Maybe it would be more palatable if I used words like comfortable or wealthy. But I’m just going to say it: I teach and I want to be rich.
We’ve made life as a dedicated educator incongruous with affluence of course. When teaching feels like equal parts a calling and your identify, it makes some sense why people aren’t focused on, well, cents. But it runs deeper than that. The entire profession is set up from the very start to condition teachers to think about anything but money.
So after more than a decade in the profession, I’m going to say what I wish someone had said to me a long time ago: It’s OK to focus on the financial side of your career as a teacher. In fact, it might be the most important thing you can do.
Starting at $0
There’s plenty of discussion about the pitfalls of unpaid internships. Because everything in education has to be renamed, it’s easy to think, Those don’t apply to me! Not so fast.
Virtually every teacher I know starts by completing at least one semester’s worth of an unpaid internship. It just goes by other names, like student teaching or practicum hours. The real kicker, though, is that many times student teaching isn’t just unpaid. It’s actually an entire semester (or more!) of college classes and credits. So that means you’re paying…to be unpaid.
Let that sink in.
I was billed thousands of dollars in tuition for the distinct privilege of doing a full-time teacher’s work for half the school year, and I didn’t walk away with a dime to show for it. Between college tuition, investing in a new wardrobe, and shelling out for various teaching supplies, I lost money. Lots and lots of money.
My particular student teaching program came with the stipulation that you could not work elsewhere for pay. If you did, you ran the risk of failing the program. Your performance as a teacher didn’t matter. If you were caught working, you could be given an F. But since I didn’t have an oil tanker in my backyard and biking to work was out of the question, I worked on the down low. So I could do things like, oh I don’t know, drive to my unpaid internship each day.
It’s no wonder that money is taboo in teaching. I can’t help but think it’s by design. Otherwise, how do convince people that this system makes sense?
Refusing to Stay There
It’s true that student teaching puts you at $0.00. Unless you consider all the costs surrounding it. Then you’re starting in the hole for sure. But you can–and should!–refuse to stay there.
One of the first teachers I shared an office with kept a copy of the salary schedule taped to his desk. I gasped out loud the first time I saw it. It’s not that our pay is a secret. I know what all of my coworkers make. It’s just that I had never met a teacher that actively monitored their salary.
What was so striking, though, wasn’t that this teacher was keeping an eye on his coins. He was proactively strategizing ways to move up the pay scale. Once I got over my initial shock of meeting a fellow teacher who was wiling to discuss money, I realized that I, too, should borrow from his playbook.
And that’s exactly what I did. In less than a decade’s time, I doubled my salary. It wasn’t easy, but it was absolutely worth it.
RELATED POST: Teacher Talk: I Doubled My Salary
Earning More As A Teacher
There are plenty of courses you can buy and e-books you can download that promise to teach you how to get rich as a teacher. Spoiler alert: They don’t have anything to do with teaching. Instead, they try to push teachers into real estate or side hustling. All that is fine, of course. I’m no stranger to the side hustle myself. But in terms of my goal of becoming rich? It’s actually teaching that’s going to get me there.
Stick with a union.
Am I being political? I’m breathing, aren’t I? I would argue that merely existing can be political. Teaching certainly is. But if we want to keep this financially focused, let’s just say that the evidence is loud and clear that collective bargaining and staying away from right to work states is mega helpful for your teaching salary.
Leave when it’s time.
I landed my dream teaching job in the middle of the Great Recession. There were over 700 applicants for my position. To this day, I’m not sure why they chose me. But they did, and I loved it. Until I was RIFed not once, but two years in a row. I would have loved to keep my dream job, but the truth is they couldn’t afford me. Heck, they couldn’t afford to let us make photocopies. As hard as it was, I had to move on.
RELATED POST: That Time I Got Fired…Twice
Play the long game.
When I switched districts, I actually took a huge pay cut. I earned almost $10,000 less. Put your eyeballs back in their sockets. There was a method to my pay cut madness. While the district I currently work in pays a lot less than other districts to start, almost no district in the area has a salary schedule that tops out at six figures in 20 years.
RELATED POST: I Know When I’ll Make 6 Figures
Play the long game faster.
Most teachers simply wait for their teeny tiny yearly pay bumps, and that’s how they move up the salary schedule. But I am not most teachers. In less than a decade, I completed two Master’s degrees, a Spanish endorsement, and an English Language/Bilingual certificate. I also earned my National Board certification. It cost a lot of money up front, but I was in my early 30s and had already maxed out the salary schedule in terms of professional development credits. I make $2,000, $5,000, even $8,000 more each year than others colleagues my own age all because I front loaded the continuing education work.
Make money work harder.
I don’t currently have a 457 because the options are god awful. But I do have a 403b that I funnel money into every paycheck. Recently, I’ve started a game where every time I get frustrated (or bored) to tears in a meeting, I increase my contribution by $25. I’m sure HR thinks I’m absolutely bonkers, but it’s been fun to watch my retirement cushion creep up.
Getting Rich Regardless
As much as I think the majority of my wealth will come from my teacher salary (and my pension if it gets funded, money gods willing), I’m not naive. A year a Zoom schooling in a pandemic taught me a lot of things. Most importantly, I learned just how important it is to put on your own parachute.
Our pension is generous, but it’s only currently funded at 36%. That’s not a percentage I’m willing to bank my entire retirement on, especially since I don’t pay into Social Security. Additionally, I almost always think that I’ll be a teacher for life, one more school year like the 20-21 year, and I’m out the door and not coming back.
