When you think of “middle class,” you may assume the vast majority of people in the United States. But according to the Pew Research Center, the middle class is getting smaller. In 2016, just 52% of Americans made enough money to be considered “middle class.” Sadly, 29% of Americans now sit in the lower class, while 19% are upper class. In order to be considered middle class, the collective household income needs to be between $78,442 and $172,152 per year. However, some studies claim that the true median household income is closer to $53,000. It really just depends on where you live. In a lot of ways, being middle class is more than how much money you make. It’s a lifestyle and a culture.
Some people are proud to call themselves “middle class” because at least it means they’re not poor. Many of them had to fight to escape poverty, especially after being shackled with student loan debt. Others are ashamed, and try to pretend that they are actually part of that smaller upper class. So, you might be wondering- Can people tell that you’re middle class? We broke down 30 signs of why they may be able to.
30. Owning a Car You Can’t Afford
In the United States, we care a lot about cars. Whatever you drive becomes a status symbol, and says a lot about you as a person. This puts pressure on people into getting a nicer car. Public transportation is typically set aside for the poor. Even when people in the middle class need a ride, they often opt for ride-share apps like Uber instead of taking the bus or train. Unfortunately, this lifestyle is not sustainable for many people in the middle class. According to a report by The Washington Post, more than 7 million American people have fallen behind 3 months or more on their car payment.
In November of 2019, CBS This Morning investigated the situation and found that the vast majority of these cars that were repossessed are new, American-made trucks and SUVs. This means that the middle class tends to overspend on their monthly car payment for the sake of appearance. Someone who is more savvy with their money would either buy a used car or pay far less for a car made by a foreign manufacturer from countries like Japan and Korea. If you can afford to keep your car, you’re doing well compared to a lot of other people.
29. Pretending to Be Upper Class
A lot of middle-class people aspire to be rich. They want to drive a brand new car, live in a big house, and wear nice clothes so that they can feel like they are living the same lifestyle as a wealthy person. When someone asks how much money they make, they might lie and inflate their income to be more than it actually is. To them, having a lot of money is how they measure success.
Many of these “fake rich” people are always worried about how they are going to pay for their bills in order to keep up with their lavish lifestyle. Truly rich people were able to grow wealth because they were smart with money and lived within their means. Many real millionaires don’t actually care about looking rich because they care too much about their business.
28. In an Emergency, They Would Need Money
According to The Atlantic, 47% of all Americans would not have $400 in cash ready to pay for an emergency. Even if someone is making a decent amount of money with a middle-class job, they have built up a lifestyle where they are living paycheck to paycheck. If something happens where they needed last-minute cash, they would have to resort to putting it on a credit card.
This is a dangerous position to put yourself in because all it takes is losing your job or one terrible emergency to completely derail you. Everyone should try to save enough money to pay for three months of expenses in case they lost their job and needed time to transition to a new one. On the bright side, at least this person in the middle class likely has a good enough credit score to qualify for a loan.
27. They Have a College Degree (And Lots of Debt)
According to author and anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom, the struggle to pay off student loan debt has become so common among the middle class, that it is now a definable trait for the rest of human history. In her book Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost, Zaloom goes over how difficult student loans make the lives of middle-class people.
In 2018, college enrollment for children who grew up in lower-income families has gone up. However, many of them end up dropping out because they cannot afford to pay for the tuition. Instead of being overly optimistic, the lower-class is more realistic about the consequences the burden of debt could have on their lives.
26. They Need a Side-Hustle
We are living in the side-hustle generation. Plenty of Millennials work a second job as an Uber driver or sell online with eBay or Etsy. While some people are proud of their hustle, the sad reality is that many of us are suffering from burnout.
According to Bankrate, 45% of Americans say that they have a side-hustle. Out of those who work multiple jobs, 3 out of 10 people admit that if it were not for their second (or third) income, they would not be able to pay the bills. As time goes on, side-hustles are becoming the new norm for the middle class.
