Feeding the Monster
“If you live for having it all, what you have is never enough.”
― Vicki Robin, Co-author of Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence
For as long as I can remember, my goal in life was to acquire as many possessions as I could. I thought the more I had, the happier I would be and the more successful I would feel. All through my twenties and early thirties, no matter what town I lived in, I would drive through the nicest neighborhoods looking at the houses and the cars in the driveways, wondering how people got there and imagining how happy they must be. Would I ever be able to have that?
I used to think things like, Once I have this, I’ll start saving money; once I get in that position, I’ll start giving. Because then I’ll have everything I want for myself, and I’ll no longer have a reason not to save or give. I’ll have the newly constructed house with more bedrooms than we need, because it is critical to have one or two unused bedrooms so that guests can come to stay a couple times a year or even less often. No sleeping on the couch or a blow-up mattress at my house! And what about the dedicated office with the nice desk so I can go in there and sit a couple hours a month to open mail and pay the bills? And then there are the cars. Cars have to fit the house and the neighborhood. My thoughts kept going, but you get the idea. All of this was going to make me happy…or so I thought.
There was only one way to fuel my desire for more possessions and to upgrade the possessions I already had: make more money. So every three or four years, I would begin looking for a new job basically doing the same thing I was already doing. I would cash in on the experience gained from my current job by finding the same job or a similar job with slightly more responsibility that paid five or ten thousand dollars more per year. That would satisfy my desire to up my lifestyle by acquiring new and better possessions, at least for the time being. Then a few years later, I would do it again.
I wouldn’t even consider a job or send a résumé unless it paid more than my current job. That was the only requirement. Career path or opportunity for promotion didn’t matter, because I wasn’t going to be there long enough. Whether or not I liked the job or the work didn’t matter, because I could do anything for a couple of years if it meant more money. Besides, work wasn’t something that dictated happiness, or so I thought. It was just the money. A good culture at the office? Nope. Compatibility with management? Nope. Money? YES, YES, YES!
I also never took into account if the potential bump in salary was actually enough of an increase in my take-home pay to justify the effort of transitioning to a new job. What if the small raise bumped me to a new tax bracket, thus eating up the gain in my salary? For example, a single person making $9,876 to $40,125 in 2020 pays a 12% federal tax, while a single person making $40,126 to $85,525 has their federal taxes jump to 22%.
Say someone is making $40,000. A simple calculation of $40,000 multiplied by a tax rate of .12 leaves $35,200. At first glance, a job offer of $46,000 looks pretty appealing. But another quick calculation of the new salary multiplied by the new tax rate of .22 (since the salary is now above the $40,125 max income of the 12% tax bracket) reveals a federal income tax of $10,120, leaving only $35,880.
What originally looks good on the surface—a 15% increase in annual income—is really only an increase of $680 for the entire year. If that person is paid biweekly (26 paychecks per year), we’re talking about only $26.15 more per pay period. And we haven’t even considered deductions like social security, Medicare, and FICA tax. Increases to those could actually result in a biweekly take-home pay of less money than before.
If you enter the job market in high school or shortly after, when you are likely making less money than the example above, the same can still hold true. Maybe you got a part-time job at a local coffee shop with a great family atmosphere working 20 hours a week at $9.15 an hour. That equates to roughly $9,516 annually. Multiplying that amount by the 10% (minimum) tax rate leaves around $8,865.
You later hear that Starbucks is hiring part-time help starting at $10 an hour, so you apply and get the job. Your annual income increases to $10,400, but also bumps you to the 12% tax bracket. Now your annual federal taxes are $1,248, leaving you $9,152 for a net gain of $287 over your old job.
After a couple of weeks at Starbucks, you begin to question your decision. The customer traffic is five times what it was at the mom-and-pop shop. You and your coworkers are more stressed due to the fast-paced pressure and as a result aren’t all that friendly to each other. In fairness to Starbucks, I’m not a coffee drinker, don’t frequent Starbucks, and have never worked there. But you get the point. Is the meager bump in money worth it and should it have been the only factor you considered?
After years of job-hopping for no other reason than to make more money, I achieved the lifestyle I had been seeking. I was in my early forties, and I had made it and I was finally going to be happy. But what I had failed to realize was that a certain lifestyle (which was all I had been chasing) was just a small piece of the big equation of happiness. I had been lured into thinking small and not seeing the big picture of life.
What I realized was that even though I had achieved what seemed like a much greater lifestyle, I still was not completely happy. And unfortunately, I was still unable to figure out what would lead to the happiness I was seeking. It’s an empty feeling. You’ve worked hard to get the things that you believe will make you happy, and in the end, it doesn’t work the way you thought. What was it all for? I’m sure I had been told many times that money was not everything and would not necessarily lead to happiness, but I’m also sure I didn’t always listen to that or even believe it.
So again, I quit my job. This time, I did it before having something that paid more lined up. I just quit. As I began looking for my next job, for the first time I had a second criterion in addition to making more money: I was going to give working from home a try. This was the first time that compensation alone wasn’t going to cut it. I had hit my breaking point. Going to work at a job I didn’t like had become unbearable no matter how much money I was making. However, I thought if I did the same job—in the comfortable surroundings of my home office—I might be happy.
But as I read the job descriptions of the jobs I was applying for, I soon realized that it was more than the office environment that I needed to escape. It was the work itself. Whether I was working in an office or doing the same job at home, I wasn’t going to be satisfied or happy.
In that moment I was coming to realize two things: first, no matter the money and the amount of possessions, my level of happiness was not going to increase; second, I was never going to be happy as long as I continued to do the same work I had always done.