Without a Raise, How my Salary Increased from $20k to $90k in 5 years.

Some people get annual raises of 3% to keep up with inflation, or more if they’re lucky, and less if it’s in the middle of a recession in a company that can’t afford to offer raises.

I’ve never gotten a raise. Since graduating from college in 2005, I started out making $18 an hour at a non-profit and am now making $90k a year. This was not through raises. In fact, my income trajectory is due to learning to pick myself back up when I lost my job, re-brand myself as something more valuable, and attack the job market with as much belief as disbelief in myself, which allowed me to take a lot of risks as I wandered my career path to where I am today.

Had I remained at my first job for longer than 6 months, I might have received annual raises and be making somewhere north of $25 per hour today. I’d have five years of Admin Assistant at a non-profit on my resume, which, if I were to leave to another position, would move me into yet another admin role, or a very low-level assistant position in another department.

Instead, I got laid off. Well, in that case I was fired. I was in the depths of one of my worst depressions that year (yea, got to love being bipolar) and my boss didn’t exactly understand why depression made it hard for me to drag myself out of bed and get to work on time. So that job ended, and within a week I managed to land my first full-time position as an editorial assistant at an international magazine making $35,000 a year. At the time, I was extremely excited to be making more than $20k.

I stayed in that position for a year and it went well enough, though the career path was not quite right and when the opportunity to jump ship came I jumped. This was the only time I was actively recruited, and thus my salary went up from $35k to $50k. This was a huge jump. Again, had I stayed at my employer where I was working as an editorial assistant, I’d be lucky if I were making $50k today. Instead, I left. And I stayed at my next position for three months, at which time I discovered I was (and still am) a terrible reporter (too socially anxious to be a good reporter and ADHD to pay attention to all the facts) so I left that role, again depressed, thinking I had thrown away all chances I had of a career, and moped around for a few months.

But then another opportunity came up. I found a part time job writing copy for a local startup at a rate of something like $35/hour. My contract there expired monthly, and I managed to re-negotiate a higher hourly rate each time. It got to the point when both my boss and I were tired of negotiating, and he offered me a full time job. I pushed the salary up a bit in our final negotiation to $65k, which I was offered. At the time I felt like I was rich.

Two years later, I’m laid off again. This time because the product I was working on was being shut down. I go for a month without a job and again fall into a deep depression — oh woe is me — oh woe — oh what am I going to do?

I land two jobs in those two months — one full time contract at a large, international tech company where I’m able to negotiate a $65/hour payrate (! — I inquired how much the role paid — $30-$60/hr, told them I wanted $70 an hour, totally thinking I was going to throw away the job by asking for so much, and they came back with $65) and another hourly role at a startup on the side at $40/hr. After a two month hiatus from the work world, I had the most profitable 6 months of my life. But that too had to come to an end.

The contract role at the big tech company was not extended because the product I was working on was being shut down (story of my life) — but I was ok with that. The startup I had been working for over the length of the contract was doing well enough to hire me on full time. And while I could have pursued a full time role in the large company where I had the contract (I had a few leads that might have turned into something) instead I decided to jump to the startup, assuming I’d have a stable salary and health insurance, vs the contract setup.

Mission accomplished. I secured a role with not only a $90k salary, but also a title that (assuming I am successful in this role) sets me up for higher-paid positions to follow. I doubt I’ll get a raise in this job either, but I also assume that within the next 3 years I’ll move on to a new position, and ideally break six figures, because now that I’ve found an industry and role I’m good at, I am sculpting myself into a valuable prospective hire.

Those first few years were really rough, and I’ll undoubtedly have a ton of rough times ahead, but at the very least I am confident that the harder you fall, the more room there is to leap higher than you’ve ever leaped before.

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8 thoughts on “Without a Raise, How my Salary Increased from $20k to $90k in 5 years.”

  1. That is fantastic. I guess I've taken the other path in the first fork on your road… I've been in the same position/company for nearly 5 years and have only seen my salary increase from 65K to 70K. Granted that was a very good starting salary out of school, but pitiful increase whatever way you slice it. I guess the job stability and fear of recession got to me. And I don't even LIKE my job! Ha. Anyway, now I am seriously looking for new opportunities, so hopefully a good salary increase will come my way. But, I know money isn't everything.

    1. there's nothing wrong with staying in one position that's stable with an income like that. Not every career will offer the same types of salary increases I saw — and I also moved from journalism (an inherently low-paying career) to community management (better paid) to marketing management (even better paid) — so partially my income trajectory is due to my career field shifts. Not all industries have that as a possibility, but I do believe if you can make yourself desirable enough, you can increase your salary using this method if you have an appetite for risk, no debt, and no responsibilities (ie kids / mortgage.) Sometimes being forced to make the change is a blessing, even after a year.

  2. I'm glad you've landed on your feet each time! I'm not too good with change, and have been at my place for over 10 years now. I wonder what else is out there, but not too much because I'm happy with what I have, and I'm doing the online thing on the side.

    I'm impressed you saved up $130,000 in 5 years with all those changes! What % of your after-tax income did you save?


    1. That's a good question. I'll have to go back and investigate. If you check out my networth IQ you can see the answer to that is not much for the first two years and then a lot the next three. I did start out with about $10k from a injury settlement out of college, so in reality I only saved $120k, but I still think that's pretty good. It doesn't FEEL that good yet as it's still barely enough for the downpayment on a tiny condo out here!

  3. Wow, your ability to switch positions is admirable. I've switched a few times with good results but not with the frequency or big pay jumps that you've had. It really is an excellent point that the majority of companies do not put out the kind of pay increases for current employees as you could find at a new job.

    1. Thanks! I am still shocked at how this has all worked out, and believe that at some point my income is going to go backwards. My next salary will either break six figures or go down again… I'm hoping it will go up, but we'll see.

  4. This is an inspirational post. I wrote something very similar a couple of weeks ago called All-In: How I Made $800,000 in a Lifetime and $15,000 Last Week and echo your findings exactly. So-called failures like losing your job, or in my case, losing businesses, getting robbed, losing money in the market, actually turn out to be paths to bigger and better. Even in my jobs, I found, like you, that the only way to get raises is to change jobs. Like Nibi sees, staying in the same place is just a 1 or 2% raise each year or maybe 0%. You rock! Awesome.

  5. My story is similar. I was making $28 about 15 years ago as an Admin Assistant now I am Senior Vice President of Operations making $150,000 all by changing jobs. Oh. and thats just my base doesnt include bonus and benefits. One change brought me a 35 percent increase.

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