25. They Go to Starbucks
There is a huge stereotype that Millennials go to Starbucks far too often. Some people get offended by this assumption, but most stereotypes have at least a grain of truth to them. According to statistics, 37.8 million Americans have visited Starbucks at least once in the last 30 days.
This is not entirely the fault of the consumer. Starbucks also has a location strategy where they will only build a store in a neighborhood full of people that make at least $50,000 to $70,000 per year. They seem to stay away from more poverty-stricken towns, even if they do get a lot of foot traffic. Most poor people do not drink Starbucks simply because they can’t afford it.
24. They Can Pay Their Bills on Time
Most middle-class people can afford to pay their bills each month. When surveyed, 84% of people claimed that they had no problems paying rent, utilities, and all of the other responsibilities that come along with adulthood. Typically, they will pay their bills as soon as they get a paycheck. It’s only after the expenses are paid that they may make bad financial decisions.
Sadly, many people closer to the poverty line struggle to pay their bills. They may go months without paying a bill, even if it is destroying their credit score. The lower class is the first to stop services like Netflix for a month.
23. They Care About Celebrities
You can tell a lot about someone’s socioeconomic status by how much they care about celebrity culture. Middle-class people tend to look up to those who are rich and famous.
People who are already rich do not care as much about the lives of celebrities. To them, these are just other people who worked hard for their money and position in life.
22. Showing Off Designer Brands
We already mentioned how middle-class people love to feel rich. They are some of the first ones to go after designer name brands. This is especially true for brands like Coach, Micheal Kors, and Kate Spade. In the United States, Louis Vuitton is another recognizable logo, but it’s often too expensive for someone in the middle class.
It may come as a surprise to some people that the rich don’t actually wear a lot of flashy designer brands. They are usually conservative. If they are a rich person who dresses in a flashy way, it’s a dead giveaway that they are “new rich.” Some great examples of the new rich who sport their favorite brands are rappers, football players, and Youtubers.
21. They Have a Secure Job
Most people in the middle class put a lot of pride in sculpting the perfect resume. They make sure they can find a secure full-time job with benefits. And if they begin to feel uneasy about the future of a company, they might start going on interviews to find a new position. Making sure they are constantly employed is very important to someone in the middle class, because they need to keep working in order to maintain their lifestyle.
People in the upper class are a mixed bag. They might have an incredibly secure job, but more often than not, they are willing to take more risks. Even in some of the highest level careers, there can be high turnover. Consider just how many CEOs lost their jobs in 2019 and it’s easy to see that just because you’re making millions doesn’t mean a job is secure. But since they are willing to take risks, they seem to make a lot more by doing so.
20. Wearing Knock-Off Clothes
We already mentioned how middle class people love to wear designer brands to show off to their friends. Sometimes, they might even resort to buying fake versions of these items. To them, it doesn’t matter if the quality of the purse or accessory is terrible. They just want to appear to be rich enough to buy Gucci or Louis Vuitton. There is a crazy statistic that 90% of all Louis Vuitton items you see in the United States are actually fake.
Truly rich people would never buy a fake designer clothing item because they are usually very poor quality. They can tell almost immediately if something is not real, because they will know the styles that are available. Anyone who loves fashion can tell if something looks off. The person who is wearing a fake item is immediately classified as “middle class.”
19. They Watch Reality TV
Years ago, the family sitcom was all the rage with Americans. But nowadays, there is nothing more realistic than reality itself. According to statistics gathered by The Wrap, middle-class people love watching primetime reality TV series. The Bachelor, Ninja Warrior, MasterChef, and American’s Got Talent were some of the top picks among households that earned between $60,000 to $75,000 per year.
People in the lower class watch shows like watching reality TV as well, but they prefer shows like Maury, Jerry Springer, and Judge Judy. These shows are filled with drama, fights, and screaming matches. According to a research firm called Frank N. Magid Associates, 40% of people who watch daytime TV make less than $20,000, with a household income of less than $30,000. On top of that, 85% of these viewers do not have a college degree.
