How To Go From $22k Per Year To Six Figures. A Real Guide (No Ivy League. Not Quick. Not Easy.)

Liz is the author of the personal finance site Chief Mom Officer. Today she shares exactly how she went from going to community college and earning $22,000 per year to obtaining an MBA and earning six figures.


There’s a lot of stories out there about people who make six figures, but not much on how exactly to do it.

Or you can find plenty of “get rich quick & easy” advice, encouraging you to take big risks for a big payoff. That’s great, but they neglect to mention all the people who did that and failed. They’re also short on specifics. “Come up with a million dollar business idea!” sounds great, but, um, how.

I’m going to change that. Today I have CMO’s complete guide to going from a low-paying job into a lucrative career. This is all either what I did to go from someone going to community college and earning $22,000 per year to an MBA earning six figures.

These are the eight things that are directly responsible for my career success – and can be responsible for yours.

Generic Advice – Not So Helpful

Believe in yourself. Be determined. Don’t give up. Start from the bottom and work your way up.

All true. But none of it is very helpful.

The same is true of some stories of successful people. You’ll learn that they were struggling, started in the mail room, or were a single mom, and then found success. That’s great – but how?

I myself went from making $22,000 per year and community college to a six figure earning MBA.

In my first full-time job making $22,000 per year, and later in my first post-college job making $35,000 (not a typo) (and in 2003, not in the 70’s or 80’s), I used to try and figure out the secrets of financial success.

I would read stories of successful people and often they either didn’t apply to me, or they were so generic they were unhelpful.

Remember, I was in my 20’s. So stories about men (they were almost always men) who started in the mailroom in 1950 and were now CEO’s didn’t really help me. Not only were our ages and time in history significantly different, but the stories often glossed over exactly how they made the leap.

Or it was full of lucky breaks. How could I improve my career, depending on luck? That didn’t make sense.

Same with stories of people who started with nothing and had successful businesses, had or who had graduated from an ivy-league school, or worked like crazy with no kids.

I had gone to community college, and then my state college, graduating with high honors with a B.S. in Accounting. I worked full time and went to school full time. Also, I had a baby at the age of 23, literally two months after I finished college.

I couldn’t see myself in many of those stories.

But even then I was laying the foundation for a high earning career.

Work For A Large Company

My first full time job as an adult was working in a call center, answering phone calls from angry people for $22,000 per year. I had that job for three and a half long, painful years.

The saving grace was that this was a call center with a very large company. It wasn’t the one I work for now, but it was in the Fortune 200 at the time.

What’s the advantage of working for a large company, even in a low-paying job?

There are many:

  • Benefits. Large companies typically have very generous benefits. Upon starting my job, I had access to health insurance, a 401k with a match, and most of all… an education reimbursement benefitTHAT is what I used to get my undergraduate degree.
  • Access to lots of different types of jobs. Working for a large company, they will typically have every job under the sun. There will be an IT department, an Accounting department, Marketing, Service/Support, and likely others (varies by industry). I was able to learn a lot about the different types of jobs that existed, and what kind of career path they had, simply by talking with people and looking at the internal job boards in between calls.
  • Learn corporate life. There will typically be a lot of information at large companies about the various skills you’ll need to be successful. Many of these will be skills you don’t learn specifically in college – like public speaking, presentation, professional writing, and so on. You’ll be able to access this information, and then either take courses on the skills or research them yourself
  • Networking. Connected with the “access to lots of different types of jobs”, you’ll have access to people in all different industries. When I was wrapping up college, I went out and spoke with people in all different departments, to get a better idea of what I would like to do. I joined several organizations/initiatives/clubs (not sure what you’d call them) where I got to meet people from all over the company. Those connections have come in handy over the years in ways I never anticipated.
    • I’m not much of a “networker”, to be honest, because I’m rather shy. I prefer natural networking, where I get to know people in different contexts.

There isn’t a large company near you? This may be true for rural parts of the country, but most suburban and urban parts have large companies (or branches of them) nearby. I know the company I work for has offices in probably 20 states.  And also, many companies offer remote positions for call center work.

These companies aren’t necessarily “glamorous” or “cool”. Just take a look at the Fortune 500 list sometime, and you’ll see all kinds of different companies. Everyone thinks it would be cool to work somewhere like Amazon or Google (and sure, it would be) but there are tons of other successful companies that need good workers.

Work Harder – And Smarter – Than Anyone Else

I warned you in the title this wouldn’t be easy.

I worked full time in a terrible call center job where people yelled at me all day, and went to school full time, FOR FOUR YEARS. The last semester, while pregnant. That got me an undergrad degree with high honors.

