I Earn $34,000 Per Year

I earn $34,000 per year.

On bad days, I struggle with my sense of self-worth because of that number. There are various triggers. I let that six-figure-earning FIRE blogger get me down because of their thoughts on how small changes in spending aren’t the solution, making more money is. Or a jealous spark ignites in my brain when the new member to the work team, so young that even I thought that he seemed fresh-faced, tells me that his former job offered him a $65,000 salary to keep him.

I have reflected a long time on the cause of this anxiety, and I now realize it is tied to home. I was in my hometown for a funeral last week, and a woman I vaguely knew approached me to ask how school was going. I explained that I now had my Master’s degree and was working for a pharmaceutical company. Her eyes glazed over. She obviously had no idea what any of that entailed. Nonetheless, she said, “See, you’re living proof that people from [hometown] can do something. Everyone else thinks we’re nothing, but you prove that’s not true.” And that stranger’s voice had real pride in it.

My small, rural hometown is impoverished. Few people go on to higher education at all, much less an advanced degree. Those of us who do cannot stay, because there are no jobs. The best job one can get is as a nurse or in the dangerous and tumultuous coal mining industry. My grandpa worked in the latter most of his life, and never reached Mr. Steward’s current salary. From youth, I was told that someone as smart as me would go on to be very successful, perhaps as a doctor or lawyer. The subtext was that success meant making a lot of money.

It’s not that the people in my hometown valued money above all else. It’s simply that when you don’t have any, it’s easy to overestimate money’s ability to fix your problems. Money becomes the sole metric of success, because it’s the sole focus of your energies. No one told me to earn money in ways that made me miserable. There was simply an assumption that no one who was making real money could possibly be miserable while doing it.

And yet, I did find myself in a place of misery. I didn’t go down the obvious professional roads, but I did go down the professorial path. Just four years ago, I had a 3.98 GPA in a History PhD program I was getting paid to attend. I had recently received word that I had won a large grant to live in Europe for a year to do my research. I was living the academic dream. If all had gone well, I’d likely be finished with my dissertation now, and perhaps be making $60,000 a year in a tenure-track position.

The problem was, I was also having panic attacks (literally, not figuratively) about pretty much everything. I did not want to travel for research. I wanted to put down roots right where I was. I wanted to enjoy studying the things I loved. I did not want to sacrifice them on the pyre of academic relevance. I wanted to have my family and spend ample time with them. I did not want a constant tension between my work and personal life.

Most of all, if I was going to continue, I wanted to know I’d definitely be rewarded with a tenure-track job at the end. That prospect seemed increasingly unlikely. Instead, I’d likely have needed to move to a new place every year or two, trying to put down roots all over again in a new adjunct position. It was not the life I wanted.

So I took my Master’s and walked away. I got a job that paid less than I make now, but I was a lot happier. I like my new job even more. And really, that means that I have made it, just as folks said I would. I may not make the astronomical amounts of money that everyone assumed would go with success, but we have everything we need and more. I have had a life full of amazing experiences, including several months lived abroad. I find my work intellectually interesting. And I find my family, friends, and community emotionally and spiritually fulfilling. I have found a life that lets me leave potential money on the table when, ironically, the cost is too high. In short, I have found a life that allows for happiness measured in more metrics than simply money.

The funny thing is, the people from home also know, deep-down, that happiness is not totally about money. That funeral I attended? The man was lauded for his deep faith, his gentle words, and his love for his family. No one said a word about his salary.

28 Replies to “I Earn $34,000 Per Year”

  1. Kyle

    I. Love. This. My wife and I earned less than $70k combined last year across our four jobs. We’re not “successful” by the world’s standards, but that’s perfectly fine with us because those standards aren’t what we measure ourselves by. Yeah, sure sometimes the Jones’ house smells better, or has softer carpet. But I know plenty of people with double or triple our income that aren’t even close to being content with what they have. And it doesn’t make me feel smug, or like I’ve got it figured out. It makes me sad. I wish we could get away from this “money will make you happy” mentality, because it won’t. Responsibility, gratitude, and selflessness are the best ways to a fulfilled life. I’m glad to see those traits in your writing!

