By almost any measure, I had hit the jackpot. I graduated from law school in 2013, with honors, and landed a job at one of the largest law firms in the midwest. In an era when law students were – and still are – frequently finding themselves unemployed or underemployed, I was one of the “lucky” ones. My starting salary in my first ever real job was $110,000 per year.
Here I was, a 26-year-old kid making a salary that my middle-class parents had never earned in their entire lives. The most I had ever earned in a year before was about $20,000.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for 25-to 34-year-olds in the United States is $38,324 a year. I was making nearly 3 times that amount. By my third year at the firm, my salary rose to $125,000 per year. I was a baller! But, like almost all new lawyers (or almost anyone entering a high paying professional field), I also had a sizable student loan debt – about $87,000 worth.
So what is a newly minted 26-year-old lawyer to do with this type of income? I worked hard to get through law school after all. Don’t I deserve to live it up?
And that’s how many young lawyers do it (or doctors or dentists or anyone entering a high paying field at a young age). The new lawyers around me mostly followed the same sequence of events. Some bought new houses within a year or two of starting work. Those that didn’t buy a house lived in the hippest neighborhoods and in the hottest luxury apartments in town, replete with jacuzzis, balconies, and rooftop patios. One young lawyer that I knew spent half of his take-home pay on a penthouse apartment!
Everyone had student loan debt as far as I was aware. But that was normal for a new young lawyer. When you have this huge income coming in, you’ll be fine! Heck, my standard repayment for a 10-year student loan was in the neighborhood of $1,000 per month – about 11% of my starting salary. That’s not really all that much when you think about it – certainly manageable to be able to live well and pay your student loan bill without worry.
That’s not the way I approached my new job
I didn’t want to be the normal young lawyer and take 10 years to pay back my student loans. There was an opportunity to do something great with this newfound income. Most importantly, I knew I didn’t want to be stuck in the shackles of the golden handcuffs, forced to stay in a job because of the money. A time will probably come when your job is the worst thing in the world and I didn’t want to be forced to have to stay in a job I hated because I needed the paycheck to keep up my lifestyle.
So the way I approached my salary was to treat it as a windfall. I didn’t act like I made six figures. Instead, I acted like I made normal money for someone my age. I lived in normal apartment buildings and paid average rent for my area. But that didn’t mean I was living like a pauper. I still went out to eat, lived in good neighborhoods, and hung out with friends.
I just didn’t spend like I was making six figures. Instead, I spent like I was making a normal income for a 26-27-year-old young professional. If my closest friends were making less than half of what I was making, then why not just live like I was making that too? I treated the rest of my income as a bonus and used it to pay my loans and get myself more financially settled.
Now, 2.5 years later, I’m free from the student loan shackles. And because I was free from student loan debt, I was able to take a new, more satisfying job, making $50,000 less per year without even blinking an eye!
If you are young and have a high income, treat it like a windfall.
I’m not saying to act as if you don’t deserve the income. If you are young and worked hard to get to where you are, you absolutely deserve to be paid appropriately! But don’t get caught up thinking you’re suddenly a big shot because you’re in your 20’s and making a ton of money. You’ll have plenty of time in the future to be a big shot if you want. You don’t need to be a big shot yet! Most of your peers aren’t big shots. It won’t look weird if you live modestly right now.
I think this video of Dave Ramsey answering a question from a new lawyer/doctor couple is a great example of the way most young, high-income earners act once they get into their first jobs. Basically, a young lawyer and doctor couple tells Dave that they have $420,000 in student loan debt and are starting their careers and expect to make $550,000 a year. They want to buy their “dream home.” Even after being told not to buy the home and instead, to live cheap and pay off the loans, you still get the feeling that this couple is going to buy the house – because that’s what you are supposed to do when you make that much money.
Imagine what they could do if they lived like they made $80,000 per year and treated the rest as icing on the cake.
Don’t squander your high income
When I left my job to move into government work, I asked some of my peers how they stood on their student loans. No one that I had spoken to had made a dent in their loans. Instead, they appeared to have spent it on their apartments and fancy restaurants, basically, living the life that’s expected of a six-figure earner. After 2.5 years, they basically had nothing to show for all their hard work.
You never know what the future may hold and you want to give yourself the flexibility to do what you want to do and not be dictated by what your monthly payments are. You’ll have your entire life to make money. Treat those early high-income years as a bonus and get yourself on the right footing. Your future self will thank you.