16 Painful Ways the Middle Class is Getting Squeezed

If your relatively frugal lifestyle suddenly costs a small fortune, you’re not alone.
Updated May 2, 2024
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Is your wallet leaking? Bank account draining faster than usual? Your shopping habits haven’t changed, but lately, it seems like money goes out quicker than it comes in. If this sounds familiar, you’re not losing it.

Here are 16 reasons your paycheck doesn’t stretch as far these days — and how to reduce money stress and beat back inflation.

You need a new car

Patcharanan/Adobe asian man looking at broken down car engine on street

That 2005 Corolla you’ve had since college? You might be stuck with it a little longer. New vehicle prices are up 10.4%, according to the Consumer Price Index. Even pre-owned vehicles are 6.6% more expensive than they were last year.

The global microchip shortage also has automobile manufacturers at a standstill, driving the supply-demand mismatch that’s behind the price increases.

You have a medical condition

LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS/Adobe happy woman holding blood lancet near finger

Healthcare has never been cheap for consumers, but hospitals and providers are feeling the heat now, too.

Because of the way insurance rates and premiums are calculated, many medical facilities have thus far absorbed rising labor and operating costs. That could change, though. And if it does, you might have to foot the bill.

Your commute costs more

Michael O'Keene/Adobe pouring money into gas tank

Anyone with so much as a five-minute ride to work knows that driving has become expensive. While gas prices are finally starting to decrease, they hit record highs earlier this year.

We can thank falling oil prices for the relief at the pump, but only time will tell if that relief is temporary or permanent.

Hate The Pain at the Pump? You Need This 5 Step Checklist ASAP

Your buying power is declining

luismolinero/Adobe man having doubts holding a grocery shopping bag

In July 2022, the average hourly wage in the U.S. was $32.57, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But when adjusted for inflation, the average real wage — or how much you can buy with that pay — was only $10.93.

That’s because salary increases aren’t keeping up with inflation, leaving the middle class trying to race the economy with a weight on one ankle.

You’re priced out of the housing market

serhio777/Adobe young man in fashionable suit stands on the background of destroyed unfinished house

Over the past two years, a low housing inventory, low interest rate double feature caused a real estate boom that drove prices skyward.

The housing market is gradually slowing down, but that doesn’t automatically equate to attainable homeownership, as the median home price recently exceeded $400,000 for the first time ever. 

The increase in the cost of living means you might have less money available for a down payment. Rising interest rates could also keep you from affording a mortgage at all.

You’re renting

JackF/Adobe couple standing at doorway and giving keys to mature woman

What do you do when you want your own place but you’re not in a position to buy? You rent, of course. And what happens when more and more people are forced to rent instead of buy? Rental demand spikes and rental prices follow suit.

Exacerbating the problem is the end of COVID-19-related rent protections. Landlords aren’t limited by rent ceilings anymore, and they’re capitalizing on the surplus of tenants scrambling for an available rental.

6 Legit Ways To Help You Pay Your Rent

You’re still paying down debt

SB Arts Media/Adobe overwhelmed young woman paying bills

One particularly long-lasting byproduct of inflation is debt accumulation. When funds run low, you might turn to loans or credit cards to bridge the gap.

This isn’t a bad strategy in and of itself, but any debt you incur while interest rates are high will cost you more over time, especially if you can’t pay it off right away.

4 Clever Ways To Crush Your Debt

You’re itching for a vacation

shintartanya/Adobe young woman traveler sitting in a beach chair

Just in time for travel restrictions to ease, travel costs are up across the board. In fact, Destination Analysts reports that only 28% of Americans think traveling is worth the cost right now.

Thankfully, there are ways to cut travel costs without sacrificing experience. To save on fuel or airfare, book a staycation at a local hotel. You can also use one of the best travel credit cards to get discounts or cash back on your trip.

You can’t afford to invest

fizkes/Adobe Indian businesswoman looking at laptop screen

That financial squeeze you’re feeling now could affect you for a while to come. The tighter your money gets, the less you’ll be able to invest.