    • Ms. Steward

      Thank you! I am so happy it resonated. I agree wholeheartedly. Some random thoughts in response:

      I think the intersections of money and fulfillment and happiness are fascinating. I think it does take a little money to be happy–it’s hard (but maybe not impossible?) to be happy when you lack basic need fulfillment. And obviously, we would all ideally love to have that perfect combination of getting paid a lot to do work we love.

      I agree with you on the smugness, though. I don’t feel superior when I see friends get it wrong. I know someone, for instance, who took a job because it paid more, and he now deeply regrets it because the stress it adds to his life is not at all worth the money, but he doesn’t know how to back out now. I feel deeply troubled for him, and also intensely grateful to not be in that position (at least not anymore).

      I don’t want to overplay gratitude, either. It is one of the very most important things in my life, but I also think it can be dangerous to feign gratitude in conditions where, truthfully, we’re not happy or an injustice is occurring. That’s something else I am working on.

      I value so highly your thoughts and feedback. Thank you again!

      • Felicity (@FelicityFFF)

        “I think the intersections of money and fulfillment and happiness are fascinating.”


        One of my favorite books is called “Happy Money” and is a super quick, enjoyable read – highly recommend. 😀

        I like the idea of gaming the system as it were – reaching the optimal happiness return on investment. Yeah, I’m a huge dork. >.>

        Ahem – to the main article:
        Thank you so much for sharing!

        • Ms. Steward

          Oooh! I’ll have to check out that book! I’m definitely with you. I have already noticed some positions where I am like, “Not worth the money.” Trying to find the calibration between money and happiness is hard. I want to make more, currently, but there are definitely some responsibilities/tasks I am not willing to take on to make that happen.

  2. NZ Muse

    “I think the intersections of money and fulfillment and happiness are fascinating. I think it does take a little money to be happy–it’s hard (but maybe not impossible?) to be happy when you lack basic need fulfillment. And obviously, we would all ideally love to have that perfect combination of getting paid a lot to do work we love.”


    For me it is literally impossible to be happy if I am stressed about money. I worry so much about money, so often! Life has only improved with every income jump. That said I think I’ve had a good streak, and now I’m at a plateau point where moving up will mean a decrease in loving the work. I want to make more but I want to maintain enjoyment and not take on too much stress, so that’s where I’m currently at career wise.

    • Ms. Steward

      Peter Singer ran the numbers, and he said that there is a plateau (he pegged it around 60-70k U.S.) after which you see a sharp decrease in the amount of happiness you gain from additional money. The counterpoint, of course, is that any gains made before that point would definitely make an improvement.

  3. Kate @ Making it Rain

    What a wonderful post.

    I really can relate to so much of this. I did my master’s research overseas and thought often about continuing that work for my PhD…and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it (even though it would have been great for my career, etc etc). I basically had a non-stop panic attack for the two years it took to finish my master’s. And I had lived away from home for years prior that and I wanted so badly to live at home. Not live out of suitcases. Not miss birthdays and holidays. Be in one place for awhile.

    And I am so so happy that I did. Money is NOT everything, but sometimes we need a reminder. Thank you for that.

  4. Mel @ brokeGIRLrich

    I’m so glad I came across this. I just got rejected from a PhD program I was kind of excited about … but only kind of. I felt a little like I was applying because what was the point in getting an M.A. if I don’t? Except I liked studying for my M.A. and consider the whole thing (including living abroad) one of my most challenging life experiences.

    I also work in a really low income field, but really enjoy what I do – at least for now. My entire extended family worries I’m going to starve to death, but I’ve actually found you need a lot less than society tells you to need.

    • Ms. Steward

      “I felt a little like I was applying because what was the point in getting an M.A. if I don’t? Except I liked studying for my M.A. and consider the whole thing (including living abroad) one of my most challenging life experiences.”

      Exactly. I don’t know what field you’re in, but I found that a PhD in most of the fields I wanted to go into that were not academic would have hurt me. I would have been considered “too educated” and with too high of a salary expectation, and they would not have hired me. (My first job told me that forthrightly once I had been working there a while. Also, I enjoyed my MA coursework and the remaining courses for the PhD. It was as it switched to the research element (and as time dragged on) that I started to dislike it more.

      I wish us both someday the ideal situation of getting paid loads for work we love. Until then, I have learned a tons of lessons already from my time working entry-level jobs–most of which being some much-needed humility. I certainly would neither trade those lessons, nor would I do work I hate.

