On Feeling “Behind” and How to Stop

I’ve struggled a lot with feeling “behind” in life lately. It mostly emanates from my salary. I’ve written before about how my current salary is $34,000 per year. I turn thirty next year. The short story of why I make less than might be expected from someone my age with a Master’s degree is that I pivoted away from a career in academia, instead entering the professional workforce at the entry-level five years later than most. Then I stayed too long in my first going-nowhere job, because I didn’t know better.

Now I find myself eager to take more control over my professional life and rectify my salary situation. I outlined my strategy for getting a promotion a month or so ago. I have since carried out the plan. The talk went well, but not in the direction I hoped. My goal was to swap my current job track, designed for those without college education, for the other departmental track, designed for those with college degrees. The base salary for the other track is $6,000 more than I currently make. To meet my goal, I spent the last year fulfilling the responsibilities outlined for the other track in addition to my current job.

When I brought my presentation to my department director, he said I was doing everything right, and had no real suggestions for what I could do better or additionally. Nonetheless, for reasons that I suspect have to do with HR more than me, he said switching my job track “in-place” was not a possibility. He reiterated that I am still eligible for a promotion on my current track during this year’s evaluations. He also said that he strongly expects a position on the team in the other track to open within the next six months. If it doesn’t, he told me to return then to figure out an alternate game plan. Considering I am going to be on maternity leave for three of those six months, that’s not a horrible timeline.

Basically, I got about as positive a “no” as one can receive. It still stung. Mr. Steward is confident I won’t need to go back in six months. He firmly believes that the situation will resolve itself before then. Still, no matter how hard I try to stay positive lately, I routinely feel down about my salary and behind where I “should be” in life.

The External Comparison Trap

If pushed, I am hard-pressed to answer why my salary bothers me so much. I am acutely aware that in the global view Mr. Steward and I are incredibly privileged and insanely wealthy. Not insignificant portions of our budget are devoted to that truth. What is there to complain about, when there are people in the world without food or clean water? Even in a more limited scope, we both make far more than anyone else in my family ever has. Usually reminding myself of those things is the magical silver bullet against any feelings of negativity and ingratitude. So what’s the problem this time?

Ultimately, I have been locked in the trap of external comparison. Both of the usually helpful reframing mechanisms above still require me to compare my situation with others’. Every time I think about how good we comparatively have it, a part of my brain unhelpfully points out that it’s also possible to compare “up.” To bloggers our age who have already achieved financial independence. To folks who were already making six figures by 35. To the rest of my work team, who are all paid more. To the median income of individuals my age with a Master’s degree. To what I might be making, if I had earned that PhD and scored a tenure-track job after all.

How Internal Comparison Finally Helped

A couple of days ago, sick of fighting a battle with frustration but unsure what to do when the usual tools weren’t working, I finally asked personal finance Twitter:

The number of responses blew me away. It’s not just me that has dealt with these feelings. Everyone seemed to know exactly what I was talking about. The suggestions were wide-ranging, from “eat chocolate cookies” (check!) to “re-evaluate all of your life goals.” This response summarized the overall consensus, though:

So, I sat this morning and made a list of what we’ve accomplished in the seven years since we got married and started our financial life:

  • I make $6,000 more annually than I did a year ago.
  • Mr. Steward makes $21,000 more annually than he did seven years ago.
  • We paid off $28,000 of student loan debt in three years on an entry-level salary and a grad school stipend.
  • We saved up a large emergency fund.
  • We built our net worth from zero to over $100,000.
  • I earned a Master’s degree and left a career path that was making me miserable.
  • We bought a house.
  • We have faithfully tithed.
  • We upgraded an unsafe vehicle to one that should last us many years.
  • We have created 1.8 kids and managed, so far, to not only materially provide for them, but to help Bean grow into a kind, intelligent, vibrant child.

When I look to the future, the picture is rosy:

  • If the mystery bonus we will receive is significant at all, the van will be paid off within four or five months of purchase. If it’s really generous, we may even be able to get the PMI off of our house.
  • We’ll start monthly contributions to the girls’ college educations once the van payment is gone.
  • We’re increasing our personal 401k payroll contribution to 15% (adding 11%) next month.
  • Mr. Steward is going back to school, and should have his Bachelor’s degree completed within two years. Our employer will cover almost all the costs.
  • Two years from now, we’ll only have one child in daycare. Five years from now, daycare payments will be gone. That frees up $1300 per month.

Looking at these lists, I no longer feel upset or discouraged. Instead, I feel dang proud. It’s hard to feel “behind” when I see how much we have accomplished in a relatively short time, and how well we are positioned moving forward. Ultimately, our unique life stories determined where we started and have guided our path so far. I can definitively say, though, that we have consistently made significant progress, and it looks like we will continue doing so moving forward.