That means you’ll miss out on the benefits of an extended time horizon and compound interest, and you might have to play catch-up with your investments later.

You heat your home with natural gas

Budimir Jevtic/Adobe woman feeling cold sitting next to radiator

Get ready for a cold winter — natural gas prices surged 70% from the end of June to reach 14-year highs. While you probably aren’t seeing the impacts of this increase just yet, you will come cooler weather.

Do what you can to prepare now. Explore budget billing options with your energy provider, and consider starting your holiday shopping early. That way, you’ll spread out your end-of-year expenses and lessen the risk of being financially gridlocked when your gas bill jumps.

You frequent (or work in) restaurants

Monkey Business/Adobe waitress serving group of young friends

Thanks to ongoing supply shortages and increased food costs, restaurant prices are up 7.6%.

Consumers who are already pinching pennies may not be willing or able to pay a larger tab when they go out to eat. That’s bad news for servers who rely on tips from generous customers to get by.

You prepare meals at home

NDABCREATIVITY/Adobe Mature handsome man cooking in home kitchen

Think you’ll save money by cooking at home? Not in this economy. Grocery costs are up by 13% — nearly double the increase we’ve seen for takeout and dine-in options.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cheaper to hit the drive-thru, though. Compare food prices at different stores and restaurants in your area so you can eat as healthily as possible without overspending.

Paying More For Groceries? 8 Ways To Fight Inflation

You’re paying for college

terovesalainen/Adobe man counting college savings fund

Dreaming of going back to school to finish that degree? Getting ready to send off your high school grad for their freshman year? Make sure you’re sitting down when you get your tuition bill.

Between pandemic-era tuition freezes expiring and inflation impacting nearly every industry, the Washington Post reports that the cost of higher education rose by as much as 7% at some institutions.

You have a child in daycare

Rawpixel.com/Adobe nursery children playing with teacher in the classroom

If you have young kids, you might already be facing school fees head-on. Even toddlers pay tuition, after all.

Results from a 2021 Care.com survey revealed that American families now pay anywhere from $221 to $694 a week on child care. That’s partly because daycare facilities are losing staff to other professions, and many are shutting their doors for good. For parents, that means fewer options and higher prices.

You’re a pet owner

Budimir Jevtic/Adobe senior man with dogs and cat on his lap on bench

People food isn’t the only supermarket staple getting more expensive. With pet food and vet costs both up about 10% from last year, pet ownership as a whole is less affordable than it used to be.

Since your fur baby can’t get a job, it’s up to you to cover their expenses. Use free or low-cost vaccine clinics to save on routine care, and turn old household items into pet-safe, budget-friendly toys. (Word on the street is old t-shirts are great for tug-of-war.)

You’re depleting your emergency fund

auremar/Adobe frustrated woman during leaking roof or pipe burst

Savings accounts exist precisely for times like these. The problem, though, is that savings accounts are much easier spent than replenished.

If you’ve dipped into your emergency fund to cover expenses, make a plan to replace the money you’ve taken out. Otherwise, you’ll leave yourself vulnerable to another financial emergency — this time with no backup.

Bottom line

fizkes/Adobe woman thinking over monthly paperwork

Inflation is at a 40-year high, and it seems like everything from basic necessities to small luxuries cost a fortune.

All signs point to prices continuing to trend upward at least into next year, but there’s no way to know for sure when the economy will stabilize. In the meantime, it might be helpful to use contingency-based budgeting to guide your spending and boost your bank account.

Plan out where your money will go (and come from) if the cost of living improves, gets worse, or stays the same. That way, you can focus on staying afloat in the short term without compromising your financial health in the long term.

Author Details

Sarah Sheehan Sarah Sheehan is a writer, educator, and analyst who focuses on the impact of health, gender, and geography on financial equity. Her ultimate goal? To live beyond the confines of chasing the next dollar — and to teach everyone else how to do the same.

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