“We make $325,000 a year and feel like we live paycheck to paycheck”

Three couples tell us how much they earn, spend, and save.

“We make $325,000 a year and feel like we live paycheck to paycheck”
[Photo: Panama7/iStock]

What does it mean to be middle class? Depends who you ask. As I wrote recently, Americans of all stripes think of themselves as middle class. Though being middle class has been defined as a household gross income anywhere from $37,000 to $147,000, it may be more accurately described as a state of mind–a feeling of financial insecurity. Even families whose salaries put them in the upper middle class feel like they simply don’t have enough to live comfortably, without worrying about money. After all, as salaries expand, so too do mortgage payments, childcare costs, and travel expenses. A family of four with a household income well into the six figures may not save much more than a young couple that earns half as much but has fewer expenses.


We asked three couples from different income levels that put them squarely in the middle or upper middle class range to share a snapshot of their yearly earnings and expenses, as well as how much they save and invest toward the future.

Couple in their twenties without children renting in Toronto and earning less than $100,000 a year

Annual income:

  • Gross income: $96,700
  • Tax and other payroll deductions: -$43,100
  • Net income: $53,600

Annual expenses:

  • Rent: $14,882
  • Utilities (internet, heating, cooling, water): $893
  • Phones: $1,340
  • Groceries: $4,280
  • Eating out: $1,786
  • Entertainment (from Netflix to occasional plays and movies): $744
  • Fitness: $2,232
  • Healthcare: $1,786
  • Transit: $893
  • Vacation (a few long weekend trips and one longer vacation): $3,720-$4,464
  • Student loan debt repayment: $4,464
  • Charity: $744
  • Savings/investing: $11,161-$14,882

Leftover: between $210-$4,675

“I think we opt to live more frugally than we have to in order to save more, so in that sense it’s an empowered choice, not something forced on us,” says Steven*, an entrepreneur who lives with his boyfriend, Martin*, a nurse. The couple saves anywhere between $11,000 and $15,000 a year and invests about 70% of that; the remaining 30% makes up their emergency fund (or their “fuck-it fund,” as Steven describes it). Their apartment is especially modest and “relatively small,” according to Steven, because housing in Toronto is no small expense. “We could afford more, but that would make rent another $1,000 a month,” he adds.

Though the couple prioritizes saving and investing, Steven says they still manage to do things like travel by finding ways to trim costs. “We try to get the same outcome for less money,” he says. That may mean vacationing in a city where they can stay with a friend rather than spending on a hotel, or avoiding travel at peak times to snag cheaper flights. “As with anyone, I imagine, we’d love to save more,” Steven says, “but we also want to balance that with the things that bring us joy in life.” Steven is more of the saver in the relationship, while Martin likes to enjoy his money a bit more. “I push [Martin] to invest a little more,” Steven says. “He pushes me to enjoy life a little more. It’s a good balance once we had an honest conversation about it.”


While Steven wouldn’t say he and Martin struggle with money per se, they do worry about their long-term finances. Their ultimate goal is to buy a home and achieve financial independence. Steven describes their state of affairs as a more “privileged middle class,” in that they can afford basic necessities and a few things that are a nice-to-have. “I associate upper class not with a specific dollar amount, but with the freedom to not have to consider money when making purchasing decisions,” he says. “We make trade-offs every day–walking to avoid subway fare or taking the subway to avoid Uber or Lyft. We buy off-brand groceries or food on sale. We think twice before adding avocado at Chipotle–and usually don’t end up doing it unless it’s a treat.”

Couple in their early thirties with two-year-old son, who own a home in Kailua, Oahu, making more than $100,000

Annual income:

  • Gross income (including rental income and income from a side business): $171,600
  • Tax and other payroll deductions: -$36,600
  • Rental income deduction: -$10,200
  • Net income: $124,800

Annual expenses:

  • Mortgage : $41,100
  • Groceries: $3,600
  • Eating out: $600
  • Utilities (water, electric, internet, cell phones): $3,600
  • Gas and car-related expenses: $1,800
  • Entertainment (nights out and outing with kids): $1,200
  • Sending money to their parents: $4,800
  • Random one-off purchases (clothes, gifts, any repairs): $1,200
  • Additional taxes: $15,000

Leftover: $51,900 (They said most of this goes toward paying off their mortgage, and they also donate 10% of it to charity.)

