stop keeping up with my goals. But I do like to reflect on the previous year. 2018 may have proven to be the most draining for me (so far) with adding a second child, adjusting finances so Joshua can finish his program, and having many days where I felt like a single parent because of Joshua’s work/ school schedule. I felt drained! But while it was draining there were things I can think about that have brought me so much joy. I transitioned from teaching to counseling, I started this blog, (thanks for joining me in my little space on the internet!) I continued to become more aware of my passions, and best of all we welcomed Remi into the world. Now in 2019, if I had a goal it would be to continue to be myself more. This isn’t new, hence why it isn’t really a goal, but this year I hope to continued in my journey to be my truest self, to pursue the things I am passionate about, and to not apologize for who I am. Happy New Year, friends.