  5. Jane @ Cash Fasting

    This is SO inspiring! It wasn’t until I read this post that I realized I’ve been stuck in this loop of constantly comparing myself to other people. Holy shit. Thank you for sharing your point of view! I find it extremely grounding, which is so important to me.

    • Ms. Steward

      Constant comparison is a killer, and I found myself in that loop, too. It was making me dissatisfied with what was otherwise a very happy thing for me (new job).

      I’m so glad this post resonated with and helped you!

  6. Nicoleandmaggie

    That said, you should not allow yourself to be underpaid. If that freshfaced new hire is making more than you are, it might be time to ask for a performance review and a raise.

    I don’t use comparisons in my work to make myself feel bad, but to argue for pay increases. Last year I argued and got a 10% raise because new hires were making more than I was. A couple of my colleagues also got raises from me doing that.

    • Ms. Steward

      Oh no! Please don’t mistake this post about gratitude and contentment as complacency. I have a plan with my boss to be promoted by the end of the year, and am working hard at crushing it to make it happen. In my current field, many positions are not open until there are 1-2 years of experience in the field, so I am biding my time, essentially.

      I mentioned in a previous comment that there is a danger, which I think you are getting at, in letting contentment mask injustice. A huge pay disparity is an injustice in my mind. That said, I don’t think one exists. Everyone else on my team has a higher role than me. That guy who was offered 65k is almost assuredly not making that here. I figure everyone else on the team is in the 40-45k range, but for doing different work.

  7. Emily

    You know how proud I am of you for the long process of working through this and articulating your feelings. I think you’ve made a huge leap forward in your own contentment by being able to articulate what has been bothering you.

    There is a tipping point between money/contentment/happiness and I think the balance always shifts a little, depending on where you are and what you are doing in your life.

    Complacency is the killer of contentment – keep striving for both (your desired/earned money goal and your personal balance). Love!!

  8. We're All Poor Here

    I loved this post. I make even less than you and I’m quite happy. And I’m continuously getting happier. Like you, I grew up, and still live, in a small college town where any job is a good job.

    I wasn’t always happy with my life. One day I decided to change priorities to what really matters, which isn’t a paycheck, and discovered the philosophy change had a snowball effect on the rest of my life.

    Thanks again for sharing.

  9. David Domzalski

    What inspired writing. Thanks so much for sharing your story. I’m not surprised nobody mentioned the salary of the person that passed. Money is a tool and not a destination. It’s not everything nor should it be. Seriously, thanks for sharing this and putting things in perspective for us.


  10. Lauren

    Just came across your blog (through NYTimes Smarter Living link to the Human Decency Fund post). Have read several other posts now and subscribed, as opposed to other budgeting websites that haven’t hooked me. I think it’s your good writing and your self-awareness. Although I’m not a mom, and I live in very expensive California, I relate to your blog because I too left my PhD History program recently, though I have yet to land on my feet again. I’m still thinking through a lot of what happened to me / is happening to me (dare I say unpacking/teasing out), and your posts about work, money, etc. are helping me do that. Thanks so much, and keep it up!

    • Ms. Steward

      So glad that what I’ve written has resonated with you! I appreciate the praise, as well.

      I’d love to hear any thoughts you have about teasing out having quit the PhD program. It really did a number on me in a lot of ways–the path leading up to the decision and then, honestly, I think about 3 years of emotional work to come to terms with the decision after I made it. (Not to be a downer–my timeline may be very different than yours.)

  11. Lindsay

    Thanks for your honesty. These life decisions are the hardest ones to make, and reconciles your own expectations with outside perceptions takes a strong character.

  12. [HCF]

    Ok, I am a latecomer here, but still, have to tell I love this article. Can totally relate to the hometown experience, same for here (also this thinking pretty much describes the thinking of the vast majority of the people in our country). My gross salary is similar to yours and it counts as a very good one here. That is another reason you should not care much about it, those are just numbers. When you have “enough” the rest is just icing on the top 😉 Sadly it is true too that the less you have from money the more life is about it. I see this over here all the time. And yeah, it annoys me to death that when someone who knows how much do I earn give you the look when you tell something about fulfillment or the lack of interest in the projects you work on. Like you won’t be allowed to have an opinion about that kind of stuff when you are “well paid” and your words count as whining and first world problems. Anyway, thanks for sharing 🙂

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