“I’m proud of you.”
My accountant beamed at me as I wrote out a check for his help wrangling my taxes. I was 26 and had grossed over $150,000 in income. And it felt awesome.
Five years later, I was in his office, watching as he squinted at the paystubs spread across his desk.
“And this year, it looks like you made … $46,000,” he said, followed by a moment where he silently shuffled my papers. I felt shame radiating through my body. The numbers were clear: I had made less than a third of what I made when I was in my mid-twenties.
Of course, that number didn’t tell the whole story. Instead of working in a corporate office and spending nights and weekends ghostwriting novels — four in one year — as I had back in my six-figure days, I had spent the past seven months backpacking around the world. Instead of living in a rental that cost $2,000 a month, I had spent the summer hopscotching around hostel bunk beds for about $15 a night. I’d pared down my possessions and had everything I needed in a backpack. I met new people, saw new sights and paid my bills with the money I earned from freelancing remotely.
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But in my accountant’s Manhattan office, surrounded by corporate skyscrapers, all of those experiences and the excitement that came with them faded in importance.
Making things even more complicated was the fact that, unbeknownst to my accountant, I was 10 weeks pregnant, and the father wasn't in the picture. So I had to factor in future child care as well as college savings into the mix, on a single income.
To me, what was most responsible was getting the job that paid the most money possible — even if it wasn’t something I loved doing. I spent days researching just how much daycare cost in my neighborhood, and evenings calculating just how much money I would need to make to jump from being a single person, no dependents, to a head of household for two. And I quickly decided: I needed to start looking for the highest-paying gig possible.
My Quest for the Bigger Paycheck
After a lot of frantic job searching, as well as emailing everyone in my extended network, I got offered a position. Although it was a contract position without benefits, it paid a generous hourly rate. Combined with my freelance income, I was back to six figures. The new job gave me a lot of responsibility, but didn’t allow me very much creative freedom. I was often too tired to take on freelance projects, and the ones I did take were based on the potential pay — not because I was excited by the content or saw the potential to learn something new.
A month before my daughter was due, the six-figure gig came to an end. My bosses told me I was welcome to come back when I was ready — but, due to budget constraints, they would have to cut my hourly rate by a third. I declined the offer. For the first six months of my daughter’s life, I lived off savings and freelance assignments. After that, I began looking for a full-time job, obsessed with the bottom line.
But after a few false starts — including a position that clearly wasn’t the right fit and only lasted three weeks before my manager gave me the option to quit (or be fired) — I realized that higher pay didn’t equate to a better job fit for me. Of course, I needed to be fiscally responsible. Not only did I have myself to worry about, I had my daughter to think about. And unlike the cliché of having to work to afford diapers, diapers — at $40 a month — were the least of my financial concerns. So, too, were clothing and toys, all of which were plentiful via hand-me-downs and sales on local mom message boards.
Instead, there was daycare ($1,500 a month for the “cheap” one in my neighborhood), formula ($140 a month) and health insurance (a cringe-inducing $543 a month for both of us). At night, my mind would race with math problems, trying to find the magic income figure that meant I wouldn’t have to worry about money anymore.
But here’s the thing: Time spent panicking didn’t translate into more income. Instead, it stressed me out and made me jump at opportunities — like the full-time job that only lasted for 21 days — that clearly weren’t the right fit. Even though it was undeniably true that my expenses had increased substantially, it was equally true that I needed balance.
After all, when I was 26, although I made a lot of money, I was miserable. There were dark circles under my eyes; I snapped at the barista at my local coffee shop; I always broke plans with friends so I could spend weekends working. And while some parents can pull all-nighters, I found that I simply couldn’t stay up all night working and be an effective employee or parent. I got the flu twice; I was always achy and exhausted. I needed to figure out how to pay my bills and keep my sanity.
Finding Balance, With the Help of a Budget
I realized that would mean actually making a spreadsheet and looking beyond the number on my paycheck. I needed to itemize my living expenses, find out where I could cut back and figure out a paycheck amount that was the right fit for me — even if it didn’t garner praise from my accountant. And I found that there was a lot of wiggle room in where I could cut back.
I could downsize to a one-bedroom apartment. I could stop the takeout habit I had fallen into during the first chaotic months of new motherhood. I could swap babysitting duties with friends. I even asked my daycare if I could help them with their public relations and marketing strategy in exchange for a tuition reduction. And little by little, I began seeing my expenses go down to a place that didn’t cause my heart to race.
But the budgeting and being able to cover my new-mom expenses were only a part of the equation. For me, there was a bigger challenge: letting go of the idea that the size of my paycheck was representative of my professional or personal success. And that’s a lesson I’m still learning.
This year, several major freelance projects led to a few large checks that raised my income to a level my accountant and I were both more than comfortable with. Could I have taken on more work or higher-paying jobs that weren’t that interesting, just to pad my pay? Sure. But the weird thing was that, over the past year, I’d been more or less following my interests, and taking projects that inspired and challenged me — while still being able to take care of the bills. Of course, the paycheck is important. But the few lower-paying projects I wouldn’t have considered when I was only looking at the money part of the equation had their own payoff: Those projects directly led to more lucrative connections and gigs later.
As a freelancer, I know my income will never be stable. And I know that “follow your passion and the money will come” is a simplistic cliché that often isn’t realistic. But I also know that looking beyond a paycheck and thinking more holistically about the skills, passions and connections a job can bring can pay off in unexpected ways. Plus, with better work-life balance, I’m able to spend more quality time with my daughter, rather than constantly stressing about the next deadline.
Yes, there were times when I’ve felt like money was tight, sometimes incredibly so. But by continuing to focus on how our money covers what we need, I realize that we’re doing all right — even if it might not seem that way by the standards I held myself to as a twenty-something.
Bottom line: Comparing paychecks from year to year is only one way of looking at success — and it may not show the full picture. What I earn now may never come close to what I made in my mid-twenties, and I’d be lying if I said I was completely OK with that. But I do know that at the end of the day, life is so much richer than the number on your tax form — and that’s a lesson that’s priceless.