In the past three decades, the richest people in America have been getting even richer, and economist Dr. Robert Frank says the middle class is feeling the effects of this trend. Dr. Frank talks with Jean about his new book, Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class, and gives advice for middle-class families struggling to make ends meet.
Dr. Frank says the middle class has not necessarily been losing ground as far as income is concerned, but they are falling behind relative to those at the very top of society. He says the very rich are now building bigger and better houses and spending more money than ever before, and that equals harmful consequences for the middle class. "The problem to the family in the middle is that to meet their basic goals they have to spend much more than they used to have to spend," he says.
While some may be trying to keep up with the Joneses, Dr. Frank says most middle class folks are barely fulfilling their basic needs. "Just trying to meet your mortgage payments on your house in a decent school district—that is what is keeping the middle class struggling to keep up with their bills," he says.
Struggling financially can impact your health and happiness, but Dr. Frank says there are a few things that those stuck in the middle can do to live within their means:
Buy health insurance. If your employer doesn't offer health insurance and you can't afford a good policy, Dr. Frank says you should purchase an inexpensive plan with a high deductible around $10,000. "What won't happen to you if you have a policy like that is you won't go bankrupt," he says. "If you have a medical catastrophe it will cost you $10,000, and you can pay that off."
Don't spend beyond your means. "Cut up all the credit cards, don't charge anything at all [and] get a debit card," Dr. Frank says. "If you can't afford to pay for it [in cash], you can't afford it."
Invest in your company's 401(k) plan. "Unless [companies] make participation in the plan a default position, most people don't join the plan, and that is just throwing cash down the drain," he says. If you invest just enough to get in on your company's contribution match program, your retirement fund will grow and help your financial future greatly, Dr. Frank says.