That’s why I’m also nursing other sources of wealth.
Coasting on a Roth IRA.
I’m 35 years old, and my husband and I are technically CoastFIRE thanks to our Roth IRAs. Assuming 8% returns, he and I would separately have more than a million dollars each at traditional retirement age. (Of course, I don’t necessarily believe in an 8% return and my pessimistic little self worries that a million dollars a piece won’t cut it when we’re oldie moldy.) So I’ll keep attempting to max out my Roth every year that I have earned income.
Strategically side hustling.
Side hustles can be exhausting. They can also be huge time sucks that end up costing you big time. Fortunately, I’ve learned (the hard way) how to say no to the bad opportunities. So now I’m cultivating the side gigs that I love. The writing and editing that I do allow me to cultivate different skill sets, in addition to socking away extra income.
Keep picking up pennies.
Okay, okay. I will always pick up pennies, but I realize finding spare change isn’t for everyone. What does matter, though, is to keep your lifestyle in check. As someone who inflated her lifestyle before I even had my first full time teaching gig, I can personally attest to how quickly money runs through my fingers. That’s why no matter what it says in any of my account balances, I plan to continue my sometimes-frugal ways. I’ll spend on things I enjoy and need, and I’ll do my best to continue to cut down on the rest. After all, what sense does it make to put in all the time and energy to grow your income if you just fritter it all away?
I Teach and Want to Be Rich
In all the years that I’ve blogged, this is one of the most awkward sentences to type: I want to be rich. Or wealthy. Or whatever synonym you need to hear to still think nice things about me.
I firmly believe that most of us need to achieve millionaire status to live comfortably in retirement, especially given the rising costs of, well, everything and my first-hand experience with relatives unexpectedly needing long-term care.
Money will be important later.
But I also know that earning more and having more allows me to do more now. I’m a big proponent of giving money and time now, and I try to stretch myself by increasing both each year. The more income and assets I have, the more I’m able to do. Plus, it’s be really nice to be able to buy a student in need breakfast without cringing at their request for brand name snack bars instead of the Aldi kind.
And I don’t just want to be able to take care of my students and build my dream classroom library once and for all. I have a whole new list of priorities, adventures that I can’t wait to take with my family. There’s a whole life to live outside of the classroom, and I can’t wait to do more living.
Money unlocks security, opportunity, and potential, and there’s nothing wrong with pursuing that. While it’s very clear that many educators are trained to think about anything but what we are being paid, there’s real power in talking money as a teacher. So that’s exactly what I’m going to keep doing.
**Frugal Giveaway Alert**
I’m going to give away a new (but thrifted from a Friends of the Library book sale!) copy of I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Of all the personal finance books, this one wasn’t on my radar for years and years. It’s such a worthwhile read no matter your career path! If you’d like a chance to snag the book, let me know in the comments. I’ll email the winner next week. And because I’m still frugal af, US addresses only please and thanks!
So Tell Me…Do you want to be rich? Or maybe you already are! How does your career view talking about money?
I would love to read the book. My husband is a teacher and has gone through a similar path but his district has very low pay for a high cost of living.
That is so frustrating to be in that situation. My husband’s district actually only just started offering prescription coverage with their health insurance. Very affluent town, very poor benefits and pay. 🙁
Diana Ekelman Sung
This post is phenomenal, P. You know I will be forwarding it to educators all over the place!
Thanks so much, Diana!
Edit alert: last sentence in the fourth paragraph of the “I teach and want to be Rich” segment
This was a great article!
Thank you, Debra!
I haven’t read I Will Teach You To Be Rich yet but I’d love to!
Hope your summer and adjustment to the new little one is going well!
Hey, Emily! Check your email!
I would love to read it! I need to figure out more with investing etc
Investing can feel like such a mystery, can’t it?
I can’t believe they wouldn’t let you work another job while doing student teaching. How impossible and unreasonable!
I certainly hope it’s changed now. It really does seem impossible! I felt so guilty the whole time I worked, but what other choice did I have?!
My wife and I teach (her high school, me formerly Jr high, now I am a teacher educator) and we want to be rich as well. It is not easy with the relatively low salaries and 3 kids in daycare, but it is so worth it. I think we might live in the same state based on the pension funding level you shared. My wife is tier 2 so her benefits were already slashed. Still hoping to get something from it!
I will teach you to be rich is probably my favorite book on finances. Great giveaway!
Oh no! I’m in Illinois, and I think it’s so wrong what they did with the pension tiers. My husband made the cut off for Tier 1 by maybe three months. We felt SO fortunate. I hope you all definitely still get something from the pension system!
Agree, agree, agree. Such interesting thoughts about teachers and money. A longtime teacher, and I’ve only recently started to learn about money and all the possibilities. I’d love a copy of this book. 🙂
We really need to do more for teachers!
David @ Filled With Money
What’s great is that almost every working American has the opportunity to become rich. Some may reach it faster or slower than others but the point is that almost every working American can become rich.
However, only like 6.6% are millionaires. People need to be much more educated about money!
I strongly suspect we make “rich” and “millionaire” have such negative connotations…but most people really are going to want millionaire status to retire comfortably in 30-40 years!
I wish the same. I am an older teacher and wish to be rich (depending on a person’s definition). I am getting there.
That’s awesome that you’re getting there. And you’re right–how rich is defined could definitely be a conversation in and of itself!
I helped my daughter set up retirement benefits a few years ago when she was hired in Illinois—-and what a discrepancy between Tiers! Tier 1 has unheard of benefits, especially the annual 3% COLA.