Are You A Serial Under-Earner?

I know a lot of artists who struggle with money. They yearn for the stability that it provides, but aren’t sure how to go about finding it. So I was particularly curious to read The Secrets of Six-Figure Women by Barbara Stanny, which was recommended to me during a recent interview with designer James Victore. (You’ll note he’s not a woman but still found the book useful.)

Perhaps the most interesting insight from the book is its perspective on the traits of those of us who are NOT earning as much as we’d like. As well as the revelation that many of the “six figure women” profiled therein were serial underearners until they changed their mindset – often because something drastic happened (e.g. a divorce, bankruptcy, etc). Stanny goes on outline the key traits of underearners, and I was surprised at how many of them were true of me or close friends and family. One of the points – negotiating ability and confidence – is a skill that I’ve worked hard to improve for many years now. And, based on conversations with numerous other creatives, I know I’m not alone.

So I thought it would be useful to share Stanny’s insights here on 99U to start a discussion about an often-taboo topic among creatives – money. How much we’re making, or how little we’re making, and why.

But first: What is a serial underearner? According to Stanny:

Jerold Mundis, the author of the first book on the subject, “Earn What You Deserve,” defines underearning this way: “to repeatedly gain less income than you need, or than would be beneficial, usually for no apparent reason and despite your desire to do otherwise.” Simply put, an underearner is anyone who earns below her potential.

Underearners aren’t all poorly paid, however. You can make decent money and still fall into this category. What distinguishes an underearner is that she should bring in more, and genuinely wants to, but for whatever reason, she doesn’t… It’s estimated that one out of every three workers is an underearner, most of them women.

Stanny goes on to outline the characteristics of the typical underearner (which I’ve substantively abbreviated in this excerpt):

Underearners have a high tolerance for low pay.

Underearners consistently accept low-paying jobs or jobs that pay less than they need, usually for the “freedom” it gives them.

Underearners are willing to work for free.

Underearners regularly give away their time, knowledge, and skills for nothing. They’ll work at no charge without thinking twice. Most of the time, it’s so ingrained, they aren’t even conscious they’re doing it.

Underearners are lousy negotiators.

Underearners are reluctant to ask for more, whether it’s to increase their fees or to request a raise. For some, it actually never crosses their minds to ask.

Underearners practice reverse snobbery.

Most of us harbor all kinds of distorted perceptions about money. Underearners, however, tend to have a particularly negative attitude, particularly toward people who have it. Many will tell you they don’t like the rich.

Underearners believe in the nobility of poverty.

At the same time underearners are spurning the wealthy, they are singing their own praises for surviving on so little. Many of them take great pride in barely eking out a living, as if it’s more noble and respectable to be one of the poor. Not only are people with money bad, they think, but so is money itself.

Underearners are subtle self-saboteurs.

Underearners unwittingly throw banana peels in their own path in all sorts of ways, like applying for work they’re not qualified for, creating problems with coworkers, procrastinating or leaving projects unfinished, hopping from one job to another, always stopping just short of reaching their goals.

Underearners are unequivocally codependent.

Underearners will sacrifice personal security and private dreams by putting other people’s needs before their own. Their kids, spouse, job, church, and friends all take precedence over their own needs and priorities.

Underearners live in financial chaos.

They are more likely to be in debt, have smaller savings, fewer (if any) investments, and little idea where their money goes. Underearners often go from crisis to crisis, constantly moving money from one account to another, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, careening hopelessly toward financial disaster.

What’s Your Relationship To Money?

Have you struggled with underearning? How did you overcome it?

What money management tips have worked well for you?

More insights on: Career Development, Money

Jocelyn K. Glei

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A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with understanding how work gives our lives meaning. She has authored three books about work, creativity, and business, including the Amazon bestsellers Manage Your Day-to-Day and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.
load comments (40)
  • Matthew

    Thanks for outlining ‘the under-earner’. I used to be one -then I grew balls and started asking for more money (and I got it!). As I began to value my own time more and more, I simply started raising my estimates considerably. This has proved to be a valuable filter to keep toxic projects away and now allows me to have a fuller, healthier creative process on better projects with those who are willing to pay. Win-win.

  • Terry Cooper

    I’ve been an underearner for many years, and to my embarrassment, I identify with pretty much all of the signs above. This year, I have a new motivation to stop ‘treading water’ in life and make some big changes, such as marriage and relocation, so I’m going to have to seriously conquer some of these issues. Great post. Thanks!

  • buca

    If you’re happy, does it really matter if you are an ‘under-earner’? Should you be ashamed of yourself? The implication of the article above is ‘yes’.

