Let's Talk About Money: A Historical Journey Through My Salaries
I’m a financial worry-wart. I feel like it’s embedded within my body: this fear of falling into financial ruin, the nervous eye twitches when I check my bank account, the $15 a week grocery budget I allow myself while wrangling with unsatisfied hunger throughout the day. It is, truly, an all body experience: my anxiety over money.
I was telling my therapist about my latest monthly spiral associated with paying my credit card bill, and somehow, she was able to weave it into a larger issue of not letting myself be seen, which has a whole other backstory that I will not get into. But for the purposes of today, I will take her advice – I will be transparent, be vulnerable, and be okay with letting people see what is inside.
In preparation for The Melanin Collective’s second Breaking Bread Dinner on building better relationships with our finances, I wanted to let you into my money story. As painful as it can be to explore things that trigger our worst fears and anxieties, the more we talk about it, the more we can elevate conversations (and hopefully action) around pay equity.
At the root of all my financial anxieties lie a precarious and soul-sucking web of past employment positions that, sadly, shaped a lot of the worthlessness I’ve felt about myself as an employee. In our capitalistic society, we equate hard workers and successful people with fat stacks of cash (or direct deposits) lining their pockets. If we subscribe to this binary, naturally those who are unsuccessful do not get to enjoy the spoils of money and the security afforded to those with it.
Trust me, as much as I’d like to remove myself from this societal narrative and unchain my self-worth from my paycheck, it’s tough.
I made $28,000 annually in my first position after graduation doing communications at a technology firm. I got a ten percent raise in my first (and last) six-month evaluation, bringing me up to $30,800 annually. At the time, I was living not rent-free with my parents and gave them $600 a month, plus paying for my transportation. Sometimes I harbor some resentment at that, knowing I had peers who were able to build nest eggs living with their parents for free. A few years later, I would choke on my mimosa when I learned design or development colleagues were earning upwards of $70,000 – while the “unimportant” communication worker got next to nothing.
About a year after that, I moved onto a position at a reproductive health nonprofit, where my would-be supervisor kindly, but forcefully, encouraged me to negotiate up from the $35,000 starting salary they offered. We landed at $38,000 annually. At my one-year evaluation, she again kindly but forcefully told me to negotiate. I think about this interaction a lot. When she countered the first number I offered up, sometimes I wonder if she wanted me to push back, if she wanted me to learn how to advocate for myself for future situations, where a supervisor wouldn’t act as a set of negotiation training wheels. But I didn’t take the bait, and we settled on $43,000.
Shortly after, she left and that period melted into a chasm of workplace trauma. The senior leadership forced my hand into resigning after punishing me with a probation for not being the acceptable type of women of color in the workplace – basically, I didn’t want to be a doormat who would happily let bosses and coworkers roll over me without questioning them or complaining to HR. I left that organization almost making it to two years.
I was unemployed for about a month and moved back with my parents at that time. I took a pay cut for my third position as an act of desperation – I seriously needed to make some money. Initially, the position was hiring at $35,000, but I was able to counter them at $41,000, slightly under what I made at the previous organization. As it turned out, that was far too little for the amount of work, time, and perfection they required. Not only was I getting paid less, but I also had my second run in with work-related chronic stress and burnout and not just from the job itself. A manager I worked with turned out to be an emotional abuser, and she was the main reason I left after eight months. From humiliating me in public over mistakes she made to gas-lighting me into accepting her version of events, I felt it was like déjà vu of my previous position all over again. (Email me if you want a name.)
I get frustrated thinking about this time period. I was doing too much work for too little pay, obviously, but I think my mental health had reached full capacity. I was essentially served a double whammy of workplace abuse, both times at the hand of some pussy-hat wearing, Hillary Clinton-supporting white liberal.
I have never ever been an entry-level employee. In title? Sure. But the quality and type of work I’ve produced has never been just satisfactory. In my first one-year evaluation at that reproductive health nonprofit, I only received “Exceeds Expectations.” I’m sharing this not to toot my own horn, but to explain how much that workplace abuse affected me – I had just been recovering over the first traumas, only to be punched down again and made to believe I wasn’t worth anything. AND to be punched down again for even less pay.
By the time I accepted my next position, I was too defeated to negotiate. Honestly, I just wanted to find a workplace where I wouldn’t be brought down on a daily basis. As luck would have it, I was able to find a position at an organization that not only paid more but was somewhere I’d been wishing to work at for a long time. The starting annual salary was $46,000 and I accepted it readily. I came into work the first day expecting to feel dread and anxiety, but my supervisor and colleagues have shown me everything a workplace should be: supportive, encouraging, excited to teach me new things without a trace of snobbishness. Within the first five months, I received a 2% raise – the maximum an employee can receive, and also from what I understand, pretty unheard of.
I’ve past my one-year anniversary and am trying to get mentally prepared to ask for a significant raise. The thing is, and it’s tied to my aversion to being seen and rocking the boat, I feel like I should be happy with what I have. I don’t want to ruin a good thing by asking for more.
The other thing is, is that if I don’t ask, I’m going to continue to feel all this angst and anxiety when it comes to money. In the last two months alone, I’ve had to shell out over $5,000 in car repairs and dental work. And in the past year alone, I’ve only been able to save around $1,000 because of all the necessary expenses I’m having to pay. And you all have seen how much down payments are, right? I can’t afford to buy real estate, but I’m also close to being priced out of where I live now. I also haven’t been able to afford a social life, which has been a pretty terrible obstacle for my mental health. Even introverts like myself need social connection...
Usually around this point I would close out with a nice ending sentiment, but I’m actually kind of exhausted from writing this. So instead, I’ll leave you with this:
Want to share your money story? Reserve your seat at the table for the second Breaking Bread Dinner conversation, where we’ll be talking about our relationship with money as women of color and how we can build intergenerational wealth.