Being middle class isn’t just about the money. That’s the conclusion of a recent survey of 2,749 American adults conducted by financial services firm Northwestern Mutual. When researchers compared responses of people who self-identified as middle class with the general population, they found the former held some pretty distinct beliefs about the economy, finances, and making it in America.
Overall, 70% of people surveyed said they were middle class. Those who fell into this group were more likely than others to feel good about their financial situation, believe is was possible to achieve the American dream, and be confident about the future.
“This research clearly shows that those who consider themselves part of the middle class in America see beyond just income levels and identify with something greater,” said Rebekah Barsch, vice president of planning at Northwestern Mutual. “When you dig into the attitudes and behaviors of the middle class, you find it’s an optimistic group with a strong sense of financial responsibility.”
So what do people who see themselves as middle class really believe about money and the U.S. economy? We dug into the survey results to find the answers. If you identify as an “average American,” chances are you believe at least some of these seven things, the Northwestern Mutual survey found.
1. The American dream is attainable
The American dream might be dying on the vine — at least according to some — but the majority of the self-identified middle class still believes it’s possible to make it in this country. Fifty-five percent of middle class people Northwestern Mutual surveyed said the American dream was still attainable for most Americans, compared to 48% of the general population.
Next: Do you think the economy is looking up? Then, you might be middle class.
2. The economy is looking up
One reason people believe the American dream is still within grasp could have to do with attitudes about the economy. People in this group were more likely than other Americans to believe the economy would be better in 2017 than it was in 2016 — 47% versus 43% of the general population.
Overall, Americans have become more confident about the economy over the past year, a Pew Research poll found. Two-thirds of those earning more than $75,000 a year say the economy is in good shape, compared to half of those who earn less than that amount.
Next: How much do you really need to earn?
3. Earning $50,000 to $125,000 a year makes you middle class
Estimates of what kind of income makes you middle class are all over the map. People earning as little as $30,000 a year might see themselves as part of middle America, yet so might those people with those who earn a six-figure income and have a net worth in the seven figures. The Northwestern Mutual survey found half of people who believed themselves to be middle class earned between $50,000 and $125,000 a year. Another 18% thought people earning up to $200,000 a year were middle class.
The wide variation in how much people think they need to earn to be middle class could have something to do with differences in cost of living across the country. For example, a family living comfortably on $70,000 a year in Boise, Idaho, would need to bring in more than $111,000 annually to maintain an equivalent standard of living in an expensive city, such as Boston, according to cost of living calculators.
Next: Is it possible to move up in status? Many say yes.
4. It’s possible to move up the class ladder
Today’s middle class Americans still believe in upward economic mobility, perhaps because many have climbed the class ladder themselves. Among people surveyed who said they were middle class now but were not middle class five years ago, 83% said they were previously low-income or lower-middle class. Only 17% felt their class status had changed for the worse in the past five years.
Next: Members of the middle class believe they’re financially secure.
5. You’re financially secure
Middle class Americans are more likely to believe they’re financially secure compared to the general population. Fifty-eight percent said they were “very financially secure” compared to 47% of all Americans. Only 17% felt they were living on the financial edge, compared to 28% of all people surveyed. That sense of security, along with the ability to deal with financial setbacks, is a defining aspect of being middle class, according to some.
“Being middle class should include having a cushion against financial shocks. And it should include the expectation that your financial situation can improve over time,” financial expert Liz Weston wrote for Money.
Next: Many look to experts to help them with their finances.
6. It’s important to work with a financial adviser
Many middle class Americans don’t believe in going it alone, at least when it comes to their finances. People in this group are more likely to work with a financial adviser than other people surveyed. Forty-three percent said they turned to a financial pro when they had financial questions, compared to 35% of the general population.
But the majority of people in both groups were still flying solo when it came to their money. That could be a problem because studies have found people who get extra advice on money matters tend to have better financial outcomes than those who do not.
Next: The middle class is feeling pretty good about retirement prospects.
7. Your retirement plan is solid
Members of the middle class tend to be much more confident in their retirement plan than other Americans. Fifty-one percent said their retirement or financial plan would be able to endure the ups and downs of market cycles, compared to just 43% of the general population.
Middle income families are also more likely than working class or poor Americans to have retirement savings in the first place. More than half of people in the middle income quintile and 69% in the upper-middle quintile have at least some money in their retirement account, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute, compared to 30% in the lower-middle quintile and 8% in the bottom fifth.