  • Nate

    While I understand some of the above points (and recognize many of them as valid), I think this is a gross over simplification of what it is actually like to work in a creative field or to be striking out on your own on a creative endeavor.

    Some of the financial points seem dead on, but the attitudinal claims above (disdain for the rich, for instance; the claim of reverse snobbery; the scare quotes around the word freedom, indicating that such freedom is a specious or non-existent) seem wrongheaded and simply incorrect.

    Neither my wife nor I make much money (both Ivy League grads, both holding graduate degrees), but we teach as adjuncts and freelance and buy our own healthcare. We own our car. We have virtually no debt other than student loan debt, and we’re pretty happy. We don’t have significant savings or investments, but we’re okay with that for now.

    And I should point out that not demanding pay for everything you do is also often a form of altruism and volunteerism. Not bad traits, if you ask me, though I certainly don’t do as much as I can or should.

  • Ktank

    I’m buying the book!

  • Snm

    even war makes money …

  • Sarah e

    J Glei, I was an intern at Flavorpill and thought you were totally rad. You’re clearly still awesome. Cheers, Sarah E. (http://www.spiritualhipsteria….)

  • jkglei

    I think money is always a divisive topic – one that’s not talked about a lot in the creative fields – so I was interested in sharing Stanny’s thoughts and opening a debate. Hers is an interesting take, but I am not necessarily endorsing it 100%.

    I don’t think any kind of work – creative, or otherwise – should be all about making lots of money. (And it most certainly isn’t for me, personally.) That said, I couldn’t include everything that Stanny has to say in this short piece, but she makes a clear distinction between: People who make a choice to earn less so that they can work less, live a certain lifestyle, or give back in other ways (like volunteering, as you suggest), and those who would like to (and/or need to) earn more but find themselves unable to do so.

  • jkglei

    Buca- See my paragraph above. Stanny’s assertions are directed at people (and from her perspective, only women, in particular) who would like to be making more, but find themselves unable to. Something that she sees as being very different from deliberately choosing to earn a small income because that’s your preference.

  • Mail

    Like a lot of ‘creatives’ I hate asking for money and always take the easy route which is more in my clients benefit than mine.

    My new years resolution is to overcome this and make some money. Articles like this one are a great help.

  • MuchNYC

    I’m a Overearner and I still meet all these criteria, go figure, especially the financial chaos.

  • Nicholas Hammond

    Would definitely be nice to see a follow up article with tips and tricks on how to push away from being a serial under-earner :)

    I know I find myself in these situations every once in a while, even with the large amount of projects and clients I have already done work for.

  • Nate


    Totally understood, and I think it’s a provocative and very worthwhile topic. At heart, I think those engaged in any professional endeavor — creative or otherwise — deserve to be fairly compensated, and I think Stanny’s observations are certainly worth considering. In fact, when I was coordinating book reviews for a magazine, it was an in-house joke of sorts that we were actively engaged in the exploitation of the creative underclass. While it was said with good humor and wasn’t entirely true, it points to a basic fact about many creative endeavors; that liquidity is uncommon and that sometimes, people are willing to work for things other than money (bylines and exposure, for instance) in exchange for their time and energy.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful reply. Lots to think about.

  • moneythirsty

    Sad, but true. Leveraging your resources (financially &otherwise) is not taught in any college so a lot of us simply accept any salary or raise we are given without even thinking that “maybe I should ask for more.” We are taught to “get by” even when we truly deserve more. A great book that helped me was “Expect to Win” by Carla Harris.
    Great article!

  • All too Noble

    I have been a video editor for the past ten years. Five of those have been on salary for a non-profit organization. It’s not paying half as much as the going rate elsewhere. To help, I take side projects for, regrettably, other non-profits. [sigh] It’s the people I know. I consider part of the work as volunteering….

    I’m concerned my past earnings over the last five years will impede getting better paying jobs elsewhere when potential employers see what I make. Is it too much to ask for double what I make now In the future?

    I very much relate to the article. I’d love to read some solutions to the problem!

  • Factory83

    Oh my god, spot on!

  • Margaret

    I get what you’re trying to say, but I’m hearing a one-sided argument here. There are reasons why women, in particular, have adopted these practices and justifications. There are personaal ones — women weren’t ever taught how to speak up, and they aren’t eager to be called a bitch if they do. But there are also institutional ones, in which men brand assertive women as ‘aggressive’, ‘man-eating,’ ‘ball-busting’ hags, and women brand them as the enemy. Generally, women who speak forthrightly are disciplined for having ‘communication issues.’ : (

  • Lindsay R.

