Eight People Share What It’s Like To Live On $100,000 A Year

“Why is it still this hard when we have so much?”

How much does a good life cost? This question may be highly subjective, but it’s one that I find well worth examining. Five years ago, I interviewed six people in different parts of the country about what life was like on an income of $75,000. I chose this number because in 2010, Princeton researchers said the optimal household income for happiness was $75,000 (before taxes). “Perhaps $75,000 is a threshold beyond which further increases in income no longer improve individuals’ ability to do what matters most to their emotional well-being, such as spending time with people they like, avoiding pain and disease, and enjoying leisure,” they wrote. Adjusted for inflation, $75,000 in 2010 is about $100,000 today. Of course, the world has changed considerably since 2010, and the conclusion in that report was disputed in a 2021 paper, which found well-being increased with income and didn’t plateau at any level. So I sought to explore what quality of life $100,000 — six figures that, for many, remains a symbolic threshold — affords households today.

To put $100,000 into context, it is just above what many families earn these days. The median income for families (including single parents) was $91,000 in 2021, according to data from the Census Bureau, and about 45% of families earned $100,000 or more last year. In other words, this is roughly what middle-income families make in many places now.

It is still far more than what the average individual earns, though: $100,000 is more than twice the median income for “nonfamily” or one-person households, which was $42,000.

Overall, about 36% of all US households earned six figures in 2021.

A household earning $100,000 “is middle class, but where in the middle class they fall can vary drastically” depending on where they live and how many people they’re supporting, said Catie Hogan, a financial educator at Parthean.

A household earning $100,000 “is middle class, but where in the middle class they fall can vary drastically” depending on where they live and how many people they’re supporting.

I spoke with people around the country, including people who live alone, married people, and parents, about what life on a household income of $100,000 looks like in 2022. Many said they are well aware that they make more than most Americans and are grateful to afford their day-to-day expenses, even as costs for everything from housing and food to gas rose sharply this year. Yet some still found getting ahead — for instance, buying a home, saving for retirement, or maintaining an emergency fund — surprisingly hard at this income level, no matter whether they lived in an expensive city like LA or one with lower costs like Birmingham, Alabama. Those with children particularly felt they had little wiggle room. Those supporting just themselves said they could finally live comfortably while also saving for the future. But unexpected expenses come up. Some have medical debt. Some have student loans. Some are racing to make up for the years when they couldn’t save. Others don’t understand how to make our systems for saving and growing money work for them.

Many shared a sense that while earning $100,000 was a relative privilege, it was not living up to their expectations of what making six figures would be like.

Here are perspectives from eight people around the country whose households earn roughly $100,000 on what “six-figure living” means today. The interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

“Do we want to save, which we probably should? Or do we want to actually enjoy life? And we have to make that trade-off frequently.”

Birmingham, Alabama
Age 32
Lives with husband and two children
Mortgage: $1,300/month
Groceries: $1,200
Childcare: $750
Monthly car payment: $540
Credit card debt: $350
Monthly student loan payment: $300 (currently in forbearance)

For most of my adolescence, we were lower-middle class. My mom had me at 17. So we kind of grew up together. As she got older, she made more money and we got into a little bit of a better situation, but for a long time, things were tight. I think now, we do better than I did when I was younger. We're definitely middle class but I always just have this feeling that we're not doing well enough. I don't know if that's because we live in the suburbs and everybody compares themselves to each other, or that we live in this Instagram world where everything looks pretty on the outside.

My husband was working freelance with our friend’s company and they just started a paint company here in Birmingham in the past few months. I am the primary breadwinner and I got a promotion this year. So total comp, I'm just over $100,000.

“I was looking at daycares: minimum $1,100 a month for a decent place. After-school for my 9-year-old is $270 a month.” 

I was able to purchase a home in November 2020 with the sign-on bonus money that I got right before the housing market exploded. Then we found out that we were gonna have a baby. I was looking at daycares: minimum $1,100 a month for a decent place. After-school for my 9-year-old is $270 a month. So we decided that after the baby was born, my husband would stay home more so I could work. I do shift work and only work three or four days a week, so when I'm home, my husband would go to work. He provides the unspoken, unpaid labor and mental work of raising kids without making me have to choose between my career and being a mom. Recently, we got a nanny for Fridays so that we could both work, and we pay her $120 per Friday. If we weren't able to be that flexible, I have no idea what we would do with childcare because we literally cannot afford to put her in daycare.