18. Name Dropping
People in the middle and lower class wish they could meet a celebrity. This is why many of them pay a lot of money to stand in line at fan conventions like ComicCon. As soon as they meet this person, the photo immediately goes to Instagram or Facebook even though it was a shallow interaction. For years to come, they decide to name-drop the fact that they “met” this famous person.
Upper-middle-class to upper-class people tend to name drop far less often for a lot of reasons. They may work with someone who is a public figure, and realize that celebrities are human too. So they don’t see it as being a big deal that they know someone famous. The more comfortable they become with knowing public figures. They understand that these people really value their privacy, so they may not even mention the fact that they met someone famous.
17. They Could Save If They Tried
We have already mentioned that most people in the middle class do not have enough money saved for an emergency. However, they should be making enough money to save for a rainy day if they cut back on their spending. This is where all of those “money-saving tips” you read online comes in. They could choose to cut back on their spending.
There are a lot of reasons people struggle with saving. They might be procrastinators. Or, they simply might have way too much student loan debt for them to handle. Even though it would be very difficult, anyone above the poverty line can make lifestyle changes to set money aside for emergencies.
16. Seeking Validation on Social Media
Middle-class people use social media every single day. They are the ones frequently updating their Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. It’s a way to interact with their friends, but it’s also a way for them to measure their own value. Between followers and likes, it’s hard not to compare those numbers to your friends and family.
Rich people do not need social media to feel validated. They realize that at the end of the day, the number of “likes” you have doesn’t matter unless you’re using those accounts for marketing purposes. The upper class has already worked on their own lives so much that they have confidence that comes from within.
15. They Take a Vacation
Unlike our European counterparts, Americans get very little vacation time. The longer someone works for a company, the more time they get to enjoy. Some full-time employees are lucky to get 10 days off per year. If you get two weeks, that’s considered fantastic. Compared to the UK’s law that people need at least five weeks off of paid vacation, 10 days is nothing. But anyone who has this privilege in the US is considered to be lucky.
People in the lower class may not be able to find full-time employment. Even if they do, lower-paying jobs like retail are especially bad for vacation time. Instead of getting paid time off, many of these companies will allow you to call out, but they will not pay you. So by taking a day off, people are losing money. And some simply cannot afford to do that. So these lower-income families usually opt to take short road trips on the weekend, and many have never left the country.
14. Their Parents Encouraged a Traditional Path
Most people living in the middle class have a traditional 9-5 job. They have a good salary, vacation time, a health insurance plan, and a little money set aside for retirement. And in this generation, most of these people went to college to get at least a Bachelor’s Degree. All of this is because their parents probably encouraged them to go down a traditional path to “success.”
There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, these parents have done an amazing job making sure their kid doesn’t end up in poverty. However, most people who become rich are not going down the traditional path. They are taking risks and avoiding 9-5 jobs like the plague. Anyone who grew up in a middle-class family might struggle to step off that path, especially if their friends and family disagree with the idea.
13. Owning a House (Or Aspiring To)
Most people who earn a middle-class income are able to buy a house with their household income, but it depends on where they live. For example, $75,000 per year would never be enough to buy real estate in a place like New York City. Other factors include monthly student loan payments, rent, and expenses so draining that they cannot afford a house for several years after graduating from college.
Even if someone in the middle class doesn’t have a house yet, they will usually tell you that they want one. More often than not, they are not thinking of real estate as an investment, but rather a place where they want to raise their children. They will most likely ever own one house for the rest of their lives. In the past, people in the middle class could afford a second home on the beach or in the mountains.
12. They Love True Crime
Whether it’s Podcasts, TV series, or documentaries, people in the middle class can’t get enough of true crime. Just like reality shows, series dealing with mystery and crime are also near the top of the charts. According to The Wrap, some of the most popular crime and police shows among the middle class are Elementary, Shades of Blue, and Quantico. Then, of course, you need to think about Netflix. Some of the most popular original series, like You were seen by more than 40 million subscribers.
