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Earning What You Have: The Mindset I Hope I Never Lose

This article was written by in Career and Work. 15 comments.

I think I come from a moderately humble background. My parents are both college graduates, which is a statistical leg up by itself, but my father had to work two jobs until I was 15, and I’m the youngest of my siblings. Mom also started working part-time when I was about 10, and then full-time later on. Suffice it to say we were not showered with gifts, though I only remember one particularly depressing Christmas, when I got a fancy pair of socks from Santa.

It was only later that I learned Mom had something of an addiction to JCPenney, and they were saddled with a pretty huge credit card debt until they were into their fifties. (It wasn’t all household shopping, of course. I’m sure that’s how they paid for part of our college tuition, too.) So, we weren’t spoiled, but we did pretty well. Lower middle-class, I guess you’d say. And I grew up into the belief that if you possess something, it’s because you earned it.

I knew kids poorer than me, and I knew kids richer than me. I remember listening to a conversation a “rich” kid friend of mine had with her mother, and her mother was lamenting the fact that when my friend was younger, she got everything she wanted. Her mother felt it gave her an unfortunate sense of entitlement. I don’t have that, and I hope I never get it, but as I get older, I can foresee some ways in which it might happen.

Ways I’ve already “cheated”


My college education was paid for by my parents. I had no student loans and no scholarships of any kind. I’m not sure I was even aware of the need to apply for such things, and though I took a part-time job working for the Dean’s office, anything I earned basically went toward feasts at Taco Bell and the occasional computer game.

I sort of feel like I cheated, in that respect. But if I know anything about parents, I know they’re happy to give their children opportunities to succeed. And I thank them for it all the time. I feel like I’m paying them back a little when I receive recognition in my field, or a raise.

Do credit cards count?

Okay, so credit cards are my enemy. If there is a little devil over my shoulder, he’s wearing Visa and Mastercard logos (and why are the little devils always men, huh?). Sometimes I want something, usually electronic, and I convince myself I’ve earned it, even when I can’t pay for it yet. I get it anyway. It’s cheating.

Except these things do eventually get paid for, and the interest payments seem like punishment enough. I know people who’ve reduced their credit card debt by more than half just by ignoring them for years. Their credit scores suffer, too, of course, but that’s the decision they make. It’s hard to tell in the long term which method costs more.

Being born into it

But there are people who don’t have modest backgrounds, and whose parents can’t help but give them everything they want. The brain is a funny thing, and so these kids grow up into adults who have an enormous sense of entitlement. Without any other educational influences (and thankfully, these are plentiful), such people will become impossible to deal with. A person like that could rationalize away never giving to charity, or hiding money in an offshore account, just because they can.

That’s not really cheating, but I think it’s really pathetic. I feel bad for a person who’s never felt the uncertainty of knowing where they’ll get the rent money.

Easy come, easy go

Instant celebrity (or anything similar to winning the lottery) can mess a person up. Parties and drugs aside, all too often they seem to make terrible decisions with their finances. If you go from $40,000 a year to more than a million a year, how do you not have the presence of mind to save most of it? And yet, the apparently overwhelming temptation is to buy lavish possessions, a mini-mansion, and then throw parties for your friends until the money runs out.

We know that record companies will do everything they can to steal from their latest money-maker, all the while making the artist feel like they’re financially secure. Hopefully this knowledge has filtered its way into every aspiring star’s consciousness, and they’ll be prepared with a reliable attorney.

Of course, it’s not just musicians who find sudden wealth. Sometimes you just have to be the random, somewhat-telegenic person in the right place at the right time. Monica Lewinsky, for example. All she had to do was tell her story, and she’s set for life. She didn’t earn that.

Ridiculous salaries

I get an itch every time I hear a phrase like, “Blah Blah, who earns $750,000 a year…” No, he doesn’t. Nobody “earns” that much. If the world were a reasonable place, the highest salaries would go to emergency workers, really great teachers, investigative journalists and people who find and stop wasteful spending in government offices (that’s not a complete list, just off the top of my head). But as it is, we reward athletes (who we often find were cheating with steroids), and executives who don’t actually do much, aside from make plans, smile at clients, and otherwise increase shareholder value.

But that’s capitalism for you. We give the money to people who make us money, not necessarily to the people who earn it. I don’t want to be the recipient of that kind of money. But if it were offered, would I refuse it?


I struggle with the concept of “taking advantage of the system,” because it’s impossible to know if I’m benefitting at someone else’s expense. And for me, that’s a deal-breaker: wealth should never come through a method that deprives someone else who is just as deserving as me.

