A Story About Paying Off Debt and the Obstacles Along the Way


We Should Be Talking About Our Salaries. Here's Why.

Money talk is too taboo

As polite members of society, many of us were brought up to not talk about the following:
  • Sex
  • Mental health issues
  • Politics and religion 
  • Money - particularly what you owe and what you earn

My friends and I throw some of these taboos out the window without a second thought. I know their religious and political views. We're open with one another about our depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and the like. Sex? Sure, we'll delve into that juicy topic with glee, especially if we're sharing a bottle of wine. 

But money?

For the most part, we don't go there. 

Of all the taboo subjects, money is the one that often feels the most repellant somehow, and I'm just as guilty as anyone of avoiding the issue. I may spill all my debt secrets here on this blog, but in real life, I don't talk about it. And salary? I mean, sure, I'd share it if a friend or acquaintance asked. But the likelihood of anyone I know inquiring about my income is very, very slim because it's a subject most of us have been trained not to broach. 

I think we should be doing exactly that: talking money. Discussing our debts. Sharing our salaries. Here's why:

1. Because it helps - it really helps! - to know how others make the magic happen

If you write a headline like "How I Achieved Financial Independence in Five Years" or "How I Paid Off $100K in Student Loans in 18 Months," there's an excellent chance I'm going to head right on over to your post or article and devour it. I love a good financial independence or debt payoff story, partly because I want to feel inspired, and partly because I want to learn from you. I want to know what you did so that I can apply those same strategies to my own financial journey.

But here's my ask: when you're sharing your tales of success, tell me your salary, or at least a salary range. Otherwise, you're leaving out a crucial part of your story. 

It is disingenuous, for example, to attribute your financial independence to the eschewing of Starbucks lattes and avocado toast while failing to mention that you make a six-figure income. Someone making $200K a year and someone making $40K a year could be doing the exact same things in terms of cost-cutting measures and savings rate, but obviously the higher earner is going to achieve financial independence or debt freedom more quickly. It's helpful to know that you're not actually working with the same resources. It's helpful to have context. That doesn't mean that people with different incomes can't learn from one another.

So put it out there. Yes, talk about your frugality - absolutely. Talk about your cost-saving measures. Talk about your high savings rate. Talk about the sacrifices you made to get to where you are, because undoubtedly they played a big role in your success. But don't stop there. Talk about how much you earned while crushing your financial goals, because that matters. I would argue that - assuming you aren't a total spendthrift - it matters more than anything else when it comes to big, rapid financial achievements.

2. Because actual numbers = a common language

In the past few months I've seen several very successful personal finance bloggers describe their salaries in hazy terms such as "middle class salary" or "upper middle class income." But what do those descriptors actually mean? Out of curiosity, I asked my Twitter friends for their thoughts:

Lazy Man and Money did a nice job of summarizing the results in a follow-up post, but I'll just share a few of the comments I received to show that the perception of what constitutes a middle class income varies widely (note: I was expecting maybe four brief responses, not the deluge of thoughtful, nuanced answers that rolled in... Check out the whole Twitter thread for a plethora of ideas and perspectives):

As I was writing this post I ended up going down a rabbit hole of Pew Research Center analyses and articles by experts like Chief Mom Officer who are much better qualified to discuss the differences between social class and income level, and it all got rather dizzying and overwhelming for this blogger who doesn't often write research-heavy posts.

So I'll just summarize what I learned with this: terms like "middle class income" are meaningless, and they can be misleading. 

Case in point: in the past few months, I've read a couple of inspiring stories from individuals who have declared early financial independence after saving an impressive chunk of what they publicly described as a "middle class salary." Their stories sent a message of hope: If we can buckle down and make it work on our average income, so can you!

Later, it emerged that these folks had earned several hundreds of thousands of dollars per year - middle class by their own standards, perhaps, but judging by the backlash that has ensued, not by their audience's standards.

We can simplify and clarify our discussions of salary by ditching the social class-style descriptors and sharing cold, hard numbers, perhaps with some added context: "I make $100K a year and live in Toronto, where rents are sky high" or "I make $45K and live in New York City" or "I make $55K in rural Illinois and support a family of five." 

See? Simple. Numbers are just... numbers. They're unambiguous. They offer a common language that we can all understand.

3. Because maybe more transparency can help close the wage gap

More stats for you: In 2017, women earned just 82% of what their male colleagues brought home. In 2016, many minorities made less than 75% of what their white counterparts earned. As Pew points out, while the wage gap has narrowed over the last few decades, it's remained relatively constant for the past 15 years. That is unacceptable - and we should be talking about it.

