13 Things the Middle Class Can’t Afford Anymore

From dreams to daily needs – see what's become out of reach for the middle class.

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Updated June 6, 2024
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In a world of rising prices, it is getting more difficult to get ahead financially. In fact, for millions of people, being a member of the middle class just isn’t what it used to be.

Here are some items the middle class can no longer afford, at least not without substantial financial sacrifice.

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Four-year college degree

Andrea Raffin/Adobe man celebrates the university degree

The average student attending an in-state public college who lives on campus can expect to pay $26,027 per year — or $104,108 over the course of a four-year degree — to attend the school, according to the Education Data Initiative.

Getting a degree at a private or out-of-state college will cost even more. Such expenses often require students to take out loans, making it tough to move beyond living paycheck to paycheck after they start working.

Health care costs

adragan/Adobe stethoscope and credit card on stack of cash on bluebackground

A Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) poll found that 4 in 10 Americans with health insurance worry they won’t have the cash to cover their monthly premiums. Additionally, 48% are anxious about meeting their deductibles.

The same KFF survey found that as of December 2023, 25% of U.S. adults said they put off seeking medical care over the previous 12 months because they were worried about the cost of the care itself.

Dental care costs

alexkich/Adobe dental services

Even more Americans delay dental care due to the expense. In 2022, 35% of Americans reported that they had postponed dental care during the previous 12 months because they weren’t sure they could afford it, according to KFF.

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An emergency fund

Vitalii Vodolazskyi/Adobe savings in emergency fund jar

Financial experts generally urge workers to save at least three months’ worth of expenses so they will have the cash to spend on emergencies.

However, a report from LendingTree found that 58% of Americans do not have an emergency fund. In fact, 49% of Americans don’t have enough cash on hand to cover a $1,000 emergency.

And it is not as if people are naive about the possibility of an emergency arising, with 93% of Americans saying they’ve had to cope with at least one financial crisis in their adult lives.

Living debt-free

Shisu_ka/Adobe Person looking at credit cards

Living without debt has become the exception rather than the norm. As of mid-2023, credit-reporting agency Experian found that total American consumer debt had reached $16.84 trillion.

LendingTree data shows that 55% of Americans who recently couldn’t cover a $1,000 emergency out of pocket had to go into debt to cover their expenses.

Snack foods and beverages

simona/Adobe man at the supermarket

In the one-year period ending in December 2023, the cost of food rose 2.7%. That came after food rose 10.4% from 2021 to 2022

As a result, Americans have cut back on buying certain types of groceries, specifically snack foods and drinks, according to a survey from Swiftly.

A home

Rido/Adobe woman hugging man

While homeownership rates are higher post-COVID-19 than pre-pandemic, middle-income buyers still struggle to find affordable homes.

In June 2023, the National Association of Realtors reported that the supply of affordable homes for those with middle incomes was about 320,000 properties short of meeting the demand.

Concerts

Cristian/Adobe crowd in a concert

During 2023, four out of five Americans planned to go to at least one concert, according to an Insuranks survey.

However, concert ticket prices are rising above what middle-class concertgoers can afford, with 46% of concertgoers saying they would consider getting another job to pay for a pricey ticket.

Unpaid sick days

GMZ/Adobe sick woman blowing her nose

Federal law does not require companies to offer paid sick leave, and 89% of American employees say they’ve gone to work while sick rather than miss a day in the last year, according to a BambooHR survey.

Nearly half (46%) of those employees said they were sick enough that they likely shouldn’t have gone to work at all during that time.

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Vacations

EVERST/Adobe couple sitting on top of mountain on vacation

Over the last few years, a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation has put a damper on Americans’ ability to travel.

In 2022, although 58% of U.S. residents had been squirreling money into their travel funds, 72% admitted they had to use at least some of their travel savings to pay for other expenses, according to an Outdoorsy survey.

Pets

nataba/Adobe cat and corgi dog

At the start of the pandemic, lonely humans adopted pets in record numbers. A few years later, a record number of pets are returning to shelters — partly due to the rising cost of caring for pets.

According to a Forbes survey, those who have kept their pets struggle to afford them, with around 44% saying they had to put pet-related expenses on a credit card instead of paying with cash.

Kids

Jacob Lund/Adobe kids having fun together

On average, Americans want 2.1 children, a number that hasn’t changed in several decades, according to the Carolina Population Center. Yet, birth rates have fallen quite a bit.

While there’s no conclusive data showing why birth rates are down, research from the population center suggests that the rising cost of living might have something to do with it.

In addition, it costs an average of $233,610 to raise a child to age 17, according to the Institute for Family Studies.

Retirement

Day Of Victory Stu./Adobe senior couple walking on beach while holding each others hand

Millions of Americans continue to dream that they might retire early. But for many people in the middle class, retirement at any point now feels like an unachievable dream.

In a 2023 survey by Axios and Ipsos, 29% of all employees younger than 55 said they didn’t think they would ever retire, mainly because they didn’t think they could afford to stop working.

Bottom line

Stockwerk-Fotodesign/Adobe pyramid made of cubes and dice

Unfortunately, the middle class no longer carries the same level of financial security as it did a few decades ago.

Hopefully, inflation will continue to subside this year, making goods more affordable for middle-class Americans. Perhaps you can even build up your savings for the future.

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Author Details

Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has spent a decade writing for and about small businesses. She specializes in all things finance and has written for publications like G2 and SmallBizDaily. When she's not writing for work at her desk, you can usually find her writing for pleasure near large bodies of water.