I have an entirely new group of decisions to make, since my wife and I are incorporating a business, and we’ll have to weigh the consequences, for example, of “do we take a tax deduction on the part of the mortgage we’re using for business?” I don’t want to be a cheater, and I hope I never lose that attitude.

Published or updated September 25, 2009.

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About the author

Smithee formerly lived primarily on credit cards and the good will of his friends. He is a newbie to personal finance but quickly learning from his past mistakes. You can follow him on Twitter, where his user name is @SmitheeConsumer. View all articles by .

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

Regarding the sense of entitlement, we were once invited to a Sweet Sixteen party at a really expensive catering hall. I could only imagine what the bill came to for over 200 guests. After experiencing that excess, what else will the girl expect, a wedding at the Waldorf-Astoria? You can blame the parents for the indulgence, but I feel sorry for the girl when she finally gets a dose of reality.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

I also find it impossible to believe that anyone really “earns” $750,000 per year. Honestly, what on earth would you have to do for it to be worth that much?!

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avatar 3 Anonymous

You shouldn’t think of it as “earning” that much, instead think of it as they “make” that much, because they do. Regardless of how you look at it, some employees at companies make a boatload of cash. I know head of currency trading desks make well in excess of $1 million / year but that’s because their unit made the company (shareholders) much more than that.

It’s the system we have and instead of getting upset about it, realize why it is that way. The reason executives make so much is because the shareholders do not demand they get paid less. I find it ridiculous when Washington throws around stuff like “we need to cap executive salaries!” Please. If you don’t like how much an executive is being paid, DON’T BUY THEIR STOCK! It’s so simple. The people who lose when executives get paid a ton are the shareholders who are paying them, not anyone else.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

I strongly disagree that no-one can “earn” $750,000 a year. While you may not feel that the CEO of major companies “do much”, I’d invite you to try and take that job for a period of time and see the results. What you “do” at that level is very different that what others do at other levels in an organization. The value added, or destroyed, at the helm of a major company is orders of magnitude larger than the value added or destroyed in other places. With that additional responsibility comes additional compensation.

Are there excesses, absolutely. However it is incumbent on the shareholders and the board of directors for organizations to stop those excesses when they exist. Furthermore, it is incumbent on the board and shareholders to ensure that the compensation paid is done so in a manner that provides maximum benefit to all parties involved (ie: long term sustainable growth).

Anyhow, everyone is entitled to their own opinions. I just think a lot of thought should be put into blanket statements along any lines. The responsibilities of different jobs and the impact that they have should be, and generally is, commensurate to the compensation paid.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

Since no one “earns” 750K what is your definition of how you earn money. You listed teachers (who’s job is hard but not complicated …. waitress is just as hard from what I hear so if it’s how hard it is then waitress should be high on the list), if its impact on other people’s lives then you could argue that teachers have a great impact and you could value it that way. Emergency workers save lives so that could also fit but then doctors should also be on the list who already make huge salaries. What about drug company execs (or drug company financiers or whoever you consider responsible for creating new drugs). They could be argued to save millions of lives, so then they must be “earning” very high wages if earn is measured by impact on people’s lives. You listed investigative journalists who find wasteful spending in govt. So that appears to be an argument based on those who protect the financial assets of people (not wasting their tax money). It seems those who grow people’s money are also protecting assets although perhaps you think growing money is not earning in the same way as preventing loss or waste of money is.

It appears to me that your list is based on two things. 1. Those who provide value to the lower and middle class, and 2. those who work in professions that liberals place particularly high importance on relative to other occupations (education, health care, journalism).

I suspect you don’t agree with that classification. Would you care to show me why its wrong and how you determine that teachers earn high wages and CEOs don’t earn high wages? It would be instructive to see a formula or a rule of thumb one would use to determine how much one earns in a given occupation using your definition of earn.

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avatar 6 Anonymous

As a side note I wanted to say that I completely agree with your entire overall sentiment, that of understanding that you have to put in effort and provide value and work to earn your money and not feel entitled to it, or get it handed to you without effort, or try to cheat the system to get it. I love your point, and wish more people had that mindset.

It’s worth noting that by injecting a politically charged viewpoint on compensation into the final argument all the comments except one focus on what qualfies as excessive wages rather than on your overall point which is sad to me because I think the point was great but the comments indicate that it got over-shadowed. Unless that is what you were going for but I doubt it.

