My mom magically gets away with clothes returns well past the deadline, fee refunds from banks and the lowest mortgage rates on the street. She isn’t an avid card hacker like The Points Guy and doesn’t read finance blogs. Instead, she follows a basic principle: be confident in what you want and ask for it — sometimes, demand it!
This resourcefulness is the most valuable skill I’ve picked up and comes in use throughout all aspects of my life. Asking for what you want is hard, because it requires determining your worth as an employee, customer, friend or partner. Learn to walk away when the value proposition no longer exists. This will save you time and energy later down the road, in a much more grueling, tedious situation.
Over time, I have learned to ask and not leave money on the table.
In a simple shopping example, I exercise minimalism by setting a high bar for the clothes that occupy my apartment and body. This means walking away from tempting sales and waiting for the right purchase and price. Beyond saving money, your ability to handle these harder questions (is this for me? / what am I worth?) will improve over time.
I learned how to haggle by my mom’s example, but I have also practiced by asking for the following:
- Price checks, credit card waivers and bank fee refunds: This works surprisingly often. While most retailers are willing to honor price check requests, certain credit cards will cover the rest! My Barclays card no longer does price protection but these still do. I once asked Amazon to match my Kindle to their lowest price and while they said no, they did give me a 15% discount.
- Extensions on returns: I usually explain my situation and can reach a compromise. My mom plays the “working mother” card persistently and gets away with it often!
- Internet discounts: This year, I called Spectrum twice asking for a cheaper rate. Both times, they said they could only give me a $10/month discount. Now I’ve saved $20 monthly and $240 annually on the same exact service.
The approach matters and so does persistence. Sometimes, you have to try calling again to reach a nicer representative. Other times, you have to ask to speak to a manager who is more invested in a happy customer. This can take some time, which is why I tend to focus on less consumerism in the first place — the impact of focusing on fewer things snowballs into an increasingly mindful, low-cost lifestyle.
Later, I earned more money because I asked and held out for what I wanted.
This entire philosophy, honed by years of shopping, became tested for real in my most recent career move. Like most twentysomethings, I felt fairly restless after 2+ years in my job. In fact, I ended up one of the longest tenured junior employees, because so many had left after the 1-2 year mark.
I stayed up until then because I still valued my team, enjoyed the work and wanted to stay in the industry. I prepared for the right opportunity for seemingly forever (6+ months) because I wanted to best position myself for a new role where I would hopefully stay for a while.
When people find new jobs, they get caught up in the shiny positives on display (more pay, new routine). But there is also more uncertainty for the undiscerning job-hopper, and I’ve seen my fair share of friends gloriously resign, just to end up less happy at the next gig. Just like this workplace advice columner, my biggest fear in the job search was moving to a worse situation.
Here’s what I did instead: I assessed every option, figured out what I wanted and took my time. Over the course of half a year, I interviewed at nearly a dozen places and rejected even more. (I considered even nomadic non-profit jobs and fully committed to a blank slate. Ultimately, I decided I enjoyed investing still and stayed in finance.) I was honest with my shortcomings and studied to build up those skills for my technical interviews. I even turned down a couple job offers along the way — when I had lingering concerns about culture or felt compensation was low. These were hard decisions, because I just wanted to be done already!
All of this was mentally taxing, which I want to emphasize because successful people make it seem easy. It could have been easy, if I had just accepted the first decent job and cared less. I relied on support of my closest mentors and friends to work that patiently and felt truly humbled by the work I was quietly doing each weekend. I learned to enjoy the actual learning process behind the job search and built the confidence to hold out for what I want in a career position.
Anyhow, I am very content with my new job. I am not naive enough to think it’s perfect. (Full disclosure: I’ve developed the poor habit of joking about rage quitting, to the point where my boyfriend is mentally preparing to become the primary breadwinner.) But I can see now how I benefited more broadly from this challenging experience and feel proud of my career not just for the titles or salary but for my actual work.
I want to share this (usually private) experience, because I see a lot of twentysomethings struggling with their career too and counting down the decades of work left. I had a friend tell me nonchalantly that he “expected to be miserable until retirement.” Based on this disenchantment with work, I can see why young people focus on side hustles or job hop every year. But I want to show another approach, which is to be extremely thoughtful about where you work in the first place and focus on skills or goals.
My thoughts on workplace happiness:
Earlier this year, I read the NYT story Wealthy, Successful and Miserable. The story discusses author Charles Duhigg’s personal experience post-Harvard MBA comparing his meandering career track with others who felt less fulfilled. The article cited research studies on how the broader purpose that we tell ourselves determines our fulfillment, even between groups of janitors in the same hospital. This story became a popular conversation topic amongst my corporate friends, because we had personally seen those wealthy senior managers with astronomical expenses who perhaps felt trapped in their own high standard of living. While most comments focused on “pursuing your passion” or how soul-sucking corporate jobs are, I had a different takeaway: it doesn’t matter what you do, it matters how you do it.
There are plenty of unhappy people in every industry, not just “rich corporates” mentioned in the article. Most of you will recognize business leaders who are remarkably passionate about their careers (including household names like Warren Buffet, John Bogle, Charlie Munger). Instead of fitting the cookie-cutter mold, they tend to use their platform as an opportunity to share ideas, learn or inspire change (in this case, value investing or index funds).
At the lower rungs, us twentysomethings may not be able to direct firmwide changes, but we can control (1) where we work, (2) how we treat others and (3) what we choose for our purpose. Discontentment comes from expectations vs. reality, and if you’re miserable, I challenge you to figure out what you want and pursue it.