For the majority of my life, I’ve been middle class. Even when I was growing up, my parents owned a house and a couple of vehicles, and we always had food on the table. They didn’t have a ton of money when I was young, but given that my parents were just starting their careers that was to be expected.
One of the benefits of being in the middle class is that, if you want it, you get to have “stuff.” Perhaps not diamond-encrusted stuff, but stuff nonetheless. As our family income increased over time, so in turn did our ability to purchase non-necessities.
Most people just starting out in their careers find themselves in a similar position; their income doesn’t always go far enough to buy everything they want. As their incomes increase however, their ability to indulge in their wants increases as well.
The thing about “stuff” is that it’s visible. You can see when you do or don’t have it. For many people it’s a marker of success. You’ve “made it” when you can buy that sports car or designer purse. The perception of affluence for many people in the middle class is based on the stuff you own. The more stuff you have, the richer you must be.
It’s a fallacy! Buying something expensive doesn’t mean you have money, it means you HAD money. The hardest part about getting ahead financially is that it feels like you’re falling behind compared to your peers. That’s what happens when you use “stuff” as your measurement of wealth.
I only have a finite amount of money, and the more I put toward my future and getting ahead, the more it looks and feels like I’m falling behind compared to my peers. Maybe if we all walked around with our personal balance sheets taped to our backs we’d stop using consumer objects as measuring sticks, but I doubt that’s going to happen any time soon.
In the meantime, I have to fight to change my internal measuring stick. If getting ahead didn’t feel like you were falling behind, I think a lot of us would have healthier savings accounts. Lifestyle inflation is the middle-class trap.