I may be middle-class, but I’m starting to feel the pinch

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The woman in front in the waiting-to-pay line at the French flax linen warehouse sale in Torquay asked if I’d mind her spot. She wanted to grab a few totes. Off she darted, leaving me panicked that maybe I needed a tote too, given my Marimekko one was bought even before the Canggu villa trip.

She came back, and we got chatting about our mutual linen addiction. She asked where I got my silver clogs. I thought her necklace tangle was chic. We talked where to source a free-range Christmas ham on the Bellarine, adult kids’ jobs. It felt we were on the verge of a 10.30am Aperol spritz or hit of tennis.

As cost of living bites, oysters and Champagne are no longer an option. Credit: Jesse Marlow

This social exchange amid blithe credit card thrashing was exactly a year ago. Back then, lest anyone thought I was just a scrubber from outside Geelong, I was a card-carrying middle-class matron good at making what Hughesy and Kate’s old radio show called Proclamations of a Wanker: “Are those pants Scanlan?” “Have you tried the seaweed butter oysters at Gimlet?”

Now I’m more in the grip of what Victorian novelists called genteel poverty. Or so it feels. The invitation to this year’s linen sale? Deleted. Forget oysters, we’re air-frying salmon patties. And it was a relief when the kids dropped the family Kris Kringle limit to $50 this Christmas.

On paper, my husband and I are firmly middle-class, defined by the Pew Research Centre as an annual household income of up to around $250,000. We have the mindset and trappings to match: loads of Le Creuset, two European cars (one’s a 13-year-old Golf, though), good luggage, a Chris Austin original above our King Living bed, a collection of 1970s Italian glassware, Dior ankle boots.

But these days, we don’t have the cash. At 57, having survived the fiscal savaging of private school fees and divorce, I’d cautiously hoped money being tight was done. Instead, it’s like I’m back where I was at 18, divvying up a $110 weekly pay for rent, fried rice and Jim Beam.

Renting a place in Melbourne as well as paying a coastal mortgage has been ruinous. Controlling our old dog’s Cushings’ disease and arthritis costs about $800 a month. We chipped in for our son’s housing deposit, help out parents, and spend heaps on petrol.

I’ve made a pact to not buy clothes for a year. Am using supermarket Vitamin E cream as moisturiser. Cancelled my income protection because, what income? When I started writing a book in July, I ditched all but a handful of clients and a couple of those – feeling the pinch themselves – are now having AI write their stuff.

Without the safety net of employer super, a salary or liver in saleable condition, I’m quietly freaking out I’m about to become part of the global phenomenon of the shrinking middle class. In the US, the share of adults living in middle-class households fell from 61 per cent in 1971 to 50 per cent in 2021.

This week alone, headlines say Victorian families are going backwards at the fastest pace in the nation, jobs and doctor visits are going as the RBA war on inflation cuts deep, and house prices are back to sky-high amid warnings of more rate rises.

I’m not just reading these stories, I’m living them.

You don’t need to remind me I’m still stonkingly privileged and there are people who have it so much worse, who live with entrenched generational poverty and don’t own a home. I get it.

This is more me sticking my head above the parapet to see if there are other middle-classers out there feeling the pinch. Are in it up to their eyeballs, struggling with feeling financial discomfort at this level perhaps for the first time.

Of course, I know this too shall pass. For now, it’s strange to have a passport bristling with stamps, a wardrobe crammed with Acne dresses, and admit financial stress and fear isn’t just the preserve of lower income earners. Even if it’s disguised by an impressive linen cupboard.

Kate Halfpenny is the founder of Bad Mother Media.

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