Barely Getting By on a 6-Figure Income?

By Brian Summerfield, Online Editor, REALTOR® Magazine

A new survey conducted by WSL/Strategic Retail shows families in many parts of the country can’t even live comfortably on a six-figure household income. Additionally, more than half of respondents say they’re struggling just to meet their basic needs.

The study asked participants to put themselves in one of four categories:

▪ I can’t even afford the basics.

▪ I can barely afford the basics and nothing else.

▪ I can afford the basics plus some extras.

▪ I can afford the basics and the extras, and I’m able to save, too.

Nearly a third of American households earning between $100,000-150,000 report that they can only afford the basics; $150,000 seems to be a threshold of sorts, as 88 percent of households earning this amount say they can buy the basics and extras, then save money. But that’s also a great deal of money — about three times the median income in the United States — and fewer than 10 percent of all households earn that much.

Additionally, about a quarter of respondents between 18 and 34 years old say they can’t even afford the essentials. (The disproportionately high number of unemployed young people has a lot to do with this.) Also in that category are 17 percent of people in the 35-54 age group.

The survey, which focused on retail, did not ask any questions about housing as far as I know. Presumably, that could be considered to be one of the “basics.” But the fact that so many people aren’t able to save — indeed, can barely make ends meet — obviously has major implications for real estate.

What do you think of these findings? What does this mean for your business?

Brian Summerfield

Brian Summerfield is Manager of Business Development and Outreach for NAR Commercial and Global Services. He can be reached at

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  1. It sure seems like people should be able to live pretty well making a 6 figure income. I know I can!

  2. I think that this may be a slight exaggeration. Did they consider factors like how much these people shop every month, or how many cars they own that they are still paying for, or how high their monthly bills are every month? If people would choose to live beyond their means, they can easily “make ends meet” on a six-figure salary.

  3. Sarah

    I’m not sure if I’m more bothered by what’s said here, or what isn’t. There are very few places in the world where someone making over $100K could qualify as “barely getting by.” I think it’s telling that it’s self-reported, and that “the basics” are not defined. Does that mean the real basics of food, safe shelter, and essential utilities? Or is it more like cable TV, new clothes monthly, and a $500/month car payment on top of high rent/mortgage payments?

  4. My observation as a marketing researcher and life-long student of human behavior is that people who know how to live below their means – no matter how rich or poor – are inherently happier people and definitely have happier kids.

  5. Edit of my earlier post: I meant to say “If people would choose to live WITHIN their means…”

    Sorry about that! Still annoyed with this issue, though. Really? Barely making ends meet with a 6-figure salary?

  6. Lis Cohen

    I agree with this article. My husband and I have one child, no credit card debt, one student loan $550 mo, car payments of $550, $1,200 mortgage, utilities, gas, childcare $ 800 mo, diapers and formula, and we eat out only once a week. You can survive on much less if you have no student loans and no children. For a family of three with normal debt we are barely making ends meet. If I was single with a six digit income and lived like most single people do with student loans and a car payment there would not be much left over. Is a single person going to sit around when they have no children at home?

  7. Frank

    Cariola I’m sorry you are annoyed but let’s look at the numbers. Please show me where I am over spending. I am a Realtor.
    $100,000.00 income
    $27,000.00 Federal taxes
    $6,000.00 NJ State taxes
    $33,000.00 House payments. (1/3 gross income.All mortgage agents say that’s the safe number I should use.
    $10,000.00 ( 10% That’s what the church say I should give)
    $10,000.00 (10% Save for retirement)
    $10,000.00 (10% Invest in my business or I will not have any busines.
    $11,800.00 Health care
    Total $107,800.00
    That’s $7,800.00 over budget. I have yet to:
    1, Pay for a cell phone.
    2, Turned on a light or TV in my house.
    3, Eaten a sandwich.
    4, No car payment.
    5, Bought cloths
    6, Saved for my 1 Childs education
    7, Put gas in my car.
    8, Payed car insurance
    9, No vacation
    10, Paid a co-pay on the health insurance.
    11, Taken my wife out to dinner once a month.
    12, Many other things I am leaving out
    $100K is nothing!

  8. Amanda D

    We are all realtors here. Is anyone considering the cost of housing? How about running your own business and paying employees and vendors? This is the fundamental issue in the taxation question of should people who make this kind of income pay more taxes? Are they “rich”? I will tell you NO. These people are struggling in this economy just like everyone else.

  9. D. Neal Parker

    It is all relative in the grand theme of life. A dollar does not stretch as far as it used to years ago. I have children, bills, overhead expenses that continue to increase along with the price of gas. Seemingly, with no end in sight. Am I rich, by no means! I too like everyone else is struggling trying to keep a roof over my family’s head.

  10. Barry

    To FRANK: My suggestions reference your line items relating to your spending.
    • With a $100K income paying $27K federal income taxes doesn’t compute. You have legitimate business deductions which I can only guess to be $30K or so. That would make your IRS contribution closer to $17.5K.
    • $2750/monthly home payments? Get a lesser expensive home. Surely you should be able to cut that payment by at least 1/3.
    • $10K to the church? Are you kidding me? You’re lining someone’s pocket big time! Dump the church! This isn’t Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker’s church, is it?
    • $10K for retirement – cut this in half (see below).
    • $10K for business – seems excessive but perhaps not. You might take a microscope to this however.
    • $11,800 health care again seems excessive – use your microscope to see if you can reduce this.

    I’m not going to do the math on the above, but assuming my figures above are somewhat realistic – well, you’ll have lots more discretionary $$$ for your items #1-12 PLUS add to your retirement account. Try it!

  11. Brad

    My wife and i make a combined $140,000 a year, sadly this is nothing. Take out 30% in state and federal taxes and $6000 a year for property tax. Since we make so much money we have to pay full tuition for our children, no government grants or scholarships like the “poor” people have. No food stamps or free lunches, we buy the generic brands while the people with food stamps get name brand. We pay thousands and thousands of dollars a year for healthcare, all so the lady with no job and 8 kids with 8 different fathers can go to the hospital for free. My wife has been rear ended 3 times in the last 2 years (non her fault), we had to pay $500 deductible on 2 of those accidents since they were uninsured, did you know 1 in 7 drivers are uninsured?!?! Oh dont forget the mortgage, student loans, car payments (honda civic and a chevy cruze…sorry i like to brag), home repairs, and having to loan money to our financially inept relatives every few months.

    At the end of the month if we have any month left over we go out to eat at Applebees and rent a redbox movie, were such wild spenders i know!

  12. It is both true that if you lived like a pauper on six figures you could not only thrive but get ahead… and that if you have a six figure income you really still probably have more legitimate expenditures than you can afford…

    I’m jockeying multiple clients right now to bring in 6.4 figures so we’re FINALLY putting away some savings… but MAN, I can tell you that it has been disheartening trying to have a decent now AND some kind of future. The big “problem” is that I have a wife who is an indulgent mother. She’s a great mom, and whereas I would not spend the gas to take my 6th son to school every day, and pick him up, when he could take the bus, she knows that it is IMPORTANT to him and thus her that he have this extra TLC. The poorer can’t afford this luxury. Technically speaking, neither can I, but we have it as a priority ABOVE our savings. Shame, I guess, on us.

    These are the kinds of choices that the urbane, non-rich, have to deal with.