What’s the typical Australian income in 2013?

ScreenHunter_02 Apr. 07 12.00

Please find below an interesting post from economist, Matt Cowgill, examining what constitutes a typical income in Australia. Be sure to also check out Matt’s blog, We Are All Dead, which examines a wide range of political and economic policy issues. Matt can also be found on Twitter.

A couple of years ago, the government changed the rules so that families on $150 000 a year or more wouldn’t be eligible to receive family payments. There were the predictable cries of ‘class warfare’, but there  were also claims that $150 000 in Australia leaves you struggling to make ends meet. The Daily Telegraph found a couple on $150k who said “you can survive on $150,000 but you definitely aren’t doing well,” while in The Australian, a couple on $200 000 said “the government are making it bloody hard.”

I don’t think most people have much of a sense of what the typical Australian’s income is. Research backs this up – low income earners tend to overestimate their own position in the income distribution, while high-income earners tend to underestimate theirs. In short, we all think we’re middle class.

The chart below shows this quite starkly. It compares the actual income distribution, in which 10% of people are in each decile of income, with the results of a survey that asked people to place themselves into income deciles.

The Australian income distribution: perception and reality

Income perceptions

Source: Saunders and Wong (2011).

You can see that 83% of people think they’re in the middle four deciles of the income distribution, when of course only 40% are in the middle. Peter Martin recently wrote about this phenomenon after a reader took umbrage with his (perfectly defensible) claim that a pre-tax income of $210 000 makes you ‘ultra rich’.

It’s this widespread misperception that led me to write a fairly dry post a few years ago setting the record straight about the typical Australian’s income. Since then, the battler threshold has apparently been raised, such that “you can be on a quarter of a million dollars family income a year and you’re still struggling,” according to Labor backbencher Joel Fitzgibbon.

Tomorrow’s Budget, if the past few are a guide, will contain some measures that attract the ‘class warfare’ tag and bring out the $250k battlers, so I thought this might be a good time to update the numbers in that earlier post and set out the facts on Australian incomes.

What is the typical Australian worker’s wages?

Among full-time workers, the average wage is $72 800 per year. But remember – the average (ie. the mean) gives a misleading impression about what the typical worker earns. It is pushed upwards by the large salaries of a small number of very high income earners.

The median gives a more accurate sense of the typical worker’s wages. If you earn the median salary, your wage is in the middle of the distribution – it’s higher than 50% of workers and lower than the other 50%. Among full-time workers, the median was $57 400 in August 2011, which is the most recent figure.

Even this figure, though, is a little higher than the typical worker’s wage. That’s because it doesn’t include the 3.5 million people who work part time. When you bring them into the fold, the average wage drops to $56 300, and the median  drops to $46 900.

What is the typical taxpayer’s income?

Not everyone has a job – a little less than 62% of adult civilians over the age of 15 had a job in April – so the figures on average wages don’t apply to everyone. Instead of just looking at workers’ wages, then, we can look at the statistics on taxpayers’ incomes to get a sense of the typical income.

According to the tax data, the median taxpayer had a taxable income of $48 684 in 2010-11, the latest figures the ATO has made available.

Here’s a summary of the ATO’s data for 2010-11:

 If your 2010-11 taxable income was…  …then your income was larger than this proportion of taxpayers
$48 864  50%
$72 948  75%
$79 934  80%
$89 331  85%
$105 461  90%
$140 479  95%
$202 918  98%
$281 858  99%

These figures only include people who paid income tax, so while they’re useful, they’re far from ideal. To get a clearer sense of the typical Australian’s income, we need to include everyone, and we need to look at households rather than individuals.

What is the typical household’s gross income?

All the figures above were for individuals, but most of us live with other people and pool our resources with them to some extent. To get a more accurate sense of the typical Australian’s income, we need to compare households. We’ll look first at the gross (ie. pre-tax) incomes of households, without adjusting for the size of those households.

In 2009-10 (the latest ABS figures), the median pre-tax income of Australian households was around $68 800.

