I was a year into to my first job after graduate school when I went through my first annual review process. It was the mid-1990s and I was in a booming industry, so the news was good. I got a significant salary increase and a sizable bonus.
Delighted, I chattily told the human resources person responsible that the raise would enable me to shop for a new car. At the time I was driving an old Chevrolet Cavalier with more than 100,000 miles on it, a typical set of wheels for someone fresh out of grad school. Buying a better car seemed like a great way to spend some of my newfound good fortune.
The HR person paused, looked me straight in the eye, and gave me a great piece of professional advice. “Remember, now is when you set yourself up for life,” she said. “If you need or want a new car, great. But think about always living at your last pay scale. It will force you to be strategic about saving money, and not live above your means. Keep some savings, and keep your lifestyle simple enough that you can always walk away from a job if you have to.”
It was brilliant advice I’ve tried to follow ever since. By creating some financial stability for myself, I’ve also given myself the freedom of making bolder professional choices. I’ve been able to pursue significant career changes, explore different industries and functional areas, and generally enter any new situation with confidence. The worst that can happen is that I won’t succeed. But I won’t be ruined.
A few years ago, the strategy helped me make a great career move again. I had the opportunity to choose between doing traditional work for a well-established consulting company and joining a startup pushing the boundaries of expertise-based consulting. With my safety net intact, I chose the startup, a decision I wouldn’t trade for anything.
The advice I got years ago may not seem like classic career guidance, but it helped me immeasurably as a professional. I did buy a slightly less used car that summer, after the Cavalier gasped its last breath. I also stayed in my one-bedroom apartment overlooking a parking lot instead of upgrading to a two-bedroom with a nicer view for almost twice the rent. I invested in some new clothes and took a nice vacation. But I maintained my daily spending much the same as it had been before my raise. I waited to make any upgrades until the following year and the next pay cycle, and I continued that pattern for the rest of my career.
Most people make their largest upgrades in cars and housing. I watched many colleagues go through the rite of passage of buying their first BMW 300 series, then trading up to the 500 or a similarly high-end model. I drive a very nice, economical Ford Edge. While friends invested in bigger and newer houses, I stayed put in a perfectly serviceable home I bought in 1998. I realize my choices aren’t right for everyone, and there are many factors that go into how people manage their finances. But by not dramatically increasing my standard of living, and always staying in the mindset of being a pay grade below, I’ve been able to continue to reach fearlessly for the work I want to do.
It isn’t always easy to resist the urge to splurge when you experience a positive change in your finances, especially if people around you are flashing new jewelry, car keys, and addresses. But as I’ve learned, a little discipline and diligence can go a long way, giving you the freedom to explore, challenge yourself, and make bolder career choices. That just might be the best way to splurge on yourself.
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