Despite living in Hawaii, where the cost of living is steep, the Changs manage to keep their expenses on the lower end. “Our costs only seem ‘low’ because we know what our priorities are and therefore put our money to those things that matter and not to excess,” Mama Chang (as she asked to be called) says. She works as an educational specialist at a public university, and her husband works as a procurement specialist for the city. One such priority was buying a home, so they sank a significant portion of their savings into their down payment and mortgage payments. The Changs usually have no more than $5,000 in their savings account, and their joint retirement savings are somewhere in the range of $90,000. “In Hawaii, it’s very difficult to contribute significantly to retirement and have a house, so we chose a house, because it’s a more accessible investment,” says Mama Chang.

Since they live near their parents, the Changs also have no childcare expenses; their parents are both retired and help take care of their son. (They do, however, help their parents cover some of their expenses.) The Changs don’t travel at the moment, but if they did, $6,000 is about what they would budget. “We do not plan to take up traveling until the kids are a little older,” says Mama Chang, “but if we were to incorporate this as a line item into our budget, this would be a reasonable range since we would hack credit cards to help cover part of the expenses.”


While they are frugal, they don’t necessarily worry about making ends meet, in part because of their immigrant backgrounds. “My husband and his parents immigrated from rural China, so their life was much harder there,” Mama Chang says. Her own family is originally from Vietnam, where her parents were comfortably middle class or even upper middle class. But following the Vietnam War, they had to start all over again in America with “practically nothing,” she says. “Our lives now are definitely a step up from that,” she says. “If we were to fall back into hardship, we would know how to survive because we’ve done it before.”

The Changs are also setting themselves up to have another kid, which they plan to do within the next year. For Mama Chang, a major priority is work-life balance, which is one reason she started an online blogging business; her hope is that the money she makes there will allow her to stay home once she has another child. She also has her sights set on an earlier retirement. Her husband, on the other hand, has no intention of leaving work earlier than the traditional retirement age. “He doesn’t think it’s a good idea to quit my stable government job, but if I end up doing it, he wouldn’t be upset either,” she says. “He knows I’d be responsible enough to make that choice without putting our family in financial jeopardy.”

Couple in their late thirties with two kids under five living in Atlanta, making more than $300,000 a year

Annual income: 

  • Gross salaries & bonuses: $325,000
  • 401(k) contributions: -$18,500
  • Supplemental 401(k): -$4,960
  • Deferred compensation: -$31,000
  • Taxes & other payroll deductions: -$85,695
  • Net salaries: $184,845

Annual expenses: 

  • ROTH IRA contributions: $11,000
  • Private preschool (for two children): $33,288
  • Babysitting for after school and nights out: $6,000
  • Mortgage: $19,448
  • Home maintenance/improvement: $12,000
  • Property taxes: $3,844
  • Home insurance: $2,117
  • Car insurance: $1,300
  • Gas: $2,400
  • Vacations (one to two big ones + weekend trips): $15,000
  • Life insurance: $3,000
  • Children’s lessons: $2,400
  • Clothes: $5,000
  • Charity: $7,500
  • Other expenses (gyms, car repairs, etc.): $8,000
  • Additional savings (retirement investments): $50,000

Leftover: $2,548

At first blush, it might seem like Nicole* and her family, who live in Atlanta, are comfortably upper middle class. But after accounting for taxes and 401(k) contributions, their net salaries are less than $185,000–less than 60% of their gross earnings. And once they’ve covered all their expenses, they’re left with just over $2,500 of what you might call disposable income. 


“We feel like we live paycheck to paycheck,” Nicole says. “Part of it is my husband’s compensation, which has a huge bonus component. We try to save as much of it as we can, if not all of it. We definitely know we are doing well and very fortunate, but it’s a struggle and a compromise today to save for the future.”

Nicole recognizes that she and her husband put away much more for retirement than many other families–in addition to their 401(k) contributions, they are investing more than $60,000 toward retirement. The average family in their age range has just over $67,000 saved for retirement, according to a 2017 report by the Economic Policy Institute.

Nicole admits they spend more on private preschool for their two children and house-related expenses. “I know our vacation budget seems high, but we try to fly and stay in hotels on points,” she says. “It just adds up. For example, we’re going to a family wedding and for two or three nights and between planes, cars, hotels, and dining, we’re easily over $2,000. And I don’t consider that a vacation!”


As someone who works in finance, she finds that most people either save little to no money, dip into family money, or are very frugal in one area–say, dining out, as is the case for Nicole’s family. “I’m not sure that we’re ‘typical,’ mostly because I don’t think most people save as much as I do,” she says. “But I do think feeling tight on what is in fact a very nice lifestyle is ‘typical.'” People who feel that way often expect that they shouldn’t have to think twice about spending on anything, whether it’s housing or travel. “It feels like people in our position–us included–somehow think we’ll get to that someday,” she adds, “but I don’t think that’s the reality for most anyone.”

* These couples asked to be identified by a pseudonym to protect anonymity.


About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.