I really can’t stand the term “underearning”.

written by Bari Tessler May 31, 2012

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of “underearning” talk. The reason I’m turned off by the term is because I feel it oversimplifies a very complex and nuanced topic. While labeling or naming can be a helpful first step, we need to go further and break open those boxes.

There’s some great work out there on “Underearning” (notably Overcoming Under-Earning by Barbara Stanny and Why Women Earn Less: How to Make What You’re Really Worth by Mikelann Valterra.) In my opinion, both these books provide phenomenal insight and tools . .  . and . . . I believe there is more.

When most people hear “underearning”, they think “not making enough money to meet their basic needs”. This happens, it’s true. Many people struggle here.

However, the concept of underearning touches so many related issues in our lives, sometimes having nothing to do with the numbers in our bank accounts.

I’d like to focus today on some of the less obvious and deeper dimensions of this topic. Today we’re looking at the inner work around “underearning”.

Underearning is not necessarily about the “numbers”

Under Earners Anonymous says:

“Underearning is many things, not all of which are about money. While the most visible consequence is the inability to provide for one’s needs, including future needs, underearning is also about the inability to fully acknowledge and express our capabilities and competencies. It is about underachieving, or under-being, no matter how much money we make.”

Mikelann Valterra says: “Underearning” is completely personal: It is the pattern of earning below YOUR potential.

Note: YOU are the only one who defines “your potential”. And this definition can change as you change throughout your life.

Here’s another very important point from Mikelann:

“Especially for women, underearning can be about what we do not do. It’s passive; we just never say anything! Women work hard and value their relationships with their colleagues and their clients. Underearning can slip in, silently, by simply not doing what needs to be done. You don’t have the negotiation conversation, or the fee conversation. You just don’t ask for what you need and want. Hence, a lot of underearning quietly saps your energy and strength over time.”

So true. “Underearning” can actually be about underselling, undervaluing, under-expressing, under-loving.

Over-giving, under-receiving. Under-no-ing, over-yes-ing.

Here are a few true story examples:

  • Janet made a very nice salary, and could meet all of her financial needs with ease. However, she was working a gazillion hours a week, and when she calculated her “hourly rate”, she felt that she was significantly underearning. She was over-giving and beginning to feel resentful. Underearning with a 6 figure income.
  • On the flip side, Lisa brings in a very modest income, but works fewer hours, lives simply, and is completely at peace with her earning capacity at this phase of her life. Lisa’s not underearning, even though she makes about 1/10 of Janet’s salary.
  • Meanwhile, Carol made a ton of money early in her career. Like a lot. There is no shortage of money for Carol, but I would suggest she still struggles with a version of underearning. Why? Even though Carol has plenty of money, she has been unable to communicate about clearly and authentically about it. She over-gives, has trouble looking squarely at financial agreements/disagreements, and has been unable to set boundaries to take care of herself.

Your relationship with “underearning” has everything to do with your experience of self-worth.

Cultivating and sustaining a deep sense of self-worth is a life-long process. We all take hits to our self-esteem during this human experience. It’s about how we work with that heartbreak, that “failure”, that disappointment – and transform them into the fuel for greater self-love and understanding.

10 lessons learned on a path to self-worth (on the inside) and increased earning (on the outside):

  1. Boundaries, boundaries, and more boundaries. Oh, how I have come to love and depend on compassionate boundaries. So much, in fact, that I’m going to devote an entire article to my love of boundaries. Stay tuned. You need your “no’s” to fully live your “yes’s”.
  2. Many years ago, I found myself in a painful loop of comparison and self-judgement. I found myself repeating this to myself (an accidental mantra, if you will): “My job is be myself. Nothing more, nothing less.” It was potent and so healing for me at the time.
  3. Get real with who you are and who you’re not. Know what you’re amazing at, and what you suck at. Don’t do the things you suck at.  No need to pretend.
  4. When I was invited to my first public speaking gig, I started hyperventilating. Terrified. In the months leading up to the talk, I got to witness the borage of negative self-talk (“I’m not smart, I’m not articultate, I have nothing to say . . .”). I saw them, deleted them, replaced them (“I am smart, I am articulate, my voice needs to be heard . . .”) I rocked the talk and never looked back. Delete and replace the negative thought patterns that aren’t serving you.
  5. Focus on your successes. Every little baby step you take is victory. Celebrate everything. This is how huge change happens.
  6. Find gratitude in all the corners of your life. Find the good. Seek it out. Notice it. Appreciate it.
  7. Milk your mistakes or so-called failures. Mistakes are ripe learning opportunities, not to be ignored. Get back on track with more clarity.
  8. Fill your cup. Self-care, hikes, meditation, dancing, friends, community. Many of these gifts cost nothing and give so much.
  9. Be willing to be uncomfortable. Author Barbara Stanny says that the number one prerequisite to making more money is this willingness to be uncomfortable. I would add that we feel uncomfortable when we’re shifting any pattern. It’s a good sign. Be willing to stretch.
  10. Love yourself. And then love yourself more, deeper, and better. ‘nuff said.

With my dearest wishes,


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