Scraping by on $110,000?

Over at Everyday Tips and Thoughts, proprietor Kris expresses some shock at the idea that a family profiled on CNN Money might not be able to live on $110,000. Particularly startling is the way CNN frames the decision the couple contemplates: whether to have the mother drop to half time, at a salary of $32,600, so she can be home with their two children: “Is that enough [along with the father's $78,000 salary] to support their lifestyle?” Readers are registering their outrage that anyone would think $110,000 is too little to support what surely must be an extravagant and spendthrift way of life.

But…but, I say, but…

It depends on where they live. “Lifestyle” may not mean a dwelling in a McMansion and tooling around town in two Mercedes SUVs. It may simply mean they want to live in a sophisticated city that offers cultural amenities unavailable in cheaper areas. Often in such cities the public schools are inadequate—well, heck…in most American cities the public schools are inadequate. If you care about your kids’ education, you send them to private schools. Tuition at the day school my son attended—in Phoenix, a low-rent town—is now $12,740 for pre-kindergarten and $15,100 for K-8. That’s per kid. Yes, per year.

In a more desirable city, you not only have the breathtaking cost of schooling, you also have the staggering cost of keeping a roof over your head. Recently I looked into returning to San Francisco, my mother’s hometown and a place that I truly wish I could live. A one-bedroom apartment in a development that is universally panned on Yelp is $2,400 a month! God only knows what it would cost to live in a better area. Studios in San Francisco typically run around $1,800 to $2,000 a month.

That’s just for starters, before you pay for the lights, commute to work, buy baby’s shoes, or put food on your table. Imagine what it would cost to raise two children under those circumstances!

Yeah. It’s true: Dad’s salary of $78,000 would provide an adequate lifestyle for a family of four in Phoenix; $110,000 would keep them in comfort. But Phoenix is a hole in the middle of a cultural desert. You can’t put your kids in public school here, and even at a $15,000/year private school, the quality of education is just OK compared to high-ranking private schools in other states. Parents who can’t afford that but are committed to educating their kids well and keeping them physically safe often home-school. You spend your summers trying to stay out of 115-degree heat. Politicians like Governor Jan Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who represent the prevailing mentality, are such crass troglodytes that when you get on an airplane and someone asks you where you’re from, you’re embarrassed to admit you live in Arizona—when traveling, many Arizonans tell strangers they come from somewhere else.

Some people prefer to live in more enlightened venues. Unfortunately places like San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, New York, Paris, and London cost a lot of money. In those cities, $110,000 wouldn’t go very far for a family of four.

The fact that Dad is earning 78 grand as an assistant principal and Mom is presently earning $65,200 as a literacy coach (!!) suggests they live in a high-cost-of-living city. He sure wouldn’t earn that in a right-to-work state like Arizona, where education has traditionally been short-changed. Median base pay for an assistant principal here is $65,000. And I kinda doubt anyone ever heard of a literacy coach around here. By “support their lifestyle,” they may mean living modestly in a great city with civilized amenities.

You can live lots cheaper in lesser cities. You’ll make some trade-offs, though… My college freshmen just turned in an assignment for which they were asked to tour the campus library, take notes, and write a narrative describing their experience. Several said they had not been inside a library in many years. These products of our fine school system, all them bright and hard-working young men and women, write like this:

“In the General Collection there are many books to chose from, looking in the PQ through PS one of the most famous authors was Charles Dickens. The title is The Old Curiosity Shop.”

Literacy? What’s that? We got sunshine. We don’t need no steenking books!

