MIDDLE CLASS IN DECLINE - No answers in tea leaves or coffee grounds

Nathan Domenighini

Seeking opinions from Central Illinoisians regarding the middle class, I decided to bring my questions to local coffee shops.

I first took my questions to Starbucks, a place I was sure to find some outspoken individuals willing to drop an extra buck for a cup of joe.

I asked most of my subjects, “Do you feel the middle class is disappearing?”

“With milk at $3 a gallon, yeah, it will disappear pretty fast,” one lady responded.

I thought about that one for a moment. Remembering where I was asking the question, I simply glanced at the $4 cup of coffee the lady enjoyed and started to wonder — are we the victims of our own mess?

I thought back to something my father taught me after he read the book “The Automatic Millionaire,” by David Bach.

Bach features a bit of insight many of us coffee drinkers could use and apply elsewhere in our daily spending routines.

It is called the “Latte Factor,” an idea that encourages individuals to save money by monitoring the smaller daily purchases many of us make.

Bach goes on to describe how, for many Americans who purchase a $5 cup of joe on their way to work, saving those dollars can add up in the long run.

If we apply those purchases to the amount of money we spend on gas each week, maybe we’ll notice an instant savings.

Too often, are we caught up in our daily routines that require dropping an Abe Lincoln in the cashier’s hand?

You know who you are.

To make you feel comfortable, I'll admit I do it myself.

Prior to the gas price hike, this was my daily routine: I am mold on a log without caffeine.

In the past, I would go to my favorite coffee shop every morning to purchase a $3 cup of coffee.

Starbucks was not on my way to work so I settled for the local shops, which tend to be cheaper. My rationale then: “It is just $3.”

That changed quickly when gas prices soared to $3 a gallon.

So, remembering the “Latte Factor,” I made an adjustment. Now, I stop at the local gas station for a cup of coffee every morning. While it was not the quality beverage I became accustomed to, it still had the same effect — to energize my lazy butt.

Considering I go through about $60 of gas a week, I did the math. Seven days times $3 equals $21. Here’s how I looked at it — if I didn’t drink coffee at all, in essence, I would only pay $39 a week for gas.

My rationale now: “It’s three freakin’ dollars.”

Now, I spend $1.25 on the same amount of caffeine I used to purchase for $3. I now spend about $8.75 a week on coffee. It makes a pretty significant difference.

I assume it would be even more for those who religiously buy their coffee at Starbucks.

I hope anyone who is complaining about the cost of a gallon of milk never goes to Starbucks for coffee.

As I continued my journey for more comments, I stuck to my guns with the coffee shop theory.

I ended up in One World near Bradley University in Peoria.

Let me tell you, it was one of the better decisions I made that day.

I strolled through the café looking for someone who seemed to have some insight on the disappearing middle class.

Not knowing who that might be, I stopped at a table where two gentlemen were having a discussion. They must have just finished eating.

I chose the man to whom I was going to pose the question. “Do you feel the middle class is disappearing?” I asked him.

He looked at me as if I were some intern journalist writing about something that doesn’t exist.

“That would be news to me,” he responded.

I stopped him mid-sentence as I knew where he was going with this. I explained that we were working on a collaboration of articles that might explain whether the middle class is disappearing or not.

He said, “Where’s the beef?”

I thought to myself, this could get interesting.

To be honest, he had some rather valid points, despite my initial notion of the guy — he was a professor at Bradley University.

In pompous tones, he asked why so many people have multiple big-screen color televisions in their households. Once he said that, I knew what his opinion was — if it is disappearing, it is our own fault.

It may be true, though. Of the 10 people I spoke with regarding the middle class, many seemed to jump on that cliché phrase, “Keeping up with the Jones.’”

Most said Americans have become so materialistic that they don't consider their needs before their wants.

This could be true, as one financial advisor pointed out.

“Too many people are buying things they can’t afford,” Mitch Morgan, vice president of Craig Miller Financial Services, said. “They’re trying to keep up with the Jones.’”

“I’ve never, in my life, seen more people keeping up with the Jones,’” he said.

Morgan even hinted toward the “Latte Factor” when he provided an example of someone buying a fountain soda at the gas station every day, instead of purchasing a 12-pack.

Morgan also contends a good amount of the population is living in the now.

“Fewer people are preparing for the future,” he added. “People are definitely living in the now. They worry about how they will finance (their purchases) tomorrow.”

If the middle class is disappearing could it be that the economy is not to blame? Do we spend too much on things we don’t need?

Perhaps the money manager in all of us is really what is fading.

I do know one thing, though — milk and coffee are not the source of our problems.