Updated on 01.31.07

31 Days To Fix Your Finances, Day 6: Your True Hourly Wage

Trent Hamm

The Simple Dollar offers a month-long plan for fixing your finances. All you need is an open mind and an hour each day.

Two days ago, we determined your true annual salary. Yesterday, we determined the number of hours you truly work in a year. Today, we combine the two numbers – and consider what exactly that means about you, your employment, and your time usage.

Are you ready for the big calculation? Take the total salary you calculated two days ago and divide it by the total hours you calculated yesterday. You’re going to be left with a number that you’re going to have to ponder quite a bit.

This number is how much you actually bring home each hour you do something for your employment. For some of you, this number is going to be shockingly low. There are many seemingly decent-paying jobs that wind up with an hourly wage below minimum wage when looked at in this fashion. For example, if you come up with an hourly wage below minimum wage and you spend 60 hours a week involved in work activities, you might actually be better off working at Home Depot with a much lower responsibility and stress threshold.

Many of you might balk at the Home Depot idea, but hear me out. A relative (and friend) of mine walked away from a situation where she was making between $40,000 and $50,000 a year to take a job working the floor at a local Home Depot for $9 an hour. She worked forty hours a week, rode public transportation to and from work, and came home from her job without the baggage of additional stress. What happened? She was reinvigorated to follow her passions. What about her finances? Without all of the extra costs of her job, she was only slightly worse off than before, plus with the extra energy to follow her interests, she actually wound up doing better than before within six months.

Spend some time considering what this number actually means. There are a lot of truths about our lives that are revealed by this number.

If you buy a frivolous item for $X, consider how many hours you had to work to have the money to buy it. Let’s say you calculated that you are actually earning $5 for each hour of your time invested in work. When you go to buy a new pair of shoes that cost $80, look at them and ask yourself whether or not they’re worth 16 hours of your time spent working. When you go to buy a new electronic gadget for $300, look at it and ask yourself whether or not it’s worth 60 hours of your time spent doing things you don’t want to do.

When you pay a loan bill, figure out how many hours you have to work just to pay for the finance charges or interest. I find this one to be a real eye-opener. Whenever you pay a bill, look at the amount you’re paying in finance charges or interest that month, then convert it to hours of your life spent at work. With the example above, a $100 finance charge amounts to twenty hours of work just so you could have some frivolous item before you could actually pay for it.

Some people consider this exercise frightening; others find it incredibly uplifting. The maxim that time is money is painfully true; by translating the things you spend money on directly into hours of your life spent toiling in labor, you often discover that maybe you don’t need a lot of things after all. When you start doing that… well, that’s tomorrow’s exercise.

Ready? Let’s continue on to the next day.

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  1. Ralph Morgan says:

    Of course a couple of other things come into play when considering the “home depot” option:
    1. You may make less per hour at your current job, but it may be way more satisfying than working at home depot.
    2. Dividing your current “after costs” pay by the total hours devoted to earning it is fine, but you may not be able to get gainful employment for that many hours at home depot – eg. you may count the two hours you spend lying in bed each night thinking about your high stress job to calculate your “real” hourly rate of income, but it’s doubtful that if you quit your current job you’d be working at home depot for those two hours! Thus, although the “hourly” rate at home depot looks attractive, you could still end up with a massive cut in available income by changing to 40 hour a week job that didn’t comsume any of your time at home compared to a job that notionally consumes 100 hours a week of your time.
    3. You may count hours commuting, reading trade journals or whatever as part of the time you “work” to earn you pay packet, but in reality “working” 100 hours a week at a “high stress” job (where 60 of those hours are commuting, thinking etc) is NOT the same as working 2.5 jobs at Home Depot, MacDonalds and KFC.

    ps. A more sensible option may be to simply keep your current “stressful” job and eliminate all the unnecessary time spent doing it. eg. Working 9-5 and commuting may be unavoidable, but you can often eliminate working unpaid overtime, spending time at home thinking about work and so on. This may reduce your chances of getting a promotion, but is unlikely to get you sacked, and may improve your situation more than by changing jobs.

  2. Andy says:

    This is similar to the idea from “Your Money or Your Life”. In that book they say you should analyze every expense and determine if it is worth the life energy you invest in it.

  3. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    It’s similar to the “Your Money Or Your Life” idea, except they try to use it as a motivator to get you to make some radical life changes. I prefer to think of it as a tool for financial self-analysis: you can use it to put your working hours in context.

  4. jake says:

    I can relate to your home depot example with another example.

    I have a very good friend, who had a job that, if you merely looked at the numbers, was just amazing. Some where around 80k a year.

