I’ve been a working professional now for over twenty years, and I would be the first to say that my success has been built on the tremendous amount of mentorship, sponsorship, and support that I’ve received — as a woman and as a woman of color.
I’ve received lots of professional guidance over this period, but the single best piece of career advice that I’ve ever received is this: always spend less than you make.
Why is this the best nugget of advice I’ve ever received? Because spending less than you make will ultimately give you the financial freedom to take almost any job you want, instead of being stuck in a job you hate.
I can’t remember who gave me this advice (although it definitely aligns with the mentality of my immigrant parents!), but I do know that consistently living well below my means has served me in countless ways. Following this advice is what eventually enabled me to pursue the career of my dreams (because I had saved enough to take a leap) and live in accordance with my values and my purpose.
If I hadn’t followed this advice, chances are, my life would look very different.
Resisting the Pressure to Spend
At first, living below my means was not too difficult for me because it’s how I grew up. My immigrant parents taught me to live a frugal and waste-free life — searching for bargains, reusing things, reducing consumption, and forgoing designer brands were all par for the course in our household.
It was when I first entered the legal profession in my early twenties that I was confronted by a culture of rampant spending. I was surrounded by young people who had just come into large salaries, and many of them were spending their money (all of their money) on flashy things.
Despite the pressure to fit in by spending (and I do love bling!), I resisted and continued to live very frugally up until my late thirties. From the moment I graduated from school, I began paying off my student loans and saving a good chunk of my income.
Some of my friends who were spending all kinds of money on flashy things would call attention to it, but I didn’t care because I never felt deprived — I was still able to live well! When it came to clothes, the sale rack was my best friend, and I still managed to look nice and well put together (and btw, I still love sales!).
When everyone around me was buying 50-inch flat screen TVs, I kept my clunky hand-me-down TV until it almost stopped working. When I bought my first property, I chose a modest condo that I could afford and lived there for thirteen years without upgrading. While many of my work colleagues drove BMWs, I delayed buying my first car until my mid-thirties, and then opted for a “fun and functional” car instead of a fancy one.
Most importantly, while others around me were settling into high-spending lifestyles, I had started to build a financial safety net.
Saying No to Golden Handcuffs
The biggest benefit of always living below your means is that you’ll build a sustainable lifestyle for yourself — one that will afford you more options and flexibility over the course of your life.
When you spend every single cent of what you earn — or more, if you’re like many people in our culture — it’s likely that you’ll become accustomed to a certain lifestyle. The problem is that it’s exceptionally hard to go backwards. You might fall prey to “golden handcuffs” — becoming so accustomed to your expensive lifestyle that you’re trapped in your job, unable or unwilling to lose your higher salary. In turn, your life choices will be limited.
When you drive a fancy car, wear expensive clothes, take luxury vacations, and engage in expensive pastimes, you’re also more likely to socialize with people who have similar lifestyles. This binds you even tighter to your salary because you’ll likely feel pressure to keep up with your friends and a lot will be at stake if you decide to alter how you live.
There are also spiritual consequences to spending beyond your means. It’s human nature to search for meaning in life, but filling the void with material things (as our culture and social systems so often demand) will simply never quench that thirst. Instead, it becomes an endless search — a cycle of always needing more and relentlessly keeping up with the Joneses.
Focusing Inward Instead of Outward
In being committed to living well below my means throughout my early career, I was able to focus more time on growing my personal power than on keeping up with social demands. I spent my time with like-minded friends, cultivated my passion for social justice through volunteer work, and worked on myself — through meditation, therapy, group healing, self-reflection, and more.
Because I was focused on filling my heart and soul with things that were truly meaningful to me, during the first decade and a half of my career I came closer to understanding myself and living authentically, which allowed me to realize that I wanted to switch careers a few times. Had I not been living below my means, ultimately I would not have had the financial freedom required to leave my highfalutin job in the legal industry (and bi-weekly salary) and make the leap into entrepreneurship (going without a paycheck for nearly a year).
I’m so grateful that I did.
Exploring Your Relationship with Money
Always live below your means is the piece of advice I would pass along to anyone who wants to build a fulfilling life and career on their own terms. I suggest asking yourself a few key questions to explore your own relationship with money:
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