Can You Figure Out What This Woman Earns?

how much does she earn?Let’s take a look at a typical American worker — and figure out how much she earns.

Lisa starts prepping for her work day the night before, when she irons and lays out her clothes, packs lunch and cleans her car. She meets with clients throughout the day, so she must present a polished appearance.

Lisa’s alarm buzzes at 7 a.m. Bleary-eyed, she showers and blow-dries her hair, applies makeup, brews coffee and dresses up. Her high heels hurt her feet, but they’re essential for giving her a groomed appearance.

She knows she must not only “dress for success” but also “drive for success,” so her immaculate car is less than two years old. She washes it weekly.

She drives 30 minutes to her office and is sitting at her desk by 8:30 a.m. The rest of the day is a blur of client meetings, phone calls and showings. By the time she battles rush hour traffic back home, she’s exhausted.

The drive home takes 45 minutes, since afternoon rush hour is more treacherous than morning rush hour. She pulls into her driveway at 6:15, kicks off her her heels, and clicks on the TV, “vegging out” for an hour to recover from her day.

By 7:30, she’s thinking about heading to the gym but she’s hungry and tired. She’s too exhausted to cook, but she’s been ordering take-out too much lately. She swings by the grocery store to pick up a package of frozen ravioli, which she dumps into a saucepan, heats and eats in less than 10 minutes.

She starts a load of laundry, realizing that half her clothes need to be dropped off at the dry-cleaners. There’s no more time today. Maybe she’ll do that during her lunch break tomorrow. She’s a regular at the neighborhood dry cleaners, and Lisa likes to chat about baseball with the new teenager who staffs the register.

After checking her email and taking the dog for a late-night stroll around the block, Lisa launches her evening routine of laying out tomorrow’s clothes and packing lunch. She’s asleep by 11 p.m., ready for her alarm to buzz at 7 a.m.

How Much Time Does Lisa Spend Working?

To learn how much Lisa makes, we first need to figure out: How much time does Lisa work?

The simple answer is “Lisa works from 8:30 to 5:30 pm — that’s 9 hours, minus lunch.” But I think her workday runs deeper.

From the second Lisa’s alarm buzzes at 7 a.m., she’s doing work-related tasks: getting dressed, wearing makeup, battling rush hour. If we include “prep time” — the time Lisa gets ready for work, plus her commute — we can see that Lisa works from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., plus an extra 30 minutes later in the evening. Lisa has a 12-hour workday.

Well, that’s a conservative estimate.

After Lisa returns home, she’s so exhausted that she needs to zone out in front of the television for an hour. I would argue that this is, indirectly, “time spent working” or “time that disappears as a result of working.” I believe Lisa loses 13 hours a day as a result of her job.

But let’s stick with the conservative estimate: we’ll say Lisa has a 12-hour workday, including prep time.

How Much Does Lisa Earn?

Lisa earns $50,000 a year for her efforts, with a 3 percent 401(k) match and full health coverage.
can you figure out how much this woman earns?
The 3 percent 401(k) match comes to $1,500 a year, and her health coverage would cost $250 a month ($3,000/yr) if she paid for an equivalent plan out-of-pocket. So Lisa effectively earns $54,500 annually.

This is her “gross” pay. We still need to subtract her “cost of working.”

Lisa’s commute is 30 miles roundtrip (150 miles a week). Lisa enjoys 3 weeks of vacation time, which means each year she commutes 7,350 miles.

The IRS estimates that each mile driven costs 55.5 cents, but let’s use the conservative estimate that each mile only costs 30 cents. This means Lisa spends $2,205 a year commuting.

She also spends $1,000 a year on work-related clothes and another $25 per month, or $300 per year, dry-cleaning her suits. This means Lisa’s “cost of working” is $3,505 per year. (Just wait until she needs childcare!)

