6/6/12 - How Much of Your Paycheck Do You Need?

About a year after getting my first job out of college many years ago, I came into the office one day and was promptly asked to meet with the owner.  For some background information, it was a small consulting company in Atlanta, and I was just getting started in my career and had little professional experience to draw upon.  I walked into the meeting and was asked this question:

"How much of your paycheck do you need?"

I had no idea how to answer this.  I wasn't sure if it was a trick question, or why I was being asked.  I was also pretty sure I shouldn't have been asked this question but I didn't say so.  I was paid very modestly at the time, and I was only paid once a month, which required very careful budgeting.  My wife and I had also purchased our first home, which although small and modest did have a mortgage on it.  So I answered with the truth:

"I need all of it."

He explained that wasn't what he wanted to know.  In fact, what he was asking was, "How much of your paycheck do you really need?"

So I thought for a minute and answered with the truth:

"I need all of it."

So he finally explained he couldn't make payroll, and he was asking how much I could get by on before he paid me the rest later in the month, and while he was talking I wasn't listening closely because I was thinking, Man, I've got to find a new job.  I was young and inexperienced, but I did know if you weren't going to get paid all that you were due, something was wrong.

This was before cell phones so there in the office I had to make an awkward call to my wife and explain the situation, and we finally agreed to a number we required to at least pay the house note and utilities.  It was very uncomfortable.  The owner then processed my paycheck for that amount, and paid me the balance a week or two later.  I don't remember how long he took to pay me but I do remember he did ultimately make it whole.

The damage was done though.  From that point forward, I worried about the next time I'd get asked how much I needed, which to me was another way of asking how much I could do without.  I recall thinking it was something of an intimate question, since answering it truthfully could've meant sharing all sorts of details about the financial well-being of a very young married couple who didn't even make $30k a year with their pay combined. 

There was no such thing as direct deposit then as far as I knew, so I changed my routine and started cashing my paycheck the day I was paid.  Every month, I got a check between the 1st and the 5th of the month, and once I got it, I went and cashed it the same day.  I had to drive a fairly long way to get to the bank, and I remember it was hard to get there and back on a short lunch break.

Which the owner asked me about one day.  "I couldn't help noticing you cash your paycheck the same day you get paid," he said out of the blue.  He seemed displeased or maybe just irritated I was doing it. 

"That's because I need all of my paycheck," I said, because it is easy to tell the truth when you're telling the truth.  I also had a lot of doubt in the back of my mind each month on when I'd be asked next how much of my check I needed. 

There's not much more to this.  I kept with this job for a while longer and then made a move to a new company, for more money and opportunity and more reliable paychecks, and my career was underway.  Mostly good things happened, yet this first job set me on my way for other, better jobs.  But we all have to start somewhere, and that job was my somewhere.

I did learn some good things from this job though:

  • Never make an employee doubt the timeliness or total of his or her paycheck.
  • Once someone loses trust in a company, it's hard to get it back. 
  • The question means something different depending on what word you lean on.  For example, "How much of your paycheck do you need?" means something else entirely than "How much of your paycheck do you need?"
  • Learn what enough truly means.  How you learn this can be awkward, but knowing what enough really is can be one of life's most important lessons.

And a good lesson is always just that:  something good.

Posted by Jack Williams at 14:04


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