Fourteen years ago, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree, confident that I would soon be rolling in dough. And I was — at least compared with many other people I knew who were making only $10 per hour. Jumping up on the income ladder was exciting and empowering, even if I was just earning $25,000 annually.
As a teacher in a private school, I believed I was doing good work and making a difference in kids’ lives. After a year, I wanted to try my hand at corporate America and went to work for a property management company. My salary bumped up to $31,000, but now with two kids, I had to pay for childcare, which brought my actual take-home pay to about $25,000.
Even though I was climbing the ladder of success (on paper, anyway), I did not have a good feeling about my work, so it was time for a change again. I decided to leave that job and stay at home with my two young children. One year later, I needed to re-enter the workforce, this time at another private school, making $33,000.
Responsible money management can go a long way
My oldest son had just begun kindergarten, and that lowered the cost of day care. I taught for four years and my salary increased to $38,000. By that time, my household income grew to more than $100,000. My husband and I became responsible with money, teaching ourselves how to budget and stay out of debt.
Toward the end of my fourth year, I no longer felt good about teaching, especially when it came to the stress and the lack of flexibility. I started pursuing a career in nonprofit management. It took me a year to find a part-time position and, by that time, I was going through a divorce.
Barely making $14,000 a year, I packed up my two kids and moved back to my home state of Ohio. I found another job at a local nonprofit, making $11,000 as a financial coordinator. I taught individuals how to manage money, no matter how little they had. That experience led to starting a business teaching personal finance to employees at small and large businesses.
Even though my family had little money, my knowledge of budgeting and money management helped us keep our heads above water for two years. I married my current husband, and soon we were expecting our first child. He had also been just getting by financially, but we both were accustomed to making things work, so that's what we did.
Lifestyle inflation: New job, new relationship with money
Then the big break came. I was hired as an executive director with a $50,000-plus annual salary. Barely months into the new job, I realized that all my good money habits and financial discipline had gone straight out the window. Apparently, during the hard times, I was keeping a list in the back of my mind of all the things I wanted to buy and do if I ever had the money. And now I did.
We got new cars, gym memberships, clothes and shoes we did not need, and Starbucks every weekend. Trips to Target became a regular thing because now I could afford to buy whatever I wanted. Except I couldn’t, really.
We were falling behind on bills, making late payments and still worrying about money. What happened? Where did I go wrong? On paper, we should have been fine, but we couldn’t keep our heads above water. The answer was all around me — the clothes, the Nespresso machine, the cars and the takeout boxes in the fridge.
How could I so quickly forget the money management principles I had spent so much time mastering and teaching others? Although I had the head knowledge to know what to do, I did not have heart knowledge. I lacked contentment and was never satisfied with what I had at any given moment. My desire to earn more was ruled by my desire to have the freedom to buy what I wanted when I wanted.
Be conscientious about your relationship with money
It was not that I wanted anything specific, but just the ability to buy it if I wanted it. Learning to be content with whatever financial situation you are in does not mean complacency. You can want to excel in your career, which often has a lucrative side effect, but remember that the present is called “present” for a reason. Every moment of our lives presents us with the opportunity to learn something new about ourselves and about the world around us. Be content, work in the moment and enjoy the present.
This article originally appeared on CentSai.