In the event of a financial catastrophe such as a job loss, would you be able to cover your bills and expenses for three months? What about six months? If you answered "no" to either of these questions, you fall into the same category as around half of Americans. According to a Bankrate survey, 55% of women and 45% of men do not have at least three months' worth of emergency savings.
The official poverty rate in the U.S. is 15%. That's 46.5 million people earning less than $11,670 per year ($972.50 per month) for single-person households. Families of four in this category are earning $23,850 or less annually.
Although many of the lower-income earners are among those who have no emergency savings and are in essence broke, they are not the only ones. Most Americans -- 76%, in fact -- live paycheck to paycheck. This category includes those across many income levels, particularly middle-income earners. Why is this? Why is the average consumer who is earning a middle-class income broke? Here are five reasons why.
1. Employment and earnings
In all likelihood, you're earning less than the middle-class members of some of the previous generations. A family that earns a median household income of $51,017 today is a fairly accurate representation of a middle class household in the United States. In 1969, a middle-class household earned $54,817 in today's money. In 1979, that number went up to $54,993 in today's money. By 1999, middle-class households were earning $59,758 in today's dollars — more than $8,700 per year more than they are making today.
In addition to the middle class earning less than it did in the past, the recent economic downturn caused a spike in unemployment in 2009, where rates reached 10% in October and then remained at 9% or above for the next 23 months. When there are that many people unable to find a job who are actively looking, many of them end up obtaining low-paying positions for which they are overqualified.
While you're earning less, you're also paying more for the goods and services you purchase. A publication by Daily Finance compares prices between 1999 and 2009. A gallon of gas was $1.30 in 1999, and by 2009, that price went up to $2.56. Today, you pay an average price of $3.65 per gallon at the pump. For a McDonald's Big Mac, you'd shell out $2.50 in 1999 and today, you're looking at an average of around $4.60.
3. Lifestyle and overspending
Consumerism is such a strong ideology in today's society. One estimate indicates that 52% of Americans are spending more than they earn. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' consumer expenditure surveys reflects this sentiment. Annual expenditures exceed income across several locations, income levels, and demographics.
Each time the newest piece of technology hits the market, consumers rush out to purchase it. Wants have turned into perceived necessities, resulting in more spending and less savings.
4. Student loans
In addition to earning less and spending more, you may also begin your career in debt. Starting out behind, it may be difficult to get caught up while paying your loans on top of a home, vehicle, and all of your other expenses. Student loan debt in the U.S. adds up to a combined total of more than $1 trillion.
5. Credit and debt
Interest on revolving lines of credit may result in long-term high monthly payments. The result is you end up paying for a single credit card purchase or series of purchases for several years. As of late 2013, Creditcards.com reports the total revolving debt in the U.S. was around $860 billion, with the average cardholder owning 3.7 credit cards each.
So while you are earning less, spending more, and starting your adult life in debt, you are also borrowing additional funds at high interest rates just to get by – that is why you are broke.
Wall St. Cheat Sheet is a USA TODAY content partner offering financial news and commentary. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.