50 Grades of Pay

Why are we angered when we find out that someone else, whom we don’t quite value, makes more money than us? Why do we evaluate our own worth by the amount of money we are paid? Why do we get upset when a ne’er-do-well athlete gets a $100 million contract? Frankly, we shouldn’t really care about any of these things, but we do. It doesn’t matter how much someone else gets paid. Their pay has no bearing on what we get paid, but we often like to think that it does. Americans are obsessed with their incomes, or lack thereof.

I’ve shared with you before my most heinous of confessions. Early in my career, I was obsessed with making more money than my father did during the height of his career. At age 26 it seemed like a good goal. But it was a stupid and callous goal. Why did I feel the need to measure my own self-worth against the income of another man, let alone my father? So what if I made more or less money than he did. Would I have won an award for making more money that someone else? Nope, just the a-hole son award. Sales organizations often pit the income of its salespeople against each other. Again, this seems like friendly competition at the time, but it’s generally a company sponsored pissing contest.

What’s really funny (read: stupid) is that we think of our income in gross terms. We think “I make $50k per year.” And somehow that means something to us. We hang our hats on a gross salary or income even though we get access to no more than 75% of that income due to taxes, benefits, and other paycheck deductions. If we didn’t define ourselves based on how much money we made, then we wouldn’t describe our income in gross terms. But everybody does that, Pete. Exactly.

One of the most challenging things for us to do is to define ourselves and/or our worth based on our incomes. The moment that another person or profession is paid better than us, we immediately start comparing skills, worth, and value. It’s kinda odd. If the guy we went to college with, who happened to be a moron, ends up going to law school, graduating, and getting paid $60k more than us, why are we saddened by this?  The situation has absolutely nothing to do with us. That guy convinced someone to pay him what they are paying him. That doesn’t make him smart or us dumb. It’s just a different situation. It’s like complaining about being the shortest person in your group of friends. My buddies’ height doesn’t make me sad about my lack of height. Who gives a crap? Better yet, who has time to give a crap?

Don’t fall into the income envy trap. There’s nothing positive that can come of it. Here are some of the various lines of those caught in the trap:

-I work harder than he does, why does he make more?

-I have been at the company longer, why does she make more?

-I have a graduate degree, how does he make more than I do?

-She may own the company, but I do all the work. I should get paid more.

-All he does is kick a football, I should get paid more.

-All she does is buy doctors lunch, I should get paid more.

It’s not unusual to hear someone say “I loved the job, but the pay sucked.” Or better yet “I hate the job, but the pay is great.” These are signs of measuring your worth by your income.

Here are three tips to help you make sure that you don’t view your income in the wrong light.

  1. Detach your income from your measure of success- Measure your financial success by what you saved or how little debt you have. Don’t measure it by your income.  It’s like judging your health solely on the food that you eat.
  2. Stop worrying so damn much about other people’s money- My income doesn’t and shouldn’t matter to you. Your least favorite co-worker’s income doesn’t and shouldn’t matter to you. Hell, your income shouldn’t matter to you as much as you think it should.
  3. A lack of income is rarely THE problem- After nearly 15 years of looking at peoples’ financial lives, I can tell you with great confidence that “more income” rarely solves the problem. You generally can’t affect your income, you can affect your expenses. Worrying about something that you can’t directly control is pointless. We only have so much energy and focus that we can put towards our financial lives. Don’t waste it on stupid crap that you can’t change.

Don’t be lame.

5 thoughts on “50 Grades of Pay

  1. Nice post Pete. Measuring your worth against another person is never the answer. I had a mentor who liked to say “we all make choices after high school” when someone would complain about a disparity between themselves and someone else.

  2. Money makes the world go round is arguable. Worrying about what other people earn is stupid.

  3. Good points, but I’d like to counter the “My income doesn’t and shouldn’t matter to you” stance. I think it would be great if more people were to discuss their salaries more openly. My friend’s salary does matter to me if he is doing the exact same job, but getting paid 50% more than me. If he (and everyone else in my field) is getting paid more, then that means I have less of a chance of meeting my life’s financial goals as these people will be “ahead” of me coming out of the gate (how they spend/save is a the other side of the equation). So on a personal level it would be nice to not worry what other people make. But on a fiscal level, I think it’s important to know what your peers make.

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