Story time: 

A few years ago I landed a position as an assistant professor at a small college. The administration made their offer, and I countered, angling for a few thousand dollars more. The response I received was that the school lacked the wiggle room to go any higher - not a penny more - and besides, with such a low cost of living for that location, the initial offer should be sufficient. There was nothing they could do, they said.

I acquiesced because I was worried that the offer might be rescinded if I pushed too hard. But a few months later, I found myself in a somewhat awkward conversation with a male colleague (who started at the same level, at the same time, and received the exact same initial offer) who shared that when he countered, the school bumped up his salary.

My guess is that my former employer betted on me not finding out - because hey, who sits around and divulges salary? - so they weren't worried about treating us differently. I suspect this happens in a lot of companies and organizations, many of which expect their workers to keep their salaries to themselves.

It's worth pointing out that websites like Glassdoor and Payscale have made it easier for employees to research going rates in their industries and walk into negotiations armed with a clearer idea of what they should be asking for. But as far as I can tell, these salaries aren't broken down by demographics or time spent in the industry. 

It would be ideal if we could talk about salaries more candidly not only within our industries but also within our own organizations (if possible) so that gender, racial and ethnic wage inequalities are brought out into the open. Otherwise, companies can continue (intentionally or unintentionally) to perpetuate the wage gap.

(Note: I do realize that some organizations see the sharing of salary information as a fireable offense, and obviously we don't want to go there. But then how about sharing a salary range? Or sharing your total household income?)

4. Because we don't need to feel ashamed of what we earn

We don't talk about the things we're ashamed of: mental health problems. Sex. Money. We have no reason to be ashamed of any of those things, salary included. Your income does not reflect your worth as a human being. Your income. Does not. Reflect your worth. As a human being. So whether you make $25K a year (or less), or $300K a year (or more), you have no reason to feel chagrined. You don't have to be ashamed for earning less than someone else. And unless you're exploiting the people working for you, I also don't think you need to feel bad if you're a high earner.

I realize that saying, "Just talk about it!" is easier said than done, especially if you feel like you're opening yourself up to criticism or judgment from others. The thing about shame is that it thrives in silence and embarrassment. When it's brought into the light, it tends to wilt. It loses its power. The more that we as a society talk about money, the easier it becomes for all of us as individuals to talk about money, and the less shameful money talk becomes.

The $76K Project: Putting our income out there

Because I believe in transparency and walking the walk, I'm putting it out there: As a household, my family makes about $110K a year before taxes and benefits. We spend approximately 1/3 of our income on rent, 1/3 on fixed and variable monthly expenses (gas, groceries, energy bill, etc.), and 1/3 on debt. Currently, we are able to put $2K a month towards our remaining student loans. That is a significant chunk of cash, and that is the main reason we're able to pay off our debt quickly (well, quickly by my standards: about 2.5 years to go).

Are we frugal? In some ways. Do we make sacrifices? Yes, but we certainly haven't given up all creature comforts. Is it a challenging journey? Definitely, but it also feels completely sustainable. At the end of the day, it is our six-figure income more than our frugality that makes all of this possible.

These are all things I want readers of my blog to know, so that they have the whole story. If they can take some inspiration or lessons from our story, fantastic - that's one of the main reasons I'm devoted to this blog. It's also likely that some people don't find us relatable, and that's okay, too, because I can guarantee that there are other bloggers out there who they will connect with.

Your thoughts?

I typically don't wade into controversial topics on this blog, so writing this post makes me feel a little uneasy. I know not everyone wants to talk about their salary, and I worry about missing the mark. So give me your take: do you think we should be discussing this more? Less? Or... not at all?


  1. I could not agree more. It is much more helpful and relatable to read a person's real numbers. We wrote about paying off 120k in less than 2 years. It would have been easy for us to just say on middle class income, after all we have solidly middle class careers (a nurse and a firefighter) but instead we chose to share the real numbers that we did a lot of things, mostly just overtime that got our income to about $170k.
    We take the stance that nothing should be off limits, we can only learn and grow by talking about hard subjects.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting! I completely agree. Talking about hard subjects is well, hard, but it's also crucial to learning and understanding and relating.

      A year ago we were not making nearly as much as we are now, and our debt payoff was much slower. Hitting six figures made an enormous difference to the rate at which we can pay off our debt, and I feel like I *have* to mention that as part of our story.

