Now that you’ve either landed the job or started your own business you need to make the most of it. Even if you’ve been in the same job a long time and still love it, there is no time like the present to make sure you are maximizing your pay, benefits, and time off.

Whether you are an entrepreneur by trade or not, you need to take an entrepreneurialMaximizing mindset if you want to make the most of your career. I’ve said this many times before but it bears repeating: even if you work for an employer, you are the CEO of You, Inc. and are the primary person responsible for your success. With this comes the responsibility of:

  • investing in your personal and professional growth (education and more)
  • staying current in your field or acquiring skills and training for a new field
  • getting paid what you’re worth
  • securing sufficient time off for personal pursuits and vacations
  • funding your retirement
  • knowing and capitalizing on benefits

The nice thing about this list is it is a good roadmap to follow whether you work for someone else or are flying solo. While the steps to implement may look different, the principles remain the same. Let’s take a high level look at each of these areas.

Investing in YOU

There is no better investment you can make than your own personal development. While there are no real hard and fast ROI figures for personal and professional development in general, it is a proven fact that incomes rise as the level of completed education rises. Dramatically, the salary difference between someone with an Associates Degree compared to someone with a Bachelor’s Degree was 64.9% according to 2003 Census Data. And this is just an example of formal education.

Let’s face it, lifetime learners are bound to earn more over time simply because their skill sets and talents are always evolving. In today’s environment you need to be able to learn and turn on a dime in order to adapt to changing technologies and environments. And, if you think hard skills are the only “real” worthwhile pursuits, consider the fact that soft skills are even more important to your opportunities for success. If you can’t communicate, relate, and empathize with the people you work for and with (that includes clients and customers too) you will go nowhere fast. At the very least you’ll find yourself in a dead end street trying to hang on. Ask any technology professional who only wanted to know how to code (let’s say COBOL) and now sees his/her job being performed overseas. If you don’t have other marketable skills and strong people skills you will quickly find yourself in the ranks of the minimum wage worker.

Investing in you also applies to the fun stuff. Learning a hobby or doing deep personal work falls into the same category of success (and happiness) enhancers. Things you learn about yourself while “off the job” can be as beneficial or even more so to your future than the more conventional educational paths, so don’t discount their true value.

Staying Current

Staying current is a combination of investing in you and simply being aware. Stay abreast of trends and developments in your chosen profession. Read, read, read, and then read some more – both online and offline. Interact with other people who do what you do. Volunteer for projects that excite you even if they have nothing to do with your current job. You never know where your next connection or opportunity may come from. My entire technical freelance writing career came about as a result of me complaining about a piece of software on a technical forum. The editor asked me to write a review of the software and that he’d pay me. That was 8 years and 4 editors ago. In addition, this resume item of “published technical writer” helped me stand out amidst many candidates when I was applying for web developer jobs years ago. My point is to explore things that interest you and don’t be afraid to draw attention to these unique attributes in resumes, cover letters, and marketing materials. It helps answer the “why should I hire you?” question from both employers and potential clients.

Getting Paid What You’re Worth

Goodness knows I could write books about this one. Bottom line is that you deserve to be paid what you are worth and you need to negotiate and create the earnings you desire. It may look like changing jobs, negotiating with your current employer, raising your fees, starting a side business, or creating passive income streams. There is more than one way to create the flow of money into your life.

If you are working for an employer, you need to know what they going rates are for the type of job you do. Use one or more of the following salary sites to help you do that: Salary.com, Salary Expert, and Pay Scale. If you’re not making what your peers are based on experience and geography, it is time to do some negotiating. Even if you are earning a comparable salary, if you bring great results to your organization there’s no reason why you can’t earn more than the average. If you’re not happy with the pay (and other aspects of your job since pay isn’t everything), changing jobs can also be financially lucrative. Just be sure you aren’t simply chasing money because that is a recipe for unhappiness.

If you own a business take a look at how you charge for your products and services. Value based fee setting is the way to go because competing on price is a sure way for more stress and money struggles. You are not Wal-Mart, nor should you try to be. Instead charge for the value of what you offer — what is solving the customer’s problem worth to them? Most importantly, don’t put yourself on sale.

Two other great ways to earn more money is to start a side business while you are employed and to leverage passive income streams. Starting a side business is pretty self-explanatory, but what do I mean by passive income stream? I mean any way you can earn money with either minimal effort or an initial investment of time up front that then yields dividends without any additional time investment (think- creating an information product and selling it online). If you have expertise in an area, that information is valuable to someone else, so consider getting paid for that expertise!

