There's one more big squeeze hitting households: health care. Since 2002, insurance premiums have increased 97 percent, rising three times as fast as wages, according to Kaiser Family Foundation/Health Research & Educational Trust.
In Mississippi, Bruister now has an $1,800 deductible, compared to $500 a few years ago. When she goes to the doctor, the bill typically tops $100 -- so she tries to avoid going.
"Health care for me has turned into more of a luxury item," said Bruister, 52. "I go every year for the checkups my insurance pays, but after that you just tough out the other illnesses."
Economists say they don't expect much improvement for the middle class any time soon. The recession is officially over, but the recovery is fragile, and its gains aren't evenly spread. Between 1993 and 2011, the top 1 percent of America's earners saw their income soar by 58 percent, while everyone else only got a 6 percent bump.
That's making it even harder for most households to get ahead.
"The middle class was always synonymous with economic security and stability," Draut said. "Now it's synonymous with economic anxiety."