When we’re younger, we probably think that we’ll make more money when we’re older. Job seniority comes with promotions—and raises—right?
As it turns out, your money arc is shorter than you think. According to an analysis from PayScale.com, women’s pay peaks at age 39, and, according to their median data, at about $60,000. After that, there may be small bumps in salary, but they rarely outpace inflation—so in real terms, you’ll make that $60,000 for the rest of your career.
Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad, except that, based on the same data, men’s salaries continue to grow until age 48, and top out at a median of $95,000.
And, regardless of your gender: “We’re trained to believe that our income is going to go up in a straight line, in a constantly growing trajectory,” says Lauren Lyons Cole, a Certified Financial Planner™ in Manhattan. “Unfortunately, that’s not the way it happens.”
What a Salary Arc Looks Like
So what’s actually happening? In your 20s, fresh out of school, everything is looking up—you’re probably doing some job hopping, getting promoted, climbing the corporate ladder with gusto, and your paycheck looks better and better. According to the same PayScale study, both men and women see salary growth of about 60% by age 30.
After that, however, the rate of growth slows for women. By age 39, the typical woman’s income has grown by less than 20 percent, compared to her 30-year-old self. And after that? Stagnationville. Sure, you’ll probably get cost-of-living raises along the way, but the days of the double-digit raise are over.
The picture is rosier for men, whose salary growth continues to be healthy after age 30. But by age 48 in this study, the typical man’s income has grown by about 45%, compared to age 30. That’s not too shabby, but it’s not on the cusp of retirement, either.
Of course, much of this depends on your career choices. Pharmacists, for instance, usually make top-dollar salaries straight out of school, but the potential to significantly boost their paychecks later is nearly nil. Lawyers, on the other hand, are typically well into their 50s before their salaries peak. “Any job where you get the majority of your training in school and the first few years of your career is not going to see much pay growth after that,” says Katie Bardaro, lead economist at PayScale. “If you’re a lawyer, you’re constantly learning on the job.”
But that’s not to say that you will necessarily peak at 39 (or 48). Here, some strategies for salary success:
When You’re in Your 20s
Have a plan. Out of college, it’s tempting to take the first job that comes your way. But one of the keys to work achievement is finding a career that makes you want to show up on Mondays. “From the first job you take, have a career strategy,” says Kathy Caprino, president of Ellia Communications, a career and leadership coaching company. “That can morph, that can be very malleable, but understand what your passions and talents are, and try to craft a career that’s aligned with that.”
Consider your industry carefully. The differences in men’s and women’s numbers in PayScale’s analyses was largely driven by job choice. According to PayScale’s results at least, “Men tend to go into engineering, computer science, management roles and director roles more so than women, and those jobs see fairly consistent pay increases year in and year out,” Bardaro says. Maybe there isn’t a higher-paying career choice that lights your soul on fire, but if there is, you’d be foolish not to pursue it over another option.Take charge. If a higher-up spot opens up at your company, are you in the running for it? If not, why not? “You should be meeting with your supervisor regularly, and you should have a development plan in place,” Caprino says. “There should never be a blindside.” In other words, if there are issues that would prevent you from getting that next promotion, you should be aware of them and working on solving them.
Save like crazy. In the early years, life is relatively uncomplicated, financially at least. You may not have kids or a mortgage or aging parents to divert your attention—but that doesn’t mean you’re diligently saving for retirement. “For a lot of people, this stage means spending,” says Stephany Kirkpatrick, CFP®, and director of financial planning for LearnVest Planning Services. “We buy cars, take trips, we get a housekeeper for the first time. But that shouldn’t come ahead of saving enough to get your 401(k) company match.”
Key goals right now should include putting enough aside in your employer-sponsored retirement plan to get any company match, and socking three to six months of living expenses in a savings account for emergencies. Your future self will thank you.
When You’re in Your 30s
Watch for opportunities. Don’t sit at one company for five years without checking in with the outside world. “No matter how much you love your current job, you should be interviewing,” Caprino says. “Literally, you should be interviewing two or three times a year.” That ensures that you’ll be aware of both your worth in the marketplace and of great job openings—which could come with a corresponding title and pay bump.
Volunteer. Want higher pay and more responsibility? Show your company that you’re ready for it. Look at where the gaps are in the company and offer to spearhead a new project, or volunteer in another division. Do something to demonstrate your capability and your readiness to take on more. “For a lot of us, we get comfortable and we wait for a boss to tap us and say, ‘You’re being promoted,’” says Kirkpatrick. “It takes a lot of energy to get out in front of it, to be proactive about asking for that next piece of responsibility.”
Don’t check out. “A lot of women off-ramp and stop working for five to seven years,” Caprino says. “That’s incredibly challenging. You’ve just gotten off a competitive track.” If you can, don’t fall out of the workplace entirely when you have children. Find a way to keep your hand in the pot—working part time, freelancing, consulting, job sharing—so you keep your skills fresh and maintain your contacts.
Tackle debt. You may have the income now to really attack any student loans or credit card debt that may be lurking. Don’t just pay the minimums and keep those balances for decades. Get aggressive and knock out high-interest debt now, since later you’ll probably be balancing saving for your own retirement and for college if you have kids.
Keep socking it away. You’re probably making exponentially more now than you were 10 years ago, but that means you should be saving more—for retirement!—not treating yourself to all the luxuries in life. “We get to our 30s and suddenly we’re making money, and we’re like, ‘I deserve a nice car,’” Lyons Cole says. “Be conscious of that psychological effect. Sure, you deserve a nice car, but that car doesn’t have to be a BMW.” If possible, use this decade to bump your retirement savings up to at least 15% of your income.
When You’re in Your 40s and 50s
Curb overspending. “One of the temptations is to keep up with the Joneses and to outsize our lifestyle and go incrementally higher and higher on what we buy,” Kirkpatrick says. “That’s human nature, but this is an opportunity for you to lock away a significant amount of wealth, which puts you in a better position to leave the workforce earlier.”
Prioritize retirement. Funding your living expenses in retirement should be your most important goal right now, but a lot of people get distracted by college bills—and the feeling that you’re doing well, so you don’t have to save so much toward retirement. “People are not realistic,” Lyons Cole says. “They don’t understand that you can’t write a check to your kid’s college unless your retirement is really, truly on track.” You should be saving at least 15% of your income toward retirement—and more if you can swing it, she says. Ideally, Lyons Cole would like people to be putting 25% away overall, including retirement, emergency, and general savings.
Pay off the house. The last thing you want to do is enter retirement with a mortgage payment. Make it a goal to be done with house payments before you retire. One option: Make half a mortgage payment every two weeks—you’ll end up making one full extra payment every year, which will slightly accelerate your payoff schedule. “It puts you in a position to have very little or no housing costs outside of your property taxes,” Kirkpatrick says.