Retirement is a difficult concept for young people to wrap their heads around. It’s hard enough figuring out how to be An Adult, let alone An Old.
We’ll be talking more broadly in the near future about the general concept of retirement. (Spoiler alert: it’s as outdated as an avocado-colored refrigerator.) But today I’d like to talk directly about the concept of saving for retirement while pretty legit poor.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to define that as someone making $30,000 a year or less. Obviously there are lots of factors that can stretch this figure. A mom of three with a high school education in Washington, D.C. is going to have a much harder time than a single, highly-educated person making the same amount in Woodstock, Alabama. And actually, that number is still more than double the official so-called “poverty line,” which is just under $13,000.
But Piggy and I feel strongly that there isn’t enough realistic, valuable advice for people in this general bracket. So we’d like to talk to them.
Who are you again?
For the sake of transparency, here are my vital stats.
When I first wrote this article, I was making just over $100,000. I got it all through just one job, and don’t do anything on the side to supplement it. My husband at the time was transitioning careers, and not making money yet, so my income was also my combined household income. Since then I have paid off my home mortgage, my spouse experienced a massive income increase, and my goal to retire by 40 is running ahead of schedule.
… Yeah, I wouldn’t want to listen to me either.
If someone making a million dollars a year deigned to give me some “hot financial tipz,” I’d roll my eyeballs up a hill and, like Sisyphus’s boulder, just wait for them to come back down and pop themselves back in. I’m positive there are people making $10,000 a year reading this right now, shaking their heads at the nonsense of me doing the exact same thing.
But wealth and stability are new and novel to me. Not too many years ago, I was making $18,000. That on its own isn’t necessarily Les Misérables, but I was living in the third most expensive city in the nation. My rent ate half of my income, even though I defrayed costs by sharing an apartment with five roommates. I was educated, but $40,000 in student loan debt. The economy sucked. Unemployment was still at 8%. My career had stalled. I was competing against very seasoned, very desperate professionals for every gig. So I paid my bills with sex-adjacent work and cried hot, bitter tears of frustration every time I got a tax bill demanding still more money.
Piggy’s story has many of the same troubles, with different sources. She and her husband have location-sensitive jobs. This required them to move to an area with a high cost of living and no personal support network. They both struggled with scary bouts of illness. And student loan debt? Enough to choke a horse. But they, too, are now solidly middle-class and working toward an early retirement.
The whole reason Piggy and I run this blog isn’t to make money. (Girl, look around—you see any ads or affiliate links?) Rather, we are motivated by compassion. We have been poor, and we no longer are, so we want to share what we did that made things change. If even a single kernel of our experiences can help other people, the endeavor will be worth it to us.
So without further ado, here are the goods.
You need to grow your income
I know, I know! “Famine-struck nation, hear me out! Eating is KEY to getting out of this situation!” It’s insultingly obvious advice, but this point is absolutely essential.
Many people have primary careers that do not pay them an adequate amount of money to survive. Most young people I know have second jobs, third jobs, fourth jobs, freelance income, side hustles, and gigs to supplement a meager primary income.
Sometimes it’s necessary. You have to do what you have to do to eat. And we want to give you practical advice for the world we all live in now, not just the misandrist utopian socialist paradise we’d like to build sometime in the future. (The mayor will be a giant anime robot piloted by Anita Sarkeesian and all the cops will be nice dogs.)
But we are extremely skeptical of the overall value of the side hustle economy. Reason being: it burdens the poor, rather than the employers who pay their inadequate wages. We’re pretty into the idea that no one should have to work at all to justify the air they breathe. But certainly at the very least, no one should have to spend their life sprinting from one shift to the next. That is antithetical to our you-are-a-human-being-and-you-need-to-live hypothesis.
Working a side gig or second job drains you of the time you deserve to invest in yourself and your own well-being. That means it should be an absolute last resort. Being tired makes you sick, which unfortunately still costs a lot of money. Being tired also makes you prone to mistakes and accidents, which can also cost you a lot of money. It makes it more difficult for you to focus on your primary career, which should be paying all of your bills provided you keep your bill level reasonable.
We posit that it is better to fully exhaust all avenues for extending the pay coming in from your primary job before you turn to other avenues.
Get a raise
That process starts with asking for a raise. We’ve got some good articles on how to frame your argument in a business-centric way (i.e., the soulless way that might actually get you results).
And when asking politely doesn’t work, you have to harangue them. Your life is on the line. If they can’t afford to pay you more than $30K a year, it is they who should go out and get a second job to afford to pay you. Your time is not any less valuable just because you are poor.
Get a new job
Change jobs every two years. I don’t care how much you like your old one. Staying in one job for longer than that allows your wages to stagnate.
You’re in the danger zone. When you are comfortably middle class, you can afford the luxury of working for less than you’re worth. It is substantially easier to increase your income when making a transition than it is to work upward for a raise.
Align your gigs
Working gigs or second jobs might still be a necessity because of the nature of your industry or lifestyle. But you should try to align them with your central career.
Let’s say you’re a ski instructor in the winter, and your real passion is the outdoors. Let’s also say you work in a coffee shop during the summer months. Look really hard at that coffee shop gig—it doesn’t speak to your central interests, and it does nothing to further your career. What if you tried branching into camp counseling, or sports coaching, or becoming an EMT, or doing landscaping?
Look for side gigs that can enhance your resume, expand your network of industry contacts, grow your related skills, and make you a happier person at the same time.
A good number of my friends are working artists. They wait tables or work retail or teach part-time during the day, then go out at night and make art. And that’s a beautiful thing… if your only purpose on this earth is to make art.
But many feel that in addition to making art, they were also put on this earth to be parents (or to fix up old houses, train dogs, write novels, travel, or eat a steak so large they get a prize). Life is rich beyond measure. When you commit yourself to a career that is difficult to succeed in or notoriously underpaying or both, you are closing many, many doors for yourself. So you have to think really hard about how far you’re willing to go for your career.
You may love your career, but that does not mean your career loves you back.
It’s really hard to give up on something that you truly love. My partner quit his career after many years of mixed success. He’d formed great memories and great friendships in his industry, but its constant hustling for low pay was a drain. I asked him what he would say to people struggling with feeling like quitters or sell-outs for leaving a career behind. He thought for a moment, then said:
“Your life is the longest journey you will ever go on. If there’s a mountain in front of you, you don’t have to climb it right now just because it’s there. You can always come back to it. But I’ve got to go around it and see what’s on the other side.”
… A quintessentially Mr. Kitty quote. He’s a big fan of abstraction.
Here’s more of what we have to say about increasing your income, changing careers, and owning the professional world:
- The First Time I Asked for a Raise
- My Career Transition Succeeded When I Gave Fewer Fucks, Made More Friends, and Had More Fun
- How I Chessmastered Myself Into a Promotion at Work
- Job Hopping vs. Career Loyalty by the Numbers
- The Fascinating Results of Our Job Hopping vs. Career Loyalty Poll
Internalize your value
The biggest piece of this is internalizing the fact that you are worth more than you are paid right now.
Most people understand, on an intellectual level, that their lives have great value. But it’s one thing to know it, and another to feel it down in your core.
Just like some people stay in abusive relationships, some people stay in abusive jobs or careers. There are lots of reasons for it, but I think they were all told somewhere along the way “this is the most you can expect.” And they believed it.
Every human life has value. I don’t care if you aren’t the hardest working, the highest-selling, the brightest, the fastest, the prettiest, the funniest, the best at designing weird characters in Tekken 5… you don’t need to justify your existence to anyone. And you shouldn’t have to kill yourself working multiple jobs to barely make ends meet. That is a shitty way to live, and the best way to propel yourself forward through a cheap and hostile world is to know, deep down, that you deserve more.
I charge you to fashion within the most secret chamber of your heart a throne at least twenty feet high, and seat yourself upon it. Think of every job you’ve ever worked as a sniveling peasant who must come to you, wringing their hands and begging you to come work for $7.50 an hour. Practice laughing at them, and throwing them into dungeons, and making them crawl for the privilege of your attention.
Idk, that worked for me.
Don’t save for retirement
So there’s a reason the “grow your income” section was first, and quite long: you can’t retire. Not when you’re making poverty wages. Anyone who tells you otherwise should be viewed with suspicion, as they likely don’t understand what it means to truly be poor.
You knew this though, right? Because you’re probably not doing it. One in three Americans have absolutely nothing saved for retirement. And people earning $15K or $24K a year are extremely likely to be captured by this statistic.
When I was making $18K, I pinched pennies every way I could to start a 401(k) because I was told it was The Right Thing To Do. It took me two and a half years to put $500 away.
In retrospect, it was a terrible investment. The amount of money was so pitifully small that even in totally bananas bull-markets it could only grow by a few dollars per year. Meanwhile, I was losing far more than that each month to student loan interest payments. That $500 would’ve been much more wisely investing in getting me out of debt.
Failing to save for retirement was always described as a sort of slow financial suicide. “If you don’t start setting aside 35% of your income by the time you’re 22, you’ll starve to death in a dirty hovel in Marseilles like old Monsieur Dantès.” In trying to emphasize the importance of saving for retirement, I believe many financial thought-havers have turned their poorest listeners away from the idea altogether.
That is a tragedy we’d like to try to correct.
Any investment you make in yourself is also an investment toward your retirement.
Go into your bathroom. Shut the door and turn out the lights. Light twelve-and-one candles and stare into the bathroom mirror. Whisper “any investment you make in yourself is also an investment toward your retirement” three times. Piggy and I will appear behind you in the mirror. If you are pure of heart, we shall make one of your parking tickets go away.
But beware. If you are impure… we will give you retirement advice that assumes a 10% ROI on government bonds!
Pay off loans, medical bills, and consumer debt
This really is another way of growing your income. If you earn $700 a month, and $130 of that goes to student loans and credit card payments, you will give yourself an instant forever-raise of $130 per month if you make those bills go away.
If this is your situation and you have an extra $20 or $50 or $200… it’s far better to invest that money into making yourself debt-free than it is to stick it in a retirement account.
Invest in your home
Let’s say you work really hard for many years and accumulate enough wealth to buy a house worth $250,000. You own it free and clear, no mortgage. Now let’s say you’ve decided you want to retire, but you have little or nothing saved. By owning your own home, you’re automatically not stuck starting at zero. You can sell or financially leverage your home to open up retirement options.
Right now, I’m on track to retire at age 40. That said, all retirement calculators scream that I am actually far behind. They can’t account for the fact that I’m on track to own my home soon. No mortgage payments and no commuting costs equal a bare minimum of monthly expenses. These are easily supported by light freelancing, part-time work, and monetized hobbies.
Invest in your education
If a lack of education is holding you back in your career, use that extra money to go out and get the education you need. Start with looking for low-cost professional certification programs, associate’s degrees, and community college options.
Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking a new degree will solve everything. The unemployment rate for people with a bachelor’s degree in 2016 was 2.7%. For people with a master’s degree, it was 2.4%. That’s a fuck ton of potential spending to increase your odds of being hired by a quarter of one percentage point. Degrees are prestigious and required in some fields, but they won’t do all the ugly work of negotiating for you.
Here’s more on the relative value of education to career success:
- Your College Major May Not Prepare You for Your Job—but It Can Prepare You for Life
- How to Pay for College without Selling Your Soul to the Devil
- High School Students Have No Way of Knowing What Career to Choose. Why Do We Make Them Do It Anyway?
- The Actually Helpful, Nuanced, Non-Bullshit Way to Choose a Future Career
Don’t leave money on the table
One major exception here to this “fuck retiring” strategy…
If you work somewhere that offers a 401(k) match, take it. Take it it to the fullest extent that you can. It’s as close to literally free money as you will ever get. Only life-preserving expenses should come before maxing out your employer’s retirement match.
Don’t lose faith in retirement
We live in a culture that demonizes poor people as lazy leeches whose poverty would go away if only they thrust their boots on with the vehemence of a P90X instructor. As I rise through the ranks of my career, I find each job to be easier than the last. It is a preposterous idea that salaries are meritocratic. I’ve never made more money, and I’ve never had it easier.
Don’t let the thought of an empty retirement account squeeze the air out of your chest. People are working longer, true, but necessity isn’t the only reason. Careers are viewed more vocationally now than they were fifty years ago. We want them to be stimulating, fulfilling, and meaningful, rather than merely a means to an end. We have many more options today to change jobs and careers multiple times across our lifetimes.
There is no wrong way to invest in yourself. And it’s never too late to start. Whether you choose to do so with a retirement account, your student loans, your home, your education, or in any other way you see fit is entirely up to you.