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avatar 7 Smithee

I don’t think it was all that political. I think everybody in Congress is a capitalist.

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avatar 8 Anonymous

I don’t understand the belief why nobody “earns” $750,000? If you pull in $20,000,000 in revenue, is it so bad to pay your employ 3.8% of the proceeds?

Tiger Woods earns $100 million a year b/c he generates over $500 million in revenue.

Capitalism is what it is folks. The great thing about America is that nobody’s stopping you in trying to make that big nut. Go for it!

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avatar 9 Smithee

Well, there are only so many individual tasks a human being can accomplish with one’s brain and limbs, and there are also so many hours in the day. I haven’t yet been able to imagine a combination of tasks and hours that deserves compensation of more than, say, $150,000 a year.

I realize that’s a very logical view of things, and people get rewarded not just for what they literally do, but also for the revenue they generate.

My main point was that I never want to be the person who blindly chases a higher payday, no matter who gets hurt. If I were an executive at a big chemical company that was doing a lot of polluting, even if it was perfectly legal, I hope I’d either try to get them to stop, or seek work elsewhere.

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avatar 10 Anonymous

Wow, after reading this I realize you’re serious. Many people who earn that much generate a ton of value for their clients. They help other people feel better, make money, or generally have a better life.

If you were to go to the emergency room right now and found out you had a rare form of cancer, the person you would “hire” to fix it would make far more than $150K/year. Are you seriously saying they are not worth it? To save your LIFE?

That’s an extreme example, but the people who demand that kind of money are absolutely worth it.


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avatar 11 Anonymous

“But as it is, we reward athletes (who we often find were cheating with steroids), and executives who don’t actually do much, aside from make plans, smile at clients, and otherwise increase shareholder value.”

Also give you job. As apex said – try it.

It is actually quite simple – any job pays exactly as much as the market bears. I.e. if a company or organization can pay $X to get a good person to do the job, they pay that much. If they can’t, they raise the prize. It’s just supply-demand as with anything you buy. Food is more important for life than fancy jewelry, yet fancy jewelry costs more. Teachers’ job is important, but a lot more people can do it than be an executive. How many people can be a sports star? A music star?

Also, as Financial Samurai says – nobody prevents you from trying to make it big. Frankly as a first generation immigrant who came to the US with absolutely nothing, and who experienced wealth redistribution first hand in the Soviet Union, I don’t understand Americans’ whining. Life is not fair, get used to it.

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avatar 12 Anonymous

I think, like you the wrong people are rewarded with high salary. Instead a lot of the time we cut public spending and money goes from public sector jobs… giving bankers bonuses when they were a huge part in the current economic problems is rewarding people for making poor decisions. If I make a poor decision I will suffer the consequences financially and won’t make money that month. I don’t financially backed from the government – which is a shame but it does give me perspective and I am careful for that reason.

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avatar 13 Anonymous

I don’t think it matters the advantage and does not hurt to have those advantages, it’s great. I think the parents really help mold the attitudes for the kids and if done right, can have the same mindset even with being born with more financial advantages.

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avatar 14 Anonymous

Regarding your stated belief as to the morality or lack of morality of a given level of income, in many ways (I would argue, most ways) one’s own personal wealth *nearly always* comes at the expense of someone else’s. Just by the nature of your holding a job, you are preventing someone else who might have benefited from it from having it, thus it is at that person’s expense. If you have managed to put yourself in the position of owning property that provides income, you have essentially claimed territorial and rights over something by legal means, which are protected by the legal apparatus and the state, which has the major right to use economic or actual force (fines or imprisonment) against someone who tries to take it from you. Which means that you yourself are using economic or actual force against that person by proxy.

In the end there is no source of wealth or income that does not either utilize or victimize someone or something else (animal or vegetable), or simply exclude them (again, through the concept of ownership) from the right to benefit or share in that income or benefit.

And, by and large, the more money you make, the more efficiently you using other people’s work for your own advantage.

Note that this is a separate issue, is distinct, and does not exclude in any way the possibility that you may or not be producing a distinct value for someone through your profession or business activities.

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avatar 15 Anonymous

What the CEO does can *only* be done because of the existence of the small army of lower-paid workers that comprise the majority of the firm. Likewise, what the lower-paid workers earn is only possible through the direction and organization of their labor by management (and the CEO).

However, even though they are mutually interdependent, the CEO in America currently benefits disproportionally from his relationship to the firm and its employees compared to the benefits enjoyed by the vast majority of employees.

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