The definition of America's "middle class" can vary wildly depending on who you ask. For some, it's defined by certain attributes: If you're hardworking, thrifty and humble, for example, you're middle-class. For others, it means earning a substantial salary but not so much that you'd be considered rich.
Northwestern Mutual's 2018 Planning & Progress Study found that 88 percent of Americans believe annual income is the defining factor of the middle class, although 65 percent said that lifestyle and perspective also play a key role.
Just over 50 percent of survey respondents said that earning an annual salary of, or owning assets of, between $50,000 and $99,999 qualifies a household as middle-class, whereas 26 percent said $1 to $49,999.
Another 20 percent said the middle class is composed of those earning or possessing between $100,000 and $499,999.
The level of annual income Americans said it takes to be middle-class. Click to enlarge.
A significant majority of survey respondents, nearly 70 percent, consider themselves middle-class. In reality, the middle class now makes up just over 50 percent of the total U.S. population, according to a recent report from Pew Research Center, which used 2016 data. That's down from 61 percent in 1971.
Pew defines the middle class as those whose annual household income is two-thirds to double the national median, which was $57,617 as of 2016. By that definition, a middle-income three-person household earns about $45,000 to $135,000. If you're single, a salary of around $26,000 to $78,000 qualifies you as middle-income.
A 2017 survey from Charles Schwab found that Americans also have a high threshold for what makes someone rich. When asked how much money is required to be considered "wealthy" in America, survey participants say it takes an average net worth of $2.4 million, Charles Schwab reports.
That's nearly 30 times the actual median net worth of U.S. households, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Likewise, another recent survey found that most Americans say you need to bring in at least $1 million a year to be considered "rich."
Single-person households bringing in as little as $78,281 a year, and five-person households bringing in at least $175,041, actually qualify as upper-income, according to Pew.
Of course, a generous salary doesn't always have that much to do with how well-off you think you are. Depending on your spending, your location and your lifestyle, as one couple shows, you and your partner could be making $500,000 a year and still feel like you're struggling.
This is an updated version of a previously published article.
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