Passing for Middle Class

by Philip Brewer on 12 July 2012 20 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

The most constant theme in my posts here at Wise Bread has been frugality. If you live cheaply enough, you can spend your life doing what you want to do. Even if you have to work for a living, you can chose your work based on what you most want to do, rather than what pays the most.

The downside to simple living through frugality is that it's easy to find yourself dropping out of the middle class. (See also: When Poor Folks Have Better Crap Than You)

A Class Without a Name

As far as I know, there's no name yet for this social and economic class — people who choose not to buy all the stuff that's required to stay in the middle class. (One subcategory would be bohemians, but most of the frugal folks I know are not bohemians.)

To live really cheaply, you have to economize almost everywhere — and almost all of those economizations will impact one marker or another of being middle class. Cheaper housing — a smaller house, or an apartment instead of a house, or a smaller apartment — are all steps away from the middle class. The same with fewer cars, or no cars.

Every specific economization that I've recommended over the years, from getting by without air conditioning to bicycling for transportation to making smaller cocktails has been criticized — and very often, the underlying reason for the criticism is that the economization would involving giving up something that's fundamental to being middle class.

This is often cast as a "keeping up with the Joneses" problem — you can't cancel your lawn service when all your neighbors have perfect lawns, and you can't keep driving your old car when all your neighbors are buying new ones — but that's only part of it.

If something is fundamental to being middle class, giving it up drops you out of the middle class.

Then you have to decide — is staying in the middle class worth the cost?

If you're up against that dilemma, here's a third option that's worth consideration — pass for middle class.

How to Pass

Passing for middle class requires that you identify the key trappings of middle-class life, and then make sure that your household has those trappings. And, of course, you want to do this as cheaply as possible.

That's not as much of a disconnect as it might sound like. Most of the trappings of middle-class life are practical things like housing and transportation, which you're going to need anyway. So passing needn't involve buying stuff that you don't care about. Passing involves making your choices with an eye toward falling within certain bounds — the bounds that define middle-class living.

Here are two tactics.

Lifestyle Clusters

Whether a lifestyle counts as middle class or not doesn't depend on a single marker, and whether any particular marker is required or not is context dependent. So, for example, a house in the suburbs is a middle-class marker — but if you have a house in the suburbs, you need a car. (You probably need two.)

An urban apartment near culture and nightlife also qualifies as middle class — but an urban dweller is not required to have a car. (And giving up a car will save you more than you probably realize.)

You can look at the clusters and choose one that's frugal. You can choose one where the things that you're required to have (to count as middle class) are the things that you want anyway. You can choose one where the things that you'd just as soon not pay for are not required. You can choose one where, even if you give things up that are required, their absence won't be obvious to your friends, neighbors, or coworkers.

If you choose a lifestyle cluster that falls within the definition of middle class, you can pass for middle class, even if you make all sorts of deviations. You could have a roommate, for example, or take in borders, or rent a room instead of an apartment. You can do things that would mark you as probably not middle class — but you can pass for middle class, because your lifestyle cluster looks middle class.

Cost-Invariant Markers

Some of the trappings of middle class are available at many different price points, and yet the cheap ones are just as valid as the expensive ones.

For example one marker for middle-class life is a college degree. You could spend six figures getting a degree — and the money might even be worth it. (It depends on what you want to do with the rest of your life.) But two years of community college plus two years at a state school will also get you a college degree, and as far as being a middle-class marker goes, that state school degree is every bit as good.

There are a lot of middle-class markers that are available cheap, at least sometimes. A rusty old car that would normally not qualify as a middle-class marker might squeak by if it's an expensive brand. Second-hand clothes are very much not middle class, but if you choose classic styles, they can pass very easily.

Should You Care?

My starting point is always that you should live your life according to your own values.

To the extent that your values are different from middle class values, your life should look different from a middle-class life. Even so, sometimes there are reasons to blend in with the dominant culture, rather than stand out. There are advantages to appearing middle class.

Sometimes, even when your values aren't middle-class values, it's worth making some small adjustments to pass for middle class.

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Guest's picture
Guest

Your post struck me as funny because I think of my household as middle class, yet we own a tiny house and live without air conditioning and without a car (we ride bicycles or the bus).

I see these choices as opting out, rather than missing out. Not having a car, for example, doesn't feel like a sacrifice. Riding my bike everywhere lets me be active in a way that I find enjoyable and saves me from having to carve out time for exercise or buy a gym membership (ugh!). Choosing to opt out of certain 'luxuries' allows you to spend your money and time on what matters more to you.

The funny thing is, I guess we've managed to 'pass' as middle class unwittingly by simply making practical choices to meet our needs: our home is nicely furnished and our wardrobes are stylish, but we buy most things second-hand; we're proud of our university degrees, but we both attended small universities.

If you make choices that make you happy, you might find that the Jones' will wish they could keep up with you.

