Is Your Job Too Expensive?

Investing in your career can mean racking up major expenses.

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Most of us have to invest money in our careers, whether on a new suit, a good haircut, or an M.B.A. We treat these as necessities but rarely talk about them as such.

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece over the weekend that tackled the financial straits of Pennsylvania's middle class.

Here and elsewhere, middle-class earnings aren't keeping up with the cost of living. Rising gasoline and food prices, health bills, child-care and education costs are leaving less to set aside for retirement. With the housing market in turmoil, even the asset many had come to count on—the value of their homes—is threatened.

It isn't just a reflection of the current economic slowdown and rise in commodity prices: Middle-class incomes have been stagnant for several years. The well-heeled keep doing better, with the wealthiest 1% of U.S. families garnering the largest share of income since 1929.

There's no question that money spent on necessities—food, fuel, healthcare—is increasing, but isn’t the volume of necessities also increasing?

For example: I’ve been trying to avoid paying for cable and Internet service at home. The annual cost seemed way too high, given the profusion of free Wi-Fi spots, and I couldn’t imagine that anything really important would be reported only on cable and dismissed by the TV stations I pulled in with rabbit ears. But last month, I finally capitulated and conceded that I had been living a wholesale delusion. A reporter who can’t watch CNN or CNBC and who heads to a coffee shop for Internet access on the weekends seems unserious. (I’d also bet that professionals who lack Internet at home are more liable to use it at work for personal functions, like paying bills.)

What other costs seem like necessities to you? A gym membership? Graduate school? Tooth whitening?