Recently, the formula shortage was terrible. I had to quit nursing in June because I just wasn’t making enough milk. Anytime we did find some formula we’d stock up, and one month we spent $500 on formula because we were terrified we wouldn’t find it again.

My oldest daughter randomly had a seizure this year. She’s been perfectly healthy, so it was totally unexpected. We’ve had neurologist visits and ER visits. And so we’ve met our $2,500 deductible for the year. My benefits are really good, but still, it’s a lot.

Total credit card debt, we’re around that $5,000 range.

I’ve been actively ignoring my student loans for two years.

I think a lot of the extra money goes to just grabbing food when we’re so exhausted and we don’t want to cook. And that’s the really hard part. Anything that’s left over, it’s like, OK, do we want to save, which we probably should? Or do we want to actually enjoy life? And we have to make that trade-off frequently.

I really just thought I wouldn’t be stressed out about money at this point. It is so disheartening. What point do you have to get to, or how hard am I going to have to work, to where we’re not worried anymore? I’m noticing more and more that my daughter is picking up my anxiety about money. She’ll make comments to me about us not having enough money to do something. She had her birthday party last week, and she got money, and her first thing out of her mouth in front of all these parents was, “Mom, you cannot take my money.” I’m like, I’m not gonna take your money!

When you step back, we’re actually very fortunate. I’ve never made this amount of money, and we don’t know how to manage it. I’m going to get these stocks that will vest over the next several years and I don’t know what a portfolio should look like. I have a 401k, but I have no idea what I should be doing with it. I don’t know all the rules to this. I wish there had just been a time in life where you were taught that, because I was not taught great money habits growing up. The more money you make, the more money you spend.

“I feel bad as a father, like I’m failing them a little bit.”

Age 40
Lives with wife and two children
Rent: $2,500/month
Medical bills: $1,750
Monthly student loan payment: $1,500
Groceries: $1,200–$1,500
Payments for two cars: $1,000
Baseball: $500

Growing up I thought if you made six figures then you were rich. It was kind of one of those things where you'd just get this idea in your head that anything from $80,000 to $100,000 was just like, Hey, you made it. Sit back, enjoy yourself. Ride it out to retirement. I never thought I would be making $100,000 and still be struggling.

Over the last five years, my wife and I hold these bimonthly budget meetings and we’re wondering, “Huh, why is this not working?” Our income keeps taking steps up, but in moving forward on our financial goals and personal goals, we’re right where we were. It’s just hit after hit after hit. We’re always putting money aside, and then, my younger son needs tubes for his ears. When my first son was born, he had an issue with his lungs and we had to give him asthma treatment every single night from the time he was born until he was five, and that cost us about a grand a month when we didn’t have $10 to spare. We had about $45,000 in medical debt, and when the stimulus hit, we literally used that to pay down medical bills. We both lost our jobs during COVID, and we were at a loss for income for about a half a year. Luckily, we were smart and saved, but it’s hard to save. My son just broke his school computer. It was an accident, he’s 6 years old, but guess what, the school says hey, $300. My car broke down about a month ago, the transmission was blown, so my hand was forced because this is an awful time to buy a car and I got a shitty loan. That’s another hit.

“I thought I’d be able to afford a house, but that $150,000 to $180,000 house is now costing $400,000 to $500,000.”

Both my kids play baseball. When I played baseball growing up, they provided a helmet and a bat. Now, you need your own bat, you need a helmet, you need a bag, and the batting gloves and everything just to show up. All my kids’ stuff is secondhand. We probably spend about $500 a month for both of them to do certain camps throughout the year. Then at camp, it’s always, “Hey, welcome to the camp. You’ve got to buy the jersey. And then you’ve got to pay for the cage time. You’ve got to pay for this.” It’s crazy. I want to be a good father, so I coach. They don’t provide you with baseballs! It’s $110 for a bucket of baseballs. I’m sitting there thinking, maybe I’ll just go to random baseball fields and see if there are leftover balls here and there. There are jokes that travel baseball is the new country club.

I feel bad as a father, like I’m failing them a little bit because all the other kids are getting private lessons that cost $800. I’m not able to keep up with everybody else, and I don’t think that’s fair to them. The boys know there is a frustration there. They don’t fully understand it, but they know it’s a pressure point for us. You don’t want to put that on your kids. When we got my son a bat, he just bawled. He cried and said, “This is too much money. You guys don’t have to do this. I’m so sorry.” Apologizing. I felt bad; I felt like I failed my son. I just said, “No, no, no. We’re fine. This is good.”

