How I Learned To Say No To $40,000

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It’s been an interesting first year as a full-time freelance writer. For starters, I didn’t even know if I’d still be working on my own, at this point: on my last day of work (June 26th, 2015), all I knew was that I had a bunch of cash saved up and at least six months of client work ahead of me. What would happen after six months, I could only imagine. Maybe I’d have another six months of work ahead of me, but maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe all my clients would drop me. In that case, if I had to use a little bit of my savings, I would. And if I had to get a job, I would. Even if I just needed a little bit of stable income from a job at Starbucks, I was prepared to take that work on. But I haven’t had to do any non-writing work yet, nor have I had to dip into my savings; that’s one way I’m measuring my “success.”

In many the jobs I worked before this year of my life, I measured my success by the size of the raise I got every year. When I was a teenager, I loved getting $0.25/hour and $0.50/hour raises; they proved that I worked hard and deserved a little more money for my effort. Once, I even told the owner of the coffee shop-slash-bakery I worked at that I was going to quit and find work somewhere else, where I could make more money. She offered me $1.00/hour more to stay because she couldn’t afford to lose me. I was on top of the world. When I stepped into my first management position, I got a $4.00/hour raise that made me feel like a freaking boss (rightly so, I suppose, since I was one). In all my hourly wage positions, getting a raise made me feel like people knew I was doing a good job and that I was worth more money. But my effort-equals-raise mindset had to shift when I worked for the government…

Let me preface this by saying it’s not my former employer’s fault. Like all unions, the government operates under pay grades and scales. Your position has a number (I was an “18”), and there is a pay scale you move up each year: you’re given a small raise that’s equivalent to the yearly inflation on the cost of living in your area. I still liked getting those little boosts in my salary! They always helped (although I used to spend it all, back in the day). But these little hikes weren’t a measure of how hard I worked –- and I worked really hard at that job. I got to do what I went to school for (desktop publishing and print production), I worked with an amazing team, and I had managers who mentored and supported me. I should’ve been happy, and I was for a long time -– until I found out that someone on my team who was far less efficient and productive than I was (and really didn’t care about the job) earned more than me.

Things change when you see your coworkers’ pay stubs. And things really change when you find out you both started at the same time but your coworker started a step higher on the pay scale than you did. (The employer’s reasoning: the other person had a little more professional experience. What my hirers didn’t understand at the time: I was going to kick butt at my job, and work harder than the other employee.) I’m guessing that it is every employer’s worst nightmare to have someone on their team find out that she makes less money than someone else who does less work. Employers are probably terrified of people talking and figuring this stuff out, and they should be –- not because the employer has done anything wrong, but because it causes a tectonic shift in the foundation of your employees’ happiness.

After that, I started keeping a mental tally of how much work I did, compared to this other person. Some weeks, I produced as much as 300% more work! (240% was the average, but who’s keeping track? Oh, I was…). We were on the same team, had the same job title, the same job description, and the same daily duties (of which I did more), yet this person made more money than me. It felt awful. As time went on, I grew more and more unhappy in my job. There were other things at play, and it didn’t help that I felt stuck because a hiring freeze made it nearly impossible to find another job anywhere within the government. But, at the end of the day, it simply felt awful to be stuck on a pay scale where I was compensated based on the date I started, not the commitment and effort I put into my work.

I didn’t feel this way when I started working in the private sector. There, I earned annual raises that were based on my performance and I had nothing to complain about. It helped that I was on the management team, but I truly did feel like I was being paid according to my effort; I know the numbers would’ve only gone up if I had stayed. But my mindset shifted again, as I joined the world of the self-employed…

If you were reading this blog last July, you might remember that I started sharing how much I was earning each month; this is something I’d never done when I had a full-time job. I think I had shared what a few of my salaries were, over the years (and you could’ve done the math to figure out what my earnings looked like on a monthly basis), but I never specifically wrote: “I made $X this month.” Then, once I started working for myself, I felt like I was supposed to share more precise numbers. Some of that was an internal budgeting need; I felt like I needed to attach some numbers to how much I was spending, saving, etc. But it was also a social need; the majority of my self-employed friends in the personal finance space shared their earnings, so I felt like I had to follow suit. And the fact that I was making good money probably gave me the confidence to hit publish on those posts.

I’m going to be very open about some numbers here -– not because I want anyone to compare themselves to me (which is something you now know I’ve been guilty of doing, too), but because I want to be really honest about my thought process over the last year. I also think it’s important to talk about how this self-worth-to-salary-comparison happens at all different salary ranges.

When I quit my full-time job, I was making $64,000/year ($49,000 USD today). In my first six months of self-employment, I grossed $57,000 ($44,000 USD). I will admit, it felt awesome at the time. Not only had I proven I could survive on my own, but I was also making money on my own. Things were so good that I started talking numbers with some of my other self-employed friends. We cheered each other on, celebrated our first months where we earned over $10,000, and shared our final numbers for the year. I was among the lowest earners ($89,000 or $68,500 USD, which included six months at my full-time job), but if I could repeat the six months I’d just had, I could easily make $100,000 in 2016. So, I set that goal for myself. I even wrote it on the back of a Christmas card I sent to another self-employed friend and told her to set her own earnings goal so that we could reflect on it at the end of the next year.

