By the Numbers

Kristine Hayes

AROUND THE TIME of my birthday each year, I request a copy of my Social Security Statement. This year, as l reviewed my report, I realized many life stories lie behind the numbers that appear in my earnings record.

The first year I had taxable earnings was 1985, the year I graduated high school. Minimum wage was $3.35 an hour and my annual income that year was $861. My earnings over the following seven years were meager, at best. I was attending college fulltime, earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, before becoming a member of the paid workforce.

The first year I hit a five-figure salary was 1993. I’d started working part-time in a research laboratory, while I finished my graduate studies. I made almost $11,000. After years of living on a student budget, it seemed like a substantial sum.

The following year, I was offered a fulltime position in the same lab and my earnings grew to just over $24,000. I purchased my first car that year—a Honda Civic for $9,999—but still took a bus to work, because I couldn’t afford to pay to park it. Two years later, my annual salary took a $3,500 leap. I received a promotion after my supervisor found out I was contemplating leaving the lab for a better paying position. The promotion kept me happy for a few months.

But the lure of a more lucrative salary—and the accompanying chance to improve my lifestyle—eventually proved irresistible. In 1997, after becoming fully vested in a state pension plan, I left my research position and took a job at a local hospital. My salary jumped to $37,000, but it wasn’t long before I missed the various benefits I’d grown accustomed to at my academic job. The hospital’s sole retirement benefit was a 401(k) plan with a 3% match. The amount of paid time-off was also substantially less. It was then that I became keenly aware of the trade-off between salaries and benefits. After working for 15 months at the hospital, I began looking for another job.

In June 1998, I was hired as a departmental manager at a small liberal arts college. I took a $3,000 pay cut to take the job, but the school offered a generous retirement benefit: an employer-funded account equal to 10% of my annual salary and immediate vesting. Two years after starting the job, my salary had climbed back to what I’d been making when I left the hospital, and my retirement account already had a balance of nearly $8,000.

My salary continued to climb steadily until 2005, but stagnated from 2006 through 2011. A number of factors contributed to the slowdown in taxable earnings. My husband took a job that didn’t include health care benefits, so I began covering him—and paying his premiums—through my employer’s plan. Lower cost of living adjustments, combined with higher health care costs, took a toll on my annual taxable earnings.

By 2012, my salary was on the rise again and, in 2013, my earnings record shows a nearly $8,000 increase. A divorce, and subsequent purging of my ex from my health insurance plan, resulted in a large wage increase for me. From that point forward, my salary steadily increased, the result of receiving annual cost-of-living adjustments and merit awards.

In 2017, I made nearly $70,000. Those wages came from the income earned from my primary job, as well as money from two different freelance writing side hustles.

Kristine Hayes is a departmental manager at a small, liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon. Her previous articles include Happy EndingMaterial Girl and Homeward Bound.

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2 years ago

Thank you! I’m the same age as you so can relate to the minimum wage in 1985! One thing that still baffles me to this day is how happy I was making so little money as compared to now when I make a lot, but don’t really enjoy life.

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