How to break the cycle of underearning (because you’re worth it)

How to overcome underearning and make what you're worth

How to overcome underearning and make what you're worth

Money troubles usually come down to one of two things: overspending or underearning.

There’s a million and one posts out there about curbing spending. But underearning is a less explored – and thornier – subject.

Are you an underearner? I suspect that I was, briefly. But I didn’t realise it until recently.

It all started when I came across this podcast with Bari Tessler and ended with me reading Secrets of Six Figure Women by Barbara Stanny. I can’t say I’d ever really come across the concept before. 

It’s a sensitive topic – who wants to think that they’re not living up to their potential? ‘Underearner’ is not a particularly flattering label. But the key is about desire – many of us have the potential to earn more in different types of work but choose not to.

What is underearning?

Underearning, as I’ve seen it defined, is about earning less than you want to. Bringing in less than you need or than would be beneficial, despite attempting otherwise.

It’s not about raw numbers. Or the hours you work. Or ‘underachieving’.

It’s about the ability (could earn more) combined with the desire (want to earn more) but for whatever reason, it isn’t happening.

Reverse snobbery

Especially in creative fields, I think there’s often a bit of reverse snobbery at play. Prejudices against money and toward the wealthy. We sort of believe and play into the idea of the nobility of poverty – of struggling for art. Making money is selling out. As Tessler points out, creative and self employed types often set fees too low – and don’t raise them often enough.

But as Stanny writes in her book, ironically, few people work harder or obsess more about lack of money than underearners do.

 As the artist Willem de Kooning once aptly remarked, ‘The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time’. 

Not having enough money is exhausting. Dealing with the realities of hardship is a constant grind.

I suspect as women, there may be an added dimension at play. We are, after all, relatively new to the workplace as we know it compared to men. Home is still considered the female domain, and we’re still considered the nurturers and caretakers. A point raised in an episode of The Broad Experience (a great podcast on women and success that I’ve recently discovered) was that often we perceive ‘doing well’ as being materialistic, or greedy. I’ve definitely encountered that in reaction to things I’ve written on the blog here and there! But more on that a bit later on. 

How to overcome underearning

There are many external factors that affect how much we currently earn. Also, life happens and sometimes your income takes a hit.

Not to mention, there are factors that affect how much we CAN earn. Different fields are structured differently. Some will never pay much – choosing to stay in one of those will limit your options. 

But as with anything else in life, it boils down to focusing on what you can control. That might mean steeling yourself to:

  • Ask for a raise
  • Change roles
  • Switch industries
  • Start your own business and work for yourself

Staying in a job too long is a common trap – a job that’s comfortable like old jeans, doing things the way you’ve always done them. In most cases, changing companies is the fastest way to advance pay-wise.

But most importantly: learn to ask for what you’re worth. Even if that feels uncomfortable. Even if it seems outrageous. Negotiate salary offers, and ask for raises. That’s what it all seems to boil down to. 

Overcoming underearning pretty much requires that you believe in your value, and stick to it. I was so at risk of underselling myself when I left journalism (thankfully, it worked out even better than I’d hoped). I knew better for the next time around, and I got exactly what I wanted upon my next move

There’s a huge mental component to underearning. Most of us can’t just flick a switch and suddenly become a totally different person. Here’s where I’ve gleaned another tip from The Broad Experience: You need your own WWJD mantra. Think of somebody that you know – someone who’s direct and isn’t afraid to ask for what they want. What would they do? Channel them!

Enjoying what you’ve earned

Despite knowing the market, I feel ridiculously overpaid sometimes – like, how can my work be worth this much? And then I realise people around me are certainly earning 6 figures, and that reboots my perspective – and spurs me on. It would have been totally unfathomable before this; it almost feels like I’ve discovered a secret, tapped into a new level in the game of life, busted through a ceiling.

None of the six figure women interviewed by Stanny had any qualms about openly declaring their desire to profit. They took pleasure in reaping the rewards of their work. They knew that the more money they made, the more choices they had. Financial freedom is the ultimate flexibility.

Success goes beyond building up a bank account too; it also includes building up career capital, networks, etc along the way. And with more of these resources at your disposal, you can enjoy more freedom, security, and do more for others.

Have you struggled with underearning in your career?

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