I met my husband the second day of college, two weeks after my 17th birthday. Fast forward three years and it was obvious we were heading toward marriage.
When he suggested tying the knot before commencement, I was surprised and a bit resistant. That’s simply not the typical order of operations. But I warmed up to the idea and happily married when I had one semester left, and he had three.
We had very little money and even less income during the early months of our marriage, yet our youthful union turned out to have unexpected financial benefits.
Phase 1: Both in school
During our first few months, I was student teaching and not earning income. Neil worked about eight hours per week at his internship, for a monthly net income of around $1000. We were also paying for private health insurance until one of us got a job with benefits. We lived off of his income, with a bit of help from our pooled premarital savings and wedding money.
Phase 2: Kalie graduates
During the first summer, Neil interned full time, I worked as a nanny, and we were both relieved that I landed a teaching job for fall. The back-up plan was for me to work as a substitute teacher. At the beginning of his senior year, Neil accepted a full-time position with his company upon graduation.
During the following year, Neil worked fewer hours per week than he’d ever worked during college. His grades had always been solid, but they improved since he was finally able to focus more on his coursework. Though he already had a job, finishing a rigorous five-year program with a GPA hike was encouraging.
It’s no secret that first-year teachers don’t make much. We had a lot more money than the year before, but decided to live like college students as much as possible, for as long as possible. Getting married while still in school set our standards of living fairly low. Sharing a quiet one-bedroom apartment felt luxurious compared to the many roommates we’d rented with previously. Our rent was less than the combined amount we’d been paying for rundown houses in a pricey college town. I even convinced Neil to pack a lunch instead of buying Taco Bell near campus.
For many couples, marriage marks the beginning of being a “real adult,” so to speak. That’s when it’s time to buy that first home where you’ll start your life together. Then you remodel and decorate the home to make the space yours. Perhaps you purchase a new car or two.
We didn’t have any money for these “adult” steps, so we embraced the simple lifestyle that worked just fine throughout college. We bought used furniture, accepted hand-me-downs, and shopped at the same discount grocery store we knew and loved from our student days. For entertainment we walked our new city, and invited friends over.
Phase 3: Neil graduates
Once Neil graduated, our income increased, but our lifestyle increased only slightly. We splurged on a trip to Europe we saved for that first year. We took road trips, went out with friends, and I got a membership to the gym within walking distance. While lifestyle creep is all but inevitable,measuring your spending against your college-day budget can provide welcome perspective on wants vs. needs.
Simple living. If we had waited longer to marry, I imagine we would have spent more on our wedding rather than keeping it simple. We also would have set up our home differently, probably opting for a larger apartment or buying a home much sooner than we did. Perhaps we wouldn’t have been willing to live in our friends’ basement. Spending wasn’t really an option, so we kept a simple lifestyle and largely stuck with it, even after our income increased. From the beginning we made a habit of giving money to our church, missions work, and poverty relief. Establishing this from day one has helped us practice generosity consistently.
Working as a team. Getting married so young made it easy to combine not just our finances, but our dreams. Travel, giving, and volunteer ministry were values we shared. We also began operating as a financial team. Neil was better at seeking financial education by reading about personal finance. I was better at budgeting and keeping our living expenses low. We each taught the other our fortes, rather than attacking each other about our weak areas.
We grew up financially together. Neil’s interest in personal finance certainly paid off. We learned about topics like investing, insurance, and mortgages together. Every choice we made was researched and discussed until we could agree on a course of action. Though we’ve certainly had differences of opinion, our basic financial philosophy was formed in a process we were both very much a part of. This blog is one outcome of this financial formation.
Transition to parenthood. Our early days taught us to live on one income, which prepared us for allowing me to stay at home with our young children. We agreed this was our plan before we got married, and six years later we had a seamless transition. I’d already left my full-time job for freelance writing, which I continued part-time until our second child was born. We also put the student loans behind us and purchased a home we could afford on one income.
The timing of our wedding was unconventional, but I’ve never regretted it. What’s best for each couple is different. Just don’t assume you have to follow the “normal” timeline of life events. I wouldn’t recommend marrying before you can support yourselves, but that may be easier than you think if you avoid drastic lifestyle changes.
Have you ever deviated from the norm when it comes to life events? What would you say to someone who wants to get married while in college?
What’s more important: increasing income or decreasing spending? The debate rages on, but unfortunately many answers miss the crux of the matter.