Another hugely popular thing among the middle class is listening to true crime podcasts. A few years ago, a podcast called Serial quickly rose to the top of the charts and inspired several other popular podcasts like My Favorite Murder and new up-and-coming series like Vintage Villains. This is a great way to hear stories about true crime without actually reading a book, and it can be played during your commute, which is easier than a TV series.
11. They Have Streaming Subscriptions
In this day and age, you really don’t have to pay for any kind of streaming subscription to see all of the newest shows. However, people in the middle class are actually willing to pay for services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+, especially if it means getting rid of a cable bill.
Sure, their family and friends might mooch from their account, but they would rather have the convenience of knowing that they can quickly and easily access their favorite shows. Without the real subscriptions, you cannot watch content on your Smart TV or iPhone. Basically, the middle class gets to enjoy the sheer convenience of paying for services like this, because their time is more valuable than fumbling with illegal downloads.
10. The Price of Health Care is a Huge Concern
People who live below the poverty line in their state often qualify for Medicaid, which makes their healthcare completely free. Some people can go their entire lives with free healthcare, so long as they remain poor. But as soon as you make enough to be in the middle class, you are going to be straddled with huge monthly premiums as well as co-pays, deductibles, and the cost of medication.
Middle-class people are very concerned with health care costs. You might hear stories someone who has gone into massive debt with medical bills, or they had to pay huge costs out of pocket for their medications. According to statistics, the leading cause of bankruptcy in America is due to outstanding medical bills. It can very literally ruin your life if you don’t have insurance in America. The rich pay for their medical procedures or have an expensive insurance plan that covers their needs.
9. They Have a Midlife Crisis
We have all heard of someone having a midlife crisis. Once a person reaches their 40’s or early 50’s, they begin to get upset about the fact that their life is halfway over, and they will never be young again. They might splurge on a sports car, get a divorce, or try to recapture their lost youth. Believe it or not, the United States is pretty much the only place where people experience having a midlife crisis. Out of the people who experience this, most of them are in the middle class.
People going through a midlife crisis begin to regret some of the decisions they made in the past. Maybe they hate the fact that they forced themselves to work a job they hate. Or maybe they wish they had more fun in their 20’s and traveled while they were still young. They know that they had options in life, but they just chose the wrong ones, maybe because they were pressured by society to choose a certain path. People who are very poor do not experience a midlife crisis as much, because they know that they did their best to survive.
8. They Believe in the American Dream
The American Dream is the idea that every single person living in the United States is entitled to get married, have kids, buy a house, and have two cars in the driveway. Ever since the end of World War II, the media has been trying to sell us the idea of the “American Dream.” This pushed a lot of people into getting married when they aren’t truly happy, and a house when they aren’t truly ready. This may be why 50% of marriages end in divorce. Even though the statistics are clear that the American Dream is no longer working, people in the middle class still yearn to have those things.
Sadly, not everyone gets to have that life. And this is probably why some of these people end up having a midlife crisis later on. Many rich people do not believe in the American Dream in the traditional sense, even if they have all of the things on the checklist that qualify them to be “successful.” They understand that people around the world have very different paths, and not everyone should be judged by these qualities.
7. They’re Renters
In the middle class, there is a good mix of people who both rent and own property. However, if you hear that someone is renting an apartment, you automatically know that they must be in the middle or lower-middle class. The Pew Research Center published a document called “American Families Face a Growing Rent Burdon”. According to their research, the demand for rental space has grown significantly since the 2008 recession. As of 2016, there were 43 million Americans renting an apartment or house. And, unfortunately, rental prices seem to be going up, which means that rents are having an increasingly difficult time keeping up with the cost.
People who live below the poverty line may have to resort to living with multiple roommates. And many young people are forced to live at home with their parents far longer than they expected. Most people who are wealthy have the mindset that paying rent is like throwing money away. They would rather pay money towards owning a property that could be sold later.
