The Upside-Down Reason Most Americans are Broke

Years ago, when my husband and I were struggling to save, we managed our finances in the exact opposite way we manage them now. It was the mid- to late-2000’s and we were raising young kids and managing full-time jobs. We were busy, so we had scarce time to plan our spending or create a budget of any kind.

We paid our bills on time like good adults, and then we spent lavishly on what we wanted. We worked really hard, we reasoned, and we felt we deserved whatever our hearts desired. And boy oh boy, we had some really nice stuff.

With our savings accounts teetering above zero, we managed to have new cars every few years, a cable television package with all the “extras,” and a merry-go-round of home renovations and upgrades in the works. And of course we had nice clothes, the best electronics, and the cabinets stocked with all kinds of expensive specialty foods. If we wanted something, we would rush right out and buy it.

And obviously, we went out to dinner like it was our part-time job – rotating between our favorite Thai restaurants and fast-food joints.

When it came to savings, we always agreed to “save what was left.” Of course, most of the time, there was absolutely nothing left – or worse, we’d actually spent more than we’d earned and racked up debt for that month.

But it was fine, we thought, because we could always keep up on our bills.

The New Reality for America’s Middle Class

Now that it’s been many years since we changed our ways, I’ve realized something: This is how the average middle class American family lives. This is why the average family with credit card debt carries more than $15,000 in balances on their cards alone. This is why, when we need to buy our kids braces, pay for an emergency roof repair, or need to fix or replace a broken-down car, we have to take out a loan or charge the whole expense on a credit card.

This is part of the reason 46% of Americans said they couldn’t come up with $400 to cover an emergency.

I’m not talking about people in poverty here – individuals and families who simply cannot save because they barely earn enough to cover basic needs; I’m talking about middle-class families – people who earn plenty – who piss it all away.

Instead of prioritizing our absolute needs and savings above all else, we spend what we want then try to save the rest. But most of the time, there isn’t much or anything left. And instead of “paying ourselves first,” we buy material possessions that make us feel important and stave off our desire for something more. And of course we blame everything and everyone else for our money woes – including our greedy employers or the IRS.

We may feel like we’re living a life of privilege, but when we spend, spend, spend and fail to save, we aren’t doing ourselves any favors. We are our own worst enemies – we are the culprit behind our financial woes.

And the chickens will come home to roost if we don’t change our ways.

Five Upside-Down Reasons We Were Broke

Fortunately, the proverbial $#!% never hit the fan at my house. Instead of continuing to watch our dreams slip away from us, we had some serious talks and figured out a way to turn it all around.

The breaking point for myself and my husband was realizing how we were failing our children. Since we weren’t saving anything meaningful outside of our work-sponsored retirement plans, it became apparent we would struggle once our children got older and their needs began to change.

We started thinking of everything our children might actually need one day – braces to straighten their teeth, gymnastics lessons to help them become strong, and college savings to shelter them from the burden of student loans. We began looking in their shiny little eyes and seeing our own failures; or at least, seeing how we could only fail them in the future if we didn’t get our acts together.

In a short amount of time, we did a 180-degree turn: We paid off all of our debts, and started saving a bundle. But it wasn’t easy; in fact, it was extremely painful in a lot of ways since we had to break so many old and destructive habits.

We managed, but only after we faced some harsh realities. And in my opinion, these are the same realities any family in our former predicament needs to face if they want to truly get ahead financially. The story and details may be slightly different for everyone, but the main reasons middle-class families with otherwise ample means are still broke are almost always the same:

Reason #1: We couldn’t afford our lifestyle.

The biggest realization we had to make was that we couldn’t afford the lifestyle we were living. When you’re spending every dollar you earn and then some, that’s really the only way to describe it.

Cheap and easy credit can make you feel like you can afford anything, which is why so many of us lean on credit like a crutch. But when you take the credit cards away, you’re forced to confront what you can really afford. For us, that meant reducing our expenditures and lowering our lifestyle expectations quite a bit.

Reason #2: We were selfish.

Realizing that you’re selfish is probably the worst feeling in the world, but it might be what it takes to turn your situation around. When you’re financing splurges instead of saving money for the future and your family, you’re being selfish, whether you want to admit it or not.

Coming to grips with the fact that we were acting selfishly felt awful, but it made us snap into shape almost faster than anything else. Our children needed better role models. We couldn’t be those role models until we learned to put our family first, ahead of our impulsive desires.

Reason #3: We were wasteful.

Tracking your spending and learning to create a budget can be an extremely eye-opening experience. For us, it was even more, since it taught us how incredibly wasteful we were being.

When we first (finally) tracked our expenses, we discovered we were spending $1,000 or more on food every month. Worse, hundreds of those dollars were spent dining out – mostly just for convenience’s sake, and not necessarily the enjoyment of it.

Identifying how wasteful you’re being might make you want to puke, but the only way to cut out waste is to stare it in the face. And when you learn to waste less, it becomes that much easier to save.

Reason #4: We were doing everything backwards.

Here’s the biggest realization we made: By and large, we were managing our finances in the exact opposite way we should have been.

Instead of prioritizing debt repayment and savings, and then figuring out how much we could spend on our wants, we paid for everything we wanted first and then figured out how to take care of the rest (often, not very successfully).

This is the main reason most American families absolutely suck with money. Instead of putting our most important goals and priorities first, we put “wants” — like cable television, new cars, and beach vacations — above all else, and leave our retirement and savings accounts to make do with the scraps.

We convince ourselves that if we can come up with the money to cover something, we can afford it. Unfortunately, we prioritize creature comforts over savings, and we wind up paying for it in the worst ways.

Reason #5: We were blaming other people.

My husband and I spent many years wishing we could just get a better raise at work. If we could just earn more money, get a better benefits package, or score a better Christmas bonus, we could finally get ahead.

After a while though, we realized it didn’t matter how much money we made. If we couldn’t make progress with what we already earned, more money wouldn’t do us any good. Our list of wants kept growing along with our incomes anyway — a phenomenon known as lifestyle inflation — so what would an extra $5,000 a year do to make things better?

Obviously, nothing. If we wanted to change, we had to change from within. After all, no amount of money will help you save if you’re hell-bent on spending it all.

How to Turn it All Around

The biggest reason middle-class folks are in debt isn’t always because of any new laws imposed by the government, the growing costs of food or healthcare, or the crotchety old boss who won’t give them a raise. Sometimes it’s because they’re handling their finances backwards – spending on themselves first, and only then trying to save something every month.

To turn things around, you have to turn that approach upside-down. Instead of buying whatever you want, you have to figure out what you can really afford — after your bills have been paid and your savings have been socked away. Instead of saving last, you need to save first. 

The transition can be extremely painful, but nearly anything worth doing usually is. The average American family may be struggling, but that doesn’t mean that you have to. At the end of the day, what you spend matters as much – or even more – than what you earn.

And if you take a backwards approach to your finances – spending first then asking questions later – don’t be surprised when there’s nothing left.

What made you turn your finances around? Do you agree that most American families have it all backwards?

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Holly Johnson

Contributing Writer

Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.