After a year and half of talking a lot of thrift, we recently broached the income side. To be honest, much of our financial progress has been supported by an above-average income. Yet we’re a one-income family living on less than half our take-home pay. We spend less than average and that makes an impact, too.
Many argue that you can increase your income by greater magnitudes than you can slash spending. But people often find their budget feeling tight even after their income grows. If you spend more than you make, it doesn’t matter how much you make. You never get ahead.
So what’s more important—your income side or your spending? Whichever one you need to work on. It depends on the person. I can’t tell you which that is for you, but I hope the case studies and questions below will help.
Consider two case studies of real-life families:
Family 1 was often running low on money despite having a very good income. They cited their house, having a baby, and medical expenses as some of the reasons for having cash flow problems. They were right that their spending was the problem, but were citing reasonable expenses instead of looking to the ones they could decrease.
Over time, resources from Dave Ramsey helped motivate them to reassess. They were eating out multiple times each week. They were paying for gym memberships they didn’t use. They were buying convenience items. One partner was smoking. They had a car payment and student loans. Once they started cutting back in these areas, they were able to pay off their car and student loans early. They built enough equity to stop paying PMI. The smoker quit. They started cooking at home. They identified that the problem was spending, acted accordingly, and have continued to make huge strides toward financial flexibility.
Family 2 was often close to broke, but one spouse’s father would cover what they couldn’t on a monthly basis. He even gifted them a down payment on a house. The only problem was that they couldn’t really afford the monthly mortgage payments. When they had their first child, the wife left her job to stay home. The husband worked in a field with limited earning potential. They still had student loans from his associate’s degree.
While their bills were paid, they had a serious income problem: part of their income was coming in the form of regular gifts. While this was very generous, it was ultimately unhelpful. It didn’t allow the family to attack their finances from the income side, which desperately needed attention. Both partners were capable of earning more but weren’t sure how to make it happen.
See how landing on just income or just spending doesn’t solve the problem for all situations?
Do You Need to Hustle?
If you’re underearning, dissatisfied with your job, or aren’t making enough to get by, you need to work more, harder, and/or smarter. You absolutely need to attack the income side so you can gain flexibility and not have money be the limiting factor in every life decision. You need a raise, a career move, a second job or other side hustle. Here’s how we stopped underearning by overstaying at the same company.
Know when it’s time to move on. Research your value in the market. Negotiate a raise if you’re underpaid. Assess what you’d be willing to do to make more money: would you work overtime, change companies, relocate, change careers, or start a side hustle or small business?
At some point, working more, harder, or sometimes even smarter becomes undesirable as it detracts your time and physical and mental energy from what you’d rather be doing. A common belief states if you could possibly make more money, you should. I disagree. There’s a lot more to life than pushing your earning potential to its outer limits, at any cost to other areas of your life. Always keep your real worth in the balance with your net worth.
Do You Need to Cut Back?
Do you have a good income and still find yourself broke? Do your expenses rise steadily alongside your income? Do you know how much you spend on average in a month? Are impulse purchases, going out, or recreational shopping frequent for you? Look to your spending for solutions.
I sense that people from relatively affluent homes are more likely to need to work on this side. People with the advantages of the middle and upper-middle class are more likely to earn good incomes. They’re also more likely to be acclimated to a “comfortable” lifestyle that may have taken decades for their parents to build, but they aim for as soon as they land their first job.
Whatever your background, don’t dismiss the expense side of the equation until you have a handle on how much you spend, and on what. It’s easy to say, if I only made as much as her, or if we could just catch a break from special expenses cropping up, then we could get ahead. But if you’re making decent money and not saving it or paying down debt, more money isn’t going to fix the problem.
In summary, my answer to the income vs. expenses debate is that you need to work on the area where you’re weaker until you gain traction. In some cases, you’ll need to work on both. But you simply can’t assess which one it is for you unless you have a good picture of your financial situation. We approach this by tracking our spending and creating an annual budget.
Review the last few months of your income and spending to catch a snapshot of both angles. If you cut, cut, cut, and there’s still not enough income, increase the input. If you earn, earn, earn and never find it to be enough, it’s time to decrease the output. Underearning and overspending are both a waste of precious resources.
A healthy financial situation looks like being happy with both your income and spending, while staying open to improving both sides. Once you reach this point you’re free to focus more on the angle that’s your strength.
What are your financial strengths? How have you improved your weaknesses? Any other takes on the income vs. expense debate?