My parents both worked: My mom has always been in retail and my dad was in outside sales for 50 years. We were very, very middle class. We had some nice things, but it was very obvious to us that our parents watched the money that came in and went out. But it was 1,000% different from my kids, because I never knew how the finances affected my family.

What really stinks is it takes a toll on your mental health. And my wife and I talk about what all this does to a marriage. We’ve gone out maybe once in the last year, just a date night, because it’s constantly just, let’s watch where the money is going.

If someone would have told me 10 years ago that I’d be making $95,000 base salary with commission, I would have thought, Well, this is it. We did it. Well, let’s pick out our little McMansion with a pool in the back. But no — this is the cost of living. I thought I’d be able to afford a house, but that $150,000 to $180,000 house is now costing $400,000 to $500,000. If I could somehow make an extra $5,000 to $10,000, we could afford that house, but there would be cutbacks. Travel baseball for my sons is done. Shopping at Target, Giant Eagle, Trader Joe’s: That’s done. We’re talking about slashing the budget. And at that point, my wife and I just threw our hands up and said, “This is what it is. Let’s just enjoy it. Be happy instead of being miserable all the time.” We don’t own anything. But it at least allows us to live.

“I still feel like I’m on the edge of OK when I thought I would be more on the comfortable side of OK.”

Nampa, Idaho
Age 39
Lives with son. Also helps to support her father.
Mortgage: $1,700/month
Tithing: $590
Medical: $580
Groceries: $400
Monthly student loan payment: $380
Car payment: $370
House cleaners: $140
Son’s extracurricular activities and allowance: $108
Family fun: $30

I’m a single mom; I don’t get any child support or anything. Never have. It’s me and my son. And I half support my dad; he’s on Social Security Disability.

In January, I got a $20,000 raise and went from $77,000 to $97,000 base pay, plus a $4,000 bonus. I thought, “I have made it,” and then I was like, “It’s all gone.” It feels almost the same as before, which seems incredibly silly to me! How can it feel like it’s the same when I’m making so much more money?

Part of that is I previously didn’t feel I could pay tithing with my church, and now I am. Obviously, that’s optional, but it’s important to me, and that’s 10%. The other part is, for a number of years, I didn’t have any money to put toward retirement. I’m approaching 40 now and significantly behind, so I put 5% into my retirement account with a 50% employer match. I also directed money into maxing out my HSA account to pay medical expenses. In the past 12 months, I’ve had about almost $15,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses because the family deductible is almost $13,000. Then I put a little bit towards a vacation fund, because I only have about six more years until my son’s out of the house, and I need to start making memories.

“When you finally get to $100,000, it doesn’t feel like you should have to make tiny sacrifices like that, but there’s just not enough to go around.”

I’m pretty darn frugal. The one luxury that I’ve added to my budget is once a month, I pay for a house cleaning service. I’ve been working from home, so I would rather wear my old clothes with holes in them and get my house clean.

I’ve been with the same employer since 2005. When I was pregnant, I had to give up my apartment because I couldn’t afford to keep it, even though it was a shared roommate situation. I was actually supposed to move the day that I went into labor. So I was canceling the moving truck as I’m driving myself to the hospital. It was crazy. I couch-surfed for about two weeks until my son was born, and then stayed with a friend for about a week. Then I moved in with my brother for about 10 weeks, and stayed with friends for about three weeks until I could find an apartment again after that. I wasn’t on the streets homeless, but I didn’t have a stable living situation. I had my son just a couple years after the Great Recession, and I was afraid to work anywhere else because I didn’t have any savings or stability. I probably could have done much better for myself if I had been willing to take the risk of jumping around, but I was pretty risk averse at that point. My mom died in 2006 when I was 23, and my dad was unemployed and on disability, so there were not any resources to support anything.

I think about money all the time. Part of it is I just find it interesting. Part of it is that it helps keep me motivated and on track. I’ve been so careful, and my money is all very carefully allocated, so now that gas prices are going up and groceries especially are going up, I just don’t know what priority I can take from. It’s just coming from my ability to put money towards retirement, or a tiny amount towards my son’s college fund, or being able to put money towards vacation, and we don’t even do extravagant vacations. I guess my Diet Coke habit is the next thing I’m gonna have to cut. I like my three o’clock Diet Cokes.