 If your household’s gross income in 2009-10 was…  …then your income was larger than this proportion of Australian households
$68 828  50%
$130 305  80.1%
$156 376  86.8%
$208 519  94.4%
$260 662  97.1%

So a household with a gross income of $250 000 in 2009-10 would just miss out on the top 3%, but would almost certainly be in the top 4% of households ranked by gross income.

What is the typical household’s net income, adjusted for household size?

A single adult living alone and earning $100 000 per year will have a higher material standard of living than a couple with the same income. So if we’re concerned about measuring material standards of living, we can’t say that the single adult and the couple on $100 000 are equal. Instead, we need to adjust the figures for household size. You might think that this is straightforward – the couple has to share $100 000 between the two of them, so simply divide the number in half and you’ll have your adjusted income figure.

But it’s not as easy as that. If you live with a partner, your household costs aren’t double those of someone who lives alone.To account for that, researchers usually use something called an ‘equivalence scale’ to compare incomes between households of different sizes. Using the standard equivalence scale, you’d divide a couple’s income by 1.5 to compare it to the single adult. A couple household would therefore need to have an income of $150 000 to enjoy the same standard of living as someone living alone on $100 000.

All the figures above also referred to wages or incomes before income tax. If we want to compare material standards of living between households, a better measure is the disposable (ie. net, or post-tax) income of households.

The latest ABS figures for equivalised household disposable incomes are from 2009-10, but NATSEM has published estimates of these figures updated to December 2012. According to NATSEM, the median equivalised disposable income for Australian households was $43 100 in December last year. That means that if you were a single person living alone  who took home $43k in 2012 after income tax, then your material standard of living was higher than 50% of the population, and lower than 50% of the population.

To convert that $43 100 figure for different household types, just use the equivalence scale. For example, a childless couple would need 1.5 times that amount to attain the median standard of living – that’s $64 650. Each child in the house adds 0.3 to the calculation, so a couple with one kid would need 1.8 times the single person’s income to have the same standard of living – that’s $77 580 at the median.

This is the key table for comparing net household incomes:

If your household contains… …then your income is higher than this proportion of Australians:
A single adult Two adults, no children One adult, one child Two adults, one child Two adults, two children
…and your disposable (after-tax) income is…





































The typical Australian income, after tax, is $43 100 for a single person, or $90 510 for a couple with two kids. If you’re on a quarter of a million, you might find it hard to get by if you’ve over-extended yourself, but your income is higher than the vast, vast majority of Australians.

Note: When I refer to income as your ‘material standard of living’, I’m ignoring the value people derive from consuming their assets, such as living in owner-occupied housing. That’s an important issue, but beyond the scope of this post.

Unconventional Economist


  1. Excellent post. I have used this data a bit in my work and am constantly trying to emphasise that most people in the upper income brackets have no idea of what most people have to get by on. You have explained this much more eloquently than I could have.

  2. Great stuff.

    Clearly over-priced houses and therefore big mortgage payments (along with leased BMWs, kids in private school and family holidays overseas) make a $200k a year household into battlers.

    Amazing how people are so willing to become debt slaves. Retirement is going to be such fun because we can’t keep pushing house prices above the rate of inflation. Sooner or later they’re reverting to the mean.

    As the British band The The so beautifully put it “this is the day your life will surely change”

    • As my Grandfather use to say!
      “Its not the high cost of living, its the cost of living high”.
      Although it is a hell of alot more expensive since he made that statement…., its all relative to what your expenditure is and what debts you take on.
      Take these ridiculously priced houses out of the equation and things would be a heck of alot better.

    • Time to catch up with the rest of the planet and change behavior by…

      Some adjustments to the tax system to move the taxation of benefits in kind from employer to employee. FBT is a ridiculous concept in a modern tax system, the benefit in kind should be assessed and taxed at the recipients marginal rate.

      One of the reason why high end European cars are so expensive down here is the implicit subsidy given to high end earners via the novated lease rort.