I’m Ignoring Important Stuff

We’ll pretend Lisa never needs someone to walk her dog when she’s away on business trips. We’ll ignore that the reason she pays for a gym membership is because by the time she gets home, it’s too cold and dark outside to jog through the park. We’ll forget the fact that Lisa moved to a different city to take this job, which means she needs to fly home every Christmas.

We’ll disregard the cost of Lisa’s “look-successful-in-front-of-clients” weekly car wash. We’ll ignore the fact that at least once a week Lisa orders take-out or buys packaged foods.

If we ignore all these work-related expenses, and we subtract ONLY the cost of commuting and clothes, we see that Lisa earns $50,995 per year, before taxes. That’s a super-generous estimate.

What’s Lisa’s Hourly Rate?

Lisa loses 12 hours a day to her job, including prep time. She works 49 weeks per year, with 3 weeks of vacation time. This means Lisa devotes 2,940 hours per year to her job.

At $50,995, Lisa is trading her time at an hourly rate of $17 an hour before taxes. Whoa!

This is not even close to the amount Lisa thinks she earns. Her bartender friends earn more than that. Is this what her master’s degree is for?

More importantly, can Lisa justify giving up her dreams — backpacking through Europe or opening a clothing boutique — for $17 an hour? And what happens when Lisa has a baby?  Can she justify paying $12 an hour for childcare?

The Bottom Line: Know how much you make. You might not earn as much as you think you do. Then list all the dreams, goals and values you’re sacrificing for the sake of your job. Is it worth it?

If your answer is yes, I applaud you. You’re in a great place in your life. But if the answer is no, it may be time to make a change.


  1. says

    I get that the whole idea behind Afford Anything is making life and financial choices that are right for you, but what about choosing to work to live, not live to work? Lisa sounds like quite the victim of her $50k + 3% 401(k) match + health benefits job. I like how you add in all the sacrifices she makes to have this job and pull apart the costs and actual pay and position it as a choice that we all have to make but I really think the choice is also about attitude.

    I try to make every day about something other than work and yes, if I wanted to be the victim, I could count the time I spend eating before work, getting dressed for work, heck, shopping for clothes for work as time that is stolen from me, but that sounds like it breeds resentment. I would never let work drain me so much that I plop on the couch and don’t do the things I want to do in my day and in my life.

    Maybe that’s the point you were getting at, but I felt like you were missing an option in between “accept these costs as worth it to you” and “move on to something else.” What about choice in attitude and motivation to make each day your own instead of all about work?

    • says

      @Meg — Great question. It sounds like you enjoy your job. You mentioned that you would “never let work drain me so much that I plop on the couch and don’t do the things I want.” That’s admirable. That means you — perhaps without realizing it — set a standard for yourself that you’ll never accept a job that sucks the life force out of you.

      Unfortunately, not everyone has set this standard. Plenty of people have jobs that pay handsomely, but drain their energy so badly that they don’t feel like doing anything at the end of the day. Even cooking dinner or going to the gym — things that used to excite them — now feel like a burden.

      When that happens, a person loses the ability to live a well-balanced life. They neither enjoy work nor do they enjoy their activities outside of work. It’s a lose-lose situation.

      You, on the other hand, sound (based on your comments) like you enjoy your work AND your work leaves you invigorated enough that you can live a balanced lifestyle. That’s admirable. It sounds like you have a work-life balance that others, like Lisa, can learn from.

  2. says

    The first job I had I realized the “eight hour day,” with an hour commute each way and an hour lunch, was actually eleven hours. Especially after the cushy hours of college the eleven hour day was a major blow. But it did put me on a path to finding a job that I love, since I was spending half my day doing it.

  3. says

    This is a great thing to look at. When my son was born we looked into me quitting my job to be a stay at home mom. We didn’t think we could swing it. But during my maternity leave we realized that my husband was giving up a lot of overtime so that I could work (we had another kid he needed to watch at night). We realized that if I didn’t work he could pick up enough overtime to cover the income gap we needed covered.

