How I Fought Lifestyle Inflation — and Won!
This guest post from Michelle is part of a new feature here at Get Rich Slowly. Every Sunday will include a reader story (in the new “reader stories” category). Some will be general “how I did X” stories, and others will be examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success.
In 2001, I got a new job. Not just any job — this job was for a former employer who wanted me to come back to work for them after about two years of working for a nonprofit agency. Their offer was very, very tempting. It meant a 50% raise. (Yes, 50%. Take your current income, divide it half and add it to your salary. Fun, huh?)
The money got to me, and I left my nonprofit job for this new opportunity. I was happy with my old job and had good friends at both organizations, so my motivation for the change was purely the increased income.
The lure of money
About four months into this new job, I was sitting in a beige cube and wondering where all my money was. I had been collecting checks that were indeed 50% more (in terms of my gross income at least — I was paying more in taxes, so it didn't calculate out as a 50% raise in my take-home pay). But it was still significantly more money than I thought I would ever earn, and I couldn't figure out why I still felt broke.
Looking around those beige walls, I despaired at the idea of living the rest of my life like this. If this huge salary increase wasn't the answer to happiness, what was?
I went home and went through my financial statements. My husband and I have joint accounts and have used Quicken since the beginning of our relationship, so this part was easy. After looking through Quicken for about 20 minutes, I could see where that extra money had gone. We'd taken a couple of trips. We were eating out a lot more. We joined a gym. We bought a new car. We were spending my 50% raise almost as I got it.
My husband and I had struggled with credit card debt early in our marriage and overcome it. When we spent money, we used debit cards and had cash in the bank to cover it. Big expenses (those vacations) went on a credit card, but were paid off right away. But we had $20,000 in student loans from both our college educations and a new car in the driveway with a $21,000 loan on it. Those debts felt like anvils hanging around my neck.
My job was okay, but I was finding the work a little tedious and dull. The bigger paychecks did not completely make up for the loss of creativity and the corporate hassles that came with my new responsibilities.
I thought what I wanted my life to look like: It wasn't sitting in a beige cube.
Debt is slavery
I realized that I'd basically sold myself into slavery doing a job that paid well but didn't give me a great deal of satisfaction in order to have more money to spend. But spending the money wasn't bringing me happiness. I felt worse, not better.
So I decided my best option was to reconfigure my life so that I didn't need to earn as much money as I did currently, thereby giving me more freedom to pursue work that made me happy, no matter what my paycheck looked like.
And that's what I did. Over the next two-and-a-half years, I paid off the student loans and the car loan by reducing my expenditures and doubling my monthly payments (using the same advice you can find right here at Get Rich Slowly). Every extra bit of money my husband or I got in from freelance work or bonuses went straight on the loans.
After three years at that job, I got laid off in 2004 when the company moved our office to the East Coast. Instead of being stressed and worried about finding a job that would pay well enough to replace my income level, I rejoiced in the fact that I had no debt except my reasonable mortgage payment. I was free at last to do what I wanted to do.
I happily collected my unemployment insurance and severance pay while I worked on setting up my own business. Now I work as a writer, editor, and website developer for small businesses. I'm doing things I enjoy, and after five years, my part-time income matches that full-time salary I earned while staring at those beige walls.
What I'd done was decide to spend my increased income from that job on buying myself freedom. It took more than just money. It took a paradigm shift on my part to determine what I really wanted from my life and my money. It turned out that what I wanted wasn't more money after all. Helping my clients succeed and spending more time with my family bring me more happiness than money can buy.
I'd like to say that this process is a journey, not a destination. I still struggle sometimes with strong desires to have more money to buy things like vacations for my family or a slightly bigger home. Remembering this experience helps keep me grounded, and I can refocus on what I truly value. I've recently decided more freedom is more desirable, and my husband and I are working towards paying off our 15-year mortgage early, too. I know that nothing I can buy is going to feel as good as holding the deed to my own home in my hand. I'm looking forward to working towards that goal next.