"When we started working ... you could say we were in the upper end of the lower class," Mr. Tinoco (not his real name) said of his first job-at a restaurant. "We weren't living in poverty but our salaries were low. ... We were just working to survive."
However, an improving economy and rising wages have put the Tinocos into the 15% of the country comprising the middle class. Today Mr. Tinoco, 32, and his wife Sonia 29, both are computer engineers, have an apartment and a used 1983 Renault, both atypical in a country where more than 80% of the population is classified as poor, many living in corrugated tin shacks.
"We're middle, middle class now," said Mr. Tinoco. Because of cultural taboos against discussing money matters, Mr. Tinoco won't give his real name or discuss the name of his employer. He will say he works for a multinational based in Bogota, paying him $1,000 to $2,000 a month, approximately 20 times greater than the lowest Colombian wage.
He expects the family's fortunes to improve further when his wife, who last year quit as a computer expert at a local insurance company to have their first child, returns to work later this year. With the extra income, the Tinocos hope to trade up to a new car (priced about $8,500); travel to the U.S. to visit family in Los Angeles and Florida; and pay for private school for 13-month-old Baby Elena.
The couple's income is split among rent for their modest three-room apartment (35%), food (25%), utilities (10%) and savings (10% or less). The remainder goes toward clothes, books, magazines, baby products and to paying off credit cards. They also have a maid that comes in twice a week, a common practice in Latin America where an $8 weekly wage for domestics makes it far from a luxury.
When the couple eats out, at least once a week, they choose an inexpensive local restaurant such as El Corral, a burger outlet with prices of about $1-half those of KFC.
Besides weekly trips to small neighborhood shops, once a month they go to Pomona, their local supermarket, to stock up on Head & Shoulders shampoo, Ariel detergent (from Procter & Gamble), Nabisco cookies and cleaning liquids from Colgate-Palmolive. It's not stretching their budget to buy these U.S.-made products: They cost the same as those made locally.
Mr. Tinoco said they spend two hours on weekdays watching TV; that increases a little on weekends.
Thanks to a pirated signal from the U.S., they receive 13 different channels, including Cinemax and HBO, for $1 to $2 a month. "Basically, we zap until we find something interesting." Neither one pays attention to the commercials.
Mr. Tinco is optimistic about the future. "We hope the government will lower inflation [now at 24%]. We hope our lives will improve."