In her new book, (Not) Keeping Up With Our Parents, author Nan Mooney argues that 30- and 40-something professionals are struggling to achieve the level of financial comfort they grew up expecting. The share of family income devoted to fixed expenses like rent, she notes, has increased from 53 to 75 percent in the past two decades. Housing prices in most major metropolitan areas have risen six times faster than household incomes, and household debt has ballooned to over 130 percent of disposable income. Which is why the well-educated teachers, designers, and writers she interviews find it difficult to afford homes, health insurance, and child care. U.S. News talked to her about why so many capable adults feel squeezed. Excerpts:
Financially speaking, life has been harder than you expected. Why?
As a college-educated professional, I had expectations for what a middle-class lifestyle would be like. They weren't extravagant, but by my late 30s I thought I'd be able to afford health insurance, an apartment, and the occasional vacation. I certainly thought I'd be in a financial position to consider having children. Instead, at 36, I was living with a roommate in New York, barely able to cover even the basics. Other professionals were also finding it difficult?
These kinds of financial struggles were affecting almost everyone I knew: people who were college-educated, had good jobs, and had essentially done everything you're supposed to do to be successful. But with wages in most middle-class jobs stagnating and the costs of college, housing, and healthcare going up, people found their salaries didn't stretch far enough. If people are spending money on clothes and restaurant meals, it's easy to cut back. But with fixed expenses, you can't just say, "I think we'll skip the mortgage or child care payment this month." So what's changed?
Professionals don't earn less, but we don't earn more, either. Today's dual-income families may make more money, but, given the rising costs, they actually have less discretionary income than single-income families did in the '70s. Today, we have to pay for our own retirements; we have to pay for some or all of our health insurance; many of us pay a considerable amount for child care. These are expenses most of our parents didn't face. Do we just have higher expectations than past generations?
There's a whole mythology built around the idea that you are what you make and, by extension, what you can afford. And since we're living in a consumer economy, we're encouraged to spend like crazy, even if it means going into a frightening amount of debt. But we can't simply write off the financial problems of today's middle class as the result of greed. Consumer spending hasn't risen since the 1970s. We may have more electronics, but those electronics are cheaper. You came up with a creative solution to make it possible to become a parent.
I'm a single parent, and, because I couldn't afford to both support myself and my son and spend time with him, I wound up moving back with my parents. It was a huge life change, and that certainly entailed a shift in my expectations. I had to spend a fair amount of time getting beyond the shame I felt that I couldn't "make it on my own." [But] it was the best decision I could have made. I think it is a great exampleof the type of recalibrating we need to do. There's another couple in the book who, despite earning quite low salaries in education and the arts, managed to stow away enough money to spend six months traveling through South America with their son. They chose to forgo a lot of middle-class comforts—like saving for a house—but they felt the experience was worth the sacrifice.
What needs to change? Are there steps individuals can take?
Understand your financial obligations, from mortgages to credit card payments. Opt for the simplest financing options. Take steps to [make] your children financial-ly literate. Accept that you may have to lower your material expectations. That might mean not be-ing able to afford a house by 35. It doesn't mean you've failed; it means economic circumstances beyond your control have changed. Most important, don't buy into the "you are what you make" value sys-tem. Stretch to fill your life in nonmaterial ways.