6. They Buy Fads
All of the products you see “As Seen on TV” are targeted at the middle class. Whether it’s toys, cleaning products, or gadgets, middle-class people have the expendable income to buy these items, even if they don’t actually need them. This is especially true if they have kids who are going to come from from school declaring that every other kid in their class has a certain toy.
People in the lower class usually cannot buy into these fads. And people in the upper class usually recognize that the vast majority of these things are a huge waste of money. Self-made millionaires know how to spend their money wisely.
5. They Buy The Newest Apple Product
We’ve all heard of the Apple fans who stand in line the day a new product comes out. There are even tech YouTube channels that love to go over the stats of each new product. Obviously, people living in the lower class can’t afford to buy a new Macbook, and their iPhone is probably a few years old. So when you see someone constantly upgrading their tech, you know that they must be middle class.
So, what about the upper class? Some might assume that rich people would want the newest of everything. That’s not necessarily true. Self-made millionaires know when to make a good investment. They probably own an Apple product, but keep it for a few years. The whole point was to invest in something high-quality that will last a long time. For example, the differences between an iPhone X and an iPhone XR or 11 are very small, and not really worth the upgrade. A rich person probably wouldn’t bother to stand in line all night for the newest iPhone, because their time is far too valuable.
4. They Rarely Live Below Their Means
People in the middle class tend to live a lifestyle that they can just barely afford. Even if they get a raise and start making more money, they would rather upgrade their lifestyle to match their higher salary. If they had just continued to live below their means, they might have money for investments, savings, and so much more.
If many middle-class people did a budget, they would realize that they are over-spending. For example, they might really want a Tesla Model 3, which would be around $600 a month. If they did a budget, they might realize that they can really only afford $400 per month. But they will often still go for a more expensive option because it’s what they want.
3. They Watch Hallmark Christmas Movies
If you live in a middle-class family, the odds that your mom, grandmother, or sister watch Hallmark Channel Christmas Movies is pretty high. In fact, in 2019, their viewership grew an additional 9%, totaling 85 million people. This year, they premiered a record-breaking 40 new movies, which is more than ever before. According to the Chicago Tribune, they believe that it’s an effect of the Trump Era. Most Americans are sick and tired of fighting one another over politics. Every time you turn on the news, there is more debate and vitriol. Watching Hallmark is a “safe” option where the stories do not have sex or violence.
The idea of escaping from reality has always been popular among the lower and middle classes. But in the upper class, most people have to “keep calm and carry on” with reality. They tend not to watch as much TV in general, and would potentially grow bored to watch what is essentially the same plot over and over again.
2. They Try to Keep Up With The Joneses
There is an insightful article in the Wallstreet Journal called Families Go Deep in Debt to Stay in the Middle Class. It goes over how much people tend to get into debt just so they can keep up with the appearances of what it means to be “middle class.” Logic would tell you, then, that people care far too much about what their neighbors think.
If you live in the middle class, you can see this happen in real-time. When one person gets solar panels on their roof, suddenly everyone else does, too. And if there is a nice sports car or pickup truck in the driveway, someone else wants to get one so that they can appear to be doing just as well. This kind of behavior is toxic, and will ultimately lead to unnecessary consumer debt.
1. They Value Credentials Over Income
Last but not least, studies have shown that people in the middle and upper classes value someone’s credentials more than the amount of money they make. For example, if you had an HVAC repairman or a plumber making $70,000 per year, they are making enough to be considered “middle class,” but most people would think of their occupation as “working class” or “blue-collar.” On the flip side, a professor with a Ph.D. might struggle to pay their bills making just $30,000 per year. But they would still be considered “middle class” because they have a high-level degree and academic accomplishments.
People in the lower class tend to respect someone’s income more than their credentials, especially in this specific case. They would see the plumber or HVAC worker and see a hard-working man who makes great money. And they might think that the professor’s career as a bit frivolous. The poor would tend to focus on the fact that the professor has tons of student loan debt, and isn’t making much more than other working-class jobs.