An Interactive Definition Of Upper, Middle, and Lower Class

While doing a little weekend reading I ran across an interesting, interactive post from The New York Times.  The tool uses four “components of class” including occupation, education, income, and wealth.  Apparently, your classification in each of the four categories will determine your overall class (bottom fifth, lower middle, middle, upper middle, or top fifth).  The definitions provided for each class seem to be relatively in line with what one would expect, but in this economy things seem to be “ebbing and flowing” day to day.  I would expect someone who earns $60,000 a year in a stable career feels more secure than someone who earns $100,000 in a volatile one, so income may be more heavily weighted than it ought to be.


My work is far from prestigious, but is also a step up from some of the jobs I’ve held over the years (being on the business end of a walk-behind Ditch Witch laying sprinkler pipe during a Georgia summer was some of the toughest work I’ve ever done).  My current job would be best described in the “Computer and Information Systems” area, barely landing us in the upper middle class category.


Though it took a number of years, three schools and the accumulation of some debt, I did finally return to school and complete my bachelor’s degree.  This accomplishment landed me in the top fifth category, but I wonder if a basic bachelor’s degree will one day soon be the equivalent of a high school diploma with the push for more government subsidized post-secondary education.  That’s for another post.


The combination of my full time job’s income, and my work here at Frugal Dad (and other freelance gigs), lands me in the top fifth class.  This is a good lesson. I should be living the high life, or at least a taller life, but thanks to debt we are living on far less than we earn.  The gazelle intensity is worth the sacrifice though as we are hammering down those debt balances.


By far the most disappointing results of the group. Between our remaining school debt, and the fact that my retirement accounts have been obliterated in the last year, this drove our net worth into the lower middle class territory.  I am not overly despondent about it, but it is a great reminder that I have work to do.

Lessons Learned

My wife and I “treaded water,” financially, for most of our 20’s.  Well, that’s not entirely true because we did accumulate some debt. We got married young, decided to have kids young, and decided she would stay home with the kids rather than pursue a career. It was a personal decision that worked best for our little family, but it was one that did not come without sacrifices.

Until I finished my degree, and broadened my experience in my current career field, my earnings were in the lower middle class income range. We survived, but had little disposable income to save and invest.  In our late twenties things finally began to look up as my income increased, and we began to adopt a more frugal lifestyle.

Now that we are in our thirties we have some ground to make up on those who saved more diligently in their twenties. It’s a bitter pill, but one I wouldn’t trade for my beautiful children and the life we are blessed with now.  However, our primary mission is to make up lost ground on our retirement savings, clear the rest of our debt, and sock something away for our kids’ college education.  Easier said than done.

Which class do you belong, according to the survey/tool? Do you agree?


  1. My chosen career puts me in middle class, my 2 years of college (I’m going back this fall) puts me in upper middle class, my income puts me way, way down at the bottom 5th (less than 10k last year, not looking any better so far this year), and my wealth puts me in lower middle (I own my home, so that’s considered a wealth asset, though I could never actually sell it, considering the area that it’s in…) So according to that interactive chart, I’m somewhere in lower middle to middle class for an average.

  2. I certainly agree with DDFD. According to the poll we are considered upper middle. I find that hard to believe. I don’t feel upper middle. I have a hard time dealing with net worth… It doesn’t help me today that my house is worth a certain amount. I’m not selling it. It really doesn’t matter today what is in the retirement accounts. I’m not retiring today. Maybe I won’t even live to retirement age. I believe I will feel like my “class” fits when the debts are gone, especially mortgage debt.

    The poll showed how other countries move ahead faster through the generations. It also asked about estate taxes. I don’t think anyone’s estate ought to be taxed. I would “feel” better about the net worth if I knew for certain I building wealth for the future generations of our family. I want my life to bless my grandchildren and their children. I also belive one reason there isn’t as much mobility in this country is because of divorce.

  3. With all due love and respect, I don’t care what”class” the NY Times puts me in.

    It’s interesting to note which class we are in on one hand, yet it could be harmful to focus on. (I know you aren’t focusing on it of course…)

    I see the problem even thinking about it is that it puts (at least me) in a competitive state. “He’s upper upper middle and I’m only middle class” or whatever.

    Other than letting us see how we fare against others, what’s the use of it? And if we spend any energy comparing ourselves to others, it’s gong to be a losing game.


  4. @Neal: I actually agree with you, and was hoping readers would sort of come to that conclusion without me going into a rant (you probably saw rant warning signs throughout!). Thanks for doing some of it for me.

