I’ve been thinking about earning, spending, and saving money more than normal recently. Part of this is getting older in a young person’s industry while having my employment be more contingent than normal over the last year; part of it is the lure of riches that the startup dream dangles in front of you; part of it is planning to remodel our kitchen and being confronted with how expensive that can get. (Cabinets! People charge a lot for them!)
It’s weird to think about how much my salary has changed over the decades and how little effect that has had on my quality of life. I had a quite good stipend in grad school (heck, the fact that I got paid rather than paying, even though I didn’t have to teach at all in three of the four years of grad school, puts me way ahead of most people in most fields), but even so: my salary tripled when I moved to my postdoc. And I also had a quite good stipend for a postdoc, but even so: my salary doubled when I left academia. My salary has been climbing much more slowly since then, but those little gains have added up, it’s gone up by about half since my first industry job.
There’s been inflation in the almost-two-decades since I started grad school, of course, and the Boston metro area, while not cheap, isn’t as expensive as Silicon Valley to live in. I’ve been living with Liesl the whole time; her salary has also gone up but not as much as mine has. And there are three of us now, not two of us. Still, those are quite substantial gains even taking all of that into account.
And what quality of life improvements have I gotten out of all of those extra gains? Sometimes, honestly, it feels like I haven’t gotten any improvements. I mean, I watched my bank statements a lot closer back then than I do now, but still: I really wasn’t depriving myself. I had plenty of books to read and games to play (and significantly more time to read / play them); we went out to eat not infrequently and sometimes those were at pretty good restaurants; we went to Europe two or three times when I was in grad school. All of that is far past basic necessities, well into luxuries. And it’s not like I’ve added more luxuries on top of my life now: my list of things I enjoy that cost money basically boils down to art and food, and my ideal vacation remains spending a couple of weeks hanging out in Paris.
So, that raises the question: how are we managing to spend so much more money? I can’t realistically return to my grad school spending levels, sock away 90% of my salary, and only work one year out of ten; but I don’t have a good argument for why we can’t sock away, say, half of our salaries. (Or a good reason why redoing our kitchen is something that I should be happy to spend somewhere around two to three years of my grad school salary on; I love books and games and music, but I kind of doubt I’ve spent that much money on those pursuits across all of the last decade.) I’m pretty sure that there actually is a reason in the short term why we can’t save half our salaries; but maybe I should do the legwork to figure out what that reason is. And then, once we understand the situation better, Liesl, Miranda, and I can figure out ways to put caps on spending that will save us money without making us feel deprived.
And, as I said above: I’m getting older in a young person’s industry. So there’s also a worry at the back of my mind that I might not have a choice about needing to stop spending money. I don’t think that’s coming particularly soon, and I also hope that I’ll be able to slide into a part of the industry that’s less youth-focused if that becomes necessary, but you never know: there are a lot of people who lost a job in the recession and then got shut out of the industry.
Fortunately, it’s not like we’ve been spending all of our money: we’ve been maxing out our 401(k) contributions for years and saving a smallish but noticeable amount of money beyond that. And, while the 401(k) contributions don’t look like much on any individual year, they do add up; I surveyed the accounts a few months ago (which took a while, I should really consolidate my 401(k)s and 403(b)s from my various former employers at some point!), and I was surprised how much they added up to. Not nearly enough for me to be confident about retirement yet (and that in itself is an interesting problem: how should I model whether a give amount of money is enough to retire on?), but while I’m solidly into middle age by now, I’m not particularly close to a traditional retirement age, so that’s fine.
But finding ways to increase our savings rate would be good. (And then there’s college costs presumably showing up starting four years from now!) I did at least spend some time over the last month finding some investment options that I’m a little more confident in than what we had been doing, and we set up some automatic withdrawals into those investments that will eat up a decent portion of my last raise. So that’s a start; but there’s definitely room for improvement.
I don’t want to get obsessed with this; and I certainly don’t want to chase higher salaries in the hope that that will turn into later improvements in my life from increased savings. But I would like to increase my mindfulness in this area, instead of unthinkingly spending the money that comes in.
This post has not been revised since publication.