How To Tell How Far Behind You've Fallen

Take heart, people: Your neighbors are worse off too, and there's now data to prove it.

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Man counting money
Man counting money.

A lot of Americans are feeling glum, because they're worse off than they used to be.

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But it can be reassuring to know you're not the only one, so the latest data from the Federal Reserve, which depicts a whole nation struggling to keep its head above water, might provide a bit of lukewarm comfort. The research covers the period between 2007 and 2010—including the Great Recession and its immediate afermath—so it's somewhat dated. But the economy is pretty similar now to the way it was at the end of 2010, which means the survey can give people a sense of how they're doing compared with everybody else. Here's how consumers have fared overall since 2007:

Median income: After inflation, median income has fallen by 7.7 percent, to $45,800. Total inflation since 2007 has been about 11 percent, so if your take-home pay has gone up by more than 3.3 percent since 2007, you're doing better than the typical family. If your income has gone up by less or fallen, you're doing worse.

Real income for white-collar workers like managers, salespeople and technical staff fell by about 9 percent. Income for self-employed people fell by 19 percent—probably because of a surge in "accidental entrepreneurs" who became consultants or started their own business after getting laid off, and began with no income.

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Retirees, meanwhile, saw a 12 percent rise in their incomes, probably because more of them are working part-time, to make ends meet. "Retired" apparently doesn't mean what it used to, so if your golden years involve a commute, welcome to the club.

Net worth: The average family's net worth has plunged from $127,000 to $77,000. That's largely because of the collapse in home values, which represents the bulk of wealth for many families. Financial assets, the other big pool of wealth, have recovered from recession lows but are still below 2007 levels. It's distressing when your net worth goes down, but if it has fallen by less than 40 percent since 2007, you're doing better than the majority of Americans.

Saving: The share of people saving money dropped from 56.4 percent in 2007 to 52 percent in 2010. So if you're managing to squirrel away any money at all, you're better off than nearly half of all families.

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Indebtedness: The reliance on debt has dipped. In 2007, the typical family with debt devoted 18.7 percent of its after-tax income to mortgage, car or student loan payments, credit card balances or other types of debt. By 2010, that had improved to 18.1 percent of income. But that may still be too high for a nation that remains desperate to shore up its finances. Most families should aspire to a lower debt load.

Americans are less addicted to plastic, however. The total amount of credit card balances fell by 16 percent between 2007 and 2010. That's partly because banks reeled in credit lines, but consumers may also be showing a bit of spending discipline.

Keeping up with the Joneses now includes showing a little restraint. Everybody's doing it.

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.