When you finally get to $100,000, it doesn’t feel like you should have to make tiny sacrifices like that, but there’s just not enough to go around. I keep having to make sacrifices, and I don’t know how to make it work without scrimping. Things like retirement as I get close to 40 are not really negotiable anymore. It has to be done. I definitely feel more stable than I have in the past, but it’s just frustrating because I didn’t think that I would feel so pinched at this point. I’m OK, but I still feel like I’m on the edge of OK when I thought I would be more on the comfortable side of OK.

My house is the fanciest thing that I have; I grew up in a trailer park. It’s a builder basic, but whatever, it’s solidly middle class and I feel like I kind of made it. I bought it in July 2020 and my interest rate was 2.8%, so I will probably die in this house because I don’t know that I can ever afford to move anywhere.

My son and I talk very openly about my budget. It isn’t that we’re poor, or we don’t have money, it’s that money is a finite resource, and we have to figure out how to balance our needs and our wants. What priorities do we want to put money toward and which ones are we willing to give up? I want him to learn to be responsible, generous, and stable. When he talks about careers, there are plenty of worthwhile careers to go into. But are you willing to live with the money that it comes with?

* Name changed to protect privacy.

“For a good six or seven months, it was going really well.”

Scott and Hannah
West Plains, Missouri
Ages 30, 28
Mortgage payments: $900/month and $500/month
Monthly student loan payments: $600 (currently in forbearance)
Car payment: $600
Health insurance premiums: $500
Medical bills: $300
Groceries: $200
Entertainment: $200

Scott: We moved here for work after I was headhunted. We currently live in a rural part of southern Missouri, which fortunately, has a very, very low cost of living. I was making $45,000, about twice the average income in the area. We bought our house, a four-bedroom house on an acre of land, last year in April, right before the housing boom. Our mortgage costs less than $900 a month. Then Hannah got a job that made a little bit more than I do, about $48,000. That bumped us up to about just under $100,000 combined. I am South African and also make $5,000 to $7,000 a year on an Etsy side hustle selling South African beef jerky. So we actually had saved up enough to also purchase an investment property in town early this year, a duplex — although we’re not really pulling money out of the investment property at all. It just goes back toward the house.

We were making six figures for about a year, and $100,000 in this town is magical, like, wow, you’ve made it. We were able to eat out once or twice a week. We bought a brand-new car. We’re paying down a bunch of our school debt. We were able to travel whenever we needed to. We could get on the plane, and it wasn’t even a question. I went back to Florida, where we went to grad school, to go to a football game, just because I could.

For a good six or seven months, it was going really well.

Hannah: In January, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which is very curable, they just removed it, and did thyroid radiation treatment. The final radiation scan was one week, exactly, before my car accident. I keep saying that either Missouri is cursed, or I am. In July, I got into a really bad car accident that broke my neck. It didn’t affect the spinal cord in any way, so there are no mobility issues long term, and with workers’ comp we could still pay the bills. But I am not working now, and that’s cut our income basically in half.

Scott: Everyone says 2020 and 2021 were the bad years; 2022 was our kick in the balls, despite making more money than we ever had. Where we’re at right now, we’re able to cover our basic necessities. We’re able to cover our housing, our vehicles. However, with the medical costs that are mounting, and the prospect of having to start repaying student loans, it’s very difficult. So it’s this interesting contrast where one event can affect you so fast.

“Why is it still this hard when we have so much?”

Victoria and Adan
Los Angeles
Ages 29 and 27
Two incomes, no kids
Rent: $2,200/month
Gas (two vehicles): $600
Car payment: $300
Car insurance (two vehicles): $300
Groceries: $500
Emergency and legal fund: $300
Utilities and internet: $250
Healthcare: $220
Dog walker: $160
Mobile service: $80
Streaming services: $50
Household supplies: $50

I work in social services, and my boyfriend works in a legal office. My salary is at about $62,000, and my boyfriend’s can vary but is about $45,000. I have been absolutely stunned because I thought $100,000 was a massive amount of money. I thought it was going to change our lives. I still look forward to the day when it’s not a struggle. We make a good amount of money and we have so many privileges. There are so many people who make less — it’s breathtaking. But the follow-up thought is always, we have it good and we’re struggling, and that is so fucked up.