      If that $300k 7 Series or S-Classe had to be wholly paid for out of taxed income, it would not cost $300k.

      The tax system should not handing subsidies to overseas manufacturers to make their positional goods even more exclusive and expensive.

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        One of the reason why high end European cars are so expensive down here is the implicit subsidy given to high end earners via the novated lease rort.
        It’s not just high-end euro cars. I saw an ad on TV the other day for a BMW 316i (ie: BMW you buy when you can’t afford a BMW) and it was fifty-five bloody grand !

        I stand in horrified respect that BMW (and Audi and Mercedes) has convinced Australians to pay such a ridiculous premium for their vehicles. It boggles the mind.

      • Unsurprising given regulatory capture by producers.

        Buying and importing any vehicle sold in Australia outside of the official channels is effectively impossible given the legal restrictions.

        In an open market, the ADR would be mostly abolished, overseas standards grandfathered in and RHD second hand vehicle stock from the UK, Ireland and Japan would be readily available, forcing down prices.

        The only remaining use for the ADR would be to force producers to completely open their servicing secret sauce to all as a precondition of certification for sale here.

  3. Alex Heyworth

    As a couple of posters above have already noted, and as alluded to in the final note of the post, the big sleeper is the huge influence housing status has on a household’s material standard of living. Those just starting out with a mortgage are generally doing it tough – as they pretty much always have. Austerity is a familiar concept to them. Unfortunately for the current crop of new young mortgage holders, it is probably going to take a long time to get much easier. In contrast to the days of higher interest rates and lower prices, it takes a very long time to whittle down the principal. In the meantime, they are enormously exposed if interest rates should rise substantially.

    But that’s another issue. Great analysis, Matt. Interesting misperception that we are all middle income.

    • Reminds of a recent experience friends of mine had. A couple with a combined (gross) income of around $180k, they have recently started looking at buying a place, and as a part of that process went to a bank to investigate what sort of loan they could get. They are conservative, and were thinking in the realms of a $400-500k loan. The bank was happy, actually more than happy to the point of pushing, to lend them up to $1.4 million….they were shocked.

      Whilst they will never take on a loan that big, many in their situation will/have, hence the phenomenon of a top 5% income household thinking they are struggling. In a way they are, because they have precious little disposable income left over after paying such a huge mortgage. The banks will happily lend you into virtual poverty.

  4. Tiliqua scincoides

    Totally agree on the comments re housing affordability. Apparently I’m better off than 95% of Australians but since I was not in a position to buy property before the boom I certainly don’t feel well off.

    Asset inflation has had a larger effect on net wealth than what you bring home in your pay check.

  5. True but you have to compare apple with apple, you cannot expect young and retires to have a high income. Mainly when we talk about tax payers/household, in my mind it s the age bracket between say 30yo and 55yo,and within this bracket, the median salary should be much higher.

  6. I don’t think the equivalence scale makes much sense, especially the last table. Yes, it approximates what a family of four would have to earn to replicate the lifestyle of the median single wage earner. But the wage statistics are not broken down into household sizes, so it really is impossible to compare the situations of larger households. I seriously doubt that the median after tax income of couples with two kids is actually $90 000. That just brings us full circle back to “battling on 150k”, or at least pretty close. After all, the median single wage after tax is shown as 43k, so I guess as well as both parents working full time, the kids are bringing in 2k each a year. I give up. Am I the only one seeing this, or am I wrong?

    • Alex Heyworth

      The median wage for people with children will be higher, because they are older. The bottom part of the distribution is disproportionately young people just starting out in the work force.

  7. thomickersMEMBER

    the 50th percentile of “2 adults no children” wanting to buy their first home.

    25 year mortgage
    7% interest (avg over the course of the loan)
    $20,000pa repayment

    max mortgage = $232,600
    price of a median home in melbourne $500,000-$550,000

    • Are you crazy? Where is this max mortgage for a house of $500000? Who can save more than 250000 to pay for a house or even 2brm apartment in Sydney for 550000 with a mortgage of $232000 max? There is a housing bubble and there is a huge housing bubble in Sydney. For this price one doesn’t even have internal laundry. What a “high” living standard….