Guest's picture
Frank

I think most people living a frugal lifestyle define the middle class. The imposters who live to impress others have corrupted and stolen our class. :). If you are living your life to try to meet a standard set by the " joneses " then you have bigger problems to take care of before you try to live simple and frugal.

I understand the point you are making in this article, but I truly dont see a benefit of fitting in for the sake of fitting in.

Guest's picture
Guest

@Frank, I think "fitting in" can be more important than many people realize, especially if you have kids. One of the great things about being a parent is that you have the chance to pass on your values and help form a solid core for your child's development. That being said, it can help your kids socially for your family to appear at least somewhat "normal" or "middle class" or however you want to describe it while still living a frugal lifestyle and passing the message on to your kids that frugal/simple living is valuable. It's easy to say that you shouldn't fit in for fitting in's sake, but try explaining that to a ten-year old who is being made fun of for wearing out-of-style second-hand clothes. Finding a way to pass for middle class makes a good deal of sense in that context.

Fitting in can of course be helpful for people without children, but I think it's worth mention that while many simple living maxims and approaches can be uncompromisingly implemented by adults with no constraints, it can be harder for families with

Guest's picture
Adam

I really like the thought behind this statement: My starting point is always that you should live your life according to your own values. Couldn't agree more!

Guest's picture

Very well said! I think of myself as middle class but do not have most of those markers.

Guest's picture
Deborah

I agree. Sometimes "passing" just makes life simpler, especially when you work in a traditional 9-to-5 office environment. Flying under the radar at work keeps me from being judged by coworkers and supervisors who don't understand people who eschew their "Affluenza" lifestyle. Thrift-store shopping, cooking from scratch, limited personal possessions, and aggressive retirement savings doesn't fit with their upper-middle-class worldview, and I have no interest in continually explaining/defending my values. So my wardrobe is current enough to be inconspicuous and I drive an nice (paid-for) 5-year-old car known for reliable longevity. I'm definitely not "with-it", but I'm also not so far outside the norm to draw much attention. It undoubtedly helps that I'm older (59) and considered to be a bit of an introverted intellectual. "Passing" would be much harder if I was involved in the dating scene, socially outgoing, or had children with constant peer-fueled needs and wants.

Guest's picture

Although certainly 'Middle class' started out as an economic marker, I think to a lot of folks it is now more of a values marker. Middle class represents hard working, law abiding, church going, great to have as a neighbor values that most of us admire - check out the book Middle Class Millionaires if you need added support for that statement.

There used to be a certain look down the nose attitude towards folks who are thrifty, but I think in the last 5 years a lot of that has disappeared as more of the nations have had to cut back.

Guest's picture
confused

You say "there are reasons to blend in with the dominant culture, rather than stand out. There are advantages to appearing middle class." However, you never actually answer that what those reasons are. I mean, I can answer them for myself, but you wrote an article on why it might be good to pass for middle class so I would expect an answer in there.

Guest's picture
Guest

He wrote an article on how to pass for middle class. Furthermore, he made a statement instead of asking a question. I'm really tired of negative comments. Find somewhere else to complain.

Guest's picture

It's hard not to be swayed by family, friends and the environment..especially people you like and admire like those in your peer group. Still-you have to live the life that makes the most sense for you. And even though it's little consolation-those who live frugally now will often live better in their later years while their friends pay down debt.

One great thing about the recession is that I think it has stripped away a lot of the layers of consumerism. I think being frugal is something that will continue to be commended and pushed into the mainstream.

Guest's picture
Beth

It's funny, but I never viewed "middle class" as being defined by things but rather by tax bracket. Maybe it's strange, but that's how I was raised. My mother made a very "upper middle class" salary, but was frugal. We had the basics not to be picked on, but my mother taught us to choose what was important to us. I have raised my kids the same way. They have, I just acquire things in a different way. My daughter has a Dell Inspiron, but I bought it on Black Friday, and her grandmother and I went halves on it for Christmas. She has an android which I bought at Target with mostly gift cards from deals combined with a sale and it's Virgin Mobile. She also buys the base of her clothes at the mall with gift cards I buy at a discount online, then fills in her wardrobe at Plato's Closet. I personally could care less what people think of me, my house, or my car. Yet, I don't want my children to be social outcasts. I don't know if the balance of my savings account makes me "middle class" but it certainly makes me feel smart and secure.

Philip Brewer's picture

Thanks everyone, for all the good comments.

I've gotten so many comments over the years on previous posts, that it didn't occur to me to go into much details as to why it might be worth passing for middle class, so I'm glad some of the commentors have stepped up and covered that.

Children, in particular, have a strong need to "fit in," and although you also want to teach them to represent your values, giving them a bit of cover will often be appreciated. Although obviously you wouldn't want to marry someone who didn't share your values, somebody in the dating scene might want to have a bit of control over how and when they reveal their frugal habits. There are plenty of managers who might hesitate to hire someone whose lifestyle is too far out of the middle-class norms.

