School Didn’t Teach Me: To Talk Money When Talking About Career Growth

Alevin Chan

Alevin Chan

Last updated 14 September, 2021

Formal education may give us a leg up in life and career, but less so on managing money. School Didn’t Teach Me, a SingSaver series, is your informal education in personal finance.

Being able to afford the lifestyle we want has less to do with our jobs, and more with how we plan our careers. Just too bad that school never taught us the importance of money in career growth. 

Here’s the truth about school I recently realised: it taught us the skills to earn a living, but not how to have the lives we want. 

Why do I say that? Because school never taught me about how important money is when considering a career. Heck, I was never even taught the difference between having a job and building a career - and those are two very different things!

Make no mistake - ignoring money when growing your career only disadvantages you and stops you from realising your true potential. Not taking money into account can rob you of a dynamic and enjoyable career, sticking you instead with a few decades of working life that you grit your teeth to get through.

Surely I am being overly dramatic. Or am I? 

Is it rude, tacky or even shameless to be focused on money?

I have observed that we generally don’t talk about money in Asian culture. This trickles down to the workplace, where open discussions about salary is considered taboo (but this is only because companies want to avoid trouble - more on this later).

But let’s be real - nobody willingly spends the best parts of their day slaving away in the office simply because there’s free coffee and WiFi.

The vast majority of us working a job do so because we have to, not because we want to. While the modern workplace certainly offers more physical safety and comfort than, say, the coal mine over the hill, you’re still trading your time for wages. 

I’m generalising here, but the average person gets paid just enough to cover their needs - and perhaps some extras (if they’re lucky). As a result, we have little choice but to continue trading our time in order to ensure we can continue to live our lives. 

Talking about money isn’t about getting into a pissing contest with your friends about your salary package, nor is it about being overly picky and demanding overtime pay for every single Whatsapp work message sent outside of office hours. 

Instead, it is simply about having an open and honest conversation with yourself about whether what you are currently earning matches up to the hours or effort you put in (some roles are simply more demanding than others), and if you will be able to get where you want at this rate. 

Why you need to think about money when talking about your career 

Now that we’ve established it’s okay to be focused on money, let’s discuss why we need to do so when talking about our careers.

There are two main reasons. 

Financial goals aren’t automatically met even as you progress in your career

I grew up thinking that if I worked hard, turned in good work and met my KPIs (key performance indicators), everything would be hunky dory and I’d be promoted in due time

Instead, in the roughly 15 years I spent in the corporate world, I was promoted a grand total of three times, of which two were ‘internal promotions’ - i.e, meaningless additions to my job title that ultimately made zero difference to my bank account. 

(In my ex-employer’s defence, they truly believed in these exercises as a way to show appreciation and build staff morale, but it’s just too bad I can’t use morale to pay my bills.)

Instead, I resorted to ‘promoting’ myself by job-hopping, which was admittedly a risky strategy back then as some employers still valued loyalty to the company, even if it was a quickly fading concept. 

I can only say that I was lucky that even though most of my interviewers noted the choppiness of my employment history, I nevertheless managed to make it through to pretty decent roles - along with the packages to match.  

But the point is, while it is important to always give your all when doing a job, don’t expect to be promoted according to your timetable. 

And even if you do get promoted, your new salary may still not match up to what you want.

You could be missing out on your entitlements (AWS, increments, benefits)

While we gripe about working some of the longest hours in the world, Singapore is actually pretty great for employees - if you know where to look.

You may have heard of the Annual Wage Supplement (AWS), which employers are encouraged (but not forced) to follow. This essentially is a one-month bonus payment on top of your regular wages for the year.

If your current employer practises AWS, lucky you! Even though AWS is widely known, it is rarer than you think, especially in certain sectors. 

The more radical-minded may feel that the 13th-month bonus is a must, since there are 52 weeks in a year, which is equal to 13 four-week periods. (The counter argument here is that your salary covers the entire month anyway, which means your 13th month is already paid in by default.)

The point here is, if you fail to consider money when considering a job offer, you might be more willing to overlook the lack of AWS. Doing so will cause you to lose out - a rival company might be paying the same basic salary, on top of AWS. Hence, being more money-minded will prompt you to raise your asking salary.

Same goes with annual increments, which, again, is not a universal practice. Increments are automatic adjustments made to your salary for the purposes of keeping pace with rising standards of living. 

Increments are important if you want to avoid being stuck with the same old salary despite years of hard work. They also allow you to keep up with your peers that are receiving increments.

Another important area to consider are benefits. Newer employers like start-ups especially like to offer things like unlimited leave and catered lunches, which may seem attractive on the surface. 

However, if your workload is overwhelming, or your salary is not high enough, how much of your ‘unlimited’ leave do you think you’d be able to enjoy?  