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Pat September 4, 2010 at 11:33 am

You’re absolutely right. Here on the North Shore of Long Island (NY) where I live, a nice, but nothing special (eg 3-4 bedrooms, 2 baths, 2,000 or so sq ft) home in a decent area will run you over $500,000. A $450,000 mortgage, at 4.5% will cost roughly $30,000 per year.Your property taxes will be over $10,000. You can tack on another roughly $2,000 for homeowners insurance, $2,500 for electricity, $2,500 for heat, and another few thousand for water and other misc home related expenses (note: insurance and electricity are particularly expensive here). So that adds up to around $50,000 just for housing. You can probably figure on paying at least $30,000 in Federal and State income taxes. And with both husband and wife working, you almost certainly need two cars, which will conservatively cost another $6-8,000 (car payments, insurance, registration fees, gas, maintenance). With an starting annual income of $112,000, that leaves our couple with around $25,000 to pay for everything else (food, clothing, medical, etc, etc…). And then there is the 8.625% sales tax. I think people who live in middle-America, where one can buy nice house for under $200,000, don’t really understand how difficult it is to live in high cost areas. And unfortunately, it’s not always a matter of choice because those places tend to be where the jobs are.

SimplyForties September 4, 2010 at 4:02 pm

So glad you took a critical look. Frequently that mass outrage is not very considered. “Move to a cheaper city”, gets bandied about in these situations a lot. Most “cheap” cities are cheaper because the level of services is lower and the job market is impossible.

Interestingly, one of my blogging buddies recently commented about an article she had seen about “making” it on $18,000 a year. That seemed like riches to her. I can imagine what she’d have to say about these people!

So many different perspectives!

valleycat1 September 4, 2010 at 4:23 pm

I haven’t seen the report on CNN that you’re commenting on, but would agree that if they insist on sending the children to private schools, $110,000 isn’t a lot of money for a family of that size. Not knowing where they live, it’s hard to say whether the $110,000 is ample or not if they didn’t have private school tuition to pay. But you say dad’s a school administrator; he either works at a private school & would probably get a steep discount on tuition or works in a public school system he doesn’t have much faith in.

I strongly disagree with your premise & comment that private school is a given ["If you care about your kids’ education, you send them to private schools"]. Everyone in my family (parents, sibs, and all the sibs’ children) are products of public school systems, kindergarten through college, some of us in VERY small towns, and we are all doing quite well as adults, thank you very much. And each of the kids feels very loved by their parents. I believe that more than 50% of a successful education rests on the student, & that the parents have to play a great role at least for k-12 kids, for at least half the remaining 50%. In this particular instance, the CNN family’s kids have very strong support at home, given the parents’ occupations.

Penny Frugalista September 4, 2010 at 7:22 pm

There are so many factors: the area of the country in which the family lives; whether or not there’s a mortgage; how rich their lifestyle is. My husband and I are close to that $110K mark, but with a mortgage and a baby on the way, we know we will just get by. We don’t live extravagantly — I drive a 7-year-old car I plan to keep as long as possible, we save as much money as we can (meaning we don’t keep up with the Joneses) and rarely go out to eat. We easily qualified for our mortgage, but because of property taxes, it’s a little bit of a stretch. But that’s the price we pay for a home in a nice town with a great school system. I don’t want to pay NJ property taxes AND tuition at a private or parochial school — we would never afford it.

funny September 4, 2010 at 9:02 pm

@ Valleycat: There’s a link to the CNN report in the second line above, and also near the top of Everyday Tips’s post, which is not to be missed–great post that elicited a lot of commentary. It’s a pretty cursory report, not really telling you enough to know whether they’re diddling away their substantial salaries on toys and castles, or whether they actually do live in an expensive part of the country.

In the Salt River Valley, a few suburbs have decent schools. But you know, the reason the property taxes here are so low, compared to the ten grand in L.I. that Pat describes and apparently burdensome taxes in N.J. (mine dropped to $1450 this year) is that the school system is grossly underfunded. Arizonans have historically taken the attitude that taxpayer money is not something to be wasted on education. As a result, teacher pay is obscenely low, even compared to low salaries in other parts of the country. Classes are large. Many facilities leave a great deal to be desired in terms of structural engineering and safety, and those that are OK look like prison blocks, dandy places for your kids to spend more than half their waking hours.

You’re entirely right that kids who succeed in school generally have parents who involve themselves in the kids’ education. In theory, if a child is lucky enough to have such parents, she or he should arrive at high school graduation literate in languages, math, and science. But fthat doesn’t seem to be happening here.

