USA Today says American Dream costs $130k per year

Living the American Dream isn’t cheap, according to calculations from USA Today. Here is what went into the cost:

•Home ownership is central to the American dream. So, we took the median price of a new home ($275,000), subtracted a 10% down payment, then projected the annual cost of a 30-year mortgage at 4% interest. We also added annual maintenance costs of 1% of the purchase price. Total: $17,062 a year.

•We used the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s April 2014 figure of $12,659 for a moderate-cost grocery plan for a family of four.

•In May, AAA estimated it would cost $11,039 a year to own one four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle.

•The Milliman Medical Index pegged annual health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket medical expenses at $9,144.

•We used various estimates for the costs of restaurants and entertainment; one family summer vacation; clothing; utilities; cable or satellite; Internet and cellphone; and miscellaneous expenses (see table).

•Total federal, state, and local taxes were pegged at 30% for households at this income level, based on a model developed for Citizens for Tax Justice.

•USA TODAY calculated current educational expenses for two children at $4,000 a year and college savings (all of it pretax, we assumed) at $2,500 per year per child, based on various rules of thumb.

•Finally, the maximum annual pretax contribution to a retirement plan for people under 50 is $17,500. That’s slightly less than 15% of this American dream household’s annual earnings, in line with financial planners’ recommendations.

Total: $130,357.

It sounds like a lot — and it is in a country where the median household income is about $51,000. Add one more child and another vehicle and you could easily reach $150,000.

I can see some places where costs could be trimmed, particularly with the car and a more minimalistic approach to retirement savings. I wonder if the emphasis here should be on the overall cost – which is high and the article notes it can vary quite a bit from region to region – or the assumptions about what the middle class is about. I was recently looking at a classic sociological study Working-Class Suburb written by Bennett Berger in 1960. There is a point in the book where Berger juxtaposes the suburban critic frowning at the ills of suburban life and the suburbanite who is happy with his relative comfort of a car, refrigerator, house, and little patch of lawn. In the decades since, expectations about the good life have increased, as Juliet Schor showed in The Overspent American. If Americans need $130,000 a year to have the basics, many of which are good things, then is being middle-class something completely different today?

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