In today's economy, some people will point out that the younger generation of today may actually be worse off than their parents. This would be the first generation since at least the Great Depression era where this could be said, and even the Depression era is arguable.
Today's world is bizarre in many ways. There is some truth that we are actually poorer, at least in a sense. When it comes to things like housing, medical insurance, and education, we really are poorer. Wages have not kept pace with the costs of many of our basic needs.
On the other hand, today's young people enjoy technology that was not possible just a couple of decades ago. The internet did not take off until the 1990's, and even in the late 90's it was just a fraction of what it is now.
I think one of the most important investments you can make, if you are in the minority of middle class Americans who does not already own one, is to have a smartphone. I believe in frugality up to a certain point and I know that hardcore savers (like Mr. Money Mustache) will say that you can have a pre-paid cell phone or something equivalent for just a few dollars per month. If you own a smartphone and have a plan that allows internet usage, you may pay something close to $100 per month. You may be able to get a little discount for a family plan.
I think for many people, they would be fools not to have a smartphone, especially if their time is valuable to them. Of course, every individual has a unique situation. If you are unemployed with little income, then it is probably a good idea to cut your monthly expenses to the bone, which would include not having an expensive plan for a smartphone.
I know some people criticize smartphones. They like the good old days. They think they are anti-social. On this point, they may be right to a certain extent. If you are having dinner with friends or family, put down the phone unless it is an emergency. But this is just a matter of being courteous. You have to use good judgement in your life. However, it also doesn't mean that smartphones are a bad thing just because some people may be rude.
I think the biggest point that needs to be reinforced is that your time is worth something. Some people's time is worth more than others. This doesn't mean that one person is more important than another. It just means that some people's time is more valuable. A heart surgeon's time is more valuable than a guy sitting at home who can't find a job. One guy is short on time and long on money and the other is short on money and long on time. Sometimes it is important to put a price tag on your time.
For this reason, smartphones are amazing. You can convert what was previously unproductive time into productive time, even if the productive time is for entertainment purposes. I tend to read more about the latest news in the world or the financial markets. Other people may just look at their Facebook account and what their "friends" are up to. But even the person using their phone for Facebook and other entertainment is far better off if the alternative is just sitting there and looking at a wall.
I think about this in certain settings. For example, think about waiting in a waiting room for the doctor. Before, it would really annoy me if I had to wait a long time. It might still annoy me if I had somewhere to be, but having a smartphone makes the situation a lot more tolerable. I can visit some of the websites that I like to visit on a daily basis. I can also check email.
This could apply to almost anywhere that you can get cell service. If you find yourself sitting there waiting, you can convert that into productive time. If I read a few articles while I am in the waiting room, then that will free up my time to do other things later on. Or maybe I will have read something that I otherwise wouldn't have seen. In the past (and smartphones have only been around for a few years), you would have been stuck reading some magazine that you probably didn't care about.
Also, consider your commute to work. If you have a commute to work, you can convert this into productive time. Some people spend over an hour a day in the car. You can use your smartphone (or an iPod) and listen to podcasts or speeches. (I would recommend listening to it through your car stereo if you have the capability. I actually have an old school tape deck in my car that I can use to listen to my iPhone through the car stereo.) Even if you like to listen to music, you can mix it up between podcasts and music. And even with music, technology has made us much better off, allowing us to listen to songs we like instead of waiting for something on a radio station, or doing endless searches on the radio.
In conclusion, if you have some money to spare and you value your time, I think a smartphone is a great investment. You can convert waiting time (unproductive time) into something productive and enjoyable. In this way, we are much better off than past generations.