Posted September 10th 2012 at 10:58 am by
in Surviving the Middle Class

How to Actually Excel in the Middle Class

Women’s final of 80 metres hurdles, Olympic Games, London, 1948.

How to survive excel in the race to the top middle class. Photo credit: National Media Museum.

A couple years ago I wrote a series of posts for CoLab Radio called $urviving the Middle Class.  I was in my early 30s, working full time and living in Cambridge, Massachusetts when I started to question why it felt like my family could never get ahead financially.  Now – after two interstate moves, the completion of two graduate degrees between my husband and me, and reading a couple dozen personal finance books from the library – I think that I finally cracked the code.  But first a correction: I’m taking out the word “survival.”  Survival is finding enough food, clothing, shelter, and water to stay alive. If you’re in the American middle class, chances are all of these necessities for survival are taken care of.  The question is how to excel in this class, to make the most of the privilege and opportunities that are available.  Here is my family’s current strategy.


1.    Save Half

I don’t know where the suggestion to save 10% of your income came from.  Maybe it came from our grandparents who were fully supported by their company’s pensions after they stopped working? But I think that 10% is pretty measly when you consider how much of your income you’ll have to replace in the instance of a job loss (~40-100%) or retirement (~50-100%).  So I am aiming to Save Half.  I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.


2.    Don’t Think of It as Retirement. Think of It as the Day That Will Come When You Are Not Able to (or Don’t Want to) Work Any More

I recently realized that there is a jargon issue with the word “retirement.”  It kind of sounds like a vacation, and maybe for some people it is.  In general it’s just a snoozer of a word or topic for conversation with friends.  But actually

Retirement = The Day That You Stop Working.

Some people may never stop working but most people will have some sort of time in their lives, voluntary or not, when they can’t work.  To me, using the word retirement takes away the urgency and relative unavoidable nature of this time.  It also takes away some of the excitement!  So instead I’m calling it The Day That I Stop Working.  When I think of it in this way I am struck by a whole new sense of priority around preparing for this day.


3.    I’m My Own Debt Expert

I will take on some debt in my life and when I do I will know everything there is to know about the terms and conditions of that debt, how quickly it must be paid off, and the interest that I will pay on it.  Since my first goal is to Save Half, of course I have to be very careful about borrowing because making payments on debt will get in the way of that.  In the United States taking on debt has become pretty easy and so many people take it on (including myself) without fully understanding what we’re getting into, and as a result the banks enjoy our interest earnings.  Well I’m done feeding the banks!  For me, exceling in the middle class will require being educated on my debt and making sure that the debt I do have is manageable and short term.  (In turn this means bringing back the mortgage burning-party, which I aspire to have someday.)


4.    For the Most Part, I’ll Only Eat at Restaurants on Anniversaries or Birthdays or Other Special Occasions

The only way that I’m going to be able to Save Half and prepare for The Day That I Stop Working is to cut back on eating out casually at restaurants and other non-essentials like excessive clothing, home furnishings, and toys for my son.  Really this one is about reigning in my consumerist tendencies.  In my house we have three birthdays and one anniversary to celebrate annually, that means at least four nice restaurant dinners to look forward to each year—woo hoo!


5.    Living In an Area with a Low Cost of Living

In the $urviving the Middle Class series a lot of what I wrote was centered on how difficult it was for a middle class family to get ahead in a city with an extremely high cost of living.  Since then, things have changed and I’ve moved twice, each time lowering my costs while improving my standard of living. Here are some examples of areas I’m saving in since I left Cambridge:

Housing: Dropped 35% with the first move, and an additional 6% with the second move.

Dining Out: Although I don’t eat out as frequently as I used to, when I do the cost is 20-40% lower than it was in Cambridge.

Vacations: For one year I lived in Florida so I got my fill of mini-vacations at the beach.  Having great, affordable local vacation options is a major benefit to choosing my home base.

Gym Memberships: In my current state of Kentucky I pay 72% less for a gym membership than I did in Cambridge.

Transportation: In Florida my husband rode the local Rapid Transit System for free with his university ID card.

Parking: Again, it’s free for my husband to park on campus at his current university job, but he usually walks instead.

Museum Admissions: In Florida I frequented a stellar natural history museum ( and an outdoor living history farm for free every Saturday.  (Note, it’s currently $14 for a child to visit the Boston Children’s Museum and $6 to visit the Harvard Museum of Natural History)

Child care: The cost of full time child care for a toddler dropped about 67% with my first move and an additional 8% with my second move.

Obviously this list adds up to a stunning amount of savings.  And while salaries are lower in my new areas they’re not impossibly lower in the same way that it felt impossible to reach a comfortable salary level in the metro-Boston area.

Those are my new discoveries but it turned out that there were a few things that I was already doing that set me up with a good foundation:

I didn’t take on debt for my education,

I don’t shop very much, and

I always carry health insurance.

And that, God willing, is how I plan to excel in the American middle class.  What is your approach?

Post by Christina Ruhfel.

5 responses to “How to Actually Excel in the Middle Class”

  1. Stephanie says:

    I love this. We live in a society so nonchalant about racking up debt. We should all focus on saving. It turns out life is just as beautiful and enjoyable (maybe even more so without the fear of having no money in the case of an emergency). Saving teaches us patience, self-discipline, and keeps our selfishness in check. It also makes us more prepared, more future-minded, and more responsible in general.

  2. Christina says:

    Very true Stephanie! It is amazing how many good things flow from being in control of one’s personal finances. I think that as the US recovers from the recession there will be a resurgence in serious savers, which will have great implications for our health, families, culture and the environment. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  3. jlcollinsnh says:

    Excellent, Christina…

    …and I love the change from ‘survive’ to ‘excel’

    For me it has never been about ‘retirement’ it has been about having options. Here’s my formula:

    Save 50% — Invest — Avoid debt. Do just these three things and you can’t help but succeed.

  4. Christina says:

    I love your formula and your blog. Am adopting the formula effective immediately! And agreed on having options.

    Recently I started to appreciate the things that AREN’T in my life: for example I don’t have sleepless nights over covering a big house payment (I rent) and I don’t worry about not having good medical coverage or enough food. I also don’t argue with my husband about finances. For a long time I took the absence of these and many others things for granted. Not sure I’m explaining this effectively but I am currently motivated to do what it takes to make sure that these issues REMAIN non-existent for us.

    Thank you for your comments!

  5. jlcollinsnh says:

    funny you mention renting. With our daughter off to college, we’ve made two attempts in as many years to unload our house and get back to the carefree renter’s life.

    It is a whole lot easy to buy stuff than to sell it. Worth thinking about anytime buying is under consideration.

    Thanks for your kind words on my blog. I’m delighted you found your way over there.