Passing for Middle Class
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.
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.
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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