I’m an adult. I’ve been adulting for ENTIRE DECADES. Being a data person, I wondered if there were numbers that might show how well I’ve been adulting all this time.
Enter the United States Social Security Administration. [CUE SUSPENSEFUL MUSIC: DUN DUN DUN!]
Every year or two, the helpful folks at Social Security send me a report that contains a snapshot of all the earnings I’ve reported to the feds since the first year that I stepped out into a world full of promise and began supporting myself.
I wanted to see what tales of my life the
stars data points had to tell. Because I’m a crazy person, I decided to try to turn my list of numbers into something visual.
It’s both magical and sobering to have the power to distill decades of sweat and daily toil into a single misshapen black line, like some kind of long cracked spine. It was too stark and scary, so I added a couple others and some text and blue arrows to keep it company.
The black line shows my salary earnings for each year, in those years’ actual dollars, as reported to the feds. Every bend has a story:
- The flat line at 1990 shows that I was volunteering for the LDS Church in Tokyo, like the good Mormon boy that I was.
- On my return in 1992, I went right back to college, got married, and started a family, keeping a full load of coursework while working 3-4 part time jobs. That’s right, I walked to work through the blistering Santa Ana winds, uphill both ways.
- In 1996-7 I abandoned my dream of becoming an unemployed academic and got my first IT job. It was a good time to be in IT. Frappuciono flowed from the break room fridges, and I paid a $10 copay to a Beverly Hills doctor so he could shoot lasers into my eyes.
- Alas, in 2000-1, I left this IT paradise–not because of the crash, but so that my young children could actually have a father present in their lives. I got a job at a family and education-friendly university, and gave up 20% of my income so I could chaperone field trips and read bedtime stories every night to my kids. Best investment decision EVAR. This is where my income curve resembles a mountaineer’s guide (“bagged that dot-com peak, I did!”)
- The subsequent slopey plateau tells the story of two recessions, a promotion and a pay raise, in addition to annual merit increases that don’t quite keep up with cost of living increases (not shown: a steady increase in responsibility and multiple job description changes).
(Note: the income and the events may not perfectly line up, and there’s much complexity lost in my little sign posts.)
At first glance, it looks like I’m finally making more in the past couple of years than I did at that 2000 peak. But it doesn’t *feel* like I’m making more, so I returned and puzzled over the numbers. I decided to show adjustments for inflation. And this is where the grey lines come in.
The solid grey line that jumps up and down and mostly hovers over my black income line? That’s my annual earnings, adjusted into 2014 dollars. You can see that if I were to count dollar bills I’m making more now than I was in 2000, when I adjust for inflation, I can buy a heck of a lot less pizza and books now than I could then. (Yes, I was probably getting paid way more than my actual worth as an employee in 2000–thank you, NASDAQ speculators!).
Finally, see that dashed grey slopey line that’s relatively straight? It represents the buying power of my current salary translated into each past year’s dollars. It took about half the dollars to buy the same amount of stuff in 1988 (unless you were buying a gigantic brick of a Sony Walkman). It’s a way for me to look at how much more or less buying power I’ve had from year to year than I do now. Because it’s meant to be a baseline of sorts, I considered rotating the entire graph until it’s sorta horizontal:
…but it would be pure insanity to do such a thing. But it does show that even without the strange Everest that is the dot-com salary, my earning power has essentially stagnated for the decade and a half after leaving the private sector–rather than growing, I seem to be just barely keeping up.
A thought: would anyone like it if I created a (PRIVATE, maybe downloadable) spreadsheet where you plug in your own numbers and get your own version of the above chart? This was done in Excel, but I’d be willing to give it a shot in Google Sheets if there is enough interest.
That said, these pictures say more about my Adulting success than any money chart: