When your bills arrive in the mail or land in your inbox, is it a simple matter of writing a check, or is it enough to make you break out in a nervous sweat? For a growing number of Americans — including the middle class — paying the requisite monthly tabs for rent, food, and other necessities is becoming a bigger problem. The American Dream isn’t so attainable anymore, and it’s becoming more difficult to make ends meet, let alone have the white picket fence.
The financial hardships that many Americans are experiencing come from a number of sources. About 38% of wage earners in the United States bring home less than $20,000 in net pay per year, and wages have been notoriously stagnant for years. Middle- and lower-income families are finding it more difficult to pay for the necessities, let alone afford things like annual dentist appointments and vacations.
The incomes of most Americans
Over the past several decades, the income spectrum for Americans has shifted. The “middle class” is shrinking, with more people landing in lower or upper echelons. The 9% or so of people in the upper thresholds might still be doing just fine, but paying bills for everyone else is a little tougher. The median household income in 2014 was $53,657, meaning people in the “middle class” earn between $35,413 and $107,314, according to government calculations. About 78% of people live with that income or less, the Pew Research Center reports.
Those thousands of dollars might seem like a lot at first, but the monthly bills most Americans accrue act like a magician’s disappearing act for their money. Taken individually, the bills are manageable in theory. But in practice, the combination of costs leave many people in a juggling act of delaying one bill payment to pay another. To see what we mean, take a look at some of the bills many Americans struggle to pay each month.
1. Health care
Even with the advent of the Affordable Care Act and accessible health care for more people, paying health care bills (or even the monthly cost for coverage) can be a large burden.
Premiums for individuals without a government subsidy are now an average of $286 across the country. For families, that number leaps to $727 per month. When you consider that the median income is about $4,471 per month (before taxes are deducted), either amount equals a significant portion of a paycheck, especially since that’s simply to cover an insurance card, not the actual medical expenses for care.
Despite a growing accessibility to health care, the deductibles are still incredibly high. As a result, Newsweek reports that 23% Americans between the ages of 19 and 64 are underinsured. “This amounts to 31 million people who chose not to fill essential prescriptions, undergo necessary diagnostic tests or procedures or see specialists out of fear that doing so would leave them in a financial lurch,” the report states. Having an insurance card is less of a problem, but affording the co-pay and blood tests is another story.
Affording a roof overhead is an increasing problem for many Americans, regardless of whether they’re paying for rent or a mortgage. Covering rent has always been a struggle for the lowest income earners in the country, but it’s now an issue for many middle-class people as well. According to one report from CNN Money, about 20% of people earning between $45,000 and $75,000 a year spend more than 30% of their income on rent. At that point, those households are considered “cost-burdened.”
“Renters of all incomes are having to spend more of their incomes on their rents,” Daniel McCue, senior research associate at The Joint Center for Housing Study of Harvard University, told CNN Money. “In fact, cost burdens are becoming increasingly more common for higher-income renters.” For the most part, rent prices are outpacing wage growth, making it difficult to get ahead.
As the housing market has recovered, mortgage payments can also easily fall into unaffordable ranges for many Americans. Roughly 52% of Americans have had to make a significant sacrifice in order to cover their rent or mortgage in the past three years, MarketWatch reports, and at least 15% of Americans have mortgages that represent 30% or more of their monthly income.
When it comes to necessities, none are so basic as affording something to eat. However, the money necessary to purchase food is growing, making it more difficult to budget for groceries. Part of the problem is that going hungry doesn’t look like it once did: Gone are the images of gaunt, waif-like figures from the Great Depression. People who go without a proper food supply come in all ages, sizes, and income levels.
According to an in-depth report from National Geographic, 1 in 6 Americans reports running out of food at least once per year. In many cases, at least one household member has a full-time job, and might even be slightly overweight. (After all, cheaper foods tend to be overly processed compared to the more expensive fruit and veggie alternatives.) Regardless of external appearances, a record 48 million Americans can be described as “food insecure,” meaning they didn’t have enough to eat at any given point in the previous year.
According to the report, that figure has grown fivefold since the 1960s. Of that growing group, many of the people live not in urban centers but in sprawling suburbs, where an empty refrigerator used to be unheard-of. Now, it’s sadly all too much of a reality for many families.
4. Credit card bills
As bank balances dwindle in the face of the rising costs for necessities, credit card balances swell. Consumers might believe they’ll come up with the money by the end of the month, or already know they won’t be paying off the balance. No matter the initial mindset, millions of Americans are barely scraping by with enough money to make the minimum payments, let alone cover the entire balance.
Depending on which factors you take into account, the average credit card debt can change. The average balance is $5,540 for adults in the United States who already hold a credit card, according to CreditCards.com. That balance increases to $9,600 for each household that typically carries a credit card balance. By some reports, the average amount of debt that’s rolled over from month to month can be more than $15,000.
No matter which numbers you look at, credit card debt has grown with each generation. For example, a person born between 1980 and 1984 has an average of $5,689 more in credit card debt than their parents did at the same stage in life. Regardless of how you look at it, borrowing on your future earnings is landing many Americans in hot water when it comes time to pay up.
5. Energy bills
Electricity and gas bills might be smaller compared to food, rent, and credit card tabs, but those costs are also continuing to rise. Though electricity bills haven’t increased astronomically, they have continued to rise year over year. A 2014 Forbes column cites that if home energy bills were to rise 10%, it would push another 840,000 Americans into poverty. From November 2014 to the projected values for November 2017, electricity alone is expected to rise 3.37% — already over a third of that figure.
Though budgets have eased in many cases since the Great Recession, many homeowners have turned to winterization methods and other strategies for keeping energy costs low. Even so, there has been an increase in the number of people who reach out for assistance with paying their energy bills. In areas like Detroit, for an example, agencies like the Metropolitan Community Action Agency saw a 300% increase in requests for help from 2006 to 2008.
“We are finding that these customers are working and can’t afford to keep up with the overall increases in food, gas for their cars, and the rising utility costs, along with foreclosures and evictions,” Shaun Taft, of the agency, told Reuters.
6. Emergency costs
By nature, unexpected bills aren’t built into a monthly budget, even though saving for those emergencies certainly should be. However, more than two-thirds of Americans don’t have the funds to cover a $500 emergency without borrowing money (from family and friends, or in the form of loans or credit card debt).
Obviously, the two-thirds figure demonstrates that this problem affects many more people than the lowest of earners. One report from The Atlantic demonstrates this clearly, as the author — a self-professed person with a middle (or upper middle) income — details his own previous plights of juggling bills and borrowing money from his adult daughters to pay for heating oil.
Time and time again, we’ve seen that saving for emergencies can keep you out of further financial trouble. But that doesn’t negate the fact that most people don’t have the ability to save that money in the first place. As a result, they don’t have the proper savings to be able to afford inevitable unexpected costs that come along. Whether it’s replacing a busted appliance, paying for a required car part, or affording an emergency hospital bill, many Americans simply can’t afford the cost once the bill comes in the mail.