If you’ve enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle, it can be particularly shocking to discover that you’ve somehow slipped out of that comfortable position.

“Due to income inequality and stagnant wages, middle-class incomes are not necessarily purchasing what they once did for previous generations,” said Kevin Huffman, personal finance specialist and owner of Kriminil Trading.

“Costs for housing, health care and college have risen faster than middle-class wages,” he explained. “For many people, even those who do not identify their income that way, the struggle to maintain a level of consumption that they – or the people around them – would once have called ‘middle class’ is very real.”

According to Huffman, it is not only the socio-economic class that is changing, but also the definition of ‘middle class’.

As Huffman noted, “What was seen as a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle three decades ago may no longer be seen as such in today’s economic climate. The blurred boundary between the middle and bottom of the socio-economic scale could further contribute to the feeling of not being a ‘middle class person’.”

Below, experts offer some reasons why you no longer feel middle class.

Rising costs of living

“One of the main reasons why many people who are technically middle class still feel like they are not is the rising cost of living,” says Dennis Shirshikov, financial expert and head of growth at GoSummer.

As he explained, spending on housing, health care, education and child care have all increased significantly faster than wages in many areas.

“For example,” Shirshikov continued, “the average home price in the US has skyrocketed over the past decade, making homeownership a distant dream for many middle-class families.”

Despite earning a decent salary, many people find that a large portion of their income is eaten up by these essential expenses, leaving little room for savings or discretionary spending.

Melanie Musson, a financial expert at Clearsurance, agreed.

She added: “Although the parameters for the middle class are set based on a national average, where you live can make a significant difference in how you feel. If you live in an area where the cost of living is high, your national average middle-class income will not be enough to live like the average person in your neighborhood.”

Musson argued that another reason the middle class struggles to feel like they are still middle class is that they expect big costs and have no idea how they will pay for them.

“For example, they may know they need a new roof or a new car, but their budget can’t absorb another payment,” she explained.

“The middle class has spent so much more on groceries and utilities in recent years that they no longer have wiggle room in their budgets to feel like they’re stable. Instead, these rising costs, without the associated rising revenues, have put a lot of pressure on it.”

Stagnant wage growth

Shirshikov believes that stagnant wage growth is another critical factor contributing to this sentiment. He said: “In recent decades, wage growth for middle income earners has not kept pace with inflation and productivity gains.”

According to him, this has meant that the real purchasing power of wages has fallen, even as nominal incomes rise.

“This disconnect means that middle-class earners often struggle to maintain the same standard of living as their parents or grandparents,” he added.

High debt levels

“High debt, especially student loans and credit card debt, also plays an important role,” Shirshikov continued. “Many middle-class people have significant debt burdens, which eat into their monthly income and limit their financial flexibility.”

Huffman agreed, noting that student loan debt, car payments and mortgages in particular undermine disposable income so much that middle-class families are often forced to be what economists describe as “housing rich and cash poor.”

“Outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. has reached nearly $1.7 trillion, and current college graduates are only beginning to feel the consumption and macroeconomic impact of this massive debt burden,” he explained. “Young working professionals feel squeezed, and discretionary spending decisions are limited.”

Social comparison and lifestyle inflation

Shirshikov also warned that social comparison and lifestyle inflation can further exacerbate these feelings.

He said: “With the spread of social media, people are constantly exposed to the lifestyles of others, which often leads to unrealistic comparisons and pressure to keep up.”

Middle-class individuals may feel inadequate when they perceive that their peers are living more luxurious lives, even though these impressions are based on selective representations.

Shirshikov continued, saying: “Additionally, as people’s incomes rise, there is often a corresponding increase in their spending habits – known as lifestyle inflation.”

Rather than feeling more financially secure with higher incomes, Shirshikov explained how middle-class people often spend more to maintain a certain image or lifestyle, which can lead to financial strain.

Huffman agreed with Shirshikov, noting that social comparison plays a crucial factor when people feel less financially secure.

“Following friends on social media and feeling pressure to keep up appearances can trigger jealousy and promote spending,” Huffman explains.

“Photos on Instagram of lives seemingly lived perfectly can cause excessive spending and financial pressure to buy things that are not necessary, even for people who feel positively about it in terms of economic class.”

Economic uncertainty

Predictably, times of economic uncertainty are also contributing to the middle class feeling more cash-strapped than ever before.

“The volatile labor market, fear of automation and economic recessions create an underlying sense of uncertainty,” Shirshikov explains. “Even those with stable jobs and decent incomes may feel that their financial situation is precarious.”

According to him, this fear of possible future financial instability can prevent individuals from feeling safe and truly middle class. That said, experts recommend taking a proactive approach when it comes to one’s financial future.

“Remember that financial security is about more than just income,” Huffman said. A healthy financial foundation is about living within your means while saving for your future goals.

Huffman concluded: “… strategic saving and smart investing is the way to build a secure future for people at all income levels.”

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