Consider another scenario: You receive two offers, one as Assistant Manager with a basic salary of S$4,000 a month, and another as an Senior Executive with a basic salary of S$3,800 a month, but with additional S$300 in lifestyle benefits per month, claimable for travel, sports, electronics and more. 

Objectively, the second offer provides a higher value. But if you’re not used to thinking about money when planning your career, you may simply shoot for the higher position with the larger salary, but actually end up with lesser monetary value. 

How to start the conversation around money 

Because school never taught us to think and talk about money in relation to our careers, here’s a simple four-step template you can use to get the conversation started.

Step 1: Work out your financial goals 

The first thing to do is to work out the ideal salary you want. As a general rule, a comfortable salary should cover:

  1. Your essential needs (bills, housing, food, everyday necessities, household items, dependants, etc.)
  2. Your recreation and leisure (shopping, video games, streaming services, clubbing, travel, etc.) 
  3. Your long-term financial goals (insurance, retirement, a wedding, downpayment for a home, etc.)

Don’t be alarmed if the final tally is significantly higher than what you are currently drawing. Take it as a wake-up call, because the larger the gap, the more likely you’ll run into financial troubles. Hence, this is a great opportunity for you to course-correct and start moving towards a healthier position.

Step 2: Research how much you are worth 

Here’s the simple truth for some of you reading this: You could be grossly underpaid; you simply don’t know it. 

Now, the fact is, companies pay what they can get away with, not what is fair. Businesses, after all, exist to make profit, and if they can get away with paying just enough to keep the position filled, why would they pay more to match the market rate? 

(They won’t, until someone tells them during an exit interview that they are underpaying, and therefore exploiting their workers. And I know because I have personally seen this happen.)

So don’t make the mistake of thinking that your salary package is really the best your current employer can do, and that you won’t get a higher salary for doing the same job somewhere else. 

Instead, make use of one of the many wonderful online resources available for free to find out how much you’re actually worth, and what a fair wage looks like.   

Step 3: Talk to your supervisor

Ok, so now you a) know how much you want, and b) are sure of how much you’re worth, the next step is to talk to your supervisor about revising your salary to match. 

Contrary to popular belief, asking for a pay raise doesn't have to be stressful or unpleasant. You’re merely communicating with your employer about your current needs and future plans, and requesting them to do their part. 

In doing so, you are also demonstrating to your employer that you have ambition and goals, and a clear plan for your future. This could prompt your employer to view you in a more favourable light.

It’s important to remember there are two parts to the conversation. The first is to update your boss on your plans, and also what you found out in terms of a fair salary

The second part is to ask what’s missing for you to get the salary you want. Do you need more training, or to upgrade your skills? Do you need to demonstrate more leadership and initiative? How can you contribute to bringing in more revenue? 

Together with your supervisor, work out an action plan that will get you to the salary you want. 

Now, the most difficult thing about all this is to actually have the conversation. But you’d be surprised at the outcome. Just making the request could be enough to prompt your boss to realise there’s a mismatch. 

Even if you don’t get the raise you want right away, you will be getting valuable feedback on your performance and skills, shining a light on where you need to improve. 

Or you might get turned down. So what, life goes on. At least you now have an answer, and are free to decide your next move.  

Step 4: Look around for the right opportunities

This brings us to the last step of the process.

Being proactive about your career and how much you want to earn also means creating your own opportunities - or at least, keeping an eye out for any that might come floating by. 

Between Steps 1 and 2, you might have made some important discoveries and come to the realisation that you’re in the wrong job and simply need to get out.

Or your conversation in Step 3 didn’t go too well and it was made very clear the company wouldn’t be able to accommodate your request no matter what (maybe they’re struggling more than they let on, who knows?).

In any case, once you know the salary you want, it’s on you to actively go after it, so while you’re preparing to talk to your boss, be sure to look out for suitable opportunities

You might get lucky and spot a great opening that matches your skills and salary expectations, saving you from even having to talk to your boss. 

Hey, no shame in taking the path of least resistance! 

Once you’ve settled on the right career path, it’s time to start growing your money and becoming financially stable. Check out the best savings accounts to park your money in and robo-advisors to start investing with.

Read these next:
Considering a Career Switch? Here Are 4 In-Demand Jobs In The COVID-19 ‘New Norm’
I Was Retrenched At 26 Years Old And I Have No Savings
Career Coaching In Singapore: How Much Does It Cost?
Top 9 Reliable Recruitment Agencies In Singapore
Heads Up, Fresh Grads: 4 Tips To Nail Your First Job In This New Norm

An ex-Financial Planner with a curiosity about what makes people tick, Alevin’s mission is to help readers understand the psychology of money. He’s also on an ongoing quest to optimise happiness and enjoyment in his life.


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