One of my biggest financial struggles is overcoming a low salary. I was still earning $32k two years after getting my M.S. – I actually got paid more per hour while I was still in grad school! And I’ll be honest; now that I’m self-employed for the time being, it still isn’t much higher.
But just because you’re making a low salary now doesn’t mean it’ll always be that way…
Today I’ve got an awesome story from Liz at Chief Mom Officer. She also knows what it’s like to make peanuts for a salary.
It’s easy to get trapped in this lifestyle; but Liz had the boldness to push past it even though there were enough odds stacked against her to make the Great Wall of China look like a wee baby step.
Take it away, Liz!
When I was finishing up high school, I had no idea what I should do. High school had been a rough time for me. My grades were all over the place, and although my SAT score was good, I had no idea how I was going to get to college. My parents weren’t willing to help at all with the cost, and loans were not an option because they also refused to complete the FAFSA. There weren’t any college visits, help with applications, or anything that I could use to get myself into a good four-year school. So I headed off to community college, unsure what I was going to do about school, and having no idea what I wanted to do for a job.
My First Real Job
At the time I first headed off to community college, I started looking for a full time job. If I was going to be on my own for school, then I was going to be on my own-period. After a few months, I found one-making a whopping $22k per year. This was lots more than I made working part-time at the grocery store, so I signed up to work in a Fortunate 500 insurance company call center eight hours a day.
Part of the appeal of that job was that they reimbursed me for college, so I wouldn’t have to pay nearly as much myself. Sure, I still had to cover fees and books, but the job reimbursed my tuition. So I thought it was a win/win-I would be making more money and be better able to afford school.
Let me tell you, nothing will motivate you more to do well in school than working in a call center talking with angry and upset people all day long. As the days went by, I became more and more determined to do well and make something of myself so I wouldn’t be like my co-workers and stuck in this kind of job forever.
I took full advantage of that reimbursement. I went to school full-time at nights, on weekends, and during the summer-taking five classes at a time while working 40 hours per week. Every minute not spent at work or at school was spent studying or doing homework. I would take schoolwork with me to the call center and study during breaks and lunch, when my co-workers would be spending their time gossiping.
When others were grabbing coffee, I was checking out the insurance companies job listings, trying to figure out what I should focus on at school to get a good job opportunity. I finally settled on Accounting-it looked like there were plenty of finance and accounting jobs available, and I’d always been good at math.
Inching Toward Success
Eventually all this hard work paid off. After two years at the community college, I was able to transfer to a four-year school. I still wasn’t eligible for any student loans – although I was living on my own by then, my parents still would have had to complete the FAFSA and they still refused. At the four-year school, I continued working full time and going to school full time, studying every spare moment.
Before my last semester of school, I had started to tire of the call center. The constant phone calls, being chained to my desk and unable to even go to the bathroom, people being angry at me for things I didn’t do-it all started to wear on me. I’d been there for three plus years at that point, and was volunteering for any assignments that meant I could get off the phones for a while.
They needed some help on an IT project, so I of course volunteered. The person I worked with told me about a job opening for something called a “Business/System Analyst” in the IT organization. Now I was an accounting major and knew nothing about IT, but I knew this job wouldn’t involve talking to people on the phone. So I applied, and got the position. So my last semester of school was spent working a full-time job in a Fortune 500 IT organization while going to school full time.
Since I had come out of the call center, they low-balled me on salary-at this point I was making a whopping $35k per year. But the call center was so bad, I think I would have paid them to get out at that point. I didn’t care about the salary and frankly had no clue just how underpaid I was.
Eventually I graduated Magna Cum Laude – with high honors – a huge achievement for me, someone who had started out at community college. I looked for some jobs to use my hard-earned Accounting degree, but the people interviewing me didn’t see a person who’d worked so hard for that degree to try and get into finance. Instead I was seen as either a call center employee or an IT worker.
Also, this was right after the Enron and Worldcom scandals of the early 2000’s, when Arthur Anderson (one of the big accounting firms) went under and many of my classmates lost their job offers. Since I was having trouble getting a job in finance, I decided I’d try out this IT thing for a while.
The Upward Climb
I moved around within the company and landed with someone horrified at just how underpaid I was. The next year I got a raise that literally doubled my salary-and had what was to me a huge bonus on top of it. I almost fell over when I saw the paperwork, and raced home to tell my husband about it. And that was the start of my career in IT, where I’ve been now for 15 years.
