The American Dream is a concept that believes everyone who is born in the United States or immigrates to our country has the opportunity to grow and find success. By working hard and being an upright citizen, you can have a happy and comfortable life for yourself and your family. Unfortunately, money makes the world go round, and no matter how much you try to reach that American Dream, you’re not taking one step towards it unless you have enough money to make it happen.
So, how much should your salary be to live a good life in the US? It depends on two things: where you live and how you want to live.
The simple answer would be to use this cost of living calculator that tells you how much you need to earn to maintain a decent standard of living. But this only applies if you plan to move to a different city in the hopes of living comfortably. But if you want to know how much you have to earn to maintain a comfortable life where you are, here’s what you need to know.
How Much Is a Comfortable Life?
A comfortable life in Oklahoma is not the same price as a comfortable life in New York because the cost of living in US states vary based on a number of factors. If you live in states like California, Oregon, or Maryland, you have to earn much more than the average salary because it costs more to live there. But if you live in states like New Mexico or Tennessee, you can earn much less and still live comfortably.
There’s also the question of what your definition of “comfortable” is. For most people, the definition of comfortable living is simple: debt-free, in a house they own in a safe part of their city, with a job they like, and with enough income that they never have to worry about medical bills and utilities and can save up for retirement and their kids’ college funds. Other people, however, see comfortable as always having zero debt, a million dollars in their bank account, while living in a mansion with heavily-armed guards to protect their expensive cars and other wealth. To get this type of life, you’ll obviously need a salary around the six or seven-digit figures.
Average Salary in the US
The average annual salary per person is $47,060, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). If you want to earn more than this, you’ll have to take a professional white-collar job rather than unskilled labor from blue-collar job types. People with service occupations earn much less than the average at around $17,000 less. On the other hand, people with professional occupations earn almost $20,000 more than the average.
Your educational attainment may also affect how much you can earn. A person with no high school degree can earn around $30,000 annually, while high school graduates get $38,000, college graduates get $70,000, and people with advanced degrees can earn as much as $82,000 a year.
Take note that these are just estimates from the BLS, though. Factors such as gender, race, and age have been known to affect how much a person can earn. Men earn an average of $52,000 while women earn around $42,000. This has less to do with sexism and more of the fact that men are more likely to graduate with STEM degrees that lead to specialized jobs (engineering, natural sciences, etc.) than women who are more likely to pick social sciences degrees.
You might be thinking: the key to getting a comfortable salary is getting into college, getting a degree, and working your way towards a successful high-paying white-collar job. It is not that simple, though. Assuming you can survive college taking the highest-paying majors, you also have to consider the tuition. Taking student loans can put you in debt that could take decades for you to pay off. And just because you have a degree does not ensure you’ll have a high-paying job once you graduate. While having a college degree can open doors to better-paying jobs, it’s not a sure ticket to landing a job.
The Real Estate Market
Another part of living comfortably is having a place to call your own. Again, buying property depends on many factors, including the size, location (some states have more expensive homes than others), and your preference of the type of house you want to live in. A 3-bedroom home in California for you and your family will have a different price for a home of the same size and style built in West Virginia.
State differences aside, the median cost of buying a home has grown 20 times since the 1960s as an average home should cost you around $279,500. That does not include other miscellaneous fees to buy a house (renovations, furniture, fees from your real estate agent). This also does not include the other expenses of keeping a house such as electric bills (an average of almost $112 per month per household, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration), HOA fees, and other taxes incurred from owning property.
So, if you want a comfortable home, your salary should allow you to save around $279,000 within a matter of years. Another option is to take out a loan from banks or lending companies so you can buy your home sooner rather than later (and considering the inflation and the real estate market’s condition as of writing, it’s much better to buy it now than wait). However, most loan providers won’t give you a loan if your salary is too small to pay them back within a given amount of time, so if you want a $279,000 loan with an annual salary of $30,000, you’re either going to spend decades paying off your loan or they might just reject your loan application.
Other Factors of a Good Salary
Aside from thinking about what you can buy, a good salary can be determined by how you earn your money. Not all jobs are easy, and not everyone is lucky enough to get high-paying jobs they enjoy doing. But a good salary (in the US and anywhere else in the world) is one that meets the work expectations of the job.
High-pressured jobs with more responsibilities require higher salaries and more benefits, if you’re looking to be more comfortable. Lower salaries may still come with benefits depending on the company you’re applying to, but you may not have the same flexibility, job security, and perks that higher job positions provide.
Determining a good salary ultimately depends on your own preferences, your ability to earn, and what you consider comfortable. If you’re already in a high-paying job and have low or no debt and are comfortable with a simple life, your salary is enough for you to live a comfortable life in the US. Otherwise, consider finding other ways to generate income or cut back on unnecessary expenses.