Such financial confessionals are the radioactive material formed when social media and inequality collide—latter-day late-capitalist hate-reads consumed by an always online generation saddled with debt, and produced by or for members of an upper crust insistent that they are in fact middle-class. That insistence contains an object lesson about the way inequality has shaped spending and society: The country’s 10 percent really do feel strapped, and really don’t understand how much better they have it than the 90 percent below them.
Confessional budgets emerged in the blog era and took off in the social-media era. In the 1990s, inequality, the internet, and the personal-finance industry grew in tandem. As demonstrated in Helaine Olen’s book Pound Foolish, ordinary, middle-class Americans became stock pickers as advisers such as Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey developed mass followings. By the early aughts, Americans were crowdsourcing their investment strategies and sharing their penny-pinching habits on blogs. And in the late aughts, sites such as Refinery29 started publishing and promoting these strategies.
“We worked really hard to make sure we had diaries from all 50 states and from a huge range of income levels,” says Lindsey Stanberry, who launched Refinery29’s “Money Diaries” and is now an editor at CNBC’s Make It. “But our most popular ones were definitely men and women making six figures,” putting them in the top 10 percent and sometimes the top 1 percent of the income distribution.
In these viral budgets and diaries, urban professionals—they are almost always urban professionals—describe spending on $7 lattes and $70 bikini waxes and $70,000 private-school tuition. Some describe themselves as middle-class. Many describe themselves as unable to save. Self-evidently, this is nonsense: Spending tens of thousands of dollars a year on vacations and babysitters and housekeepers and fancy salads means you are choosing not to save, not that you are unable to save.
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But the diaries and budgets demonstrate some of the real pressures such families face. For one, the cost-of-living crisis forcing middle-class families out of big cities also taxes the rich families within them. Making one-percenter money often means living in a place such as New York; Washington, D.C.; Seattle; Boston; or the Bay Area, and thus often means shelling out tens of thousands of dollars a year on a mortgage, rent, child care, and other necessities.
“Our ideal of a middle-class lifestyle is the same as it has always been,” says Sam Dogen, the founder of Financial Samurai, the site that published that $350,000-a-year budget. “Own a house, have a car, have a couple children, and retire by 65. These ideals haven’t changed. But it seems like it’s taking greater income to get there or to maintain that type of lifestyle.” Dogen—who semiretired at 34 with $3 million in the bank, something he credits to frugal living—noted that families earning six figures are considered middle-class in San Francisco because the cost of living is so high.