I teach the products of Arizona’s K-12 system every day. They are not stupid. Most are middle-class, but the kids who come from the working class are no less bright and ambitious than the kids whose parents graduated from some college and have decently paying white-collar jobs. But too often they are ignorant of the most basic matters, things I had learned in fairly ordinary schools by the sixth or seventh grade.

Occasionally young people will come to Arizona from the Midwest and show up in my college classrooms. The eerie thing is, you don’t have to ask where the person came from to recognize a graduate of a school in Iowa or Ohio. You can tell. Their skills and general knowledge are markedly better.

Somehow I don’t think they’re imbibing better education from the air. Intrinsically they’re no smarter than our kids. Our kids are great–smart, alert, and quick on the uptake. But I can guarantee you: a kid who’s graduated from a public school in most parts of Ohio has an education on a par with a kid who’s graduated from that $15,000/year Arizona private school described above. And the difference between that kid and the average kid graduating from Arizona’s K-12 system is noticeable.

That’s why I say that, for most people living in affordable parts of Arizona, if you care about your kids’ education, you either homeschool them (if you’re really competent to do so, an iffy proposition) or you send them to parochial or private schools.

Holly September 5, 2010 at 5:22 am

Yes, Funny, it’s the same where I live. The public schools here are a joke! The only exception being charter schools where you have to win the lottery, literally, for your child to be admitted. Each winter they pick names from a pool and those are the lucky students who will be admitted in the Fall.

We send our 3 to private school. And it’s not easy getting by on 100,000+/yr. HA!

Barb Friedberg September 5, 2010 at 2:05 pm

I’ve lived all over from San Diego to Indianapolis to name a few. There are trade offs to every decision and it’s always tough to judge others. That said, whatever our incomes, it’s key to find a way to live on what you make. If it’s tough to get by a 100K, you need to get creative and figure out how to up income or cut back on expenses.

Abigail September 5, 2010 at 6:34 pm

This discussion is kind of related to my recent post “Define ‘one income.’” Frankly, no matter where you live, you should be able to live on $110,000. My friend Karl is a lawyer in NYC, and his wife decided to stay home with their child. I know he doesn’t make $110,000. So instead they live in Brooklyn, where rent is a little cheaper.

I think I will always be a little biased, as I doubt my husband and I will ever earn even $80,000 combined. Let alone consider living on a single income. So I get sick of people talking about living on “only” one income or “only” one full and one part-time income, as though these were standard metrics. The fact is, most talks in this arena presuppose that you make $60,000 or more a year. That’s not an option for most families.

Financial Samurai September 5, 2010 at 9:22 pm

Good post and nice rant! In NYC, I think you need to make at least $250,000/yr to live a relatively comfortable life as a single guy. $500K as a couple with family of 2 kids.

In San Francisco, $150,000/yr is a relatively comfortable life as a SINGLE guy or girl… but you’ll probably need $300K at least for a family of 4.

BTW, if you have time, stop by Yakezie.com, registered, and sign up for a Member Post in the Private Forums where we’ll give you access. I’m sure a lot of people would love to hear your story!

Best,

Sam

Andrew September 5, 2010 at 10:10 pm

Great post and your raise some interesting qualifiers like the “what city you live in” issue. I still think, at $110k, it’s at least POSSIBLE to get by somewhat comfortably in any city. WIth that said, there are definitely exceptions (eg.-90210 zip code). Also, this might not mean a huge space and that your kids might need to share a room bring brown bagged lunch to school, but it’s still definitely doable.

Jim September 6, 2010 at 9:56 am

The family in question appears to live in Fairfax county Virginia. At least that is where the wife was working not long ago. Fairfax county has a very high median household income. You can get a house for around $300k range.
Virginia has above average public schools, Fairfax county public schools spend over $13k per student each year and is home to one of the highest ranked public high schools in the nation. Personally I see no reason they should have any problems “getting by” on a mere 6 figure income.

funny September 6, 2010 at 10:20 am

Hm… It appears to be an exurb of Washington, D.C. That would explain the high incomes.