    The downside was that the job was very demanding. He was leaving home at 5am and coming back around 9-10PM every day, on top of that, he often worked weekends with the same amount of hours or longer. Eventually it took a toll on his health, he was seeing the doctor more often and he rarely saw his family.

    Did he quit and took another lower paying job? No, not on his own. What ended up happening was that the stress from his job, and family issues, resulting from his long hours caused him to be sick quite frequently. His employer notice and he eventually was let go, under “company reorganization” excuse.

    He searched for a job for about 4-5 months before being forced to accept a lowered paying job simply because he was running out of money.

    He found a job that paid about 30k a year. A long shot from what he was previously making. Initially he was unhappy because he had to take a huge pay cut. But what he found out in the long run was that his job required him to basically do nothing after his shift ended. He just worked, then went home.

    What he told me was that he would have never quit his old job, but losing it was the best thing that has ever happened to him.

  5. lori says:

    I can relate to this scenario. I live in Northern Kentucky and for years I made the trek across the river to work in the corporate office of fortune 500 company. Here are the things that took a daily toll on me and my so called “good job”: a commute from hell, unbelievable parking costs, the new outfit every day of the week syndrome, the constant fear of the rumor mill about downsizing/job cuts, etc. I quit to say my mental health. I took a job 10 minutes from my home making $10 an hour. I have free parking, no stress on the job or when the day is over, and I can wear jeans everyday. Believe it or not, I am in a position to actually save money now. Work does not have to be a four letter word. As for the “big career” – you can have it!

  6. Ann says:

    Ditto that last comment. I did the exercise and it was shocking. My so-called great pay of $75,000 a year in the big city amounted to actually $8.87 an hour. That job involved 6 hours a day of commuting (3 hours each way). By switching careers to an entry-level position in another field at $40,000 a year (so supposedly taking a $35,000 pay cut) but with only a 30 minute (hour daily) commute, I ended up with an effective hourly rate of $17.66 and a net savings…go figure, indeed!

  7. SK says:

    I just want to chime in since I have actually been working for the Home Depot for 2 years and plan to be there at least another year while I finish up some coursework in Architecture and they PAY HALF MY TUITION! Next time you go into one of those stores, look at the people’s aprons there, usually they have patches on there showing the number of years they have been with the company and it is not uncommon to see double digit numbers. The thing I really love about them is that if one of your values is freedom, Home Depot is everywhere, so if you want to work at Home Depot Miami and go to the beach on your lunch break, there’s nothing stopping you. I decided I wanted to live in Chicago, now I catch the bus on my lunch break to go to the Field Museum or Downtown.

  8. Laura says:

    Here’s another alternative to quitting that stressful job. I had a job in the finance department of a large company where you were expected to put in at least 10+ hours of unpaid overtime every week if you wanted to keep your job & get a raise next year. If you aspired for a promotion, count on 20+ hours of unpaid overtime (face time really critical to success). Very, very stressful and a low hourly rate when you consider the unpaid overtime. Rather than quit, I engineered a lateral transfer to another department, learned new skills and maintained my current salary. This new department has no ‘unwritten’ overtime rules, no ‘face-time’ policy and I’ve had the opportunity to learn new skills (making myself more marketable if there was a layoff). If I do have to do extra work, I am able to take my work home and balance work & family more efficiently. Bottom line – I was able to maintain my $80K+ salary (while working fewer hours) and succeeded in reinventing myself.

  9. BD says:

    I stumbled upon this article and had to LAUGH at the Home Depot comment.

    I’ve been with Home Depot for over 2 years since I’ve been unable to find work in my field (graphic designer). I figured the exact same thing your article did back when I started… that it was a decent hourly pay and low stress (and I wasn’t finding other work anyway), so I figured I’d shoot for Full Time with Home depot. One problem. NO Home Depot is hiring full time any more (I’ve searched in several states!). They quit that when I started on back in 2007.. all Home Depot stores only hire Part Time now, if they can help it (there are exceptions, of course, but Part Time is the Rule). I got hired on part time with the hopes of going full time only to find out that will most likely never happen.

    So I’m working only 20 hours a week at around $10.00 an hour and trying to fill in the gaps with freelance graphic design whenever I can. It’s literally poverty-level living (which is why I’ve been bookmarking as many financial blogs as I can.. I found you through http://www.getrichslowly.org/blog/). I wouldn’t suggest any retail job to anyone as a full-time option.. the retail stores have caught on that hiring mostly part-time people is better for THEIR finances, since they don’t have to pay all the costs associated with a full-time worker. :/

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