I grew up pretty low-income, with my parents and my two siblings. My mom is from Mexico and my dad was born here, but his parents were immigrants from Mexico. My boyfriend’s parents are also from Mexico. Our parents sacrificed everything. And we knew from day one we weren’t going to get shit. There was no inheritance, no $1,000 to bail you out. They loved us, and they gave us all the emotional support and encouragement and everything you can have. But there was no money help.

I worked so hard for my education, and we earn good money. We are privileged that we found good jobs. When I graduated with my master’s in 2016, I was asking my colleagues what my starting point for salary should be. They said $55,000, and it was an insanely high number to me. It’s really complex for me, because my mother, being an immigrant, I’ve been outearning her since I was 16. I don’t know if my parents ever made this much money combined. It’s heartbreaking to say out loud, but I think I do have a better quality of life than them. We’re breaking barriers, but it doesn’t always feel like it.

“It’s these unanticipated bits of life that scare me.”

I count every penny; everything is accounted for. I don’t like surprises financially. My boyfriend and I are living in a little two-bedroom in a duplex with two parking spots, which is unheard of in all of Los Angeles County, and we’re happy with our home. But we had anticipated our budget, and then so many things that were out of our control. I needed medical testing and it had to come out of pocket because of the deductible. I needed some medication, and one was $325 and the other was $275. And I couldn’t just fill that. My boyfriend was feeling unwell and needed to go to urgent care and the emergency room in the same month. It’s these unanticipated bits of life that scare me. Like Oh, fuck, I have these medical bills because I just felt awful and had to go twice in one month so that’s $1,000 and we put it on a credit card, and we’ll pay it off later. It’s always a race to pay it off before the interest hits. I have great credit. I pay off my credit card every month, but we always end up having to use it again.

This year, we did have to pay $700 to renew my boyfriend’s DACA, and we were able to renew it successfully. In the past three months, we’ve put away about $1,000 towards legal and filing fees for when we get married, which I can’t see costing less than $5,000. What’s hard to communicate is the fear of what happens. It always feels like we’re running out of time. The rest of the bills, the gas, the water, we’ll figure it out, but what if it does take too long to save up for his papers, and the Supreme Court decides to do something?

I have a fear of poverty; fear of not having enough. Our savings are not great. I’m trying to push my boyfriend and I to get farther away from [living] paycheck to paycheck. And we’ll get there eventually, long term. It’s just those surprises that we keep getting slapped with. And we have a savings plan. It’ll get better as things go on.

I can imagine somebody reading this article, and thinking, “Fuck you, I make $50,000 a year and support four kids.” And I know that. I think the underlying point is it’s impossible for everybody. Everybody is struggling, some more than others. It’s not supposed to be this hard for anybody. I agree that this is a problem. We shouldn’t be making this much and struggling. That’s ridiculous. That’s upsetting. There are other people who need more help. Talking about how hard it is for me to survive makes me feel so guilty, but two truths can live alongside each other: You can be struggling but still be grateful for what you do have. Why is it still this hard when we have so much? The big picture is, things aren’t going well, and not enough people are willing to admit that.

“I have the ability to save for the long run now.”

Austin, Texas
Age 28
One-person household
Rent: $1,200/month
Savings: $1,000
Car payment: $410
Monthly student loan payment: $355 (currently in forbearance)
Groceries: $300
Shopping: $300
Entertainment: $150
Investments: $150
Gifts: $100
Health and fitness: $80

I’ll be honest, I never anticipated that I would make that magical “six figures” before I was 30. My mom has worked in nonprofits for her whole career and still hasn’t broken six figures, though she’s close. So in my mind, I always thought, It’s not for me; it’s not in the cards, or it’s far off into the future.

In my previous position, I was a project manager at a nonprofit. I started out at $51,000 and then slowly crept up to $56,000 over the course of three or four years. I was a little misguided, and was under the impression that if I stayed, and if I really worked hard, I would continue to get promotions and raises. Then I recognized I needed to leave. There wasn’t going to be a lot of growth and upward trajectory for me in that particular position. I ended up landing a really great job this year with another nonprofit, and I was able to jump my salary up by almost $50,000. After the interview, they sent me the offer and said, “We actually want to pay you the highest amount of what this position called for,” which was $100,520.

“I am able to be more aggressive with my savings.”

I’m basically doing the same job, but getting more money for it, which is a little crazy when I think about it. Before, it was really hard to save as aggressively as I wanted to. When my car was on its last leg, I didn’t have enough money to pay this big bill to fix my car and also put money aside to save for a down payment on a new car. I just don’t feel that burden and stress when it comes to finances as much anymore. There’s more peace of mind.