If you struggle with feeling “behind” and external comparison, I urge you to try internal comparison instead. Remind yourself how far you’ve come from where you were. My hope is that it will help you as much as it has helped me.

12 Replies to “On Feeling “Behind” and How to Stop”

  1. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life

    *claps* I’m glad you came around to this. We all have to be able to find our own baseline and ground ourselves, lest we spin in circles endlessly comparing ourselves to her, him, them, them, and them! There will always be someone doing better than you by leaps and bounds and there will always be someone you’re doing better than by leaps and bounds but the only journey you can live is your own. And no one else can do it for you. ❤️

    • Ms. Steward

      Thank you! These are all things I know intellectually, but sometimes I can’t seem to find the right strategy to make my feelings tone it down a couple of notches. I’m grateful for the advice everyone gave–especially the pic or Michelle Obama you sent. It really made me think and helped to drive home what everyone was saying.

  2. Rogue Dad, M.D.

    Perspective is a wonderful thing, seems like you have plenty of it. You are doing quite well, and while you do have good perspective on your overall situation, setting goals (some of which are monetary) I think is a reasonable thing. I think the key to avoid is setting a pure salary goal, because that goal is easy to reset every time you reach it and never be satisfied. If you can set goals that reduce stress and increase enjoyment without necessarily worrying about the money, when you do reach the money goals that better enable those things, you won’t be focusing on the next salary bump.

    Having said that, sometimes people really are just underpaid relative to their contributions/value and should be paid more.

    http://www.roguedadmd.com/2017/10/disrupting-the-equilibrium/

    I wrote that a few days ago as part of a chain of posts as a fellow blogger had his house go up in flames…

    • Ms. Steward

      There is indeed a danger to setting salary goals as you point out. It is about the salary now, but it’s also that I’ve been working nearly five years (again, partially my own fault) at salaries and positions that are entry-level. I do genuinely think that once I’m making in the 40k range, more similar to the people I work with daily and my spouse, I will be a little happier with my earnings. Moreover, I know salary can’t and won’t be my only motivation with work, because there are too many jobs I’m unwilling to do, as they require too much time away from my family.

  3. Matt Spillar @ Spills Spot

    So glad that my response resonated with you, thanks for the shoutout in the post! You guys are doing an awesome job, keep it up. Such an important message to focus on the internal rather than everyone else around us.

  4. ths117

    This is lovely, Ms. Steward. I’m proud that you’re proud, and these are both qualitative and quantitative metrics that prove it! You’ve heard me say to mutual friends before that “comparison is the thief of joy,” and I really do believe that – but you’ve found a way here to mobilize comparison to reinforce your own joy, and I admire that. <3

    • Ms. Steward

      I’m all for mobilizing anything I can to reclaim my joy. I can’t stand it when my reframing mechanisms stop working, although I suppose it leads me to find new ones… 😉

  5. Penny @ She Picks Up Pennies

    Sometimes I just have to step away from PF Twitter and money blogs. It’s too much sometimes. A lot of times. I know there are 9 million “comparison is the thief of joy” posts out there. But for every one of those posts, there are six more posts about people paying off a million dollars worth of debt in five minutes. All hyperbole, of course, but there’s a kernel of truth in that.

    Compared to most of the PF world, my husband and I are not big earners. I will cross the six-figure mark before I retire (if I stay until 50+), but I don’t believe my husband ever will. But like you did here, it’s really important to think about how far we’ve come by ourselves compared to ourselves.

    I’m also a big fan of walks when I feel behind. It’s hard to feel behind in nature.

    • Ms. Steward

      You hit the nail on the head, Penny. I had similar thoughts about how, as much as we talk about personal journeys, we also love to benchmark and make rules in the PF community. Comparison is a natural fallout from that, even though I don’t think anyone intends for it to be that way. (That’s not even to get started on the somewhat sensational stories of high-achievers.) I even had the thought, when writing this post, that some people reading our list might feel like, “Oh crap, I’m really behind even her, and she feels behind.” (P.S. PLEASE NO ONE DO THAT, FOR REAL.)

      Because you guys make more “normal” salaries, I love to read your blog! There’s a lot to learn from many different types of blog, but yours is one I know I can turn to consistently and relate, versus simply dream.

      You’re right about walks and nature. Another thing that does help, for a time, is spending some focused playtime with Bean. Our kids are probably, after all, at least half the reason this matters so much to me.

  6. the Budget Epicurean

    Oh my gosh I just want to hug you! Can we be friends irl? I swear this exact worry/ fear/ comparison has been gnawing at me for weeks now. That is such a beautiful and simple solution, to change perspective.

    You should be dang proud! You’ve found a path in life that won’t suck our your soul, have made so many good decisions, and are building a strong and solid future for yourselves and your little ones.

    Hold fast to what is good. We’re all just living our own stories, and the PF community is here for you!

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