  2. Yeah, this is a huge issue. As a single person I have lower expenses in some ways (less food, clothing, gas) but otherwise have to sustain a house, car, etc on a much lower income than a married couple where both work for $$. I've made anywhere from $66K to $30K per year for the last five years (academic years). I miss that $66K salary so much! It was a medium COL area but I both had my own apartment AND paid off my student loans that year. Back of the envelope (I didn't actually look any figures up) I think I'm around $250K gross income total for the last five (academic) years, with a net worth gain of around $120K. Not too shabby. But I did that partly by living in a VERY low COL area for three of those five years, and by having housemates the whole time except that first year, which keeps the rent down significantly.

    1. Thank you for commenting! You've achieved so much in the last few years... you are like my debt reduction/wealth building guru. :-)

      Location matters so much. If I didn't love our current town so much (and if I wasn't so averse to moving again), I'd want to move to a much more affordable place so that our income could go further.

  3. My salary is public record, but I'm totally willing to share, too. In the past 4 years I've had two years at 45-46k, one year at 52k, and now making 65k but I spent the first 4.5 months at last year's job and salary. I feel like I'm BALLIN at the 65k pace, so it's interesting to see that some people consider that the beginning of middle class. I was solidly middle class at 40k 5 years ago, as a homeowner, paid off student loans and bought a *used* BMW as my first car I bought myself.

    1. Those are impressive wins, Josh! That inspires me.

      I like how state and federal organizations have to post salaries. I worked at a public university and so I could access the salary info for every employee - from the president to the janitorial staff. It was really informative - I learned that everyone in my position was being paid the same wage, but I also learned that nobody had received a raise in years - and helped me move forward when I needed to.

      At my current place of employment, I have absolutely NO idea what other people make, but I get the impression there's quite a bit of disparity, even between people with similar job titles.

  4. I devoured this post. Great job at it! This is a subject that really needs to be discussed more openly.

    The fact that employers rely on wage secrecy in order to keep wages low is a problem! Once we start talking about it and removing the shame from it we can actually make a big impact.

    Thank you for thus great post

    1. Derek, you and Debts to Riches inspired me to think more about this topic and write the post, so thank YOU!

      I do worry that private companies use wage secrecy to keep wages low for those lower on the ladder and hide what I'm guessing are some significant wage gaps.

  5. This post really challenged me.

    On one hand, I can appreciate some of the reasons people don't share actual numbers. At the same time, for something like a post on overcoming debt, both the "what" and the "how" are important.

    I think it can be ok to stir the pot every now and then when it benefits the community!

    -Mr. Thrifty

    1. Thanks, Mr. Thrifty! I appreciate your support.

      I can understand why some can't share their numbers. It's really unfortunate when companies essentially force their employees to keep quiet about their salaries.

  6. Thank you for this post! I think salary is a huge part of the equation in terms of frugality and FI. However, I also think that where you live comes into play. I live in Boston Mass and honestly, daycare cost is very close to my mortgage payment, and my son goes to a "cheap" daycare. So while my husband and I have a "wealthy" salary, in our area it doesn't go very far. I agree that many of the blogs focus on one part of the equation and it is more nuanced than the FI community can make it out to be sometimes. Again - loved this post!

    1. Thanks, Liz! I completely agree - location makes such a big difference in terms of how far one's salary can go. My impression is that many of us in the PF community live in HCOL areas (and wow, yes, Boston is up there!) and feel the pinch even when our salaries are decent and we're living well within our means. And throw daycare into the mix... that takes up a huge chunk of income.

  7. While my husband and I are definitely "upper middle class" for our area of the county where household avg salary is 40k a year, together we make around 125k a year, it doesn't feel like we're that better off than others around us for a variety of reasons. I think part of that is that no one talks about money/ debt/ what was given to them by family, etc. So you're left guessing how people afford to send 2 kids to daycare at once, have new vehicles, have 100 acres of land and a nice house, etc. At this point I try to make sure I'm clear with our kids on why we spend money on some things and not others. Mom's got student loan debt, so she's going to keep her used car as long as I can.

    1. Thank you for commenting! We have similar conversations with our kiddo. He sees that we both work and so sometimes I think he feels confused as to why we say no to so many things. We have started to be very open about our debt - I even show him our Personal Capital account when we check it so that a) he can participate in tracking our progress and b) he can see how difficult it is to live with debt (and hopefully avoid it himself).

