For as long as I can remember, a six-figure salary has been the benchmark of success.
Earn six figures, and you’ll be financially stable.
Earn six figures, and you’ll be able to afford a house.
Earn six figures, and you’ll have “made it.”
But with inflation rising at warp speed and a culture of working ourselves to the bone, you have to wonder…
Is a six-figure salary REALLY worth it in 2022?
My story of chasing six figures
When I was in high school, my parents repeatedly told me that they had immigrated so that I could have a better life. Like most boomer parents, they had a definition of a “successful” life mapped out for me:
Get straight As
Graduate high school
Get into a great college
Get my degree, preferably as a doctor but accounting or engineering will do (sorry, mom 😬)
Get a job at a reputable company
Chase my way up the corporate ladder
Eventually earn six figures, buy a house, have a family, and work until retirement
Unsurprisingly, this pressure to earn six figures was ingrained in me from a young age.
I worked two jobs in college and slept just 3-4 hours a night. Once I graduated, I dove head-first into my career, chasing a salary increase with every new job. I was hell-bent on increasing my income. I even took a role that wasn’t necessarily the right fit purely because it gave me a decent salary bump.
I was close to my six-figure salary goal, but I was nowhere near happy. I quit my job, started freelancing, and traveled the world instead.
Ironically enough, when I put my six-figure salary goal on hold, that’s when I actually reached it—all without losing my sanity. But I also learned another important lesson during my journey…
Six figures definitely won’t buy you happiness
In the midst of chasing the six-figure dream, I had the blinders on to everything else. I put in long hours, sacrificed time with family and friends, and scheduled my life around my career. “Sorry, I have to work” became such a staple in my replies that I may as well have just set up an auto-responder in my email.
I’m not alone in this experience either.
According to the OECD, the US is the most overworked developed nation in the world. American workers spend an average of 1,767 hours per year at work, compared to the OECD average of 1,687. At the same time, burnout and stress levels have reached all-time highs.
It’s at times like these that those well-worn cliches make perfect sense:
Work isn’t everything, and money doesn’t buy you happiness.
Even when you do hit six figures, there’s the law of diminishing returns. This means that with every pay raise, the amount of additional happiness you gain decreases. While the jump from $30,000 to $60,000 might have meant the difference between being able to switch from having roommates to living solo, the jump from $80,000 to $100,000 might only mean that you have more discretionary income to spend or save.
At this point, it stops becoming about the money and more about other things, like having more balance or free time.
What does a six-figure salary even mean anymore?
Along my journey to hit six digits, I also discovered something else: the value of a $100k+ salary really doesn’t go as far as it used to.
Even when you do hit the $100k mark, you’d need to be increasing your salary at 8.3% or above just to maintain your current standard of living—which is a tough feat, given that wages are currently rising at 3.4%.
So is earning a six-figure salary still worth it?
Don’t get me wrong. A six-figure salary is still a great goal to aim for and a fantastic milestone to achieve. I felt a sense of accomplishment when I reached it, and I definitely feel more financially secure than I did five years ago.
But it absolutely should not be your sole benchmark for success, particularly in 2022.
There are plenty of other targets to aim for that will be equally (if not more) rewarding than shooting for a number on your monthly payslip. These goals will help you increase your quality of life and standard of living, while also making sure your cup is full day in and day out.
6 goals to aim for instead of the six-figure salary
1. Strive for work-life balance
Work-life balance is probably the M.O. for a large chunk of professionals right now.
Because while you can always make more money, you can’t make more time.
Read that again.
You can always make more money. You can’t make more time.
When you’re fresh out of school, you have the energy to hustle. But trust me: when you’re putting in 50 hours a week, every week for years on end, it gets exhausting. You start to sacrifice other things, whether it’s time with friends, time to date, or even time for yourself.
Your career is a marathon, not a sprint. Instead of chasing a pure salary jump, look into benefits that allow you to achieve a better work-life balance.