If I could offer one piece of career advice to new grads, it would be to avoid becoming an eternal intern. In other words, don’t under-earn by staying too long at the same job, especially your first real job. Neil almost committed this common career faux pas before getting a wake-up call and changing jobs. We finally realized why staying in one place for your whole career is thing of the past: it’s often the best way to stunt your career and income growth.
Like many of his engineering classmates, Neil worked an internship full- or part-time throughout the second half of his education. A year before graduation, he was offered a full-time position. He didn’t even have to interview. The salary and benefits were good. It was a Fortune 500 company and he’d continue working in the same department he was already familiar with.
The only problem? “I almost became an eternal intern,” he says. In other words, he felt like he could not shake the new hire status at his first company.
The Most Dangerous Job
While his pay increased significantly post-degree, his job was boring and under-utilized his engineering skills. We continued to view the position as a good job because it paid well and was low-stress. There was a sense of security in working at a big company.
Despite being a great employee with plenty of initiative, he reached a plateau in his career. He studied hard and passed a rigorous eight-hour exam to earn a Professional Engineering license. He talked to his boss about opportunities for advancement, but that required relocation. There was no way he was going to move our family for a job he didn’t love.
That’s when he realized this job wasn’t safe and secure at all. In fact, staying there was the most dangerous career choice he could make. He was going to be viewed as an intern forever. The most successful people in his group had been hired from the outside. He wasn’t gaining marketable skills and being bored at work didn’t signal job security. It was time to make his move.
Learning Your Market Value
He started reading up on the area he wanted to get into, and applyied for jobs. When he found the right position a few months later, he was astonished at the difference. He was hired at their highest level for engineers. Because he changed industries, he expected a learning curve, but feels a new momentum in his career. In the year and a half that he’s been there, his salary has increased over 20% compared to his last job. He finds the work much more interesting, and his boss is discussing career growth opportunities with him.
He’s noticed that the new grads his company hires have perpetual intern status, too. Even though they are very knowledgeable and hard-working, they aren’t always treated with equal respect and professionalism. He allowed his previous employer to continue viewing him as an intern simply by staying there too long.
Neil shared these new insights with a friend whom he believed was under-earning. With two weeks of beginning his job search, his friend was offered a job and asked to name his price! He secured a 40% raise. His skill set didn’t change; he simply found a company willing to pay his market value.
I’m so glad we realized the dangers of becoming an eternal intern and moved on. This is one of the reasons Millennials don’t stay at the same job for 30 years—and shouldn’t. Here are some lessons we’ve learned:
- Your company cares about the bottom line, not you. No one else is going to look out for you and your career.
- In many careers, staying in one place is the best way to under-earn. Every move you make is a chance to make a jump in salary and build your skills.
- The problem with your job may not be your company or boss, but your inherent status as a former intern or new hire. Changing jobs may be the only way to change this status.
- We should be more scared of the status quo than of change. We don’t grow when things stay the same, and we should be terrified to stop growing.
- Making the bold move to take a new job communicates a degree of confidence and initiative that is valuable to employers, and your career.
Neil enjoys work more than ever, but he doesn’t plan to stay at the same company until retirement. We’ve learned our lesson and won’t settle for stagnation ever again.
Have you grown your career through a job change? What is your top career advice for new grads?
Have you ever wondered how society transitioned from farms to cubicles? And why so many now want to escape the cube—sometimes back to the farm? Sixty percent of Americans work in cubicles, and 93% dislike it, according to Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval (2015). As a burbsteader, I’ve been seeking to understand why we long to escape our white collar confines, which have been considered the pinnacle of employment.
First, there is the simple ebb and flow of culture over time. Generations seem to fluctuate back and forth. For example, there have been trends taking us from thrifty to spendy and back again. Compared to our parents, millennials tend more toward minimalism, passion careers, and saving money. But our parents were responding their parents, who may have saved or spent to extremes as a reaction to emerging from the Great Depression and WWII.
One main innovation led Americans from the agricultural farm to the cubicle farm: the railroad. People farmed for subsistence and for local markets until the birth of the steam engine. Horse & cart could only take goods so far, and only so many people were needed (or had the capital) to work as storekeepers. Farmers would sell or barter directly with the local storekeeper or individuals for the items they didn’t produce themselves.
With the railroad, farmers could focus on growing more of one or two crops and shipping these long distances. Industrialization replaced independent farmers and artisans, meaning more people worked in factories. At the same time, all this transporting and selling of goods required more people doing paperwork, keeping track of inventory, routes, and accounts. These people were called clerks.
