Will We Ever Talk Openly About Income and Money?

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I started sharing my net worth anonymously because it was so hard talk about it publicly. Even today, my site logo is a voice bubble with money inside. Fast forward nearly 15 years later, and it is still unlikely that you know your coworkers’ salaries, let alone their net worth!

Do you know what the average tech worker in Silicon Valley makes? You might be surprised to know that with 5-9 years of experience, the average total compensation is nearly $300,000 per year. I know this from Jackie Luo’s Medium article I Know the Salaries of Thousands of Tech Employees. Luo herself is a software engineer at Square with 3 years of experience, and her base salary is $130,000 with a total annual compensation of about $230,000 (depends on stock price). She asked for anonymous data and compiled the following chart:

Her data reveals that stock grants are a huge part of total compensation (and one that is negotiable). As such, she encourages people to talk about their compensation and create a new culture of openness will help make things more fair. I admit I’m skeptical about that part. You’re fighting against a lot of deeply-ingrained discomfort. Is there any culture on Earth that talks about their wealth (and thus wealth inequality) openly?

I think that the best you can hope for is a trusted, popular website that becomes a huge database of anonymous submissions. I’m not sure any site has reached that level, but the cited ones trying include Glassdoor, Comparably, and Levels. While poking around, I even found a site that compares PhD stipends.

As an aside, this chart also explains why a disproportionate amount of early retirees are tech workers. If you’ve got people making $170,000 right out of college, I don’t care if you do live in the Bay Area, that is still a lot of income. If you have even a small degree of self-awareness, you know that many people live on far less, and that you could too. If you’re a tech couple pulling in $300,000+ a year, financial freedom within 15 years is on the menu. Whether you pick that option or not, that’s up to you.

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  1. Italiangirl says

    I have been a middle school/high school teacher for over 20 years. Everyone knows( more or less) what everyone makes because if they know your additional educational credits and years of experience, all they have to do is look on the Pay Scale. I’m still under 90k. But it’s my life’s work.

    • Thanks for sharing. So in that environment, do you agree that the transparency is a good thing overall?

      • Italiangirl says

        Yes. It’s easier to work with colleagues when you know what they make. I am in a career where men and women make the same salary. As a woman, I would want to know if my colleague, who does the same job With the same professional experience receives the same salary.

        • This pay-for-tenure is different from most pay-for-performance or meritocracy approaches. Do you find it difficult to see poor-performers being paid more than you because they have more years of experience? Being that you are at the top of the tenure chart, do those will less feel the same? It opens the question, what is fair?

          • Italiangirl says

            Wow! Great question…there are a few teachers (not many) who are not working up to the standard that the rest of us are working. They don’t really plan well or are not engaged with the students. Over the years I’ve noticed that some of these teachers don’t want to be teaching and they complain a lot. I think this is true of most jobs. The challenge with education of young people is that it’s hard to fake it!
            I used to feel some resentment, but now I realize that the word FAIR is a complex word. I know that I do my best, and I feel good about it. Money is only part of the issue. The teachers to which I’m referring are miserable. I don’t want to focus on their unhappy situation. I love my job (most of the time)

  2. The Frugal Millionaire says

    I spent over 30 years working for a major newspaper. Even thought it was white collar work (advertising sales), all the white collar workers, from reporters and photographers to clerks and typists were union members, part of The Newspaper Guild. As such, there were about fifteen job grades/levels, and all the salaries were published in the union handbook every year. So, within a few dollars, everybody knew what everybody else was making, and it helped people aspire to and train for higher paying positions.

  3. I definitely think that employees would be better off if there was more transparency for wages. Employers hide this for a reason and its not for our benefit.

    I think Glassdoor is a good resource for salary info. They have 27k salary data points for software engineers in San Jose, CA alone. It works best with big companies and/or common job titles in larger cities.

  4. Generally speaking of my family and friends, no one will ever willing share their salary or net worth. Money is way too personal and even if you are open and transparent with others, everyone will have a judgment of what is done with money, yours or anyone else’s.

    The same dollar you save, the next guy will spend or even give away. Not that any of those choices are better than the next, but they are all quite different. There are too many emotions tangled up in money for it to ever be meaningfully transparent or even discussed freely.

  5. If anyone knew what I made I would be criticized or hounded for money. No thanks.

  6. People think I’m broke. I like people to keep thinking that.

    Stealth wealth is a real thing. Too many people practicing stealth poverty

  7. Check paysa.com – good resource.

    RE pay; it’s fairly meaningless in certain places like Silicon Valley. A $300K comp package gets you 2 cars, and a 3-story stack house in Santa Clara if you’re lucky along with a horde of other “senior software engineers”.

    And time’s are good now. Just wait until the market dumps, let alone layoffs hit.

    Point is salary is meaningless. It’s what you do with what you’ve got. I know people who make $150K that are worth a whole lot more than people I know who are making $400-500K. I also was around here in 2000 and 2007 when talking about real estate and stock reached a crescendo before the proverbial SHTF and people regained some humility.

  8. Military checking in here. Everyone can figure out what everyone else makes because it’s publicly available.

    But I don’t think anyone really does. You know someone higher ranking than you makes more than you do. But it gets fuzzier at the middle officer ranks and higher enlisted ranks. Plus there’s the extra pay and allowances that changes based on each job, years of service, and number of family members.

    You can figure out roughly what everyone makes, but it would take some research and time. I think it’s a good knowing what everyone makes. Equal experience and job means equal pay, regardless of race, gender, or any other factors. But it may not work in every industry.

  9. wow i’ve been in IT a long time and don’t make nearly as much as the figures indicated in the chart (i’m not in Silicon Valley though).

    • ChicagoDev says

      I agree. With 18 years of experience, I am in software dev in Chicago suburbs, team lead/manager and my total compensation is not even half of these figures. Time to move? 😀

  10. I worked for a FAANG company. And I recruited a team of engineers. Those numbers look very inflated.

  11. I recently promoted two software engineers on my team, and found out they were discussing with each other what to ask for and what they currently make–apparently this is very common among recent college grads. There is already a shift taking place.

  12. I don’t think most people are mature enough to accept the fact that top talent is paid much more for doing the same job with the same experience level. You aren’t paid for how hard you work, or how long you’ve been there. You are paid for how much money you are making for the shareholders of the company. The fact was I was more talented than my competition and to avoid me going to the competition they paid me considerably more. I had a great working relationship with the other engineers but if they had known I was paid far better I don’t know if they would have been so friendly. Work is not that different from professional sports, if you are a star player then you may make much more than an average player makes, because you cannot be as easily replaced. In sports everyone understands that, in the corporate environment I’m not sure that is the case.

  13. I think it’s also important to mention ( don’t think the article covers that in detail) that tech compensation is very different – you not only get a base but also equity and often this equity is an astronomical amount. This is a good reference if you want more context on how this compensation model works: https://teamcandor.com/salary/guide

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