These could be benefits like:
the freedom and flexibility to choose your own working hours
the ability to work from home
a good work culture that celebrates leaving work on time
personal days throughout the year
more vacation days
With that extra time, you’ll be able to explore other interests, develop yourself personally and professionally, or focus on being more creative.
2. Pay off debt and increase your savings
Student loans, car repayments, credit card bills, mortgages…most of us have some form of debt looming over us at one stage or another. Over time, if you don’t pay these off, they can significantly impact your quality of life or leave you in a bit of a tight spot financially:
Even if you do reach a six-figure salary, you won’t see a good portion of it if you have debt up to your ears.
Paying off any existing debts should be a top priority as you start to earn more money. Put aside any extra income you can spare for repayments, and try to minimize your use of credit cards or buy now, pay later schemes.
When you start to creep towards the debt-free threshold, it’s a good idea to stash away some money for a rainy day. Rather than aim to earn six figures, aim to save six figures to achieve true financial freedom.
3. Seek professional growth
Throughout your career and your life, one of the most valuable things you can do is always be learning.
You’ll grow professionally and personally when you invest in yourself and develop your skills. That extra investment pays off because you become more hireable to employers—plus, it puts you in a better position to negotiate a higher salary than someone who hasn’t put in the hard yards to better themselves.
Look for a job that provides you with growth opportunities, particularly when you’re starting out. These vary depending on the company: some might offer to pay to help you gain an advanced qualification, like an MBA or a CPA, while others may give you opportunities to join their leadership program or set you up with a mentor.
Don’t just rely on your job either. The beauty of 2022 is that there are more than enough online courses, certifications and programs to keep you busy. For the best outcomes, focus on a mix of hard skills, like essential industry platforms, and soft skills, like negotiation techniques or public speaking.
4. Build a side hustle
Not everyone needs a second job. It’s perfectly fine to have a hobby for having a hobby’s sake—but if you’re looking to make a bit of extra money and learn a whole lot along the way, a side hustle might be just the right thing for you.
Side hustles are a fantastic way to explore and test out new ideas, dip your toes into the water of a new career, or just generate some additional streams of income. There are literally hundreds of different options for side hustles, from the classic Uber driver jobs to a YouTube content creator or even a freelance writer.
Regardless of what you choose to do, you can make your effort go even further by using your side hustle to level up some of your skills. If you don’t have the experience needed to lock down a certain role or make that salary jump, create that experience for yourself through a side project.
Back at the beginning of my career, I wanted to learn more about building a brand from scratch. I set out to create my very own side hustle: a snack subscription box. Although the business didn’t make it to its first anniversary, I learned a heck of a lot along the way about what it takes to build an audience from scratch—and I used this to set myself apart from other candidates in my next job interview.
5. Improve your standard of living
Increasing your salary doesn’t actually need to come by increasing your salary.
The value of your salary also depends entirely on where you live.
When I lived in South-East Asia, I could comfortably get by on $2,000 a month. I was renting a 36th-floor apartment in an affluent suburb, eating take-out every single day and taking taxis everywhere I went.
In major cities in the US, UK, or Australia, $2,000 barely covers rent.
If you’re lucky enough to have a job where you can be flexible with hours or work arrangements, use this to your advantage and make your money go further. It might mean moving a little further out of the city, moving to an area where the cost of living is lower, or working in a different region entirely, such as in Central or South America.
Trust me—even if you do it for a few years, you’ll be able to squirrel away some cash and come home to a more comfortable lifestyle (and a little nest of savings!).
6. Practice gratitude
If you’re not happy with how things are going in your life, you’ll always be chasing something else. More money, a better title at work, a faster car…when you’re not feeling satisfied, your cup never seems full.
That’s why above all else, one of the biggest achievements you can make isn’t necessarily how many zeros are in your paycheck. It’s to be grateful for what you have.
Try to practice gratitude whenever possible. Celebrate the milestones you’ve already reached, like graduating from school or moving out for the first time. Reflect on your daily accomplishments or even write them down, no matter how big or small.
After all, the more you practice gratitude, the easier it will be to appreciate what you do have and aim for goals that are truly important to you.