Previously, clerks worked at “counting houses” and then their modern counterpart, banks. There weren’t many clerks in one institution and they often worked directly under one top dog in a flattened hierarchy where they could likely one day replace the boss. After the economic shift of industrialization, people were needed to manage these clerks and factory workers. Now a legion of clerks aspired to a limited number of managerial positions, which came to be called “white collar” jobs, a term satirically coined by Upton Sinclair.
People started studying how to manage clerks and factory workers. Enter industrial organization, scientific management, and vocational training. Next came studying which types of people to hire: the HR department was born. Office jobs continued to proliferate. In 1956, America reached a tipping point in its labor history: white collar workers outnumbered blue collar ones for the first time.
As big business grew in the early 1900s, skyscrapers were needed to house the growing population of clerks and middle management. Just as standardization was prioritized in management classes, it was prioritized in architecture. While some opulent skyscrapers boasted artistic lobbies and lavish offices for upper management, the bulk of the space was designed to be easily and efficiently multiplied. The standardized office units that we know today as cubicles were first called “cells.” What a lovely term—reminiscent of prison!
In fact, the principle-turned-proverb “form follows function” was coined by one of the most famous architects of this period, Louis Sullivan. Cookie cutter “cell” design had the advantage of being rentable. It allowed businesses to move in and out of spaces with ease. Rather than considering the best work environment for the employees or the type of work, future real estate value was the primary concern.
And so the majority of Americans ended up in cubicles. Why? The steam engine. The railroad. Paperwork. Big business. History reveals the concrete answers, but what lies beneath?
It seems that people were chasing freedom and security. Relief from the backbreaking or mind-numbing labor of farm and factory. Ending man’s dependence on out-of-control variables like the weather, animals, and diseases that threatened one’s livelihood. Freedom from subsistence living.
Cube life offered an illusion of freedom: if one moved up the managerial ladder enough, one would become wealthy and successful. No longer a drone, but a free person. Not told what to do, but telling others what to do. As it turns out, this is a mostly empty hope, as only an elite few climb this high, leaving a vast pool of desperate middle managers and unsatisfied office workers behind. Politics, policies, procedures, and TPS reports abound.
The modern cubicle is a bit like the epidural for childbirth. It might make the job less painful, but it’s still hard work.
William Whyte, author of Organization Man (1956), believed the corporate system was stifling freedom and the Protest work ethic that fueled America’s economic growth. He observed that big corporations “offered the womb-like safety and security that colleges provided….A smooth pipeline from dorm room to the desk made organization life irresistible.” Engineering and business education were emphasized during the cold war, and those emerging from the Great Depression were quick to view big business and office jobs as a source of security.
Baby boomers, born into a thriving post-war economy, became the most extravagant generation in history. In the 1970s, credit cards and other consumer debt became widely available to the average consumer, funneling many coming-of-age Boomers into unprecedented sums of personal debt.
And so a nation moved from one type of restriction to another. What numbed the pain of physical labor also ended up numbing the soul, or so it would seem from the wealth of satire surrounding the modern office. And don’t forget about the 93% disgruntled cube-dwellers. Many deal with this discontent with therapeutic spending. Shopping, restaurant outings, entertainment, and vacations are sought to alleviate the sting of all that cube time. A tiny portion, following the example of Jacob Lund Fisker’s Early Retirement Extreme, have used their office skills (and sometimes office down time) in the ultimate act of subversion: calculating their path to freedom and investing more than half their income in order to escape.
It’s invaluable to understand where we came from. Almost all of us came from the farm. Our progenitors left the farm because of the steam engine. And because eeking an existence out of soil is hard, and risky. But the cube has brought its own dangers. It’s the modern equivalent of smoking. Working in a colorless sea of identical “cells” can feel dehumanizing. It promises a stability it cannot deliver, which stifles artists, entrepreneurs, nonconformists, and naturalists alike. And this, as far as I can tell, is why people want out.
What do you think? Is the cube a wonder of the modern world, or nearly prison? Why do so many people want out?
This post draws upon the following sources, especially Cubed. Since this isn’t a research paper, I haven’t used in-text citation, but I want to credit the following references:
Lind, Michael. Land of Promise: an Economic History of the United States. 2012. Harper Collins Publishers, New York.
Newman, Rick. “Americans Don’t Like to Buy Stuff Anymore – And That’s A Problem. Yahoo Finance. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/americans-don-t-like-to-buy-stuff-anymore-%E2%80%93-and-that-s-a-problem-170924225.html
Saval, Nikil. Cubed: a Secret History of the Workplace. 2015. First Anchor Books, Random House, New York.