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But even having made those choices, which involved revolving credit, for the better part of my life I was not drowning in debt maybe treading in it … okay, barely treading. In retrospect, of course, my problem was simple: too little income, too many expenses. Credit enabled me to forestall this problem for a time—and also to make it progressively worse—but the root of the problem was deeper.

Few of us do. I went to college; got a graduate degree; taught for a while; got a book contract; moved to a small, inexpensive, rent-controlled apartment in Little Italy to write; got married; and bumped along until I landed a job on television those of you with elephant memories may remember that for three years, I was one of the replacements for Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on the PBS movie-review show Sneak Previews. My wife continued to work, and we managed to scrape by, though child care and then private schools crimped our finances. I never wanted to keep up with the Joneses. All right, I wanted them to be winners.

In our case—and I have a feeling in the case of just about every American—there were unforeseen circumstances. The housing market in New York soured, and I eventually sold the apartment for a steep loss, because I had no choice. I suppose I could have slashed the price sooner to bring in more would-be buyers—in retrospect, that would have been the wisest choice—but I wanted to cover what I owed the bank. Or at least I felt better thinking it was true.

I still had my books, but they took longer to write than I had calculated, and cutting corners to turn them out faster, I knew, would be cutting off my career. I tell the M. In any case, with my antediluvian masculine pride at stake, I told her that I could provide for us without her help—another instance of hiding my financial impotence, even from my wife.

I kept the books; I kept her in the dark. And then, on top of it all, came the biggest shock, though one not unanticipated: college. Because I made too much money for the girls to get more than meager scholarships, but too little money to afford to pay for their educations in full, and because—another choice—we believed they had earned the right to attend good universities, universities of their choice, we found ourselves in a financial vortex.

I am not saying that universities are extortionists, but … universities are extortionists. There was worse to come. Because I lived largely off the advances my publisher paid me when I commenced research on a book, the bulk of my earnings were lumped into a single year, even though the advance had to be amortized to last the years it would take to write the book. That meant I was hit by a huge tax bill that first year that I could not pay in full without cannibalizing what I needed to finish the book. When I began writing a biography of Walt Disney, as my two daughters headed toward college, I decided to pay whatever portion of my taxes I could, then pay the remainder, albeit with penalties added, when the book was published and I received my final payment.

The problem is that the penalty meter keeps running, which means that the arrears continue to grow, which means that I continue to have to pay them—I cannot, as it happens, pay them in full. I suppose that was a choice, too: pay my taxes in full, or hold back enough to write the book and pay my mortgage and buy groceries. I did the latter. Perhaps none of this would have happened if my income had steadily grown the way incomes used to grow in America. There was a good year here or there—another television job, a new book contract, that movie sale.

But mostly my wages remained steady, which meant that, when adjusted for inflation, their buying power dipped. For magazine pieces, I was making exactly what I had made 20 years earlier. Real hourly wages—that is, wage rates adjusted for inflation—peaked in ; since then, the average hourly wage has essentially been flat.

On Journalism, Middle America, and the Stories We Choose to Tell -

These figures do not include the value of benefits, which has increased. Though household incomes rose dramatically from to for the top quintile, and more dramatically still for the top 5 percent, incomes in the bottom three quintiles rose much more gradually: only That is over a period of 47 years! But even that minor growth is somewhat misleading. The peak years for income in the bottom three quintiles were and ; incomes have declined overall since then—down 6. The erosion of wages is something over which none of us has any control. The only thing one can do is work more hours to try to compensate.

I long since made that adjustment. I work seven days a week, from morning to night. There is no other way. Commerce Department defined that class less by its position on the economic scale than by its aspirations: homeownership, a car for each adult, health security, a college education for each child, retirement security, and a family vacation each year.

By that standard, my wife and I do not live anywhere near a middle-class life, even though I earn what would generally be considered a middle-class income or better. Median family income in was roughly half that. In my house, we have learned to live a no-frills existence. We halved our mortgage payments through a loan-modification program. We drive a Toyota Avalon with , miles that I got from my father when he died. We have no credit cards, only a debit card.

We eat out maybe once every two or three months. Though I was a film critic for many years, I seldom go to the movies now. We shop sales.

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We forgo house and car repairs until they are absolutely necessary. We count pennies.

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I am responsible for my quagmire—no one else. Basically, I screwed up, royally.

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I lived beyond my means, primarily because my means kept dwindling. And let me be clear that I am not crying over my plight. I have it a lot better than many, probably most, Americans—which is my point. Maybe we all screwed up. Maybe we all lived more grandly than we should have. But I doubt that brushstroke should be applied so broadly.

On Journalism, Middle America, and the Stories We Choose to Tell

Many middle-class wage earners are victims of the economy, and, perhaps, of that great, glowing, irresistible American promise that has been drummed into our heads since birth: Just work hard and you can have it all. If there is any good news, it is that even as wages have stagnated, a lot of things, especially durable goods like TVs and computers, have been getting steadily cheaper. So, by and large, has clothing though prices have risen modestly in recent years.

Housing costs, as measured by the price per square foot of a median-priced and median-sized home, have been stable, even accounting for huge variations from one real-estate market to another. But some things, like health care and higher education, cost more—a lot more. And, of course, these are hardly trivial items. Life happens, and it happens to cost a lot—sometimes more than we can pay.

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Yet even that is not the whole story. Life happens, yes, but shit happens, too—those unexpected expenses that are an unavoidable feature of life. The fact is that emergencies always arise; they are an intrinsic part of our existence. Financial advisers suggest that we save at least 10 to 15 percent of our income for retirement and against such eventualities. And those are only the small things. More than half struggled to make ends meet after their most expensive economic emergency.