    I have to agree with Margaret in some sense. It is true that women tend to be passed over for jobs and promotions because we were taught to say “we” instead of “I” and give group credit even if we put in the majority of the work. However, I believe that there is a way to maneuver around this handicap in the work place. It takes equal parts of diplomacy and confidence. As usual though, it takes practice, feedback, and repetition to become an art form. Simply put, women still have to work harder in certain social and professional situations, but whats worth having is worth working hard for.

  • CDJ

    This is a concept that comes out of Debtors Anonymous, a 12-step group related to money and debt. There many people talk about overcoming underearning and use the steps to change.

  • Beth Dean

    I read this book a few years ago, and as someone who now could be one of its subjects I can tell you it misses something big. Certainly women often have ingrained behaviors that are self defeating when it comes to salary, but that’s only a small part of it. I worked several jobs where men were paid more for doing the exact same job. When you work in design in technology (software, web, etc.) there can be a bizarre perception men are more knowledgeable in the field. Clients would always want to speak to my male colleagues.

    The bottom line is if you have a job that is underpaying you by a lot, it is never going to compensate you adequately. The best you can hope for is small incremental raises. If there is a huge wage gap, the only way to remedy it is to change jobs. If the gap is really huge, sometimes it means changing jobs a few times, closing the gap a little more each time. You have to have an idea of how much money you want to make, that is reasonable within your profession. is invaluable, you can see what companies are paying other people with your job title and experience, this tells you where you should be trying to work and what you can ask for. Flexibility and willingness to change jobs or where you live are the greatest leverage any woman can have. If you are living in the Midwest, like I was, your chances of being paid adequately for your field are slim, so I made the decision I was willing to move to the cities where my industry was booming.

    This book will tell you what you’re doing wrong, but it won’t tell you what you should do right.

  • GraphicDesignBoss

    I think underearners can realise their potential very quickly by looking for another job. I remember being suprised by what another firm was offering and when I told my current boss what they we’re offering she immediately said that she would match it.

    It’s a very simple way to work out your true ‘market value’.

  • Kat Nicholson

    You can do it Coops, 2011’s going to kick serious booty :) :hug:

  • Kathleen Burns Kingsbury

    I love Stanny’s work! I too was a professional volunteeer for a while and then changed my money mindset to earn what I am worth. I am still giving and loving but feel much better being paid a good wage and being able to make a bigger impact in the world.

    My initial introduction to money mindsets was when I was ripped off by a contractor. I then found the book, The Financial Wisdom of Ebenezer Scrooge by Klontz and Kahler. It was the start of a great new chapter in my life including a change in career to help other women (and men) with their relationship with money. Finding your value, communicating your value and being paid what you are worth makes life jut that much sweeter.

    I highly recomend Stanny’s book as well as the one mentioned above.

    KBK Wealth Connection and Author of Creating Wealth From The Inside Out Workbook

  • csc3

    Well I think there’s a difference between living comfortably (but not extremely wealthy) VS living paycheck to paycheck.

    I do think that the “starving artist” mentality is prevalent in the creative community, and it hurts both the individual and the community as a whole. If you give away your skills for free, then people will undervalue it. Now I do think working pro-bono for charitable/non-profit organizations is fantastic, but you can’t work for free for everyone and their mama.

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    Financial Industry?

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  • Alison

    Why do we place so much emphasis on money?  I mean as a society/culture?  I know that money is necessary in our world, but I think this kind of thinking has got us into big trouble as a civilization.  Perhaps even as a species.  Do we need money to manage trade?  Or can we come up with a better way? It seems money drives greed, the more we have the more we want, though there are a few multi-billionaires who are sharing their wealth, there are many who continue to exploit people and entire communities/cultures/countries to increase their personal/corporate wealth.  Does that thinking make me an incurable under-earner?  Thing is, I didn’t always think this way. There was a time when I was an ardent capitalist, though never exploitative.

  • erinolan

    I was really into this article at first, but it seems to drop you off on a weird note. So you’ve told me the traits of these under-earners, but now what? Would love a follow-up post or some sort of next steps suggestions. 

  • Ampicastano

    I think this article was written with me in mind. I am a classic underearner. My finances are chaotic at best–all the time! I NEVER make what I need to make although I am really good at everything I do. I just don’t feel comfortable asking for money. I am willing to do things for anyone for free, so no one places any value on my services. I get a lot of compliments, but no money. I have tried to change my mindset, but it hasn’t been easy. Last year I decided to ask for more. I have asked for more, but don’t get it.

  • Linda

    There’s a group called Underearners Anonymous. Many of the regulars are in the creative field.  Some inspiring stories are told there by people who find ways to run their creative businesses in a profitable way. It can be done, but takes focus and commitment to the idea of earning a livable sum of money.