To get my MBA, I worked full time and went to school while a mother of two. Not easy.

If you work in low paying jobs, you’ll notice there are a lot of people who have been in similar jobs forever and have no desire to change. They do the bare minimum to not get fired. And you’ll get to know a lot of people who do get fired for stuff like calling out every Friday when they have no days off, and stuffing their work in a desk drawer instead of doing it (that’s real).

They also typically don’t want you to succeed. They don’t understand what you’re doing, or why. Sometimes they actively make fun of you. Other times, you just don’t fit in.

It can be hard working against the grain, and working harder than all the people around you. It can also be lonely.

If you’re going to dig yourself out of a low paying job and into a high paying one, you not only need to work hard, but also smart. There are plenty of people who work very hard and don’t earn a high income.

Working Hard Isn’t Enough – Work Hard Strategically

You need to work hard in things that will bring you a high income, if that’s what you’re looking to achieve.

That means working hard towards a career that has a high earning potential. Financial Samurai has a good list here. I saw some people work hard to get degrees in fields where they thought they would be more successful, but would actually have to get a PHd or take a pay cut to work in the field. Which can be fine, if you’re prepared, but many of them didn’t expect it.

In addition to picking a lucrative career, you also need to be smart at what you work hard at. This is often called “working smarter” in corporate speak, which sounds like one of those dumb phrases that doesn’t really mean anything.

It does mean something, though. It means being strategic at what you work hard at, and knock out of the park, rather than where you just do the basics. No one’s ever been promoted for doing a great job on their timesheets.

You also won’t get promoted for working twelve hours a day and accomplishing less than someone else who works eight hours. Same applies for planning the best party for the office. Sometimes, even being good at your job won’t get you promoted.

You need to be great at your job, and great at the skills you need for the next job.

So don’t become the best party planner ever if you want to be a manager – work on managerial skills. Don’t be known as the person who can answer all the questions about a certain system, unless you want to work on that system forever. And don’t become the go-to for always writing specifications if you want to be an architect.

You’ll want to work hard at improving the skills that will bring you long term success, rather than on things that won’t.

Insatiable Thirst To Learn – Learn All The Things

Learn everything. Not just about your job, or current role.

Learn about your company, your industry, the project, strategy, and soft skills you need. Learn about other companies and other industries. Interested in a different job? Learn about that.

Read up on how to dress for success – even if your industry is casual, dressing smartly never hurts. Find blogs that help you with work, like my personal favorite work blog Ask a Manager. Read the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Forbes, and The Harvard Business Review.

When you meet someone new, ask them about their career. Find out what their department does, and why.

Learn which jobs in your field pay highly, and what background you need to get them. In almost every field, there are low- and high-paying jobs. If you want to up your income, you’re going to want to target those positions. Research salaries on Glassdoor, find out about the jobs from the internet, talk to people who are currently in those positions.

Note – You also might find you don’t want certain highly paid jobs. The higher I go in organizations, the more often I see positions (and departments) that I wouldn’t want no matter how much they pay. However, there are almost always other positions and departments that pay well and have other benefits. Target them instead.

Why are you learning all of this?

Focusing on the big picture helps get you into positions where it’s your job to consider the big picture. Higher level people don’t just need to know what box to check on a form, or how to fill out paperwork. They need to be able to consider the industry, their role, the strategy, and a companies current/future position to be a success.

Create Your Own Luck – Volunteer for EVERYTHING

Volunteering for everything is directly responsible for (1) me getting a job in IT in the first place, and (2) having the opportunity to speak to my 30,000+ colleagues around the world at our companies town hall.

How, exactly? And what do I mean about creating your own luck?

There’s an old saying that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. An insatiable thirst to learn will increase the “preparation” side of that equation. You can increase the “opportunity” side by volunteering for things outside your day-to-day job.

Here’s how my preparations met opportunity through volunteering.

Volunteering and My First IT Job

If you’ve been paying attention so far, you noticed I majored in Accounting. So how have I ended up building a career in IT for the past 16 years?

When I was in the call center, I used to volunteer for any activity that would get me off the phones for any period of time.  A break from being yelled at was greatly appreciated.

One of the initiatives I volunteered for was redesigning a current paper process to make it look and function better. Through that effort, I met lots of people working on the project. I was going to be finishing college in about a year, and talked with some of them about finding another job.

Lo and behold, they had an opening. I interviewed, and they hired me. The last ten months of college, I worked full time in IT while going to school full time. I never went into accounting or finance, choosing instead to continue in IT.

I discovered there were a number of high paying jobs in the industry that didn’t require being able to code, or actually assemble/fix a computer.