      • thomickersMEMBER

        I know that many retirees pull out upto half of their allocated pensions ($100,000 from a $200,000 balance) to help their 35 yr old kids secure a deposit. This happened a lot during the 2010 & 2011 “Greece mini sharemarket crash” where defensive portfolios took a 3-5% loss on each dip.

        the retiree’s mentality: “if i can’t get the returns i want, its best to secure my 35 yr old kid’s future”.


      • drsmithyMEMBER

        For this price one doesn’t even have internal laundry. What a “high” living standard….
        That’s an interesting example, because in Switzerland – a country most of us would consider pretty wealthy – it’s not at all unusual for apartments/townhouses to have shared laundries.

      • In my experience, most European city apartments have shared laundries. I like the idea of not wasting space on something that’s not used daily (unless you have a large family or small wardrobe I guess).

  8. Most people have doubts on the accuracy and truthfulness of these data from ATO and ABS. The biggest problem most workers have with such comparison is the fact that many SME business-owners are not reporting their true business incomes in their tax returns and census data, especially the ones that only accept or encourage “cash-only” payments like cafes, tradies and taxi-drivers. I’ve seen some business-owners who claim they earn only $50-60k pa yet they bought BMW / Lexus cars and their kids went to expensive private schools.

    Though my salary is above 80-90% Australian taxpayers according to the above table, I still would not believe it unless there’s more tax compliance measures to ensure better compliance from the SME business-owners.

    • Alex Heyworth

      It’s not necessarily a matter of compliance with the business people you refer to. More a matter of what the current tax law allows. The BMW/Lexus lease and private school fees would be legitimate fringe benefits.

      • I understand FBT rule, and you may get a bit tax advantage on the car lease (depending on how much you travelled) but there’s no benefit at all to get your business paid the school fees because they will be subject to highest rate 46.5% anyway (FBT rate).

        It is common knowledge that those mum and dad businesses (cafes, food outlets, tradies, etc) are not paying their share of income taxes because they simply can due to their mainly cash-dealing business. That’s why I always try not to do business with the “cash-only” providers.

      • Alex Heyworth

        Sure, I agree with you about the cash economy aspect. Not sure what the solution is, though.

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        So the car I can see as a legitimate (if extensively exploited) business expense, but how do you pass off private school fees ?

      • Sure, I agree with you about the cash economy aspect. Not sure what the solution is, though.

        In other countries, the tax authority will try their best to perform regular compliance check on the businesses by doing site-visits and benchmarking. For example, they will visit some business areas e.g. CBD and regularly check the average weekly or monthly turnover / sales figure of cafe business and put this into consideration as their “benchmark” and if any business in the area reports significantly lower sales compared to the benchmark, they will be flagged for further compliance measures, usually by sending “please explain” letter and maybe site-review follow-up.

        But, in Australia the compliance regimes always assume that people are honest and law-abiding hence they got fooled all the times. I am not only talking about ATO but also other compliance institution like police, customs, etc. Some even called them a bit “lazy” in doing their jobs.

      • Its more about having a good tax accountant than being in a cash-only business Deo

        ATO has very advanced algo’s that match certain business types expenses to their declared incomes (particularly cabbies).

        Im not saying there’s no black economy but its not as widespread as say, Southern Italy.

        The major advantage is running your business through a trust and also not having to pay taxes each and every week like a PAYG employee has to.

        In some cases you can delay payment of income tax by a quarter or more.

        And you underestimate the ability of people to borrow more than they make – and rely on the equity ATM in their house to make up the shortfall.

        The data shows there are a lot of income poor, asset rich households in the country.

      • Alex Heyworth

        “how do you pass off private school fees?”

        Some people even claim their grocery bills as fringe benefits. Maybe it helps their cash flow?

