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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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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