Why are so many high-income Americans living paycheck to paycheck?

By Sam Becker

 
 
June 03, 2022
Why are so many high-income Americans living paycheck to paycheck?

What would you do with $250,000 per year?

The typical American family, which earns a median household income of $67,000 per year, would likely be able to put that type of earning potential to serious use by paying down debt, padding their savings and investments, and maybe taking a vacation. But for millions of high-earning households, the answer is evidently “simply make ends meet.”

As many as 61% of U.S. consumers were living paycheck to paycheck as of April, according to a joint study from PYMNTS and LendingClub (the latest in the monthly “Paycheck-To-Paycheck” series), which surveyed more than 4,000 people in the United States in early April. That’s an increase from 52% in April 2021.

But perhaps the most surprising takeaway from the study is this: Thirty-six percent of consumers earning more than $250,000 per year live paycheck to paycheck. Further, 42% of consumers earning more than $100,000 per year are doing the same. The report does note that living paycheck to paycheck doesn’t necessarily mean that these households are struggling. It even categorizes these consumers into two categories: Those who can pay their bills easily, and those who can’t. It’s also worth taking into consideration that many people may be contributing significant amounts of money to retirement plans or other accounts before it even hits their bank accounts, making it feel or appear that they’re bringing in less than they are.

With all of that in mind, some experts, however, aren’t shocked by those figures.

“It’s not surprising to me,” says Robert Fortune, a financial advisor at New York-based Fortune Advisory Services. “Back in the day, there was what we used to call ‘living within your means,’ and that’s gone away. If you make money nowadays, many people think that they need to show it.”

Fortune adds that social media is fueling a “keep up with the Joneses” mentality, and that the ability to spend money quickly and often mindlessly—by ordering takeout using apps like Uber Eats, or making one-click purchases on websites like Amazon—are eating up a bigger percentage of many budgets than people anticipate.

Those types of habits don’t disappear as people make more money, either, which can lead to what’s often called “lifestyle creep”—a phenomenon that occurs when an individual’s standard of living increases along with their income. “If you have poor spending habits, making more money doesn’t solve your problems. It often exacerbates them,” Fortune says.

While lifestyle creep may account for a part of the financial crunch that high-income households find themselves in, there are many other factors to consider, too. For instance, many high-paying jobs tend to be clustered in cities with very high costs of living, such as New York City or San Francisco. In New York City, for example, median rent is nearly $3,900 per month, or $46,800 per year. Add in a few other expenses, and a $100,000 income can quickly be eaten up by everyday living expenses. Suffice to say that living “paycheck to paycheck” doesn’t always look the same from city to city, or region to region. And, obviously, inflation is playing a role in tightening the financial vises on many families, too.

Still, Fortune says that high-earners—and most anyone, in fact—should be able to relieve some financial pressure by getting back to basics. Specifically, he says that people need to take a realistic look at their finances and create a plan.

“You need to look at what you’re earning, [consider] what your financial goals are, and create a budget. Budgeting is like a four-letter word—people think they won’t be able to have fun,” he says. “But it’s really just getting a handle on how you’re spending your money.”

 

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