My salary went up in huge jumps every year as my leadership worked to get me fairly paid. I worked hard, learned all about the business and IT, and stood out as high potential to my management. Again, while my co-workers were slacking off, complaining about this or that policy, I was working to find solutions or learning about some new aspect of business. I would read Harvard Business Review articles in my spare time, daydreaming about maybe one day getting an MBA. After all, I thought, if I had an MBA then I wouldn’t ever need to tell anyone I had gone to community college. I could learn all about this interesting world of corporations, marketing, finance, IT, and global business I was reading about online.
I had started out as a very low-level business/system analyst, but I was promoted again and again until I was leading a team of 17 analysts on a $20 million a year program. I began that MBA at my state flagship university, using the same work ethic and study habits I had developed getting my undergrad to succeed at school while still working full time.
Then I changed companies to the one I’m with now, where I moved from systems analysis into project and program management. I wrapped up that MBA four years ago now, and started enjoying my free time again. Today I’m leading up a $10M per year IT initiative at a Fortune 100 company, part of their mid-career leadership development program. I’ve had a total of 6 or 7 promotions over my career, each of which has come with a jump in salary and bonus level. And I still read Harvard Business Review articles for fun.
I can clearly remember the first year I crossed $100k in salary plus bonus, and also when I crossed $100k per year in salary alone. Both were huge milestones to me, the person who had spent the first four years of her working life earning between $22k and $35k per year.
Tips For Success – And I Want To Hear From You!
When I was sitting in my community college classes, and taking phone call after phone call in that call center, I would daydream about the stories I read of successful people who had overcome huge obstacles. I hoped one day that would be me but had no idea how I would get there. After all, how was I going to succeed? I was sure people would see me as some sort of loser who couldn’t cut it at a real school, and had to go to community college instead. And I would be stuck in this call center job, or jobs like it, forever-just like all my co-workers at the time were. How on earth was I going to make it?
Well, I did, and you can too. Here’s the top five things I’ve learned since I started that $22k per year job:
- Work harder than anyone else. Even when it feels like you’re not being recognized for your efforts, you will stand out if you work hard. No work is beneath you-do whatever is needed well and with a smile. Even when that call center work grated on my last nerve, I tried to remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr.:
If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.
- Volunteer for side assignments and organizations in your company. Most people don’t want to take on extra work for “no reward”. Stand out by volunteering for things that are outside your everyday job. That’s both how I got my job in IT, and how I had the chance to speak in front of 30,000 people in my company
- Constantly be learning. When your co-workers are chatting at the water cooler or shopping online, read something to better yourself. Take classes. Join Toastmasters. Read blogs related to your job, money, management, or business during lunch. Do something productive with your time!
- Believe in yourself. Don’t let the story other people tell about you become the story you believe. I’ve seen all kinds of nasty things said on the internet about community college students-that they’re losers, they never succeed, they always drop out, etc. The story that people thought about me when I applied for those finance jobs was that I was someone in IT trying to move into finance, or that I was a “just” a former call center employee. Just because other people don’t think you can succeed, doesn’t mean you can’t succeed.
- Don’t give up. Sometimes it will look like you’re doing all this work for nothing. After all, three and a half years after starting in that call center, my life looked almost the same. I was still stuck in that call center. I was still in school. It would have been easier to give up, quit school, and just do the minimum at my job. But I refused to accept that this was my destiny. There have been other points in my career where I’ve worried that I topped out and wasn’t going to go anywhere else. But I kept learning, volunteering, and working hard-and it continues to pay off today
Your story isn’t going to be the same as my story. You have different obstacles, and different opportunities. Maybe you’re stuck in a go-nowhere job, or you’re older with no degree. Maybe your obstacle that you’re struggling to overcome is debt, or a sick spouse, supporting aging parents, or something else. I want to let you know that I, and millions of others, have been where you are and overcome it. And you can too.
Have you overcome huge obstacles to succeed? Or are you currently working through an obstacle, wondering how you’ll get out of your situation and reach success? I want to hear from you! Share your stories in the comments.
Liz writes over at Chief Mom Officer about money, work, and teaching your kids about finances while having fun. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three sons, and her mission is to help people, especially working moms, reach financial freedom. Stop on by and say hello, or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter! You can also check out what she’s buying or baking on Instagram, what she’s pinning on Pinterest, or the latest books she’s reading over on Goodreads.
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