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The Call-In: What $100,000 A Year Can And Can't Buy


Time now for the Call-In. This week we asked you for your stories about living on a hundred-thousand dollars a year.



KRIS WATERIS: Hi, my name is Kris Wateris (ph).

JOAN OWENS: This is Joan Owens (ph), and I'm calling from DeLand, Fla.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm in Springfield, Ore.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I live in Chicago.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And I'm calling in about living on a hundred-thousand...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Living off of a hundred-thousand dollars.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Hundred-thousand dollars.

WATERIS: People making a $100,000.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've been doing this segment for almost a year. And we were overwhelmed with your responses this time. So many of you were willing to open up and share how you try and make ends meet on what is ostensibly a lot of money.

RICHARD RUBIN: A hundred-thousand dollars means something different if it's a single person living alone. Or is it $100,000 for a family of four, five or six? Is it someone who's making $100,000 in San Francisco or $100,000 in Kansas City?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Richard Rubin covers the economy for the Wall Street Journal. He told us that expectations have changed significantly over the years.

RUBIN: I think we've seen costs go up for things that seem like core parts of the middle-class life. So that's access to higher education and health care to areas where we're seeing costs continue to grow beyond inflation. So even if food prices or electronic goods or other things have not gotten more expensive, those things - health care and education - have gotten more expensive. And so what it feels like to be middle class now can be different from what it felt like 25, 30, 40 years ago.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We spoke to a variety of people in different parts of the country with different circumstances about their lives on 100k. Now, the median income in this country is a lot less. It's $59,000 a year. But these stories paint a picture of economic life in America in 2017 that we think is important to hear. Over the next few weeks, we're going to bring you some of those conversations. First, we hear from Theresa Sahhar. She lives in Olathe, Kan., just outside of Kansas City. Her husband is a mechanical engineer, and she works in sales part-time.

THERESA SAHHAR: It used to be that my husband's income would cover all of our bills. And then my income would go for travel and any extracurricular things that we wanted to do. But now it's gotten to the point where my income actually has to go towards paying the bills. Our expenses are going up as our children are getting older and getting into college. And so I'm kind of struggling to make enough money to do all the things that we normally do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me what you spend your money on. When you say that, you know, you have expenses, tell me what that looks like.

SAHHAR: Well, we spend quite a lot on our children's education. We have some expenses in the arts because one of my son's is a flute player and really excels at that. And we want to give him every opportunity to really explore that. And he's also in the STEM science field in his high school. And that's something - everything that he participates in costs money. But I want him to really have the opportunity to develop everything that he possibly can. And so I struggle to provide that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you say struggle, I mean, what does that look like?

SAHHAR: Well, it kind of looks like - I - right now, I'm kind of part of the gig economy, where I do little bits of this and that in order to make money. I do sales over the phone from home, marketing that kind of thing. I will do odd jobs. I have chickens, so I sell eggs. And I'm a beekeeper, so I sell honey. I do a little bit of sewing, so that kind of thing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's the cost of living like in where you live?

SAHHAR: It's actually pretty reasonable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you look around your community, do you see a lot of people like you? I mean...

SAHHAR: Oh, yes. Yes, I'm very active in my son's school so I get to know a lot of the parents that are involved in the marching band. And I talked to a lot of them about their struggles. And really, they're in the same boat as I am. And I was really surprised because from the outside, it looks like we're very - you know, that we have plenty of money. But then when you really look underneath it all, you see that people are working overtime. They're working second jobs and even third jobs to try to put together the money just to stay in the middle class where they've been in the past.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you worry about retirement?

SAHHAR: I don't expect to ever retire. I expect to work until I'm dead.


SAHHAR: Yes. I expect my husband to work that way, as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did you think that $100,000 should provide more?

SAHHAR: Oh, yes. But I'll tell you, when I had the children, I knew they would be expensive. I just had no idea that our income wasn't going to go up as we became more experienced as - and as we became more valuable employees.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mean that your salaries haven't sort of kept pace with your experience? It sort of stagnated.

SAHHAR: No, not at all. No, not at all. No. No, I had a recent job offer that was ridiculous. I was offered $9 an hour, and I have, you know, 25, 30 years of experience.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you grow up?

SAHHAR: Well, the first nine years of my life, I lived in the south, and I had a very privileged life. I went to private schools. I had a nice home. And we lived a very middle-class life. And then my parents got divorced. And after the divorce, we moved to 12th and Central, which is in the middle of the city in a not very good area. And the schools were not terrific. And I was really surprised at the dramatic difference between living a middle-class life and living what was - we were on welfare. It was a poverty lifestyle that we then lived.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did that inform what you wanted for yourself and for your children?

SAHHAR: Well, having experience both privilege and poverty, I'd much rather live a privileged life - much rather. And that's what I want for my children. I want my children to be able to access a few of the better things in life. I don't expect them to be rich, but I would like them to not be poor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you see happening for the next generation?

SAHHAR: Oh, I don't see it getting any easier. I see that my daughter and her husband are also struggling. And their main struggle is that they have student loans. And those student loans are crippling.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you sort of sit around and talk about things with the people that you know is money and cost of living a frequent topic of conversation?

SAHHAR: No, not really. I think most people don't want other people to know how they struggle. I think people really try to keep that under wraps. It's embarrassing to say that you have to work overtime in order to make enough money to live on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Theresa Sahhar of Olathe, Kan. As Theresa says, it can be embarrassing to talk about money in this country - embarrassing to admit you don't have enough. Next week we'll hear from the single guy in Seattle who makes a lot of money but also has a lot of debt.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: It's very scary when you don't have job security. I have this mounting pile of debt. And not knowing if I was ever going to pay it off, it was very, very scary.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: And next time on the Call-In, post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. We associate it mostly with our active duty military and veterans. But it can also affect people who've suffered a traumatic event like a robbery or a car crash. Do you suffer from PTSD? Have you recovered or do you still need help? Call-In at 202-216-9217 with your story and tell us about your experience. Be sure to include your full name, your contact info, where you're from. And we may use it on the air. That number again - 202-216-9217.


Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.