I am able to be more aggressive with my savings. I generally hope to buy a house one day, but the housing market isn’t great and isn’t going to be for a while, but I have the ability to save for the long run now. I am building my emergency savings account. And now I have another savings account, which is for things I know that are coming up and I just want to put money aside, like Christmas presents, trips that I want to do, and hobbies that I always thought would be cool but maybe paying $400 for a pottery class didn’t seem like the best idea. Now, I can do this. I splurged on a new ukulele that's pink with a hibiscus flower in the middle of it. I got a gym membership. I can cover a bigger bill for groceries, because food just got more expensive, and my budget for shopping doubled. I had a little bit of credit card debt, and I paid that off this month. I’m also able to invest some money, and it’s just building and that has been really exciting to be able to have that going.

“If I had to pick one word, it’s ‘comfortable,’ but it’s not particularly luxurious.”

Arlington, Virginia
Age 27
One-person household
Rent: $1,750
Mortgage + HOA: $1,200 (vacation home)
Retirement: $680
Dining out and takeout: $600
Monthly student loan payment: $500 (now in forbearance)
Ridesharing: $300
Groceries: $350
Pilates: $180
Health insurance premiums: $140

I just happened to luck into the cybersecurity industry because of a friend of a guy I was dating in college. He told me about a job and to ask for $60,000 and I just had no idea. In my mind, $45,000 was already a lot, so when he said to ask for $60,000, I asked, “Are you sure?” And he said, “Yeah, why not?” So I did, and the employer said, “We can do that for you.” That already was huge. I worked that job for a year. And then I moved into privacy and was bumped to $72,000, which was exciting, but it wasn’t all that life-changing. The promotion from $72,000 to $90,000 made a huge difference and allowed me to get my own apartment.

I started making $100,000 after the first year of COVID. When I first was told my new salary, I was telling all my friends. I called my parents, and was like, “Six figures before 30, this is amazing!” And to be honest, it is pretty great. If I had to pick one word, it’s “comfortable,” but it’s not particularly luxurious. The difference in terms of my finances and my lifestyle from $90,000 isn’t huge, as much as it's exciting to think, Ooh, six figures.

“I can afford to pay a little bit extra for my own comfort, like nonstop flights because I don’t want to stop over anymore. But I couldn’t support a family and live how I currently live.” 

I know that I’m extremely fortunate to be in this position, not just because I have an awareness of the world, but even in my circles, I have friends who are not close to making this amount of money, and I see them struggle. Also, my parents never made this kind of money and I can remember how we struggled. As someone who’s lived on much less — I grew up mostly in Alabama and my family’s working class, so I had the Pell Grant going to college and I took out loans to go to school that I pay back myself — it’s certainly a huge change from being on food stamps as a teen.

One of my parents is an immigrant, so that scarcity thinking, “You shouldn’t get this,” still comes up, but in reality most of the things that I need, I really don’t have to think about whether I can afford it now. If I need a new pair of shoes, I can get them. Comfort is the main thing; I can afford to pay a little bit extra for my own comfort, like nonstop flights because I don’t want to stop over anymore. But I couldn’t support a family and live how I currently live. I would have to change a lot. I definitely would not be dropping $600 on DoorDash and dinners out.

Now it’s more the concern of needing to have money in the bank because at any given time, a horrible thing could happen. Something that I’ve talked about with some of my white friends who grew up more upper middle class is how I know how to save my money, but I don’t really know anything about finances, investing, the stock market, that sort of thing. So my wealth has not grown like someone whose parents may have had a financial advisor, or who understands the stock market. I just have the money that I make, and I try to save it as much as I can. I’ve had a 401k since I was 22, but I wouldn’t have done it by myself had my work not explicitly offered it. Anytime I think, “OK, I’m gonna do it. Today’s the day I’m gonna go to JPMorgan and say, ‘I’m ready to buy stocks,’” I just chicken out. I don’t know how that works and I get scared.

My mom, in her mind, the only way that you can build wealth is to buy property, which in a lot of ways is true, but there are so many other ways to invest your money now. I bought a vacation house down in Florida in December last year. I’ll be going to the house for a couple of weeks, but otherwise I rent it out to vacationers. It’s the slow season in Florida, and with the startup costs, I haven’t made a profit on it, but by the end of next year, we’ll be looking a lot better. Once I bought the house, and I started having all these costs for the mortgage and utilities and HOA and stuff like that, so I decided to take advantage of student loan forbearance and stopped paying in February.