Time Off

If you’re working for someone else, the more time off you get paid for, the better off you are. I have always felt that time is far more valuable than money and would go to the mat for vacation and personal time. You can always make more money, but you cannot create more time. We all get the same amount – 24 hours in a day. And, our lives are defined by how we spend our time and who we are not how much money we make. Always negotiate for time and flexibility (remote work, flexible hours, etc.). Remember that your bargaining power is greater before you actually accept a job. When I accepted a position at a Fortune 100 company, I made the mistake of not negotiating strongly enough for an additional week of vacation that I deserved based on the company’s policies and my work experience. I backed away after their first “no”. I regretted it for five years.

If you own your own business you must factor in ample time off into your time and money projections. What’s the point of being your own boss if you become a bigger jerk than the one you left at the office? While you will work hard flying solo, you need to relax just as tenaciously. Factor it into your fee setting and price your work accordingly so you can and do take “paid” vacations. Believe me, when you step away from working so hard in the business, (paradoxically) more business will flow to you. It is part of the law of attraction and self-care is a vital piece of that.

Funding Retirement

As I see it retirement is different than it is portrayed by so many employees. To me sacrificing my life in the hope of getting to “really live” for just a few years late into my life is not what it’s all about. Instead, retirement is about planning for your financial future by making the most of the present while socking money away for future needs when you might not want or be able to work or earn as much. The new retirement is more about shifting priorities and trying new things rather than sitting on the couch or playing golf all day. By the time those of us in our 30′s reach retirement age (whatever the hell that will mean in official government speak by then – 80?!?) it will be a whole new ballgame. You cannot rely on anyone or anything (the government, employers, inheritances) to provide for you. You need to create it for yourself.

That being said, I don’t believe you should sacrifice enjoying life now for some nebulous long term financial goal. Be smart, save for the future, and maximize your investments; then let go. Whether you are employed or work for yourself you need to take advantage of financial vehicles like tax advantaged accounts (401K’s, IRA’s, SERP’s, etc.) as early as possible and be disciplined about consistently saving. Never miss out on a company match (why kiss away free money?) and don’t treat your retirement savings as a piggy bank because withdrawals can be penalty ridden and more costly in the long run than you know. For some quick tips on hoe to get started, check out this “Retiring in Style” article at Savvy Ladies (the facts hold true for women and men alike, so don’t feel left our guys!).

Maximizing Benefits

Remember that big fat book your employer handed you on your first day on the job that you threw in a drawer or that drab benefits website that you never visited? Well, now is the time to look at the details because most companies allow you to make new benefit selections annually or after a “life changing” event. Of course as GLBT folks we tend to have less “life changing events” according to the law because of our inability to marry, but the strategies remain the same regardless and if your company offers domestic partner benefits you may be entitled to “almost” the same benefits as your married counterparts.

I already talked about the importance of getting the full company match on your retirement contributions, but your company might offer benefits like medical spending accounts or dependent care accounts which you shouldn’t miss out on. Both of these accounts are tax advantaged ways to pay for necessary expenses related to health care and dependent care. What happens is you contribute money pre-tax to the accounts and then get that money back when you submit receipts for qualified expenses. The only catch is usually you can’t carry over money in the accounts from one year to the next so you need to do a good estimate of your expected expenses or you could lose money. Other benefits such as life insurance, disability insurance, and other company sponsored goodies are often available as well. The most important thing is that you know what is offered, understand the details, and make it work for you to the maximum benefit possible.

If you are self-employed you are in the driver’s seat for selecting and paying for your benefits. That’s the good and bad news. In most cases you will need to augment your health and other insurance with “spending accounts” to cover expenses not covered in high deductible or limited coverage policies. In addition, you need to tend to other details that are often automatically handled by an employer like disability, life insurance, estimated tax payments, and more. Find yourself a good small business advisor and related service professionals to help guide you through. Organizations like the National Association of Self-Employed (NASE) are great as well as alumni associations and professional business groups. Ask trusted colleagues who are successful over the long haul for recommendations as well. As with anything, do your due diligence because common practice is not always the best practice.

So, make the most of it! And next time I’ll talk about what to do when the current status quo just isn’t lighting your fire anymore.

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Paula Gregorowicz is the Comfortable in Your Own Skin(tm) Coach and you can learn more at her website www.thepaulagcompany.com and blog www.coaching4lesbians.com .

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