  9. Anyone else rubbing their hands together to read the stories of those doing it tough in tomorrow’s tabloids?

    The referenced Terror story there is a laugh. At rough calculations the guy is maybe on $2000 take home, but the electricity bill, that equates to $66 (overs) a week, hurts.

    • Yeah, what a joke. 600k mortgage by choice, kids in private schools by choice, lifestyle decisions by choice. No one’s holding a gun there.

      The sob stories started yesterday in the Herald Sun. A 25 yr old working in hospitality, hubby a carpenter on combined $130k squealing for handouts.. They’re doing it tough with a $380k mortgage and an investment property, but the taxpayers have a duty to make them rich and keep them in the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to apparently. Who’s giving these people financial advice FFS? Further victims of the real estate miracle.

      • I saw that one too. Somewhere else in the article the husband (who appears to have “bricks mate” immigrant heritage) said that without the first home buyer’s grant, they wouldn’t have been able to buy their house. I need a strong cup of tea before I contemplate the level of stupidity in cases like these.

      • thomickersMEMBER

        Lol saw that one… funny thing is that their investment property is under syndicated ownership with another couple.


      • Mining BoganMEMBER

        Fuck ’em.

        They’re the self-entitled that I want to see burn. Once they’ve learnt to live within their income and stop being selfish brats, then I will listen.

      • Reap what you sew. Successive governments created a nation addicted to entitlements. The outcomes are clear to see; we’re fucked.

      • @Mining Bogan +1m

        Problem is, they form a vocal, organised constituency of whining self entitlement, the political classes does not have the will to face them down and tell them to go forth and multiply.

        I’ve seen it at length in the other hemisphere, instead of holding them up to ridicule, the vote grubbers will offer, tea, sympathy and a complete self interested inability to grasp the reform nettle.

        In the UK, there has been huge whining at the middle class welfare tap being switched off at over twice the median salary.

        We are witnessing the cancerous effects upon the body politic by middle class vote buying through welfareism.

        Welfare handouts should be taxed at the marginal rate of the combined household income.

      • drsmithyMEMBER

        I have a certain amount of sympathy for people dropping a substantial chunk of their income on buying a house to live in, as the social pressure to do so is considerable and the ethically bankrupt finance industry has been doing everything it can to encourage and facilitate it.

        For people sacrificing their cashflow on things like private schools and negatively-geared “investment” properties, however, I won’t shed a tear.

    • Just teach the kids to switch off the lights when they leave a room, wimple. People don’t even switch their air conditioning when at work and then complain about the bills. I have seen horrific wasters of energy and water and I still can’t believe what they are doing. Are they stupid or maybe just careless and ignorant???

      • Alex Heyworth

        “Just teach the kids to switch off the lights when they leave a room, wimple.”

        Impossible, in my experience. I can’t even get my wife to do that.

        Just resign yourself to going round the house at regular intervals switching off lights.

      • Hi MB, “wimple” is not my word, i haven’t use it in my comment, because I even don’t know what it means.

  10. One thing always confuses me,… what does ‘income pre-tax’ mean?
    Which one is it?
    1. “income pre-tax” = Package (salary+superannuation)
    2. “income pre-tax” = salary

    • 2 – salary. They don’t count super in any of those figures, as super is considered an employer expense, not wages, even though the employee “owns” it.

      • The tax incidence of super falls wholly on the employee.

        The notion that it’s an employer expense is a convenient fig leaf for the 3% reduction in actual pay or reduced pay rises every non state employed Australian is going to experience between now and 2016.

  11. As a non economist this is my take :

    I think this confirms that most households have a healthy level of income and while they have surely over extended in their mortgage due to market and social pressures, they will hang on and keep paying their house even if it means sacrificing a big part of that income, which would have been better spent on “quality of life” like enjoying more disposable income with the family, creating memories, having family trips and/or a small cottage in the mountains or some beach town.

    This is why house prices have been so resilient and I can’t see house prices crashing down from current levels (even though I would really welcome it since I haven’t bought yet).