I kid you not, that card changed everything for me. I didn’t think twice about it when I popped it in the mail, but my mindset shifted drastically over the holidays. As I let life slow down a bit, I began to realize how much work it actually took to earn that $57,000 and how exhausted I was. I also reflected on how much time I had spent doing what I truly loved (spending time with people and traveling), and the truth was that I’d said no to more invitations and opportunities than I’d said yes. This wasn’t what I’d signed up for. I didn’t quit my job to spend more time working and less time doing what I wanted… I quit because I wanted the freedom to build the life I had dreamed about during all those years that I was working a full-time job with part-time work on the side. One part of my self-employment dream was that I wanted to be able to work on my blog and personal projects first thing every morning, and I wasn’t even doing that. Every day, it was client work first, my own work second, my friends and passions last…and no amount of money was worth continuing to live with my priorities in that order.

So, I let go of that $100,000 goal. Actually, 2016 is the first year in nearly six years of blogging that I’ve found it nearly impossible to set goals for myself. My trouble with goal-setting started on January 1st, when I couldn’t come up with a single resolution I wanted to make (or could possibly commit to for an entire year). I was also tired of setting monthly goals, like Read Four Books or Work Out 20 Times In A Month, because dozens of scheduled updates with red “FAIL” marks beside them made me think that there had to be a better way. I’ve tried to set quarterly goals, which has been a bit better, though I’ve still crossed many out with the old red marker. The truth is, I’ve only had one goal this year: to do whatever makes me happy. It is perhaps one of the most selfish and shortsighted goals I’ve ever made, but it’s also paid off on a personal level -– which is surprising, since I’ve also been making less money than I have in years.

As of this moment, I’ve grossed just over $30,000 ($23,000 USD) in 2016. If things continue as they are, I may finish the year with a $60,000 salary. I could look at those numbers and feel like I’m failing. Six months ago, I set out to earn $100,000, and I may miss that goal by as much as $40,000. So, I could compare myself to my own goal, or the goals of my other self-employed friends, and feel like I’m failing, falling behind, not cashing in on my earning potential, etc., etc., etc. But my decision to earn less has been 100% intentional, and I’m 100% happier for it.

Instead of chasing dollar signs, I’ve been chasing my goals. I’ve put my own projects (like my book proposal, which I finally completed earlier this month) ahead of client work. I’ve let a few clients go and built stronger relationships with the ones I’ve kept. I’ve restructured my schedule so that my relationships can take priority (e.g. Tuesday’s adventure days), so I have more open availability to say yes to last-minute breakfast or hiking dates. Now, when I wake up every morning, I am happy. Of course, nobody aspires to earn less or truly wants to take a salary cut. I know that earning more would help me save more, travel more, and bring my retirement date closer to the nearer future. But for 2016, I intentionally decided that my goal is to determine my baseline for happiness first, so anything else is simply a bonus. Knowing my personal needs and wants, I’ve determined that $60,000 is my baseline, because it allows me to do a little bit of everything (live, save, and travel).

I’m always happy to talk numbers with my readers. In fact, I think it’s really important to talk about them. The more open and honest we are, the more we can learn from one another; this is a belief I’ve always had, and I recently learned that my online friend, Chelsea Fagan, shares it with me. So, when I tell you that $60,000 is my baseline, it’s not because I want anyone to compare their numbers to mine (those who earn both less and more). I’m telling you because I want you to figure out what that number is for you. I know that I need about $2,000/month to live, that I like to save at least $1,000, and that I also like to travel. Earning $60,000 lets me do all of that (even after setting aside 30% for taxes). And the more I think about this and talk about it, the more excited I am about being able to finish 2016 and say that all my financial bases were covered and I was happy.

When I look back at how I measured my work success in the past, I can see that the problem wasn’t simply that I was comparing myself to others -– it was that I let my salary make up a portion of my self-worth. When I made $64,000 and saw other people make more, I felt bad about myself. Why wasn’t I worth that much!? What was I doing wrong? The answer: nothing. In all my jobs, I earned an appropriate amount for the position I was in at the company I worked for, but I couldn’t see it that way at the time. Back then, I only saw dollar amounts, and they made me feel awful.

Now, I have to wonder: how cool would it be if we measured our success at the end of each year by the things we did, rather than how much money we earned? I want to get to the end of 2016 and say I recovered from surgery, got back into running, finally wrote my book proposal, explored more of BC, went on a road trip, and spent more time with the people I love. I’m sure I’ll add more work-related tasks to that list, along the way, but we’re halfway through the year and I already feel like it’s been a success. And it’s ok if numbers come into it. For example, if you want to earn $100,000/year so you can save 50% of your income and retire by the time you’re 40, that is awesome! You’ve set a goal, and money will help you reach it. But I don’t want to get to the end of the year and proclaim that I made Some Arbitrary Amount as though it’s a measure of my success. The numbers don’t mean anything, if they don’t serve a purpose in helping you live the life you want.

Image via Picjumbo

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