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

STOP 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?

*Part of Financially Savvy Saturdays on brokeGIRLrich and Super Saving Tips*

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12 thoughts on “How to break the cycle of underearning (because you’re worth it)

  • Reply Kristin February 24, 2017 at 12:33

    I LOVE that book. It’s what prompted me to start asking for better rates, and I was so surprised at how much more I started earning when I simply started asking. It proved that I was sorely underpaid for years. One of my most liberating career moments was asking for more money and getting rejected. No one likes rejection, but at least I could say I wasn’t an underearner.

  • Reply Ms. Steward February 24, 2017 at 14:43

    Definitely going to have to check out this book. I’m content with my life but definitely underearning at work now. I just left a career path that was making me miserable, but it means I’m in more entry-level positions than my age and education-level might lead one to think I should be in.

    I am definitely hoping, soon, to feel like I’m getting paid closer to what I think my skills are worth. I have six months to figure out how to negotiate before my annual review. In the meantime, I am steeling myself and gathering comps. I’m happy for any advice I can get, so I really appreciate this post!

  • Reply RAnn February 27, 2017 at 06:31

    I’ve kept a job that has underpaid me for years. First of all, I enjoy it; other than the pay its the best job I’ve ever had. Secondly, during my childbearing/rearing years they were very accomodating to “mom” needs and wants which was very important to me. Now, I’m looking–my kids are grown (almost) and retirment is looming. I hate to leave “home” but …

    • Reply eemusings February 27, 2017 at 09:45

      If you’ve been happy with the pay because of the other factors, that’s great! I was fine with the pay in journalism for the first few years because I loved the work, but toward the end I started to want more, and that’s when I crossed over into ‘underearning’ by the common definition. It is so tough to leave a comfortable and familiar job for the unknown. FWIW, every job I’ve left was before I actually felt ‘ready’ to leave, but it always worked out to be the right choice.

  • Reply Mel @ brokeGIRLrich February 27, 2017 at 16:06

    I have so much trouble doing this in my career as a stage manager, but none as a freelance writer. I think because a small part of me always felt like the blogging/freelance writing wasn’t even real the first few times I pitched anything, that asking for a decent amount didn’t phase me at all.

  • Reply Amanda @ My Life, I Guess March 6, 2017 at 05:44

    I absolutely struggled with this when I was working at a theatre. Everything you said about “struggling for the art” is spot on. Even my bosses commented that we all worked there because of our passion, not our paycheque. (Really though, they were just trying to make us feel guilty for wanting raises.)
    I still think that I’m underpaid in my new job. But it’s all unionized, so I can’t even ask for a raise. I’ve been active in my union, though, making sure they know that I want them to fight for better pay at the next contract negotiation. Otherwise, I just keep working on my side hustle on my own time to help myself earn more.

  • Reply Claudia @ Two Cup House March 9, 2017 at 04:10

    I struggled with underearning for years. I didn’t recognize the value I provided and I justified my low pay by saying that it’s because I worked nonprofit orgs. In reality, I chose those jobs, so in effect, I had a hand in my own income problem. Starting my own business and shifting my career was the best thing I could have done for a lot of reasons!

  • Reply Melanie of Mindfully Spent March 9, 2017 at 14:43

    My husband is a social worker and this happens a lot in that field. There is a sense of guilt associated with asking for a living wage when the people they assist are living in poverty (sometimes very extreme poverty). That said, what we save is definitely just part of the equation. What we earn is equally important when it comes to finances

  • Reply Amanda March 11, 2017 at 03:32

    Realizing that I was an underearner was probably the most significant thing to happen in my personal finance journey – more so than even declaring bankruptcy. It was the same book, too, that opened my eyes. Then, I got Stanny’s book, “Overcoming Underearning.” I read it once and pushed it away. A fews later, I read it again. Only after bankruptcy did I seriously pursue the lessons therein. I worked through it with a trusted friend and it changed everything. It led to my blog, my full-time gig, and just an overall better sense of self.

  • Reply Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank March 12, 2017 at 15:36

    The earlier the better. I think the millennial has the advantage to succeed and to have a the right retirement fund.

  • Reply David March 22, 2017 at 02:00

    There is an unfortunate truth that we must all deal with: we are all underpaid. At least as a regular employee. Our employers will pay us the absolute minimum to keep us content enough to stay. At my previous position, I was more productive than people who earned more than 50% more than I did, and if I was given a raise, my company would just charge the customer more (worked for a contractor). Even in the face of this information, my employer wouldn’t increase my salary by a meager 5% so they lost me.

    If we really want to escape being underpaid, we must start our own businesses, or become the CEO of a company. Then we could at least drive it into the ground and enjoy a $100 million severance package.

  • Reply J. D August 30, 2019 at 11:01

    Great post! I have added the book and podcast to my list. Thanks

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