None of those are good reasons to change the way you live to match mainstream values, but they might well be reasons to make minor tweaks that let your llfestyle appear a little more normal.

Guest's picture

I had the same question ... I've been focusing so tightly on rejecting the standard middle-class life that I drew a blank when trying to imagine why one might want to pretend to it.

Deborah's comment was instructive in that regard; I can grok that situation, even though it doesn't really work like that for me, with my personality -- I've never been the 'fly-under-the-radar' type, and would rather be open about my values and lifestyle, even if it keeps me from being liked by my coworkers, or succeeding in workplace politics.

I can also see the point about kids; although again, I'd come down overwhelmingly on the side of not-catering (and the whole discussion makes me want to write a blog post about alternatives), I have some sympathy for that position.

I disagree about dating, though. Sure, unless you're self-employed or a small-business owner, you don't get to choose your coworkers. But you do get to choose your romantic partners, so why not be honest about who you are and what you believe in? I see no benefit in starting a relationship by pretending to a lifestyle and values that you neither hold nor wish to hold in future.

Philip Brewer's picture

Sure, it'd be dumb to invest much time in a relationship where you're deliberately misleading your potential partner about who you are and how you live. But I think it makes a lot of sense to manage the information flow, especially if your living situation is extremely frugal.

I mean, you could spin a lifestyle where you have no fixed abode but move from one housesitting gig to another as something exotic and interesting enough for a first date. But I can see wanting to wait for a third date before mentioning that you live in an RV or singlewide or a yurt or that you rent a nice basement room from a widow.

It's not that there's anything wrong with any of those. Nor is there anything wrong with a potential life partner deciding that your lifestyle isn't one they want. But if you're going to be rejected for your lifestyle, it'd be nice if you were rejected based on a actual evaluation of that lifestyle, and not a cultural stereotype that may not even apply.

My point is, I can see wanting to give somebody a little time to see that you're not crazy, and only then show them any aspects of your life that might make the jump to the conclusion that you're crazy.

Guest's picture
Edgar A.

It's worth remembering that for males, khakis and a blue oxford cloth shirt are suitable attire for any occasion. Occcasionally, a tweed (or in summer, poplin) jacket needs to be added.

Guest's picture
Christine

As far as middle class 'status' goes, I've only felt conspicuous when I'm in the wrong company. Funny, these kind are usually cash poor and in a lot of debt due to entitlement issues versus low motivation to work smart. These are always complaining about little money and making more than double my income teetering on the brink of being fired for low performance. The have-nots are just as cash strapped but many spend whatever extra cash they come into on the next expensive thrill item and return to their constant state of need -- utilities go unpaid sometimes because they needed a new gaming system.

I've dealt with both worlds. The only way for me to be okay is to never discuss money, except when I need to decline a get-together because it's financially impossible. Living a simple, less extravagent life -- well kept little house full of older furiture and just the basics as electronics -- keeps the serial borrowers away as well.

I've found a soft-spoken frugality to be the best approach at work. After one gets to know their coworkers, you know who would like to discuss the best frugal reads and best places to shop. We will all be sitting in the breakroom eating leftovers for lunch and keep snacks/drinks in the refrigerator.

When carless, one makes a bad impression for asking for a lot of favors - like rides home unless they offer to carpool/chip in for gas.

Another too-cheap mistake is shabby/wornout work attire - stains, brown dragging hems, bulging seams, pileds on sweaters, rubbed out thighs and thread bare anything. This will negatively affect employment.

Used cell products crowd ebay with good deals if one thinks paying for internet on a cell is worth the expense. However, data plan prices have become too expensive for some.

Keeping the party out of my home keeps prying eyes and intrusive questions away.

Guest's picture

I concur, being frugal is the only way to keep more of what you earn. It sounds simplistic but it is the truth.

Kentin Waits's picture

A refreshing and insightful take on an old idea (keeping up with the Joneses)-- a great and thought-provoking read!

Guest's picture
Ms. Jones

I've never felt like I have to keep up with the Joneses... I am the Joneses!

Guest's picture
Guest

I don't think a "middle class" life is anything to strive for. If you're going to strive, why not strive to please yourself?

I look poor and live as if I were poor. Our grocery budget for 4 for the week is $40. We suffered thru much poverty in the past, in spite of advanced educational degrees. Or maybe because of them--student loans, anyone?

Anyway, frugality was the only option in order to eat. Now my husband has a better job and I am self-employed and we own rental property. We save money religiously. No one would know it from looking at us. We have a nice house--although with a terrible lawn, and most of our furniture is from Craig's List or the curb. Clothes by designer Sally Army. Coupons as far as the eye can see. One decent Honda and one 22 year old truck that is still running great--all bought and paid for.

I have a health condition looming over me that might take everything away from me someday and I think of that every day and try my best to do whatever I want and think is right for my family--the heck with everyone else!