More Than Money
Issue #3

Money, Work, and Self-Esteem

Table of Contents

“Working by Choice”

Challenges and Opportunities

Many of you reading this newsletter are in a very unusual position-you don't need to be paid for your work. You may have sold a business or received a settlement or an inheritance. Or perhaps you are well supported by a spouse or have saved up substantial assets over many years. Whatever the reasons, you now could live (for a few years... or for the rest of your life) without earning more.

Obviously, freedom from financial pressure can be a great blessing, bringing with it many wonderful opportunities. But from our interviews, we've gleaned that this freedom can also bring emotionally-charged questions and practical challenges, especially for people concerned about economic injustice. As these challenges are rarely acknowledged or discussed, we thought it would be useful to name both a few of the dilemmas and ideas we've heard about resolving them.

If You Choose to Work Without Pay

...it can be challenging to claim this as a legitimate choice and to feel good about your unpaid accomplishments. What might help:

  • Get clear that you don't need money, practically. Determine your current income, assets, and expenses as clearly as you can. Project future expenses. Consider whether you would be better off (in terms of your financial and psychological needs and values) with paid work. In other words, make this choice with your eyes open.
  • Society says it's what we do for money that counts. You are blazing a different path. Figure out how you want to describe your unpaid work to others, and do so proudly.
  • Make your "volunteer" work as satisfying and worthwhile as you can. Add structure, support, and affirmation as needed into your daily life. If you are working as much as part-time or full-time staff, ask for an unpaid staff position.
  • Decide whose respect you really want and whose opinions you want to let go of. You're not going to please everyone. Arrange for positive feedback from those whose opinions count.
  • Give yourself ample credit for the skills you use in your unpaid work. Tell your friends what you are enjoying and what you are proud of in your work.
  • Keep track of the hours you work. Some people work extra long hours out of guilt and justify it by saying how enjoyable or how important the work is.
  • Make a list of your goals. If you meet your work goals while your personal goals languish, take some time off to take care of your other priorities.
  • Build confidence that you could make money if that was your choice. For instance, apply for some paid jobs and get offers. Or talk to people who have paid jobs that appeal to you and imagine yourself taking similar steps to get there.

If You Decide to be Paid for Your Work

... it can be challenging to feel good about your compensation and to keep a sense of perspective about the importance of money. What might help:

  • Validate your choice to be paid. There are many reasons to get compensation besides paying bills: to increase the legitimacy and respect you gain from others; to increase your self-confidence and lessen your reliance on accrued assets; to have more money to play with, give to friends, invest in exciting projects, or whatever.
  • Take time to consider whether you (and the world) might be better off if you devoted yourself to unpaid work. In other words, thoughtfully choose to work for pay (or not) rather than earning money by default.
  • Get a clear sense of what the "market rate" is for your skills and experience. Ask others; do some research. Then ask yourself if being paid market rate is really the right choice for you.
  • If you don't need the earned income for your daily needs and comfort, allow yourself to imagine creative alternatives to "standard" pay. If you are working with low-budget organizations struggling to do great work in the world, you might work for less than market rate or donate your salary (openly or anonymously) back to the organization. Or use your salary to fund another staff position. If you are working with high-budget organizations, you might advocate receiving market-rate compensation, and then donate your salary to shoe-string groups you care about.
  • To keep perspective about the importance (and unimportance) of money, try validating the value of your unpaid work (e.g., as friend, parent, neighbor.) Talk about this work with others, in the same way you might discuss your paid activities. Honor the value of the unpaid (or less well-paid) work done by others. Notice and contradict prejudiced comments which equate people's earnings and job status with their human value.
  • Examine your habits of spending money to see if your self-esteem is dependent on earning money so that you can turn around and spend it right away. Some people buy more books than they could possibly ever read to help compensate for feeling stupid. Others buy clothes to alleviate self-inflicted messages that they are unattractive. People who grew up poor or deprived sometimes feel the need to spend money to prove to themselves worthy. Work and money can become a method for propping up self-esteem. Toss out the unrealistically high standards of how people "should be" perpetuated by the media and other institutions in our society.

In Conclusion

Whether you work for money or not, in our society so much emphasis is placed on how much money you earn, that your pay (or lack thereof) is bound to affect your feelings of self-worth.

Those of us with financial freedom have a special opportunity to disentangle from this social pressure and to help others untangle from it, too. In doing so, we can help build a world where people's work is valued for what it contributes, not for the money it brings.


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