  • Recovering Underearner

    Underearners Anonymous is an incredible fellowship that helps all those suffering from underearning and is the most incredible way to get support from this & realise that actually you can achieve more than you ever thought possible. It exists in almost every country around the world & there are also phone meetings that people can attend for those that don’t have meetings near them. I’ve seen and heard people who’ve been in serious pain and debt over money come to earn more than their wildest dreams and find peace, serenity and trust with working the programme.


    And underearning doesn’t mean you don’t earn enough, there are people who overearn and still feel the pain of financial chaos and being vague about what they are earning because of the fear around money.

    I’d encourage anyone who thinks they might have an issue with it (feeling fear around checking bank balances, going on spending spree then not allowing yourself to spend anything, having threadbare clothing or appliances and not being able to let go of them, etc.) to check out the symptoms and see if it might be right for you.

    Help does exist and it definitely works!

  • Justin

    Underearners wait for things to happen to them instead of going out and making it happen themselves.

  • underearner

    you are just an naive egocentric ignorant fuck!

  • Lisa

    I am reading Barb Stanny’s book Overcoming Underearning as we speak. Great insights and excavating a lot of my issues around money.

  • SpeedsterNYC

    Underearners aren’t obsessed with money and status and won’t step over people or stab them in the back to get a raise or a promotion. Underearners are well adjusted people who are content with what they have in life and don’t think their career is the sole definining characteristic of who they are as a human being.

    • Janis

      Underearners who are happy to be so have no one else dependent on them — they have no kids, no sigoth, and are young enough that they can kid themselves they’ll always be hale, hearty, and in perfect health. They are also frequently trust fund brats who can afford to brag about how little money means to them because it meant lots more to Grandpapa during the late 1800s. Their parents are also rich enough that they don’t have to look forward to taking care of them or finding a decent rest home in a few decades.

  • Janis

    This has been a source of frustration for me, not so much for myself (I seem to have avoided this particular infection) but seeing it take down people I know both directly and indirectly. I have seen several women with serious health issues who can always drag themselves out of bed for an unbelievably time-consuming and tiring volunteer job, but who suddenly appeal to their health issues when they are gently advised to look for work. I’ve had women backpedal about how I’m trying to “make me feel guilty about volunteering!” when the topic is broached as subtly as possible. There are people around who just want to be poor and who think so little of themselves that they are completely unable to expect others to value them. In two cases, these women also have kids who are in serious need, and that STILL isn’t enough to slap sense into them. In cases like that, the problem is so much further upstream than the paycheck.

    I also clued in early enough (thankfully) to avoid women like this for another reason that I really am not sure I ever want to mention: they are unbelievably resentful of women who are not like that. Not only are they too debased to drag themselves out of the muck, but even the sight of another woman standing outside that muck pit, clean and making headway, is enough to turn them into rabid animals. Their inability to value themselves damages their earning potential, and if you are a higher-earning woman and you let your guard down around them, it will damage YOURS, too. Their hate for successful women dwarfs any frustration surrounding their own (fixable) situation.

    It’s so frustrating, but there are some people in this world who insist on bedding down in a sh*tpile, and the only thing you can do is make sure they don’t drag you into it, too. If you can’t stand it and MUST help them, do so from a distance and in a way that does not entangle you. :-(

  • PhilaMommia

    Such a difficult problem, particularly in a creative field — when the assumption is already that because you love what you do, you don’t care if you don’t get paid.

    It’s interesting to me how many comments below are defensive moral judgments! You can be mission-driven and make a bare-bones salary, and still live within your means and meet your responsibilities. You can make six figures and still be wildly out of control financially. And despite this nation’s Puritanical approach to financial literacy, neither option (or any of the possibilities in between) is inherently “evil” or “virtuous.” Some people are good at managing their finances and some people aren’t, for a lot of different reasons that can often be addressed through education and therapy and occasionally a good lawyer. Why sling mud?

  • Alyssa DeGraff

    OUCH! I needed to read this. And here is one of my observations – as a creative freelancer, I’ve also seen this problem exacerbated in ministry circles, where you are taught to work for less because of the “personal fulfillment” your service gives you. It’s a tough wake-up call when you realize that not only have you been settling and could be farther along in life, but you have formed terrible mindsets and habits regarding money and your own worth. Thank you for the wake-up call!

  • Barbara

    “We don’t have significant savings or investments, but we’re okay with that for now.” You don’t state your ages, but if you are “OK” with that for too long, you can easily end up poverty stricken in your retirement years.

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