With student loan forgiveness, I’ve paid down enough that it would basically wipe out my debt, which is very exciting. After that goes through, that’ll be another big change in what my finances look like.

“I’m trying to make up for lost time by making myself hurt a bit.”

Madison County, New York
Age 38
One-person household
Retirement: $1,700
Mortgage: $1,500 (paying more than the $800 minimum)
Employee stock purchase plan: $1,100
Credit card debt: $650
Groceries: $266
Health savings: $200
Utilities: $160
Dining out: $140

I don’t have any children. I’ll occasionally pitch money to my mom — when she needs a new fence, things like that. I certainly have nice things that are not necessary: one more computer than I need, or a nice Wi-Fi speaker or something. Every few years, I get myself a new iPhone, but not every year. And I’m not paying $600 for one ticket to see Blink-182 for a reunion tour. I spend money wisely, without missing out.

I’m single now. When I was living with a partner, she was contributing to things like groceries and pitching some money into the mortgage payments. You’re not thinking about groceries getting more expensive when you’re anticipating heartbreak. I don’t feel like I’ve had lifestyle creep now that I’m making more money, but my expenses did go up through inflation, and also through lack of outside contributions.

“My student loans are paid off. But I’m 38 and I’m still very, very fearful of retirement. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen.” 

Where I really worry is the safety net. Especially being at a company that was part of a recent acquisition, and now reading all these things about a coming recession and how remote workers will be the first to go, I worry about losing my job. I worry if my car dies, I won’t have cash on hand. Even though I’m making more money than I ever have, I feel like I’m much closer to ruin.

My emergency fund has been earmarked to pay off home repairs, and I consider it to be gone. I bought a house in September 2021 and had to do a new roof, new windows and doors. The new roof was estimated at $22,000. But it was bad. And the overall costs ended up at around $34,000. Windows and doors were right around $15,000. The heat pump system was another $15,000. I didn’t get an inspection because the market, such as it was in 2021, if you mentioned inspection, your offer was denied. And to be honest, when I bought my house in Pennsylvania in 2019, which I later sold, I got an inspection for about $800 and it seemed useless.

A lot of my struggle now is of my own design, because I’m trying to make up for lost time by making myself hurt a bit. My car is paid off. My student loans are paid off. But I’m 38 and I’m still very, very fearful of retirement. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. I just don’t see how it’s even remotely possible. Through my 20s, I had jobs, but they weren’t paying much, so I was living off of stale saltines and dollar store peanut butter for years in Portland and trying to overpay on my student loans as much as possible and just get ahead. I didn’t get a career-level “job-job” until I was 30, and that paid $45,000, so up until 30 I never contributed to retirement at all. From 30 to 35, even though I had started to make a salary, I still wasn’t able to contribute and meet my needs while living in California. So now, I’ve got my 401k set to max out this year at the IRS limit [$20,500], and I did the same last year.

I’d love to get the mortgage just off of me too. I try to make a $1,500 mortgage payment each month, even though the minimum is about $800. At the end of the year, if I have some extra cash, that might be something that goes into the mortgage. If I put an extra $2,000 in a retirement fund, there’s still a potential for loss in this market, whereas if I put $2,000 into my mortgage, there’s only gain.

So I’ve cranked up my withholdings and increased the payment on my mortgage, and it makes it feel like I’m really hurting with things like groceries and gas. I’m contemplating, Do I really need this bag of Goldfish? Or tortilla chips?

Making six figures has been a persistent milestone. My mom had me when she was 18. I remember driving around with her and seeing some of these nice houses on the lake, and her saying, “Look at that. It’s a $100,000 house.” I don’t know if a big, beautiful, veritable mansion here was actually $100,000, but I think it was more her perspective as a 20-something-year-old in the 1990s, Nobody can afford a house that’s $100,000. Those lake houses that sold recently were $700,000. There are places going for $1.5 million. It would be really nice to have a house on the lake. But I don’t know that I would want to do what it takes to get there.

I have relatively simple dreams. I like my job, and it’s important to me that I do really well at my job, but I like the idea that someday I could maybe ditch the career job and just find some part-time work maybe in the bakery in my village, 20 hours a week, and then volunteer at the library or bookstore. Have my house paid off and read books. I haven’t been bored since 1993. I will find plenty to do. ●

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