The U.S. economy has tended to grade on a bell curve. You have the rich. You have the poor. Then you have the vast majority of us somewhere in the middle. But if spare change isn't jingling the way it used to or if you're finding it harder to make ends meet, you're not alone.

Unemployment hit a fresh nine-year high last month. While 6.4% unemployment may not seem like much on an absolute basis, it's worse than you think. New jobless claims have topped the 400,000 mark for 18 straight weeks.

Yes, the deluge of layoffs is starting to ease. But are the housing boom's construction jobs simply masking a persistent decline in the manufacturing sector? It doesn't matter at this point. The sad truth is that quality jobs aren't being created at the rate that they are being eliminated.

No laughing matter
Remember when displaced Information Technology (IT) professionals carrying "Will Code For Food" signs made for an amusing image? No one's laughing now. The American Electronics Association reports that exports from U.S. high-tech companies have fallen by 26% since peaking three years ago. In that time, the sector has suffered a 10% decline in employment.

Folks who thought that they were training for the future or retooling for the promise of high-tech jobs are out of luck and out of work. And the unemployed are finding it awfully hard to land suitable jobs regardless of the color on their collars. The average tenure of unemployment is now 20 weeks -- a 20-year high.

Even Sam knows
Have you seen the latest Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) ad? The one where money is so tight a family stocks up on backyard goods to spend its summer vacation at home? No, I'm not making this up.

Granted, discounters like Wal-Mart and Target (NYSE:TGT) haven't felt much of the pinch. They've kept same-store-sales running at a healthy clip, as a new generation of penny pinchers takes to scooping up the marked down wares. But images of a family loading up on outdoor water toys in lieu of a Caribbean vacation would be pathetic if it wasn't so deeply rooted in reality.

Does that mean that our discussion board community is abandoning the Retire Early Home Page and shacking up with thrift-minded residents at Living Below Your Means? No. Not yet, anyway.

The credit crunch punch
Even rock-bottom borrowing costs have been a mixed blessing to a nation strapped for cash. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the national rate of homeownership is 68%. So, for most of us, refinancing at today's low rates has been a viable means to either lower your monthly payment or draw on your home's equity to pay off other debts. But what about the other 32%? On average, over the past two decades, the typical monthly rent payment has increased by nearly 10% each year. Thinking of buying a home? Those same low mortgage rates have propped home prices to seemingly unattainable levels.

July is Cash In On Credit month on Credit card financing rates have come down, but less of us can afford the luxury of paying off our balances in full every month. That's why it's important to shop around and avoid relying on credit as a crutch. Too many people are doing just that, choosing plastic over paper out of necessity. According to the American Bankers Association, credit card delinquencies hit a new high earlier this year when 4.1% of the country's credit card accounts were past due.

Yes, even with lower rates, the country's pockets are still coming up empty in record numbers. That's just another burden for the jilted and suddenly tilted middle class to carry until the economy bounces back.

Around the corner?
They say that it's always darkest just before the dawn, but what good is daybreak if the skies are still cloudy? In these blurry times, the unemployed middle class and the working poor might as well swap placards.

Unfortunately, economists who can't seem to agree on whether we're in a recession -- or falling in or out of one -- won't be much help in predicting the timing of the eventual fiscal recovery with any degree of accuracy. Politicians spit out financial data as if it was partisan ammo, but they're missing the bigger satellite-snapped picture. We're in a global rut. Europe's unemployment rate is at a three-year high while other countries face in critical cash crunches. It's bad all over.

If the other shoe drops, it might be a stiletto. Corporations have been doling out pink slips for years; now state and local governments are starting to scale back in an attempt to get their budget deficits in check.

Meanwhile, the number working part-time jobs because fulltime positions aren't available has grown from 3.3 million to 4.5 million over the past two years. The jury is still out as to whether many of the eliminated jobs will return -- as has been the case in cyclical lulls in the past -- or if technological efficiencies and overseas migration have rendered many of those gigs obsolete.

If it turns out to be the latter, personal budgeting adjustments may be permanent. Lifestyles may have little choice but to change.

What can you do?
While the economy sure is complicated, your best responses to the current times are pretty simple.

  • Do your best to spend less than you make. There's something to be said for living below your means anytime, but especially during uncertain economic times.

  • While you are working, try to build-up an emergency fund in case the worst happens. There is nothing like the peace of mind that 3-6 months living expenses tucked away in a safe account can bring.

  • If you carry a credit card balance, be sure to take advantage of teaser rates while you can or use a lower-interest card.

  • Keep funding your company-sponsored retirement plan (especially if you get matching money from your employer) and your IRA, but don't get worked up about the direction of the stock market right now. You still have a lifetime of investing ahead of you.

Keep your head up. Just as in the late '90s things were not as fantastic as they seemed, they probably aren't as bad as they may seem now. The economy moves in cycles with many ups and downs. Buckle up tight and endure the roller coaster ride. You may even find you can hold your lunch down.

Rick Munarriz means business when he says that he aspires to live below his means. Rick's stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.