  4. says

    I actually work hourly for an IT company, and normally I work from home. So, if I work four hours, I work four hours. I don’t have to dress up, nobody sees my car, and I have zero commute.

    However, since August the client has set up a ‘war room’ and everyone in the area has to convene in the office, full time. I tell you, it is killing me. The commute is only 20 minutes from my garage to sitting in the war room, so it isn’t the drive that eats into my time. It is being unavailable for the entire day that has made a huge difference in my life. I think I may have to write a post of my own on how working in an office compares to working from home! (and not just the obvious differences.)

    • says

      @Kris — I would LOVE to read that. I work from home now, and haven’t worked in an office full-time in several years. I miss the companionship of co-workers, but I don’t miss the rest of it!

  5. says

    I’m so glad that you included the time she spent getting ready for work and computing. It’s all work related and takes away from YOUR own personal time. I use this when I calculate how many hours I work and many people don’t agree with this logic.

  6. says

    I loved this post Paula. It is really the reason why I quite my job to be a freelancer. I actually liked my job but I hated all the time that I had to put into commuting, prep work, buying “office” clothes, etc. I hated that the hours I got paid for didn’t include prep time/marking time (I was teaching) that I stayed after hours to do. Now, I know what I’m getting paid for. And I know how much time I’m putting into work. And of course, how much time I have to put into doing stuff that I want to do. :)

  7. says

    An incredibly informative post!! I know I’m always reminding myself though, salary isn’t the only thing that’s valuable in a job. Especially if that job is a stepping-stone to something you want. There are a lot of reasons why people work where they work, but I completely agree. You should know how much you make! But your decision to stay or go shouldn’t be made just on your salary…and I think you said that. Factor in your goals, dreams, etc. and see what you’re left with! I know that I’d take a lower salary doing something I love versus a higher salary doing something I don’t love.

    Awesome post!!

  8. says

    I totally agree with this way of looking at the totality of what it takes to earn money. Time isn’t free, and ‘prep’ efforts, commuting, etc – all count. The true work-related day for 8 hours of work might be 12 hours or something like that.

    When dividing income by actual hours worked, that hourly rate isn’t what it might seem at first. It truly is worth paying attention to, when making decisions about specific jobs, lifestyle needs, etc. For parents, it makes the decision-making process that much more complex.

  9. says

    Like the other comments, I think this is a great analysis of how much someone is actually making. Very well done and it now has me down about how much less I am making (but only a little. :) )

  10. says

    While I would never advocate working “just” for money or security, I wonder why the ones who do this work cost calculation is always the women. Is it expected that the women’s work is only valuable if it covers daycare? Why is the entire cost of daycare subtracted from the woman’s job even if she is married? DO men not have choice or have less choice because they’re expected to shoulder the financial burden? I worry that when you do these work/cost equations we leave out many questions. Maybe it’s because I’m older but I have seen many female friends opt out based on this simple cost analysis. They don’t consider the total picture. What if they want/need to work after a few years away but can’t find anything after years out of work and ageism? Even if you only make a few thousand after drycleaning and daycare, that ‘extra’ income could have been invested in a 401k or Roth for retirement. What are you really giving up when you opt out during your prime earning years?

    • says

      @oilandgarlic – Oh, I absolutely think men should do the same calculations. In a two-parent household, the cost of childcare falls on both parent’s shoulders. I used to freelance for a women’s magazine in Colorado, and I once wrote a cover story about a local family that decided the father should become a full-time stay-at-home dad because, quite simply, he earned less than his wife did. The decision was purely practical. But their friends all viewed it as a “political” move — the friends thought the family was trying to make a statement.

      I suppose, in a way, they were making a statement: if one parent stays at home, it should be the one who earns less and/or who dislikes their job more!

  11. says

    After having a full-time job (not a career, mind you, so the pay and the job itself are not exactly phenomenal) and attending school full-time, I am empathetic of Lisa’s position! Though I still find time to do things I want to (or have to) do, and am currently searching for an internship to add to my schedule.

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