    In summary I think that people who bought a property to live in, don’t really care if house prices go up or down , they are happy they have a place to call their own. So the only thing that could cause prices to go down is for investors to exit massively through the door in a short period, which I don’t see it happening either, unless there is an external or internal recession shocking our economy or a change in negative gearing laws.

    With most of the external worries not materialising (US/EU not crashing but slowly hanging on) then the only probability is an Internal problem, Will the end of the mining boom if not handled correctly create enough shock to cause house prices to come down ?

    Does this sound too simplistic ? am I missing something ?

    • That fact that the article doesn’t mention house prices, the ability of people to keep paying their mortgages, or whether people living in their own property care if house prices go up or down?

      I don’t think it confirms anything that you claim it does.

      • I never said this were facts supported by research, I said I am non economist and it is my take, so I was just putting it out there to see how far my understanding goes.

        “The typical Australian income, after tax is $90.510 for a couple with two kids.”

        That, to me is a sign of a wealthy country… I don’t know about you…

        This to me means that even if Australian mortgages are big, they can and are being paid (and there is ample evidence with bank mortgage arrears statistics)

        Believe me I am someone who would like prices to go down, but after the last three years of waiting, I am just trying to come up with theories on why this is not happening.

      • Well there’s plenty of evidence to show that our house prices (or more accurately land) are overvauled compared to incomes, rents, GDP and almost any other measure you look at.

        I think that they’ll revert to the mean at some stage but no idea when. Given that half of our income growth over the last ten years has been due to the increased terms of trade, perhaps that time is quickly coming.

    • What if they’re suddenly unemployed?

      Does anyone seriously believe we’re going to sail on unscathed ad infinitum with record terms of trade, mining investment seamlessly replaced by internal investment, the currency adjusting to the Goldilocks number and a demographic downdraft?

      • That’s what I meant by an internal recession (end of mining boom not being handled correctly)… so we agree on this

    • “confirms that most households have a healthy level of income”

      What planet are you on foreigner?

      How do you pay $20k in rent (because you can’t afford a mortgage) out of that median “healthy level of income”?

      • If a family earns around 90K and spends 20-25K on rent, I think it is definitely good enough to live on, not lavishly, but certainly not bad either.

        I am from planet earth by the way were 90-95% of countries have less income than Australia and still manage to live on…

    • Free_Market_Delusion

      I actually understand what you are getting at.

      I’d suspect the cry poor is ultimately lack of disposable income, therefore no savings and no buffer. There must be a percentage that will do what ever it takes to make mortgage payments.

      Catch is the system would seem to be resilient as in we don’t have defaults running amok but how far are the average people away from defaulting?

      Unemployment is the clincher here, if it begins to increase then there will be few mortgage holders that can survive on a single income if one job is lost.

      • That’s how I see it. There seem to be a lot of people complaining “I have no money because…because…because I spent it all!”.

        I think that one can have an extravagant lifestyle, or financial liquidity. Some people just want both.

  12. Hi,

    ATO’s 2010-2011 data for taxable income, does this income is after applying negative gearing?

  13. Great post. It shows how far away from most people some Australians are and how close they are to Canberra.

  14. ceteris paribus

    Yes, great income profiling. Thank you.

    I can understand why assets are beyond scope because of data difficulties, but really so much perspective is lost when at least the family home is not factored in.

    Housing is both an asset and an uavoidable expense. 2/3 of Australians own one and 2/3 of them in turn own it outright.

    So 4/9ths have an “average imputed rental income of what? – just say $17K per year after expenses- while 5/9ths do not.

    Having a paid-off house has always been a critical factor in poverty and standard of living studies, right back to the Henderson Report 40 years ago.

    And the good thing about the family home is that this asset does not need to be “consumed” (author’s reference) througth the use of imputed rent- because of the tax-free capital appreciation of 300% in nominal terms over the last 20 years.

    The role of housing and its 17 year bubble once again highlights that todays younger families are copping the short straw in the income stakes.

    Asset bubbles have their costs.