Smack in the Middle
by Jennie Dorris
What it’s like to be middle class in the Mile High City circa 2011.
My new husband and I recently combined finances. He bought a six-pack of Tecate; I gathered our paperwork and a laptop; and we sat down to figure things out. After we calculated how to pay off his credit card and combine our savings into shared checking and savings accounts, we each cracked open a new beer and stared in shock at our final budget.
We were, and are, much to our surprise, upper middle class. Nationally, the middle class is defined as households that earn $25,000 to $80,000 (which makes for a pretty plump middle). Colorado’s median household income is $58,321. We earn about $75,000 or a little more, depending on how freelance projects add up. But upper middle class feels a lot different than we thought it would.
Working my way up as an artist—I am a professional musician and college professor—I used to budget for a little more than $1,000 a month. Although that’s well below “middle class,” it was above the poverty line, which is $10,830 a year for individuals. Back then, I went Dumpster diving for my furniture. I drove an old car that didn’t start in the heat of summer. I worked 16-hour days and countless hours at unpaid internships. I went out with friends and kept my bar tab low by drinking dollar PBRs. But I didn’t have savings, health insurance, a 401(k)—or a very well-stocked pantry. (I had to eat bean sandwiches for a week once because I was between paychecks and only had a loaf of bread and a jar of black beans in the house.) After a car accident, I thought my life was over—not because I was injured, but because I was hit by an uninsured driver and I couldn’t afford to repair my ride.
When my husband and I were dating, I lived in a 400-square-foot alley house, and he lived in a small two-bedroom rental with a roommate. He had an old Chevy Blazer with an engine that had just seized. I had a decade-old Subaru with a primered hood and a horn that didn’t work. But he was climbing the ladder in journalism, and I was starting to make it as a musician. Slowly, surely, our incomes went up.
But, from a practical standpoint, not much was changing for us. When his roommate moved away, I moved into his apartment. We still live there and pay the bargain-basement price of $600 a month in one of Denver’s best neighborhoods. We got the bulk of our furniture from a yard sale across the street. The rest we found sitting outside a Dumpster near DU. We have no intention of moving to a better space, and, right now, we can’t afford to buy new furniture.
So, after essentially tripling our combined income, why haven’t things changed more? Although we make 75 grand a year, we still can’t afford that cute Victorian down the street, we can’t afford to work shorter days, and we are just starting to save for a new car. But we do have health insurance, emergency savings, and AAA coverage. Being middle class, I’ve learned, means a car accident or a broken bone won’t break us. It means we still lay awake worrying about our careers, but not our bills. And it means that we still drink cheap PBRs, but that we haven’t had bean sandwiches for dinner in a very long time.