In my experience, income has been the ultimate social and cultural measure of success. For some reason, salary serves as the barometer for expertise and achievement rather than actual merit, contribution, capacity for critical thought, or any other factor.
According to this superficial and arguably arbitrary measurement, I am an utter failure. My boyfriend on the other hand, is doing quite well. Whether he consciously acknowledges it or not, he absolutely buys into the “salary equals” success philosophy. As such, he is always focused, sometimes singularly, on earning more income.
Not a bad quality, right? Except for this. He’s so focused on maximizing his earnings, that he’s willing to sacrifice his quality of life. He’ll tack on an additional six hour work commitment after a full day just to increase his six figure earnings to a higher six figure salary. But here’s the thing, his essential cost of living is incredibly low. With no dependents, a reasonably cheap rent by New York City standards, and no major financial demands or obligations, he’s able to bank the vast majority of his income.
But he doesn’t. Instead he spends far too much on redundant, unnecessary pairs of shoes, electronics, and other random “stuff” he simply has no long-term utility for. So when he ponders the idea of spending an additional six hours working for the sake of earning more money, rather than getting a full and restful nights’ sleep, I counter with, “Why don’t you just stop buying so much “stuff” instead?”
But for some reason, it doesn’t compute. The concept of having more free time in exchange for giving up the useless clutter doesn’t register. Along with income, the capacity to spend has become in and of itself a measurement of success. Those with the most expensive cars, houses, watches, clothes, gadgets, etc are instantly equated with achievement. Asking someone who grew up with that kind of cultural mentality to reduce their spending might see the mere suggestion of cutting back as a challenge to their success.
But what if they didn’t? What if we, as a whole, could reshape the idea of spending less as earning more? What if, instead of using income and the capacity to spend as the ultimate measures of achievement, we used the availability of time, options, resources, and other quality of life measures?
After all, it’s what we net that ultimately gives us more options and freedom, not what we earn. A six, even seven figure salary doesn’t achieve much, if spending is just as high, or higher.
I wish that instead of seeing a paycheck every week or two, we got a net earnings report that subtracted all expenses from total take home pay. Of course, this is entirely possible, and in my opinion, a must; you just have to be willing to do it for yourself.
If increasing that “net” number became the ultimate end goal rather than limiting the focus solely to income, I wonder how the cultural and social dialogue would shift. I certainly don’t think I’d be debating the worth vs. cost of 18 hour work days with my overtired boyfriend.