$250,000 Isn’t Rich? Riiiiight!

Without money
Image by Toban Black via Flickr

Here’s a recent blog post that makes me want to throw a chair:

But for all the moral outrage one can level at a person bitching about making “only” $250K, know that $250K per annum is much closer to the minimum starting point you need to bank in order to have a shot at “making it” in the expensive cities of America. Living the dream requires a whole hell of a lot more…. if you are earning $50,000 a year, the prospect of earning $250,000 a year probably seems like a panacea. Think about it: you’d be earning five times as much! I’ve yet to meet the person who wouldn’t love to quintuple his or her salary. From the perspective of a person making $50,000 a year or less (the subset could also be called “most Americans”), the person or family making $250,000 a year is rich.

Except he’s not…

In fact, most people who make $250K aren’t even sitting there thinking: “Ooh, if I bust my ass and play my cards right, being ‘rich’ is just around the corner for me and my family.” If, God forbid, $250K also represents all you have, being truly rich is probably not even an option for you. You can’t “invest” in anything with the piddling savings you’ve stowed away. You can’t “buy” anything, other then maybe a family home and a some consumer assets that will start to depreciate the minute you breathe on them…

No, if you are making $250K a year, what gets you out of bed every morning isn’t even the desire to become rich. Instead, you’re motivated by the white-knuckle fear that something will go wrong and you’ll be cast back down with the sodomites who struggle valiantly to eke out an existence on $50K or less. You are certainly not rich, but you are terrified of becoming poor.

This is why living in New York City, and its self-regarding suburbs, makes for such delicious comedy. On a combined income of $250,000, it’s true — that a $5 million home is out of reach.

Boo hoo.

There is nothing more terrifying to the better-off, (as the writer, a Harvard-educated attorney at least admits), than the notion you might slide back down that greasy pole.

Then what? A cardboard box under a bridge?

Our household income, with no kids, is less than half this amount. That’s still a fortune to many people in this country.

In downstate New York, sadly, it’s a bit of a joke. Crossing any bridge costs $3 to $9 in tolls, one-way. Two hours’ parking in a Manhattan garage can easily run $20-40. My sweetie takes a commuter train to work — at an annual cost of almost $3,000, none of it tax-deductible. The maintenance on our one-bedroom suburban apartment is now almost $900 a month, with three increases in the past three years. No choice in the matter; if we don’t like it, sell and move!

We own one vehicle, paid off, nine years old. My income is less than half what I made in my last staff job. Good thing I didn’t buy a bigger home or take out huge loans…

The problem of talking about money is that it’s rarely just about money. It’s really about entitlement. It’s about Who You Think You Are. The gut-grinding knowledge that all that Ivy League striving may leave you owning only one home (not the two or three or four owned by the people you attended school with and, for many of the strivers I know, spend their entire lives comparing themselves with.)

Keeping up with the Jones — certainly when, as one attorney I know is doing, schooling four children privately ($100,000 a year in tuition alone) — can kill you.

I wake up daily deeply grateful for: safe, clean housing, healthy food, caring neighbors, my health, a functioning, insured vehicle, health insurance, some savings. It’s a lot.

It’s enough.

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Taxes, More Taxes and Even More Taxes — Are You Angry, Too?

Paper money, extreme macro
Image by kevindooley via Flickr

I recently got some official mail from New York State, demanding I fill out the paperwork for a new commuter tax. Time for another tax!

Excuse me?

I commute, as one of the nation’s self-employed — now about one-third of American workers — from my bedroom to my living room desk. It takes about 15 seconds, tops. I will be heading into Manhattan, 25 miles south of me, visible from my street, Monday to interview someone for my book, because face to face interviews are always the best.

I do not commute into the city, but go in about once a week for business or pleasure or both. I should be taxed for this?

Why do I need to pay another (*^%#@!! tax?

I get why people are furious, and why a man torched his house and flew his plane into an IRS building in Austin. His actions were insane, but his rage was not. His sense of impotence is deeply and widely felt.

There are six people lined up for any job open right now. Thousands of Americans are losing their homes to foreclosure, living in their vehicles, terrified of the next hammer blow of an economy — and a government — rewarding Wall Street with billions while the rest of us stand there feeling like morons for doing the right thing, paying our taxes over and over and over to governments that give us very little back. Two wars. Bank bailouts. Job creation that doesn’t touch us or anyone, anywhere, we know.

When you work for yourself, paying taxes feels deeply, viscerally personal. That money doesn’t neatly and invisibly evaporate from your paychecks, with maybe a fat refund awaiting you. As if!

We’re expected to pay our taxes quarterly, in anticipation of the rest of the year’s income — as if we know, in this recession, what that will be — in docile agreement. We get zero help when our clients disappear, (I lost one third of my income last year when The New York Times shut down a regional section I wrote for every month), when banks refuse to extend us credit to run the businesses we have spent years building, when credit card companies game the system by jacking up their rates before new laws restrict them from further rapacity.

I know I am not alone right now in this crap economy, scrapping harder than ever for my income, in feeling like a punch-drunk fighter on the ropes, looking through puffy, bloodied eyes for my cut-man. In vain.

I interviewed a 44-year-old local businessman yesterday who runs a store his great-great grandfather founded in 1904. “I’ve never ever ever seen it this bad,” he said. He is surviving, and gracious about it. But, increasingly, I bet others will not be.

The self-employed also pay 15% for the pleasure of not having a boss, or insured earnings (no unemployment checks for us — no matter how badly the economy tanks) or benefits, no paid sick days or holidays or vacations. That’s our money going into FICA, paying full freight for our Social Security.

Every time I write a check to the Federal Treasury, I want to enclose a note: Don’t waste it! Stop two absurd wars! Pass a health care bill!

I grew up in Canada, where taxes are high but the finest and most competitive college in the nation, my alma mater the University of Toronto, charges about $5,000 a year tuition right now. No, that is not missing a zero. Where every single resident of ever single province has access to excellent, free health care, cradle to grave.

Canadians are taxed up the wazoo, even paying tax on stamps. But you see, every single day, where that money goes and its benefits.

I understand the fury and the frustration. I feel it. Millions of us do.