    After looking at the tool more I really think its design is to support a theory that mobility up and down is somewhat out of our hands. Which is to say we don’t control at least some of our own destiny. I don’t subscribe to that line of thinking.

    Sure, we can all be dealt bad luck, but the fact we are free to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and become a success in spite of our circumstances is what makes us great.

  5. I haven’t looked at the article yet, but I will just out of curiousity.

    However, my family is well-clothed, well-fed and well-sheltered so I think we are well-classed.

  6. FD,

    Well said. I never thought about this concept of “class fate” but it makes sense.

    As we focus on putting on label on ourselves, we kind of reinforce it….don’t we?

    I imagine the the aristocracy of old are the people who invented these concepts to keep themselves above us all…

  7. I found the graph interesting – mostly in that I am all over the board 🙂 What they failed to take into account is the cost of living in the area a person lives in. Meaning, it doesn’t take much here, so I do fine.

    What amazed me is that while my job and education put me in upper middle, my income (by my choice I earn very little) puts me in lower middle. And then – it amazed me that ANYONE WITH OVER $100,000 in Net worth is in the TOP FIFTH!!!??? Doesn’t take much these days to be in the top 5th then! So guess it doesn’t matter that my income is in the lower bracket as long as my net worth is in the Top Fifth…. I have always felt that net worth was a better indicator than income. Of course, I feel that way due to my frugal nature 🙂

    Seems like there are too many factors that are not taken into account – and it doesn’t really matter to me anyway what others think 🙂 It was interesting and thought provoking to look at tho – thanks for the link!

  8. I was always under the impression that class had more to do with manners and decisions than wealth. According to my grandmother, class was about how people treated one another. Different classes have different standards and traditions.

    For example, in some classes it’s acceptable for people to shout at each other or to use certain kinds of unprintable language. In others, it’s not that shouting or bad language doesn’t exist, but it’s the exception to the rule and if it happens, something bad is going on. Also, given an unlimited supply of money, people from different classes make different choices about what to wear, how to decorate the home, whether they will work, etc.

    Simply making a person wealthy (or taking all his or hear wealth away) does not give the person courtesy or consideration if they lack it. Nor will it take away the ingrained habits of a lifetime.

  9. I concur with Neal and Squeaky. I did see where the chart would put us and it was all over the board. I think it does speak volumes that it puts our income as upper middle class yet we barely make our bills and get food on the table (and I cook our meals 99% of the time). Our rent is extravagent but our house is far from it (2br,2ba) and our soso health insurance just increased by $130/month bringing it to almost $850/mo! I don’t feel anywhere close to “upper middle”. I’m currently job hunting (interview tomorrow!) not because I want to, but because I have to. I would much rather stay at home with the kids (3, 5, and 7).

    It is also irksome to me that the NY Times would even try and parse us out into classes rather than trying to bring people together. They obviously haven’t taken home the lesson of increased popularity in Twitter and other social media. People want to be brought together as a community, not divided up into classes.

  10. Nice post… Education degree is not an indicator of class in India as there are hundreds and thousands of graduates and post graduates who are either unemployed or underemployed.. here money is the real indicator… Debt though is not such a great problem with most of the people..interesting to know how things differ..


    Upper Middle Class = Graduate degree
    Middle Class = Bachelors Degree
    Lower Middle Class = Anything less than Bachelors


    Upper Middle Class = $65,000 and above
    Middle Class = $35,000 – $64,0000
    Lower Middle Class = Below $35,000


    Upper Middle Class = $85,000 and above
    Middle Class = $45,000 – $84,0000
    Lower Middle Class = Below $45,0000

    Everyone wants to think they are upper middle class, but unless you fall under these criteria, you’re not yet there.

  12. The NY times article is outdated, it’s 14 years old. The salaries need to be adjusted for inflation.

  13. Can’t see where the education has much to do with it… here in rural areas many many people have no college, some didn’t even finish high school, yet are the richest people in the county. (Way above the upper middle class levels_

    Still say income should not be the deciding factor, but net worth should! What good is a big income with a negative net worth? These charts don’t take into effect debt load and no debt 🙂

  14. I think there is some truth to what marci is stating.

    Ultimately, true material wealth is measured by the assets that you hold.

    Many in the middle class attempt to live like upper-middle, and those in the upper-middle attempt to live like the upper class, resulting in unsustainable debt so the result is, they are actualy quite poor. Too many are simply living beyond their means.

  15. Lastly, the difference between the upper-middle class and the true upper class is that the true upper class own significant amount of assets that generate a high income for them, whereas the upper-middle must rely on their job salaries.