As people move up the income ladder, they escape material shortages and consume more. They have “things” — goods, houses, and, most importantly, education — to show for their higher earnings, but they do not have healthy finances. Having those “things” is of course an improvement over not having them, but only for the very, very rich (or the very, very unusual) is there any real escape from the pressure-cooker of American household finances.
Why can’t people live below their means, save up some money, and kick up their feet? The place to start is by looking at what they are spending their money — and particularly their loans — on. The biggest expenditure? Housing, by far. (Transportation is next, but a good portion of that — gas — is in some ways a housing cost as well, since it’s a function of one’s commute.) And the biggest sources of debt? Housing and education. The average loan burdens for mortgages and student loans dwarf auto loans or credit-card debt, the other major types of debt that Americans tend to carry.
Housing and education appear to be two distinct categories of spending, but for many families they are one and the same: For the most part, where a family lives determines where their kids go to school, and, as a result, where schools are better, houses are more costly. This is both cause and effect: Where houses are expensive, the tax base is bigger and schools have better resources, and where schools are better, there is more demand for housing. Zoning restrictions exacerbate this dynamic, because many rich municipalities with excellent public schools oppose the density that would allow more people to access their schools, which in turn drives housing prices up further. So in a sense, for many people, housing debt is education debt.
It’s all too clear why parents will spend down their last dollar (and their last borrowed dollar) on their kids’ education: In a society with dramatic income inequality and dramatic educational inequality, the cost of missing out on the best society has to offer (or, really, at the individual scale, the best any person can afford) is unfathomable. So parents spend at the brink of what they can afford.