Ask Stacy: How Can I Get Ahead on $26,000 a Year?

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The story we printed a couple of weeks ago called How I Wiped Out $37,000 in Debt in One Year sparked a slew of incoming email. Some respondents sent in their own inspirational stories, while many more had questions or concerns about doing something similar.

Take this one for instance…

While I do enjoy reading articles about becoming debt-free, far too often I can’t really relate to the stories being told.

I am married and have a 1-year-old and another on the way. My wife is a stay-at-home mom, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My wife and I both have school loans but no other long-term debt. While we would be able to do more with our financial situation if she were working, we’ve decided that it’s best if she raise our children. I am working as an insurance agent but I have a degree in English. Our gross income last year was only $26,000. I am constantly looking for ways to be smart with our money, and your website tries to help with that – which I appreciate.

What I’d really like to see from your website are real ways to improve your job situation. In addition to this, I ‘d like to see what are realistic savings goals/budgets for people like myself.

We have some very special circumstances that allow us to save on rent. I want to do all I can support my family, and I feel like there needs to be more tools out there to educate and serve those that have low incomes but want a way out. Dave Ramsey seems to be helpful, but I never see anything with a specific focus for low-income working families. I would love to see articles coming from this angle. I need to see if what I’ve done is on target to help my family.
– Caleb

I’ve spent my entire adult life – 30-plus years – trying to help people create wealth: 10 as a stockbroker, and the last 20-plus offering financial advice on TV and the Web. At the end of the day, there are only two ways to do it: spend less or make more.

Caleb appreciates the advice on spending less, but there’s only so far you can stretch $26,000. What he wants – what he needs to realize his goals – is more income.

From people like me and Dave Ramsey, you get boatloads of advice on how to spend less, but not nearly as much on making more. There’s a reason: Advice on spending less applies uniformly to everyone. In other words, whether it’s buying generic or negotiating for a better deal, the rules are the same and will work for anyone, anywhere.

Bringing home more bacon, on the other hand, is way more personal. How I make more money, either passively by investing in stocks or actively by growing my business, may not apply at all to Caleb.

Nonetheless, let’s see if I can offer some advice that will help Caleb help his family.

Making more money

While the vast majority of our stories do revolve around spending less, we have done some on making more. For example, 3 Steps to Get the Raise You Deserve. Or even more to the point, The 5 Best Ways to Make More Money. In these articles you’ll get advice on getting a raise (show your boss how you’re making them more money) and just bringing in an extra buck or two (get a part-time job). But let’s see if we can drill it down a bit farther.

My last job in the stock-brokerage business was managing a branch office for a major Wall Street investment firm. The staff consisted of about 20 commissioned salespeople and 10 or so support staff. One of my chief functions was to inspire, threaten, and cajole the stockbrokers to make more money for themselves and the company by selling more.

It didn’t take long to learn something fundamental: A lot of people are in the wrong business. They apparently like the idea of having a career, but they don’t like their career well enough to really succeed at it. The result is like watching a slow-motion train wreck. They don’t perform as well as management wants them to, which increases their stress and decreases their self-esteem. This often devolves into a cycle that continues until they either leave or get fired. It’s sad, and it’s unnecessary.

I fired a few stockbrokers, but never because they were stupid or lazy. They weren’t making it, so I helped them by speeding them on their way to their true calling. Like sticking with a bad relationship, sticking with a job that isn’t for you is dumb. It keeps you from succeeding both financially and spiritually.

I have no idea whether this applies to Caleb. Maybe he isn’t making much in the insurance business because he just started. If so, cool. Then he just needs to keep showing up, doing his best, and he’ll be rewarded.

But if Caleb has been working for a while and isn’t making as much as he’d like and/or isn’t happy, maybe he needs to find a different job. Not one that simply pays more – one that he loves and could potentially pay more. Because if you follow your passion and what you’re doing has value, you’ll make money at it. That I guarantee.

If Caleb doesn’t know what his passion is, maybe he needs further education to uncover and act on it. If so, I’d much rather see him in school part-time than working at Wal-Mart part-time.

Let’s not forget the point

One other bit of advice for Caleb…

This is a site about money, so that’s what we talk about here. But let’s not forget that the point of life is to be happy, not rich – two things that are separate and can sometimes even be diametrically opposed.

Caleb says, “My wife is a stay-at-home mom, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” and, “While we would be able to do more with our financial situation if she were working, we’ve decided that it’s best if she raise our children.”

If the two of you have made a decision that your family will be happier without two incomes, good for you. You’re probably right. And if as a result, you take a long time to repay your student loans, don’t drive a new car, or go on European vacations, that’s OK. In the great scheme of things, that doesn’t matter. What matters is living your life the way you think best and being happy.

In summary, Caleb, to make more money, find your calling. As for saving, budgeting, and otherwise stretching what you have, you can’t be doing too badly, because what you’re making isn’t much and you’re keeping your head above water. Just the fact that you’re here indicates you’re doing the best you can.

And if you’re happy, brother, that’s good enough.

If you like this post, please share it. And if you have advice or inspiration for Caleb, please share that on Facebook!

Got more money questions? Browse lots more Ask Stacy answers here.

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