The Self-Inflicted Reason My $120K Salary Still Wasn’t Enough

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One-fifth of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. But surprisingly, middle-income earners -- low six-figures -- are no exception (18% to be exact). One such woman shares how lifestyle inflation impacted her and what she did to overcome it.

In the summer of 2011, Felicia Kelly had no job and no home.

She’d gone from making nearly $10,000 per month to having just $100 in her bank account — and that was from a friend.

We often idolize people with six-figure salaries. It seems like they should have no problem paying bills, investing for retirement, or saving for vacations. After all, even after taxes, they take home a minimum of $3,000 every other week.

The reality is much different. A recent survey by PYMNTS and Lending Club found that 60% of American millennials making $100,000 or more live paycheck to paycheck.[1]

No matter what your salary is, you can still fall into the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle. But there are lessons you can learn from others’ mistakes that might prevent you from falling into a similar situation.

New to Money

Felicia Kelly
Source: Felicia Kelly

When Kelly was a sophomore at McNeese State University, she was putting herself through school on the $1,600 per month she made as a home health care aid. Then in March 2008, she was unexpectedly laid off.

She was lucky to find another job quickly, selling cars at a local car dealership. She was skilled in her new position, and in no time she’d increased her income to over $8,000 a month.

For a 19-year-old, going from making less than $20,000 a year to six figures was like winning the lottery. She’d been making ends meet and now, suddenly, she had more money than she knew what to do with.

But she’d soon find out why many lottery winners file for bankruptcy within five years and why so many pro athletes also file for bankruptcy despite long, high-earning careers.[2] [3]

Within a few months, Kelly was spending her new disposable income on shopping sprees, fancy dinners, and taking friends on all-expense-paid vacations. She didn’t pay attention to her spending, and by the end of the year, she realized she was as broke with her six-figure job as she was when she made $1,600 a month.

“When I realized I was out of money, there was a heaviness of guilt that overwhelmed me, led to depression, and almost to the point of giving up on life completely,” she said. “It was the beginning of what I consider a big awakening for me.”

Related: 5 Ways to Avoid Lifestyle Inflation When Your Income Increases 

Income Shock

Kelly was experiencing income shock, the phenomenon that causes us to spend or save more than what’s sustainable because we don’t know how to plan for a sudden gain or loss in income. A study found that people who doubled their monthly income over a short period of time increased their spending on clothes, food, and travel by almost 20% just as quickly.[3]

Felicia Kelly wearing a white shirt and smiling
Source: Felicia Kelly

We all like to think we’d use a surprise inheritance or substantial cash prize to pay off debt or save for a rainy day, but without the knowledge about what to do with it, you’re likely to burn through it or use your remaining income without thinking.

The same principle applies to wealthy families. According to a study by The Williams Group, 70% of wealthy families failed to maintain their wealth into the second generation and 90% failed to maintain it into the third generation.[4]

Money that isn’t managed is lost.

The reality of this sent Kelly into a deep depression. So much so that she chose to quit working at the dealership to get healthy. This decision left her on the loveseat in her friend’s apartment with only a backpack and a tote.

Losing It All… Again

Kelly did get better. Once she felt healthy enough, she went back to working at the dealership. And again she was making $8,000 to $10,000 per month. But she still didn’t have the skills to manage her personal relationships well and it was affecting her emotionally and financially.

“I began to spend my money on living above my means with the home I rented, vacations, and unfortunately, an emotionally abusive relationship,” Kelly said. “When this relationship ended, I was left with less than $100 to my name.”

Her friends and other relationships saw the money she made and the way she was spending it and took advantage. “I didn’t realize at the time that these individuals weren’t friends, but simply taking advantage of my generosity and lack of money management,” Kelly said.

When we do well we want to take the people we love with us. But those who don’t put themselves first end up with more “friends” and less money than when they were broke. Kelly knew she had to separate herself from these people in order to finally get her finances under control.

The final straw came when Kelly was fired from the car dealership in the summer of 2011. With no money, no real friends, and no job, she had hit rock bottom for the second time.

Related: 4 Signs Your Partner Isn’t Being Honest About Money

The Breakthroughs That Changed Everything

Kelly moved back to her hometown in North Carolina to start over. And what looked like rock bottom turned out to be the solid ground she needed to stand on her own.

The fresh start gave Kelly the time and space to reflect on the last three years and make some important breakthroughs.

Breakthroughs anyone can make, no matter your income, that’ll help you spend and save your money with more thought and purpose.

Decide What You Want From Life

Making money for the sake of making money isn’t sustainable. You’re likely to either waste it on impulse purchases or quit the work altogether. There has to be a deeper reason to incentivize your work.

“I decided that what I actually wanted was to build true wealth in all areas of my life and create a lifestyle that aligned with my spiritual beliefs,” Kelly said.

When she combined her personal values with her work and focused on a balance between the two, the money she made wasn’t just a number in her bank account; it now had a purpose. She knew why she was working and what she wanted to use her money to accomplish. And she no longer let people manipulate her for money.

Confront Your Limiting Beliefs

Kelly also had to confront her beliefs about wealth and making money. Limiting beliefs are ideas not founded in facts that hold you back in some way. She believed the same misconceptions many of us do:

  • Your worth is tied to what you earn or how much you work.
  • You’re either the type of person who pinches every penny or blows every dime.
  • You can’t concurrently enjoy life and build wealth.
  • Wealth is only for people born into it.

Limiting beliefs can keep people from living up to their potential in work, life, and finances. By confronting them and learning why they’re not true, Kelly felt the freedom to do the things and be the person she wanted to be.

Related: How to Overcome the Challenges of Being a Female Breadwinner

Reflect on How You See Yourself

Your bank statements can tell you a lot about yourself and your beliefs. Your transactions will expose insecurities and compensations that you may not realize you have.

“Through this journey, I discovered that my spending habits were simply an outward expression of my desire to fill a void through people-pleasing and materials,” Kelly said. “When the only way to fill that void was to strengthen my relationship with [God].”

Sometimes impulsive or expensive shopping habits are symptoms of a deeper problem. Take time to sit down and look at where you spend your money and what that tells you about your priorities and who you think you are. Then decide how you can change your spending to reflect who you want to become.

Related: 4 Things I Learned from Paying Off $30,000 in College Debt

Coming Back Smarter and Stronger

Kelly has seen firsthand how money can affect every area of your life. She started a consulting company to help professionals and business owners near or over the six-figure mark put money systems in place to accomplish both their short- and long-term financial goals.

She doesn’t want women like her to become another statistic, missing out on using their gifts and the possibility of building long-lasting wealth.

“I know how it feels to be flat broke, hopeless, and wondering if it was possible for life to turn around,” Kelly said. “It allows me to serve from a place of experience rather than from a place of judgment.”

If you’re struggling to manage your paycheck, you’re not alone. You can use the mistakes you’ve made to learn and grow toward a healthier and more prosperous relationship with money.

Related: How to Make a Budget in 7 Easy Steps

Jen Smith

Hi, I'm Jen! As a best-selling Amazon author writing about minimalism, spending less, and making more money, my work has been featured in U.S. News and World Report, Yahoo Finance, Money Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2017 my husband and I finished paying off $78,000 of debt and that's what I help others do here.

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