Later I went on to concentrate in Technology and International Business in my MBA, so eventually I did get education in the field. I had been working in IT for ten years at that point.

Volunteering and Public Speaking

Despite being five years ago now, and it being five minutes long, people still remember the speech I gave to my company.

How did I get that opportunity? A year ahead of it, I had volunteered to be part of an initiative where I had an opportunity to give a speech to a small group of ten during a breakout session. I talked about my husbands illness, and drew parallels to how all the people in the group played roles in helping people like him.

The person running the initiative happened to be listening in, and asked me to give the same speech to the entire group of a hundred or so people. So I did.

A year later, when an opportunity came up for the initiative to present in front of the company, guess who got to do it?

The same phenomenon is how I got to be such a good speaker in the first place. I’m a very powerful, impactful, and generally excellent public speaker. How did I get to be that way, though, especially when so many are terrified of speaking in public?

Part of it was that insatiable thirst to learn – when in my undergrad, I took an entire course on public speaking. In that course, I gave a speech on compound interest and investing (of all things – yes, I was an odd 22 year old). My speaking teacher told me to never again give that speech for free.

The other part is volunteering – our organization had a Toastmasters group that met every week, and I joined up. Not only did I get to practice public speaking, but I also got to meet people from throughout the company.

Volunteering – The Lesson

I actually have many more examples, but I don’t want to bore you. Suffice it to say, when you volunteer to do things outside your day-to-day, you’re part of creating your own luck.

So join clubs. Look for new initiatives, and put your hand up. See something that needs improving? Offer to tackle it.

Just don’t volunteer to organize the office potluck, or a going away party. More than likely, that’s not going to lead to opportunities other than the opportunity to organize more parties.

Get Educated

Getting a bachelors degree, and an MBA, are a big part of my personal success. For many low earners, an education is the best way to increase their income.

Just check out the facts on average salary by education level.

You can secure company reimbursement for college through a number of employers, including Starbucks, UPS, and Dunkin Donuts. Almost all large companies offer tuition reimbursement as well. Use this to your advantage to keep costs down.

Also, don’t dismiss the community college to state college path. After you graduate and get a job, people don’t care where you went to college or what grades you got. This path is cheap and keeps cost low. Combine it with the tax credits and company reimbursement, and you can go to school for pretty much free.

There are colleges that offer childcare – my community college did. There are also a lot more legitimate online options through real colleges than there ever were before. I used to go to school nights and weekends, so you can flex your classes around whatever work schedule you have if you’re determined.

Don’t make the mistake of getting too much education just because you’re not sure what to do, or because you’re having trouble finding work in your field. Having too much education can actually hurt your job prospects, and frankly it’s expensive.

I’d like you to also realize there are many, many people who work in fields unrelated to their degree. The degree opened a door, which opened another, which led to their current job. The important part is to secure that degree, and get that door to open.

There are also resources you can use to complement formal education, like MIT Open Courseware and Harvards Open Learning. Use these resources to complement a formal degree, so you can learn more while still getting into the career field you want.

…But Don’t Get Ripped Off

Just because an education is likely to increase your earnings, doesn’t mean you should go out and get any old degree. You also don’t want to permanently damage your financial situation by taking out massive loans to secure a low-paying job.

Nor does it mean you should get an online degree. Those are essentially worthless and are peddled by people trying to make money off of you. I frankly HATE seeing how they prey on people who are low earners, in jobs they hate, with kids, and so on.

Don’t get a degree in any old thing and hope/pray it will increase your income. Decide on your general field before you get that degree, and make sure it will pay off. You don’t need to target a specific job, but you should have an idea of how that specific degree will help you. And know what career options it will give you.

Also, don’t get a degree in something you hate for the money. You’re dedicating four years of your life to improving yourself and your career prospects, and you have your entire life in front of you. This isn’t the same as “go for your passions”, but at least make sure you like the field.

Know Your Worth

This falls into the “wish I knew” category. When I got my first IT job, I was so excited to get a 16% raise! I was out of the call center! Coffee was mine whenever I wanted,  without getting in trouble! I was on top of the world.

I was also massively underpaid, making only $35,000 per year in a job where starting pay should have been more in the $50-$60k range.

At the time, I didn’t know anything about IT. I hadn’t done my salary homework like I know to now.

A big part of the issue was my frame of reference. Remember, I had started out making $22k per year. To me, $35k for more freedom and a better job was great. And my first boss was happy to take advantage of that, because he knew my salary in the call center.

Luckily, to my boss after my first one, it was appalling. He gave me a HUGE (to me at the time) bonus and raise to over $50k my first year. I can still remember nearly fainting, and calling my husband excitedly at the news.

