The Real Cost of Living: $150,000 Minimum
Policy + Politics

The Real Cost of Living: $150,000 Minimum


The divide between the 1 percent and the 99 percent has ignited a national debate about the income gap, especially since Occupy Wall Street protesters descended on lower Manhattan last fall.  But how much money does it take to feel financially secure these days?

The answer, at least according to a new survey of Americans by WSL/Strategic Retail, is $150,000. That level of income is more than three times the national median of $49,445 for 2010, and it’s enough to put a household into the top 10 percent nationally.

The survey asked respondents to choose which of four categories best described them: I can’t even afford the basics; I can barely afford the basics and nothing else; I can afford the basics plus some extras; and I can afford the basics, the extras, and I’m able to save too. It is only at that $150,000 level that the survey found the vast majority of consumers, 88 percent, saying they could buy what they need, afford some extras, and still be able to save a bit.

Even as the economy improves and consumer confidence builds, more than half of Americans – 52 percent – feel like they can just afford the basics, and many with six-figure incomes still feel like they are just scraping by. The survey found that 18 percent of American households earning between $100,000 and $150,000 said they could only afford the basics, with another 10 percent saying they sometimes can’t even afford those staples.

“We clearly have what used to be upper middle income – 75 to 150k – folks who are saying, it just isn’t so,” says Candace Corlett, president of WSL/Strategic Retail. “A quarter of them are saying I can barely afford the basics.” So while six-figure incomes used to represent affluence, that’s no longer the case.

Of course, as The Fiscal Times has written before, in many parts of the country, an annual income of $250,000 could easily leave a typicalfamily in the red once all their expenses and taxes are factored in.

The buying power of the average paycheck has shrunk along with home values.  The WSL Strategic Retail survey found that $150,000 is the minimum for the average household to be able to afford the basics and a few extras, with a little left over to sock away for a rainy day.  Of course, that $150,000 is based on average costs for housing, food, clothing, etc.--perhaps a place like Peoria, Illinois.  If it takes that kind of money to have a decent middle class life in Peoria, what would it take to match it in the New York Metropolitan area, Phoenix, or Chicago?

We used Bankrate's cost of living comparison calculator to measure the difference in between Peoria and other cities and found the following: 

• The New York metropolitan area was the most expensive.  Equivalent income: $337,311.87. Percent increase to maintain standard of living: 124.87%.

• Washington, D.C. area: Equivalent income: $218,127.70. Percent increase to maintain standard of living: 45.42%.

• Chicago area came in with a 6.18% increase to maintain the standard of living. Equivalent income: $159,273.68.

• Phoenix was next with a 4.58 percent increase. Equivalent income: $156,876.64."

The struggling economy has clearly created a recession mindset among consumers. When asked how long the recession will continue, 80 percent of people say three years or more, Corlett says – up from 43 percent back in 2010. “They may not literally mean the government’s definition of a recession, but they certainly mean a recessionary mindset for them,” Corlett says.

Those financial pressures have made consumers much more cost-conscious. Three-quarters of women now say it’s “important to get the lowest price on everything they buy,” up 12 percentage points from 2008 and 22 percentage points from 2004. To that end, more are using coupons (68 percent vs. 61 percent in 2010) and buying only when items are on sale (45 percent vs. 38 percent in 2010).

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, young people – those between the ages of 18 and 34, who have long been the prized target for marketers – were more likely than other age groups to say they don’t have enough money to cover their basic needs. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed put themselves in that group, compared with 17 percent of those aged 35 to 54 and 13 percent of people 55 or older.

An IRS breakdown of U.S. incomes, released the day after the consumer survey, provides a reminder of why people, even those with six-figure incomes, may be feeling poorer. For tax year 2010, adjusted gross incomes reported to the IRS rose 5.2 percent to $8 trillion total – the first increase after a couple of years of declines. But while tax filers making more than $250,000 saw their total incomes climb almost 14 percent, those earning between $50,000 and $100,000 gained just 1.5 percent.