Are You Acting Your Wage?

Your peers, or your profession, can be an excuse to overspend--as I learned the hard way.

  • By Sandy M Fernandez
  • August 05, 2013

So when a friend raved about a new restaurant, I didn’t think twice about going to try it out. Night out with the girls? I’ll have what you’re having. Girlfriend wearing a great new pair of shoes or awesome dress? I’ll go check out the store.

It’s not that I didn’t read the prices on the menu or peruse the price tags on those beautiful togs: I often had the salad or app instead of that pricier entrée. And I was just as happy to find a good secondhand store as I was a chic boutique. But what I note now is that I never questioned whether that was where I should be spending my money. This is how my colleagues behaved, so I thought I was acting my wage.

Of course, there were things we never discussed: Retirement, savings, investments, who was getting help from their parents, who was working a second job, who was going deeply into debt. But I’m only aware of those now.

My career kept climbing along with my friends’: I got bigger jobs with bigger paychecks, and hit better restaurants. Ten years later, I got a big job back home in Washington, DC. In one way, I was smart: Something told me that credit was a drug I wouldn’t be able to handle, so I kept my limits low. But I was making more than five times the salary I’d made at the beginning of my career—and saving none of it. Instead, I rented myself a gorgeous 2,000-square foot loft. I could have parties for work there, I thought. That’s what someone in my position would do.

When I met my husband and started planning a wedding, my compunction about credit card use went out the window. A few years later, for the first time ever, I had credit card debt—and my half of our combined load was about as much as my first year salary had been. After a few years of carrying that, the daily and monthly anxiety led me to my ah-ha! moment.

That was really the turning point. I needed to act my real wage, not what I vaguely thought someone with my salary and title ought to be spending. For the first time, I seriously started socking cash away for a rainy day. And I became much more deliberate and mindful. When a job took me back to New York and my husband and I were long-distance for a year, I took the bus — not the train, not a shuttle — to see him most weekends. The college kids that rode with me did look at me a little funny, but whatever. When I needed to shop for new work clothes, I targeted designers on eBay. Later, we bought a house for far less than we could afford, in a far grittier neighborhood than most of our friends, but we love it and it’s right for us. 

The calculus works the other way, too: Our son’s first three years of school were at a private school where many families far out-earned us, but we thought it was a worthwhile splurge. And next year, after 10 years of driving our old clunker, my husband’s dream will come true: He’ll finally be able to afford that Tesla he’s been after. 

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