Right now, according to this real estate agency, 135 properties are on the market for prices between $200,000 and $300,000. Most of them appear to be condos or apartments, but there are a few freestanding houses available. Some of the townhouses in that price range look pretty nice.

LOL! If the schools are that good, it’s no wonder they have such a thing as a literacy coach. Hereabouts, I have a friend whose master’s and bachelor’s degrees in English and in Education got her a job coaching literacy; pay was so low it was effectively volunteer work.

Lazy Man and Money September 6, 2010 at 11:54 am

I saw this article in Money Magazine and was thinking about writing for it myself. Having lived in the suburbs of only two high-cost cities (Boston and San Francisco), I feel what you are saying here.

The differences in cost of living should have lawmakers fixing tax thresholds to better equalize things around the country.

funny September 6, 2010 at 12:16 pm

@ Lazy Man: That’s one the best ideas I’ve heard in a long time!

On the other hand…don’t they do that anyway, with tax brackets tied to income levels? What worries me is the proposed VAT…that median incomes vary so widely by geographical region would make a VAT even more regressive than it is from the git-go.

Suzanne September 13, 2010 at 12:01 pm

It all still seems like excuses to me. My family of four do not live in a 2,000 sq ft house but a 1100 sq ft house. Because here, in middle America, 2000 sq ft homes are still over $200,000.

If you want to live within your means, you will. You choose not to.

funny September 13, 2010 at 12:37 pm

@ Suzanne: The house in question is all of 1,300 square feet. The house that is paid off is a grand 1800 square feet.

Jennifer September 13, 2010 at 1:21 pm

As a stay-at-home Mom of two kids, living the San Francisco Bay Area, I can attest that 110K (or in our case, 105k) is not a whole lot of money. It sounds exorbitant to people in other places, but that salary is just about enough to get by on, while still socking some away for retirement and a fund to buy a house someday.

I clip coupons, shop clearance racks, and we eat at or from home 99% of the time. I’d move out of the Bay Area in a heartbeat, but the nature of my husband’s job has us tied to San Francisco like an umbilical cord. It’s frustrating, but true. I look forward to the days when we can drop off of the hamster wheel entirely and live in the Sierra foothills.

Cath September 13, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Wow, if you hate Arizona so much, why do you live there? I grew up there, and despite the fact that I went to public schools (even a state university, the horror!) I am not a cultureless mouth-breather. And I’ve never known an Arizonan to lie about where they’re from. That’s the same sort of nonsense that has Americans sewing maple leaves to their backpacks for fear what the Europeans will think.

funny September 13, 2010 at 4:03 pm

@ Cath: We must not run in the same crowd. I actually have met people who do not tell strangers on airplanes that they come from Arizona, because they don’t care to get into discussions of the state’s bizarre politics or because they feel embarrassed when leadership and voters make a national laughingstock of the state — again.

And in fact, I have had graduates of Arizona’s public schools tell me that Wisconsin is a Rocky Mountain State and nothing notable other than the Industrial Revolution occurred during the 19th century. One graduating university senior majoring in English asked me what a preposition is. And all you have to do is listen to the level of discourse in the local media to get a feel for the quality of education and culture here. Granted, people who speak out through television, radio, and newspapers don’t represent every living, breathing human being in the state. But the students, who have surfaced over the course of several years, unmistakably represent the level of education — these are not stupid people, but simply the products of a chronically neglected and underfunded educational system.

Everyday Tips September 13, 2010 at 5:37 pm

I agree that a big shortcoming of the article is that it doesn’t state where they live. However, I would think if they lived in a very high cost of living area, that having that extra 32,600 wouldn’t be enough either.

By the way, I used to work in a very ‘blue collar’ school district many years ago, and the teachers there made as much if not more than some of the other well-off school districts. It all depends on the contracts and such. I don’t know that you can assume that based on that salary that it is an affluent area they live in.

I think what got me most in the article was the mom commenting that she would have to ‘think about it’ (going part time) when it was brought up she may have to give up some of the lifestyle choices she has made. It wasn’t ‘oh I can’t pay my mortgage now’. It seemed more about discretionary things. Again, I could be wrong.

