Monday, April 20, 2009

Is $250,000 A Year Really "Wealthy?"

President Obama keeps saying he plans to pay for much of his new spending with taxes on the wealthy, but what should be considered "wealthy?" According to Obama's campaign speeches "wealthy" means families earning more than $250,000 a year, but $250,000 isn't worth as much in New York City as it is in Des Moines, Iowa. Many of these families are challenging Obama's assessment of what should be considered "wealthy," saying how they make more than that but are struggling to get by. Tim Iacono doesn't offer these families much sympathy, but looks closer at the situation in his blog post below.

There have been more than a few comments left here by readers over the years about families with big salaries and/or bonuses carping about how tough it is to get by on just a couple hundred thousand dollars a year in income.

Always of modest means, never having had to foot the bill for little ones around the house, and having avoided living and working in the Bay Area, my view of things is probably a bit slanted in the other direction but, to me, a quarter million dollars a year looks to be a huge opportunity to sock money away for retirement.

Via the Wall Street Journal comes this tale of the difficulty some have in making ends meet.

Ellen Parnell and her husband, Donald Parnell Jr., seem like the kind of well-off couple President Barack Obama has in mind when he suggests raising taxes on families earning more than $250,000 a year. A surgeon at Fort Sanders Sevier Medical Center in Sevierville, Tenn., he drives an Infiniti. They vacation at a beach resort every year.

Yet, right now he is working seven days a week. The car is more than a decade old, the vacation home in Sandestin, Fla., comes at a moderate weekly rate because members of Ms. Parnell's extended family own it. Her family of five would like more room than they have in their 2,500-square-foot home, yet they can't afford anything larger. The downturn has them skittish about paying for renovations.
While not familiar with the local real estate market at all, clearly, you can get a lot of house for not too much money in Sevierville.

The story continues:
"I'm not complaining, but the reality is Obama may call me wealthy, but I thought we were just good old middle class," says Ms. Parnell. "Our needs are being met, but we don't have a load of cash to cover wants."
Wealth and comfort "depends on where you're coming from," said Lois Avitt, a sociologist and founding director of the Institute for Socio-Financial Studies in Charlottesville, Va. To a family earning $50,000, $250,000 is well off, but for the family earning $250,000, rising college and medical costs and dropping home values make the perception debatable.

The reasons for the insecurity are that net worth is declining at the same time that expenses like education and health care, two of the biggest concerns cited by members of that income group, are going up faster than wages and income, says Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. "Those are the biggies. They are huge parts of the set of middle-class aspirations, and the prices of those have increased way faster than income." The bursting of the housing bubble makes that more stark.
San Jose, Calif., Mayor Chuck Reed calls a family living in Silicon Valley earning $250,000 "upper working class." That is about what two engineers working at a technology firm can expect to make, but "a family earning $250,000 a year can't buy a home in Silicon Valley," he said.

James Duran owns a human-resources company in Silicon Valley and is president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in California. He supported Mr. Obama, but is worried about the tax proposals. He has laid off some employees in recent months and has been wondering how he can fund an extension of those workers' health-care benefits.

Mr. Duran said he and his wife earn about $400,000 annually, but "I'm barely getting by." They have high property and state taxes, as well as college tuition and savings to cover. "I'm an Obama man, but this side of him is a difficult pill for me," he said.
For the Parnells, their perception of themselves is based on the math. The value of their house is down $60,000. Ms. Parnell says the couple's gross income last year was about $260,000. Taxes, premiums for medical care and deductions for Social Security and their 401(k) contributions cut the gross to about $12,000 per month. The family tithes $1,300 a month at their church. Their mortgage, second mortgage and payment on land they bought is nearly $4,000 a month. Other expenses, including their family car payment, insurance and college funds, as well as basics like food, utilities and donations to charities, leave them with about $1,200 left over each month.

"I'm not after sympathy. We are blessed. What I want is a reality check on what rich means," Ms. Parnell says. "I can pay my mortgage and I can buy some clothes. I'm not going without, but I'm not living a life of luxury."
The Parnells should probably take a basic personal finance class or two and many of their problems might quickly be solved - that $4,000 a month in mortgage payments for a house that's too small, and some other property, should have set off alarm bells long ago.

Also, that top line of $260K that erodes to $144K after 401k contributions, medical care premiums, and taxes sounds a bit excessive - you can quickly get to about $40K for the first two items leaving their tax hit at $75K.

Does that sound right?

It's a good thing Ms. Parnell is not asking for sympathy because she's not likely to get any.

This post can also be viewed on

No comments: