Pay Dirt

I’ve Found the Secret to a Higher-Paying Job. I’m Worried About What It’ll Cost My Family.

I’m worried I’m going to start falling behind.

Woman smiling and looking off into the distance with a backpack on and glasses.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus and Spoon Graphics.

Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here(It’s anonymous!)

Dear Pay Dirt,

After spending most of my 20s “paying into” the sexist industry that is high tech and honing my skills and abilities, I’ve finally been reaping the rewards and enjoying a blossoming of my career and personal life. We spent a decade living hand-to-mouth and in a seemingly endless mountain of debt. For the past three years, after a smart career change and salary bump, my husband and I seem to have enough money and energy at the end of every paycheck to do things we love with our young child, after maxing out our 401(k)s and contributing to our investment accounts.

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I was lucky to get an excellent bachelor’s degree which has served me well these past 15 years of work, but I have started to worry that I’m going to start falling behind just as I get “to the age” where leaders are willing to promote me. I have waffled back and forth on getting an MBA, which is why I’m writing to you.

By not getting an MBA, I’m saving several thousands of dollars in both cash and opportunity cost. With a young child at home, and knowing that we want more, I would be sacrificing time with my family at critical ages to complete this education. Furthermore, I haven’t taken a standardized test in over a decade, and am not confident that I could get a significant score on a GMAT, so I might need to invest further time and money in preparing for a test before I could even start the degree program.

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On the other hand, everyone in leadership at my well-known company (and those in other companies that I look up to) has advanced degrees, and I’m almost embarrassed that I didn’t overextend myself in my late 20s to achieve this milestone and “check this box.” We just did not have the money or the bandwidth for me to go back to school until now.

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Do you have any insight on the value that MBAs add (or don’t add!) to someone’s long term financial achievements? Is there actual data to suggest that people who earn MBAs today are more secure, financially, in the future? And finally, does it really matter where your MBA is from? I am truly conflicted and worry that I’m leaving money on the table, career-wise, by not getting an MBA and if opting not to do so will start to negatively impact my future earnings.

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—MBA = More Bucks Annually?

Dear More Bucks Annually,

This is a great question and one I called in an expert for. Daniella Flores is the creator behind “I Like To Dabble.” They’ve also spent the past ten years working in high tech, just like you, and have strategically been able to grow their salary without a master’s degree. Flores has some helpful tips for you.

First of all, they say you absolutely do not “need” an MBA to progress in your career. “The only time I think an MBA is something that you would need to get is if the positions you are going for absolutely require it and it’s something you want to do,” Flores said. Consider where you want to go next in your career, whether it be in high tech or somewhere else, like a university. If it’s truly within your company or field, find a mentor who’s where you want to be and ask them to sponsor you. A mentor can be a great resource to help guide you to where you want to be next. They can also be unbiased, give you input you may otherwise not receive, and can let you know if they think a master’s is a smart next step.

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Flores also shared that you can ask your employer about tuition reimbursement programs or other options when it comes to higher education if you stay within the company. A lot of employers offer education stipends, discounts at certain schools, or will even cover your entire degree at a partnering school. But don’t associate raises with degrees. You can learn new skills through a variety of different ways such as a one-off program or even something as simple as Google. If you manage a side gig, include that in your skill set, too.

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“If an MBA is absolutely required for where you want to go in your career and it’s taking away from your family time and quality of life, maybe it’s time to redirect your career,” Flores added. “You can pivot to another position that’s higher paid but not necessarily leadership. This will allow you to have the time you treasure with your family and life outside of work.”

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Dear Pay Dirt,

I’m 29 years old and for most of my life, had really severe money problems. I grew up in poverty, and the ages 18 to 22 were some of the hardest years of my life. I went to college full time, worked a full-time job and a second part-time job, and battled an undiagnosed mental illness. I was making about $20,000 at the time. When I was 23, I had such a severe manic episode that I got $30,000 into credit card debt. After that, I got my diagnosis and treatment but was waiting tables just to make ends meet while I focused on getting well.

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Finally, at 26 I went to work in the field I studied (accounting) and very recently started in a mid-level accountant role, making $80,000 per year. Before this job, I was making about $50,000 in a high cost of living area and focused solely on my credit card debt, which is now paid off. I’ve built up small savings (about $8,000) and am investing in a 401(k). I also recently married someone who makes about $30,000, but has no debt.

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What should be my priority with my extra income now? Should I focus on paying down my student loans or my car, build my savings more, or invest? Or some combination of the above Is investing a good idea now (and how do you even do it)? How much should I even have in an emergency savings account? I’d really love to get everything in order and hopefully be debt-free besides an eventual mortgage by 40.

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—Debt-Free Some Day

Dear Debt-Free,

I am so proud of you for seeking help with your manic episode and finding a diagnosis in your mid-20s. I also had a few manic episodes in my 20s that set me back financially, so you aren’t alone. The good news is you’re in a good place to make some headway on your future financial goals. You asked a few different questions so I’ll try to give a general synopsis.

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You’re going to want to do a combination of all three: saving, investing, and paying debts. I’m a strong believer in making sure you have a built-up emergency fund, especially in today’s economy. It sounds like you’re already almost there at $8,000 but you should either aim for $10,000 or three to six months’ worth of living expenses. This amount will give you wiggle room in case of job loss or another financial emergency.

You’ll want to take advantage of investing, especially since I’m assuming based on your letter that you are in your late 20s. The younger you are when you start investing, the more you’ll end up with at retirement due to compound interest. You’ll also be able to get away with investing smaller amounts each month than someone who starts investing later in life. Since you’re new to investing, you may want to check out Clo Bear Money Coach. Her reels on Instagram will make you laugh but she also provides free classes on how to invest for all stages of your life.

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Now, for your debt. I recommend two repayment methods that will come down to personal preference: the debt snowball and the debt avalanche. When using the debt snowball method, you line up all of your debts and pay them off in full, lowest to highest. For example, if I had a $300 credit card, a $500 loan, and a $2,000 car note, I’d throw all my extra money into my credit card. Once that’s paid off, I would then take the amount of money I was using to pay off my credit card and put it towards my personal loan until that’s paid off. These types of small wins may motivate you to stay more consistent.

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The debt avalanche also has you line up your debts but instead of the amount, you’re going to be looking at your highest to lowest interest rates. The more a debt collects in interest, the more money you’ll be spending in the long run. So, if saving more is more important to you than a faster win, you should go with this one. Neither one is right or wrong, it only matters that you find one you can stick with. Now go kick your debt’s ass.

Dear Pay Dirt,

My husband’s sister lives in their deceased mother’s house. She’s lived there with her child and boyfriend (the child’s father) for over ten years. She suddenly needs over $5,000 to cover the property tax bill, which she apparently has not paid in years (she had been telling us she was paying it). This is not the first bill we’ve had to foot. We are her only family, but I’m beyond upset at the deceit.

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Do we refuse, and force her to work it out, and risk them losing the house? Do we pay it, and set up a repayment plan with her? Do we consult a lawyer, a financial planner, or a therapist!? How far do we get involved in her finances? I don’t foresee that paying the bill will solve the inherent problem.

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—Taxed Out Sister-in-law

Dear Taxed Out,

First, I would have an honest conversation with your husband and discuss what the eventual goal for their mother’s house is. Do they both own the home and she just resides there? Was there talk of them eventually selling the home or an agreement to buy the other one out? You can also use this time to explain to your husband your frustration with her ongoing financial patterns and the deceit you feel about the situation.

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Next, I would book a consultation with a real estate attorney to discuss what your options are regarding the house. It sounds like you are dealing with a lot of issues besides property taxes not being paid and it would be best for you to talk to a professional. They can walk you through the situation and provide different recourses of action you can pursue. There may be a viable option to keep this from happening again that you haven’t even known to consider. But do not get involved in her finances or do anything else until after you meet with an attorney.

Dear Pay Dirt,

I’ve spent a substantial time spending very little money. That was, for a long time, necessary, given my income. But my circumstances changed years ago (finished grad school, got a higher-paying job, etc.), so realistically I should be spending more now than I am, but I’m not. It’s hard to override my impulse to go for the less expensive option on most things. (I am in therapy for anxiety, which is helping.)

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I’m 41 and live in a low-cost part of the country. I’m single and don’t have any children. As of right now have about $750,000 in investments not including my house (a combination of living below my means my entire life, plus a life insurance policy from a sibling), plus about 18 months’ worth of typical spending in a checking account. My remaining mortgage balance is about $80,000 on a house estimated to be worth about $160,000 right now. I earn about $75,000 in a year, but I end up contributing around $46,000 of that to tax-advantaged retirement investments.

My financial planner (hired in part to help me navigate the life insurance windfall) has been encouraging me to save and invest less than I do, which I imagine is different than what usually happens. While I know she’s right, it’s still hard to overrule the thoughts of “Do I really need this?” or “Wouldn’t this substitute be a more responsible choice?” A portion of this is reasonable—I don’t want to blow through my resources on things I don’t really value—but some of it is not. I’d love to do some home improvements in the $20,000 or so range that I think would really increase my quality of life (like building a finished room in my attached garage so I have a space good for entertaining). I’d also love to just buy the things I feel like eating that week in the grocery store, instead of thinking “The blueberries aren’t on sale this week, so I should buy these blackberries instead.”

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Basically, how does one shift from being very careful with money to being a little more lenient when life circumstances change?

—But Do I Really Need that?

Dear Do I Really Need That,

People are usually two ways when it comes to spending money. They’re either a natural saver, which sounds like the camp you’re in. Or they are a spender (hi, that’s me). Sometimes being a saver comes from necessity, which you mentioned experiencing in grad school. Beliefs about yourself, or your money, can take a long time to break, especially if you keep repeating them. Asking yourself if you value the item you’re spending money on makes complete sense. But talking yourself out of buying blueberries at the grocery store is a fear-based tactic.

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You’re already in therapy—that’s great. I’d ask your therapist if you should also look into financial therapy. While it’s relatively new, a financial therapist can help you work specifically on your money mindset, which might be something worth considering. Another tip you might try is challenging yourself every week to spend money on something out of your comfort zone. Next week, challenge yourself to spend $5 on something you may not value but want anyways, like the blueberries. The next week, up it to $10. Increase it week by week and eventually, start putting it aside for the house remodel you’re craving. It’s easy for us to do something in smaller increments than it is in bigger ones.

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You could also try manifestation journaling. I know I’m going to get heat for this, but I am a firm believer in taking time aside to visualize your ideal outcomes in life. For example, imagine your house has already been remodeled. Journal what the remodel looks like, from the light fixtures to the cool rugs you would love. Ask yourself how it feels for you to be in this space. Think about the joy you feel when guests come over and you’re hosting comfortably. Imagine what food will be served and what activities you’d be doing. Imagine what they’ll say and how content you’d feel telling them goodbye with full bellies. In order to believe we can have something, sometimes we have to visualize it first. When we can imagine it, we can then work toward it. Good luck!

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—Athena

Classic Prudie

My husband’s brother brought his five adult children to our daughter’s wedding. Although we are regular working people, he has a net worth of well over $50 million, and his adult kids each have $2 million. The wedding was an evening event with a sit-down meal and dancing. The next day, when my daughter and her husband opened their gifts, most of the cards they received contained a check or new bills from the bank. They were touched by some of the amounts they received, even from relatives who are not well-off. They considered trying to return the money in some cases, but that seems rude. Then came the card from the five millionaire adult kids and their dates and spouses (10 people in total). It was a single card among all of them.

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