It's a familiar complaint of the middle class: We can't afford our lives. Rising housing and health-care costs and tricky tax burdens have put the squeeze on us, making it harder than ever to imagine a golden retirement.
But experts say otherwise. Rather, it's that our standard of living has changed so much in the last decades that our "essentials" are no longer that -- so when times get tight, it's hard to find a way to cut back.
My mother would raise an eyebrow at my bimonthly $200 hair highlighting, my $28-per-week coffee fix and my new dependency on $10 organic, grapefruit-scented hand wipes. And, yes, they fall outside the category of true essentials -- a place to live, food to eat, clothes to keep out the chill.
But the reality is that, to me, they're bare necessities. Video: How much are those highlights?
"Our standards have just skyrocketed," says Dennis Gilbert, sociology department chairman at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. "If you look in newspapers, the images we see to tell us what's normal are very upper-class images.
"Twelve hundred square feet used to be considered a standard-size house for a family," he adds. "Not anymore. The expectations and standards have changed."
A rising standard of living shouldn't be cause for concern -- and when we can afford these little luxuries, no problem. Video: What are you buying?
But the truth is that many in the middle class spend when they should save -- on iPhones, on designer sunglasses, on flat-screen TVs -- and in many cases buy beyond their means. Bottom line: We're just not saving enough. Spending diary: Where does the money go?
The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that, as of the summer of 2007, our personal savings rate was just 0.5%, compared with 9% 25 years ago. That is one of many signs Americans are living too close to the edge. The Mortgage Bankers Association, a trade group, reports that more than 5% of all mortgage loans were delinquent in the second quarter of 2007, while consumer spending remained fairly steady.
Experts believe we should save at least 10% of our income for our golden years -- if we're in our 20s -- and 20% to 30% when we are in our early 40s. They tell us retirement accounts should be fully funded before parents even try to save for a child's college bills.
My husband and I do try. We don't own a flat-screen