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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