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:
How do you all deal with feeling “behind” in life?
— Ms. Steward (@howwedomoney) October 20, 2017
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:
I compare myself with my past self and how far I’ve come, rather than comparing myself to people around me. Helps a lot 🙂
— Matt Spillar (@mattspills8) October 21, 2017
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.