The Bottom Layer of the Middle Class Cake

We’re a lucky family. We own our own house. We have enough to eat. We have cars and computers and pets. And we’re in debt up to our ears. I think that’s pretty much the definition of the American middle class, right?

Here’s why we’re the bottom layer: Our house has a second mortgage and a needs-to-be-repaired list as long as my leg. One of our two cars is into double digits in age and 6 digits in total mileage, but sadly, a single digit is all it takes to describe its gas mileage. Our boys recently hit their teens and became eating-growing machines, effectively doubling our budget for feeding and clothing them pretty much overnight. We buy generic everything at the grocery store, buy in bulk at Costco, and get our clothes (and most everything else) at Wal-Mart or Target on sale, but most months we still end up spending more than we’re taking in.

So, we often have to make tough budgeting decisions. Like, does the dog go to the vet this month to get his shots or does Link get new jeans that aren’t showing his ankles? (It’s a health issue so the call goes to the dog.) Here’s another: do we call a plumber to fix the leaky kitchen sink or do we call a handyman to replace the rotten siding? Trick question. The answer, of course, is neither. I will attempt to repair those things myself. I love home repairs (sarcasm) and I’m really good at them (bald-faced lie). And I always end up with funny stories to tell our friends (depends heavily on your definition of funny).

Basically, the budgeting hierarchy goes like this: children, adults, pets usually in that order except in cases of medical emergency. This list is integrated carefully with a second list including the cars, the house and everything else we own. Priority of the first list over the second list is determined by its category (is it a health expense, an essential need, or just a wants-really-bad?) versus the immediacy of the second list issue which is determined by a series of simple questions, like: Are both cars dead or just one? or Does the home repair issue involve water that is, at this moment, flooding some part of the house? Is that water incoming or outgoing? (Either one is bad but the second is a lot grosser. Especially if it’s filling your basement.) Depending on the answers to the questions, the car/house/possessions issue can then be assigned a metaphorical weight that may or may not give it precedence over the needs of the people and pets in the household.

Sound complicated? It is! The average middle class adult has to endure a deluge of potentially portentous decisions every day. And if that adult happens to be baked into the bottom layer of the middle-class, then the whole decision-making process can be about as fun as juggling fire batons in a high wind. While riding a camel. And being swarmed by angry bees. So, of course, all this stress affects our moods, emotional welfare and physical health which often leads to higher medical bills thus helping to perpetuate the whole process. It’s an infinite, and inevitable, loop.

So I’ve thought about it, and I’m pretty sure that by assigning proportionate numerical values to each of the decisions the head(s) of such a household has to make in the course of an average day that are directly related to money (or the lack of), that I could prove, mathematically speaking, that, for an otherwise mentally healthy person, money does indeed lead to happiness. Or, at the very least, it is a prerequisite. And we’d live longer too. And probably have more fun doing it.

English: Giant Wood Spider Nephila pilipes at ...

Lying in wait for unsuspecting homeowner.

One more example to push my point: My partner and I recently shared a unique bonding experience in the crawlspace under our home while attempting to correct dryer venting issues. It consisted mostly of me stuffing myself through the door under our back deck and firmly directing my spider-phobic partner to immediately exit the web-infested space before she fainted, because I was by no means certain of my ability to drag her unconscious body away from the monster arachnids that were certainly lying in wait just outside the reach of the flashlight beam. (That last part got her moving.)

And all this happened because of money, of the lack of it. My partner’s stress about our account balance in conjunction with the inoperational state of our dryer (a serious problem in a family containing a child with fairly severe OCD) actually overrode her extreme anxiety (i.e. blinding fear) of spiders long enough for her to get herself under the house. She couldn’t even wait for me to make myself available (I was writing), so she was actually alone under the house and very close to a full-blown panic attack before I realized what she was doing. She’s a very stubborn woman. I’m proud to say, though, that we actually managed to resolve the dryer venting issues and that relatively few spiders were unintentionally harmed in the process.

So there you have it. I could go on for another thousand words about all the things my partner and I have done to save money, but I think I’ve made my point. Proof of what we in the lower layer have always known to be true: Money may not make happiness inevitable, but it certainly does make the road to get there smoother, shorter, sweeter, and very probably spider-free.

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  1. hi from another lower-layer denizen! frugal living is one thing, spiders in your face is something else altogether. we also have the priorities list but ours is a lot shorter because we have no children, pets, or house hahahaha. Ah, poverty humor, gotta love it. 😀

  2. Hello fellow bottom-layer-dweller. I’ve found that humor is the next best thing to money. If I could just figure out how to get it to pay the bills, we’d be set. Thanks for reading!

  3. Cedar Kennan

     /  February 23, 2012

    We are right there, too. You did a great job describing how it feels, especially the constant prioritizing of a thousand different expenses for which there is no money.

  4. You could save by doing trades/swaps. A friend of mine that’s a computer programmer handles his dentist’s computer needs year round for free dental work. There are places online where you can find professionals to swap skills with but I haven’t tried it for myself yet.


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