Does income matter on the journey to financial independence?
I agreed to be a guest on a podcast panel where I could weigh in on that very question. To be quite honest, I wasn’t sure what I could possibly add to the discussion besides a hearty, “Of course!”
Still, I agreed.
I anticipated that I would represent my usual schtick: Two teachers clawing their way out of six figures worth of debt in a world surrounded by six-figure earners. What I wasn’t expecting was to be asked to share my salary right off the bat or the incredible wave of guilt I felt once I did.
I Should Be Used to This
Everyone knows what I earn. Well, everyone who knows my actual name could know what I earn and most of them do. In addition to a local newspaper that runs educator salaries as a back-to-school present every year, there’s also a database sponsored by another news source that lets you plug in anyone’s information and pulls up their salary. The data on that source is a bit old, but it is still alarmingly accurate.
I should be used to people knowing my business. As a government employee, my business is their business. It’s not just my salary. Under the Freedom of Information Act, anyone can request access to my personnel file. Like the anti-union group who now has my home address and sends belligerent letters every week. My emails, my evaluations, it’s all free for the taking.
I should be used to this.
I’ve enjoyed the remarkable good that comes from salary transparency. As a worker on a salary schedule, I actually can’t fathom not knowing how much my coworkers make. But I’ve also seen the drawbacks to that. Like the one year, I had a student ballpark my salary and tell another student to keep my Christmas gift because I get paid enough as it is. In the middle of class.
RELATED POST: I Know How Much My Coworkers Make
Yeah, I should be used to being scrutinized for my pay. But I’m not.
When You Earn More Than They Think
When I was asked my salary, I answered honestly.
My voice was lilting. I finally doubled my salary, and I am so proud of my hard work. I honestly never thought this day would come, despite the time and effort I put in to increasing my salary.
RELATED POST: Teacher Talk: I Doubled My Salary
Never mind the fact that it will still take years for me to earn back the money I spent on all of my graduate work. Never mind the fact that last year I earned nearly $20,000 less because of my maternity leave.
In that moment, I was proud.
And then, I was something else.
After I shared that I make just over the state average for teacher income, there was a clarifying question: “No, not with your husband. How much do you make?”
I said the number again. And then I immediately regretted it.
For the past decade, I have worked as hard as humanly possible to be the best teacher I can be. Even during periods of time when there was no financial benefit, I gave my all. The day I stop putting my students first is the day I leave the profession.
I know I am a good teacher. I have been nominated for different awards, taken on all sorts of additional professional development, and even earned my National Board Certification. Plus, I have ten years worth of notes and cards from students that prove it.
But I was immediately awash with doubt and guilt despite the fact that the panel and podcast hosts were so encouraging and supportive. I reassured myself that I have always been honest. I just wrote a post about doubling my salary. I’ve done guest posts where I admitted that I want to earn six figures. (One day. One day, fifteen years from now…) Heck, I’ve written posts on this site asking if teachers should ever earn six figures, and the comments you left me were a resounding YES!
So why did I suddenly feel so terrible?
What You Don’t See
Last spring, the Frugalwoods—another blogger family who doesn’t disclose their income—was forced to share it. Or rather, other people shared it for them.
Some people weren’t surprised, and some people were. I landed squarely in the middle. On one hand, as a teacher married to another teacher, it is hard for me to comprehend how much money anyone else can make just because that isn’t my world. On the other hand, we bought a brand-new riding lawn mower this summer and that price almost stopped my heart, so I had a hunch homesteading doesn’t come cheap.
But the Frugalwoods are frugal. They don’t spend a lot of money. They don’t keep up with the Joneses, so it’s nearly impossible to guess how much money they make. It turns out that some of us who had been guessing had been wrong. Incredibly wrong. Suddenly, some people were upset about what they didn’t see or what they couldn’t see, perhaps because all they saw was the nonprofit label.
RELATED POST: How Frugality Doesn’t Paint the Whole Picture
That’s where my guilt came from. I use a label too. I talk about my salary as a teacher because I am one. Though I try to show that I am not the bread-and-butter-eating prototype from the beloved children’s classic Matilda (you’ve seen the sushi on my Instagram!), I was suddenly deeply concerned that people would call me dishonest or overpaid or out of touch or unnecessarily frugal or something else that I still can’t quite put my finger on.
Now? Well, it took about a month to sit with those feelings, and now I’m over it.