  8. Such a great post. My most recent job was also a government position, so anybody could look up my salary. It never bothered me, but I also didn't go out of my way to tell people (I made about $65k in 2017). My friend's and I did a good job of discussing initial job salary offers, but now tend to speak in more vague terms about raises and such.

  9. This is a great post and very relevant. While I shared my salary range on the DR show, I tend to not reveal it on my site. Being that I write about my debt pay off journey, it would probably be helpful to share my salary range too. Thanks for challenging me!

  10. I am having a heck of a time commenting here. Sorry if this came through twice!

    While I revealed my salary range on the DR show, I don't typically publish it on my site. It would probably help since I write about debt pay off. Thanks for challenging me!

  11. I love everything about this. Count me as a casualty of the truth bombs you're dropping! My household income is $110k as well for two humans and a dog, and I feel super well off.

  12. Very timely and interesting article. I am in charge of a prodction facility with about 90 direct employees that we (with my supervisors) decide the pay based on ranges for each job level (levels are based on how difficult it is to train that job) We just reviewed all the employees yesterday to make sure they are getting paid what they should be based on performance, attendance, and safety. We discussed the pro’s and con’s of stating the ranges of each levels and decided it still is not a good idea (in our minds) to state that. I have read a bit on the pro’s and con’s and in theory it sounds good but when you are on the floor trying to explain to someone why they don’t get paid as much as the next person doing a similar job (because quite a few of them talk to each other already about what they make which is fine) but obvious to everyone else around them that their performance, attendance or safety is not as good. They still don’t like the answer and it gets very tiresome to have to explain that every time. FYI We DO go over that information with every employee during the pay discussion so they are aware of the exact scoring system.

    I 100% agree with you that all the bloggers out there should state their actual income especially if they are touting “I paid xxxxxx of in x days or years” I also believe that everyone that feels they are not getting paid enough should ask around for tips to get paid more. I knkw it may sound easy for me to say “If you want more, bring more value” but some (including myself) may not know how to do that where their at.
    Anyways, I could go on for quite some time with this but I need to go meet my mentor for breakfast and can’t be late (one way I learn to get more value for the company)

    Anyways, we live near Portland, OR and combined we make $185k. We started using YNAB in 2012 when we were making less than 100 combined and have since kept our spending inline with 2012 income so it makes paying off debt really easy so we are almost debt free including the house. :)

    1. Steve,
      You hit the nail on the head. I work in HR for our company that consists mostly of engineers and sales. What is often overlooked is that people in similar roles with similar experience have a vast degree of varying performance. It is not human nature to look in the mirror and realize someone else is making more money because they are a better performer.

  13. So, I disagree... slightly.

    I think percentages, savings rate (SR) in general, are more relatable to the casual reader than salary data. Since cost of living varies so much throughout the world, percentages are a much more universal metric.

    For example, I would rather read someone has a 35% SR and work towards matching something similar based on my means.

    Since we are all on different paths, bigger or smaller salaries can quickly turn someone off in either direction. (example: I'll never make that much or I can't learn anything from this person, they only make $xx)

    Now, when people are savings 85% or their take home, you know they are either racking in the big bucks or they are extremely frugal. Either way, there is no direct benefit for me to know what their actual salary is... other than to satisfy my curiosity.

  14. This is just about my favorite post on the topic, especially the acknowledgement that "It is disingenuous, for example, to attribute your financial independence to the eschewing of Starbucks lattes and avocado toast while failing to mention that you make a six-figure income. Someone making $200K a year and someone making $40K a year could be doing the exact same things in terms of cost-cutting measures and savings rate, but obviously the higher earner is going to achieve financial independence or debt freedom more quickly."

    Disingenuous is the nice way of putting it; I used stronger words after I rushed out to read a book written by an anything-but middle class blogger. In regards to frugality, it was a waste of time and money. That blog is more about a lifestyle, with token references to saving money. In retrospect, it seems like some blogs prey upon people's lack of money to increase the writer's own. The Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau have pages of data on average, median and local income rates. But when your income is in the top 5% of American households, you are not middle class. Say so up front; not saying so insults the intelligence of the other 95% of households.

    But it does raise a question: should personal finance bloggers include the income they make from their blogs when discussing their earnings? When publishing expenses, what are the costs of setting up and maintaining a blog? What is the annual or hourly rate for blog income? Some bloggers include some of this, but most of those I've read don't.

    Little else is private in this world; discussing money can benefit everyone in the end, more so than the endless loop of commentary/observations about friends/acquaintances "dating" experiences. Good luck with your project!