I’ll be forever grateful to that boss for not continuing to take advantage of me – which he could have – but instead working to pay me what I was worth.

So don’t be like me. Know your worth, even if you’re currently underpaid. And don’t be afraid to ask for it. I wouldn’t be afraid now, but I know it was a hard thing for my 22 year old self to do.

Learn about negotiation, BATNA and ZOPA. I took an entire course on negotiation as part of my MBA program, specifically so I could get better at it (there’s that thirst for learning again)

Embrace Change

One of the keys to 5x or 10x from a low income is to “lean in” to the change. Embrace it, and seek it out. Not only will you grow, but if you position yourself on the cutting edge of major changes, you’ll stand out.

Too many people like things they way they are. They’re content with their job, company, role, and process. They hate change, and resist it at all costs. I’ve met many of these people in my career.

Resisting change is a good way to get yourself laid off, frankly, with few job prospects.

Change can mean changing jobs, industries, projects, or departments. I’ve mentioned on the site that I recently took a role over in our companies international technology division, something I’ve wanted to do for some time. It would have been easier to stay where I was, and safer, but it’s not what I want.

Switching companies is a common, and successful, tactic to increase your income quickly. This is true particularly early in your career.

Even as you continue to advance in your field, you may find yourself stuck and needing to make a change. It could be your company or industry isn’t doing well, or perhaps there just isn’t a need for someone with your skills at a higher level. Make sure you don’t get stuck.

If you see a major change coming at your company, don’t fear and resist it. Embrace it. Learn all you can about it. Become an expert in it, and teach/coach others. This is actually how I got the opportunity to switch roles – they needed someone with my skills who was an expert in the way we’re changing how we do work.

Guess who’s been experimenting with the change since before the rest of the company, and is a go-to expert? CMO, of course. I saw the writing on the wall four years ago, volunteered (see!) in a group about the change, learned (see!) all about this new way of working, and bingo – I created my own luck.

Be Patient

I’m not peddling a “get rich quick and easy”, or “10x your income in a year” program here. You need to be patient.

Career success is similar to compound interest. You put a little investment in at a time, and at first you don’t see much results. If you stop investing, you’ll never see results. But if you keep going, a bit at a time, even when it doesn’t seem to be working, you’re laying the foundation for exponential growth down the line.

Most uber-successful people are older. They’re in their 40’s, 50’s, or 60’s. The choices they’ve made in their careers have compounded over time. Everything they’ve learned has built up slowly. Their connections and friendships have led to opportunities, which led to other opportunities.

Being patient doesn’t mean waiting forever, though. Nor does it mean doing nothing while you wait. You should keep investing in yourself, keep talking with people, and continue to learn. If you’re looking to switch jobs, industries, companies, or careers, and what you’re doing isn’t working, look at whether you need to change your approach.

You need to continue to invest in yourself and your career, and be patient, in order to see exponential results.

A Few Wrap Up Notes

I thought I would address a few objections I frequently see related to this topic.

Is it the only way to make six figures? No. You could become a doctor, or a lawyer. You could work in a well-paying Wall Street job, or go to an Ivy League school. You can start a business that makes a ton of money.

I don’t know how to do those things, so I really can’t write advice on them. If that’s the path you’d like to take, I’ve linked above to people I know who have done those things. I suggest you pop to their sites and learn from them.

Does everyone need to earn six figures to be financially successful? No. You can be financially successful at any income. Even when I earned $22,000 and $35,000 per year, I saved and invested for the future.

I can obviously save more now than back then, but those savings in my late teens and early 20’s set the financial foundation for exponential growth when the stock market took off after the Great Recession.

You won’t be able to save as much as someone with a higher income, but it’s typically the proportion of your income that matters. Not the absolute dollar amount. So keep saving and investing.

Do you look down on people who don’t have six figure jobs/do you think everyone should have one? No. My husband has never made over $40k per year. There are a lot of careers that don’t pay a high income that are great, fulfilling, and valuable.  Heck, doctors with Doctors Without Borders make less than $20k per year and I don’t know anyone who would say their work isn’t valuable.

I don’t look down on anyone, frankly, and I have no patience for those who do. We need people in all roles in our society. Where would we be as a society if there was no one who wanted to be a teacher? Or a social worker? Work in a museum? Be a librarian?

Not everyone wants to work in a high income field, and that’s fine. I simply want to give some tips for those that do.

But I don’t want to work so hard! Isn’t there an easier way? Faster? As my friend ESI Money says,If you want what I have, you need to do what I’ve done.”


Republished with the permission of Chief Mom Officer.

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