I am often asked how my career has fallen into place over the years. For those interested in personal finance and wealth-building, I’m including an outline of how I broke six figures by the time I reached 24. I do this speaking in hourly rates, rather than in salary terms because I want to make clear a lesson that I earned early on: what you settle for is what you get. While salaries are nice, they have to properly compensate you for each minute you spend furthering someone else’s goals. Thus, hourly rates, which should be completely fair to all parties involved.
Pardon the relatively abrupt manner of this post, but I want to make sure I share each section of the timeline in a succinct manner that lets you skip to what is most interesting to you. Let’s dig in!
Making it to 22: $9 to 25 per hour
I didn’t grow up with much. In fact, I came up in the struggle. We didn’t always have food and I went through most of my New England winters without a coat. I initially came to know the grind out of necessity. I started my 1st job in the third grade, and saved diligently, knowing that rainy days were inevitable. As a kid, all of my savings from my first job went towards saving the family home from foreclosure, and in my second job went to paying the mortgage. What I didn’t know at the time was that the experience of having to break through my family’s struggle with my hustle was just the beginning of the pattern. By thirteen, I had saved enough to pay my family’s household expenses and purchase a slightly older version of my dream car, and began my inconsolable habit of establishing detailed plans for my splurges. Over the years, I kept going– working to help put food on the table or make ends meet in addition to doing things for myself: paying tuition, buying books, or purchasing my first car.
I worked as a consultant to local nonprofits and small businesses (doing this work marked the first time I broke $20 per hour). I picked up hourly work that could also further my experience in my intended field, and I learned everything I could along the way. I drastically increased my hours in the summers and worked on weekends and in the evenings during the week. I attended college prep programs at local universities– my schedule was dominated by music and STEM programs, mostly targeted for inner-city youth– and when I had downtime, I gave back. I went to college on a scholarship and between my course load and my newfound free time, I made enough to continue paying bills at home. Mostly, this was because my mom lost her job part of the way through my education, but I knew that, since it was just her and I, I couldn’t let her fall. We were the only ones left, and we did for one another. I paid dental bills to benefit teeth that weren’t in my mouth, I paid for roofs, and I renovated the house to put an apartment in the basement. By the time I graduated from college, I’d been working for more than 10 years. When I graduated from college, I had been mentored by so many othered professionals– brown women and men, gay, lesbian and trans folk, differently-abled adults who each followed their names with commas and letters and worked to blaze trails in their respective roles– and I couldn’t imagine being anything besides all that they were. I was determined to go to graduate school. By the end of my master’s education, though, I emerged fresh into the job market with an acute awareness of my responsibilities to both myself and home.
My career was marked with achievement even before I knew that I was adulting. I worked hard in research and otherwise. I took on jobs, working 80 hours per week in the labs, and for nonprofit organizations retaining my services. I took breaks from my regular job to obtain internships that paid me well, returning to my work on campus as they concluded. These internships, in addition to my research, helped to build my clout as a consultant. I was published and served as a speaker to events local and back home, early and often. I had mentors who’d changed the world, and I mentored others. I went to pedigreed institutions with unmatched resources, sat in classrooms with the children of presidents and global figures, and progressed to consulting work at a global organization that acknowledged that pedigree. Though I started full-time work at 22 making great money.
Age 22: $34 per hour salary equivalent, $3,000 annual bonus
I was hungry, balanced, and bored. I spent energy at work serving my clients, and plotting my escape. I discovered myself and the world in this space, spending my weekends dancing and brunching with friends, breaking my passport in with extended holidays around the world (I burned through two passports in this time), and forgetting about things that didn’t involve me enjoying life. I made new friends, laughed often, and learned as much as I could.
I started to think about what came next for me. I maxed out my 401k and Roth IRA, I started an HSA and, in the second year, began aggressively paying back the $23,000 student loans I’d accumulated through my master’s degree.
Age 24: $46 per hour salary equivalent, $17,000 bonus
I got a job offer from a company back home which increased my base salary by more than 30% and provided excellent benefits (including a great bonus!). This girl– the product of a single-family home, the person who’d had housing and food insecurity, the one who’d worked 80 hours per week to put herself through undergrad– had broken six figures by 24. With this newfound wealth, I maxed out my retirement and paid aggressively towards my student loan balance (think three times the minimum required payment each month). Because I lived at home, I spent as much time as I could muster traveling, dancing alone in a room full of people, and remembering joy. Still, I ended up miserable at work, stressed out by the systematic racism I was tasked with continuing (and secretly worked to change the system), an imposing and discriminatory boss, and I eventually broke. My inner soldier pushed through– because I was always taught that this is just the tax you pay being successful and Black in New England– and while my mind struggled on anyway (despite novel anxiety attacks with increasing frequency), my body caved.
Age 27: Sabbatical
I burned out, and in my burn out, I got sick. I took the time to rehab my body and my mind through volunteer work, travel, and an honest look at what had happened. My fold had permanent implications for my abilities to process information, and for my body. I decided to apply to doctoral programs– to use the knowledge obtained and generated in the program to see and impact the world. I took the months after submitting my applications to see places I’d dreamt about, listed meticulously on my bucket list, and tagged on the back of postcards from friends. I touched, tasted, danced in places I could only imagine– that sometimes, maybe hundreds of years ago, I’d been– and found sustainable solutions for the people who’d stayed there. My body transformed in ways that I was unable to control, and with it, I shifted my mindset. When I returned, I was lighter– freer– and ever more determined to do better.