Thanks for basing your post on my article.

Beth December 6, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Very interesting. I haven’t read all the other comments, so I don’t know if this has been addressed, but there’s even more to it than where they live. You don’t have to live in an expensive city and send your kids to private school to be scraping by on $110,000. We live in a modest $200,000 house (app. 1700 sq. ft., no garage) in a small town in the northeast, make $110,000, and feel pretty stretched. And get this, we have NO KIDS. We have our mortgage, some of the highest property taxes in the country (about $7000 annually for that house), fuel oil in the winter (HUGE expense) monthly payment for one modest car, auto insurance for two cars, and electricity (expensive in this region.) We have dropped our landline and pay for my cell phone (non-smart phone, cheap plan) while my husband’s is paid by his job. We dropped DirecTV and bought an antenna, and get most of our entertainment from netflix (about $15 a month plus the internet fee.) Because we are in a small rural area, we have to drive everywhere (60 mile daily round-trip commute for my husband, 30-mile round-trip to go to the grocery store.) Gas charges really add up, but public transportation is not an option. Our second biggest monthly expense, after the mortgage, is my student loan bills… something I think a lot of people, particularly poorer people without college and grad school education, don’t think about when they think about the bills people might be paying. I pay about $9,000 a year in student loans. We do manage to go on one big trip a year, and we don’t fret too much about spur-of-the-moment restaurant meals, but we don’t live even remotely extravagant lifestyles. I almost never buy new clothes, and when I do, a lot of it is from Target. When we finally decided to exchange our wall-to-wall carpeting for wood floors, we bought low-end engineered flooring and installed it ourselves. ALL our home improvements have been DIY. We have a gravel driveway because an asphalt driveway is too expensive.

It always strikes me as odd that for my entire life of 35+ years, $100,000 has been thought of as the threshold for “rich.” Ah, okay, well 35 years ago one could buy a modest house in an affluent Boston suburb for $55,000… the same house today would sell for close to $700,000. One could buy a nice car for $2000… same car today would be at least $25,000. Prices are WAY up, and yet somehow people still think of $100,000 as a lot. And don’t forget that the more people make, the more they pay in taxes (despite what some imagine.) That also slashes one’s income. And if you don’t have kids, you don’t have child tax credits.

Beth December 6, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Just to add… I am not working right now, but when I was, we made about $160,000 a year before taxes. Even then, we lived in the same small house, and sure, we could put a bit more money away, but we still didn’t feel even remotely “rich”. We drive two Hondas, one 8 years old, one 3 years old. And we’re not some of these misers who are rich but live very frugally. This is just how we have to live.

funny December 6, 2012 at 7:45 pm

@ Beth: I’m not surprised. My ex (the corporate lawyer) and I felt a lot the same way when he was earning upwards of $100,000. We were comfortable but we didn’t feel we were living especially high on the hog. It was as though ordinary, middle-class expenses expand to fill all space available…or to consume all income available.

In retrospect, I think that feeling was caused by an unholy combination of habits and circumstances:

* Because we felt pretty affluent, given our income, we didn’t budget or ride herd on expenses.
* Consequently, we were overspending at a low level — nothing startling at any given time, but steadily spending a little more than we really should have.
* We felt free to eat out all the time and to buy whatever day-to-day items we wanted without putting many limits on that kind of spending.
* Our charge account balances were very high, so that after a number of years we would make only the minimum payments on charge card bills.
* We put our son in an expensive private school, rather than move to the suburbs where he could have gone to a public school (maybe) but my husband would have had to commute.
* My husband loved to travel, and we would charge up large amounts to go on vacations.

Our lifestyle was still nothing like what his partners and their wives enjoyed. We did not, for example, belong to a country club; I did not belong to Junior League (altruistic, sosh’, but very expensive); we did not live in a half-million-dollar McMansion in Scottsdale; I did not wear expensive clothes; we did not send our son to the annual ski trip to Telluride; we didn’t own a boat or expensive cars or a lot of fancy electronics.

We felt we were living frugally. But it was as nothing compared to what real frugal living entails.

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