I don’t owe anyone anything. I do firmly believe that it is important to disclose the ballpark you’re playing in. But the fact of the matter is my W2 form is between me, myself, and
Turbotax whichever company has the best promo code come tax time. You aren’t going to get exact numbers from me. If you’ve been doing any kind of mental math as I post over the years, though, you can put together our budget pretty easily.
But I’m only telling my story, and there are some things that you won’t see here in addition to my actual face. I make vague references to my husband’s numbers, but I would never share our combined numbers exactly because that is our story, not just mine. It’s the same reason I use the pronoun I. Not because I’m selfish (weeeellllll…), but because I don’t run my posts past him. We aren’t co-authoring this blog, but we are co-authoring our lives. So I try to only speak about me here out of respect for him.
All I’ll say is that he makes considerably less than the teacher average, not because of talent, but because of time and where he works. If you want his story, convince him to blog. Or buy him a beer at the next FinCon. But don’t expect it here.
Guilt Isn’t the Right Response
Let’s go back to the guilt I felt for a moment. I, an anonymous blogger, feared I hadn’t been transparent enough. Maybe by definition, I’m not or cannot be. But what does that even mean when we ask for financial transparency?
Do you need to know income? Income and budget? What about birthday money? How much money the tooth fairy left everyone growing up? (For me, it was $10 a tooth because my dad is a sucker, and I was never so disappointed as I was when I realized I had no more teeth to lose.)
Are we asking for transparency or are we asking for control? I see both. I see people who simply say they want some marker to know if something is possible for their situation or not. Fair enough. That helps me too.
But I also see people who say that because someone crosses a financial threshold they have no right to be frugal or no right to talk about money struggles. With that, we’ve made the transition from wanting information to passing judgement or wielding control. That is equal parts unfair and unproductive.
I am not a new teacher anymore, but I will never forget what it was like to buy a house that cost six times my annual salary as a non-tenured teacher who had already been RIFed twice. I make twice what I did back then. My husband also earns more. Plus, our mortgage is significantly less. But I’ll never forget that squeeze I felt, that feeling of both great excitement and terrible regret.
Just because I make more money now doesn’t mean I don’t remember what it was like to earn less. Just because you make less money now doesn’t mean you always will. Income isn’t an absolute and neither are expenses. Everyone’s situation is different and things are constantly in flux.
If you want transparency, you have every right to ask for it. But it is also vital to consider how we make that request. Think about the climate we create with the way that some of these calls are made creates. If someone who has been nothing but honest felt so awash with guilt, I honestly can’t even feign surprise that other people are so quiet.
High Earners, Don’t Apologize
I am slowly inching my way out of the middle class.
It never once occurred to me until I started blogging that the fact that I might one day be a high earner would be a bad thing.
That simply wasn’t how I was raised. When I got my first real job out of college and my nana learned my salary (in the $30k range), she scooped me in her arms and paid me the biggest compliment she could: “My little rich bitch.”
I earned it. I deserved it. It was like L’Oreal commercial but real life. She thought I was worth it, every last penny. And from her perspective, I was rich indeed.
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I don’t know if it’s because my family had been touched by poverty or because of my blue-collar roots or because my nana read one too many issues of People magazine, but I never felt that high earners needed to apologize for making money. In fact, I was taught the opposite. It was something to strive for. You didn’t have to make a lot of money, but if you could, why wouldn’t you?
I wasn’t taught that having a lot of money made you inherently a bad person. I didn’t think it was something that should be shameful.
I still don’t.
I grew up thinking that that life is about how you treat people, and it’s paramount to how I live my life today. Can people who earn a lot of money do terrible things? Sure. But I also think the Scrooge archetype needs to go. We are not our money or our debt. We are so much more than that.
Am I worried about no longer being relatable? For a minute, I was. But then I remembered that I’m still me. I’ve doubled my salary and I’m still awkward as hell and have all sorts of other money struggles to work through. So no, I’m not worried about it. I do fear I might start to get a little insufferable, though, if I ever actually hit that six figure mark.
So keep me humble. OK, fam?
So Tell Me…Has talking money ever led to mixed emotions for you?
PS – Also, you must check out the What’s Up Next podcast with DocG and Paul, and mad love to all the people who let me join their panel for Episode 2: Peerless Money Mentor, Passive Income MD, and Reaching For FI.