I don’t think the sting of illness, failure, and disability ever went away. Not only was I sick and young, but I was physically incapable of carrying a job during this year. I’d processed my physical inability to handle stress as a fundamental failure of my seat. I took my physical inability to cope to foster the inner fear that I didn’t have what it took to be successful, and failed to recognize what manifest as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, sparked by my experiences. My resulting anxiety, then, was only ignited by the hostile presence of cis white men and the experience of bias– personally directed or otherwise. This inherent inability– or refusal– to deal with systemized discrimination would rear its head in other ways moving forward. Ultimately, though, I went from being completely non-functional with the rippling disability resulting from my illness to being ready and able to participate in the work I remained passionate about.
Age 28: $25,000 doctoral stipend; $75 per hour salary equivalent, $200+ per hour consulting
I came back to the United States for doctoral program interviews and, later, acceptance letters. Before receiving those final letters, however, a friend submitted my resume for a consulting engagement for a government client with a small consulting company. The consulting work aligned with my experience, and with my interests. I opted towards a program which allowed me to continue living at home and left space for me to work by neglecting to explicitly address doctoral candidates’ external engagements in their handbook. I also began and continued to work, having exhausting much of my savings and concluding my unemployment with my travel. I continued to work for this organization through the academic portion of my degree, adding on occasional research, consulting and coaching to bolster my feeling of doing for the world. Those additional engagements allowed for an hourly rate that is three times my regular employee rate (Thicker Grits will highlight more on the Rule of Threes another time).
Age 31: $25,000 doctoral stipend; $200+ per hour consulting
My husband and I hit FI (financial independence) right around my 31st birthday, though it wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated. That is, my net worth was such that, if all of my assets were invested in the stock market, I could live on 4% of my money indefinitely. While this is certainly an achievement, it wasn’t quite everything I’d dreamed of. It didn’t FEEL like FI, mostly because we’re talking net worth (so my home is included), and I was left to toggle with a few things. First and foremost, I needed to take a minute to appreciate the struggle and all that’d been produced in it, from the fear and trauma to the inherent need to grind (even when I didn’t need to). It’s funny, but I didn’t realize I was FI until life forced me to take a minute away from the grind. I was pushed to shift my career that fall, and in taking a minute to evaluate next steps, it forced me to realize that I did not need to make drastic changes before touching my emergency fund. I really could take the time and energy to embrace both risk and my mission. I had the knowledge, skills, experience, and network to start my own shop, pointed in a direction I saw fit, serving people in the way I felt best. While I’d done independent work previously, it had never been my real focus: I took on clients as they came, and connected with others in the space as it made sense. But, more on finding the blessing in a job shift later. The second thing I needed to consider was how I was defining FI. I’d looked at FI as more than just the net worth value, but I excluded my home from the calculation. While reaching FI without my home is still a goal, I realized at the that the value in calculating BOTH numbers (and, essentially, establishing milestones in the FIRE journey) was in the peace of mind that came with it, soothing the trauma caused by being poor coming up. And finally, it gave me the freedom to really look at the role trauma played in my money-making decisions (and how I might have wanted that to change), to re-evaluate how my time was spent, and where I wanted my efforts to lead.
But, that’s not quite all.
This post isn’t quite about the struggles, it is about what efforts were put in and what was made to achieve success. I’ve done a few things over my career to date.
I never took money as a reason not to do something. I found ways to participate in ways that didn’t cost my family money, learning to ask for help and to respond with service in kind. The more I gave of myself, the more whole I felt and was able to give in return. I am ever grateful and will never stop giving.
I followed an unwavering pursuit of my passion. I knew from the time I was a child that I wanted to work in my field, and every engagement I’ve worked since my childhood has aligned with the skills and other demands of that field.
I identified and began my career in a portion of my field that was most profitable. I took the time to research what that function was, and to evaluate whether I could be happy doing it. I evaluated my own values and productivity habits, embraced change, and dug in.
I worked hard, asking for what I wanted. I’ve never been shy of asking for what I want (the worst someone can say is no), and if denied, seeking to better understand what stood between me and my chosen outcome.
I bolstered my education with additional certifications and qualifications. I took the time to identify what was valued in my field, and in fields that intersected with it. I pursued additional professional education (with the support of my organization) to heighten my rank in the competitive workplace.
I took the time to care for myself when I needed it most. I learned to say “no” and “I’m not ready,” to identify and verbalize my needs, and to acknowledge my pain. I learned what illness and disability were. I learned humility because life smacked me onto my behind– a lesson I’d never had to learn before as the person indubitably designated to be the strong one. I learned that humility wasn’t a weakness, and taking time to recuperate was okay, even as a young person.
I prioritized what made me happy. I made a point to budget my time and money so that I could do what made me happy, whether that was extensive travel or fulfilling global dance engagements. And I said no to things that didn’t.
I aligned my work with my personal mission. I became aware that every aspect of my life– every relationship, all aspects of my work, and each paper read in my studies, were indubitably connected, and either they furthered my personal mission– aligned with what I wanted and worked for– or they didn’t. When they didn’t, I learned to cut them off: people, engagements, jobs, and processes.
What are your financial milestones and when would you like to reach them? Do you have specific goals?