You are what you earn – lessons in self-confidence, motherhood and money

They say money can’t buy happiness but they’re wrong. While I have no doubt the big things aren’t commodities you can purchase (meaningful relationships, inner peace, contentment etc), I also know that having enough money for the basics does, unquestionably, make life less stressful.

It’s easy to say “money doesn’t buy happiness” when you’ve never had to worry about where your next meal is coming from. But where’s the line between basics and luxuries? And what’s the link between how much you earn and how good you feel about yourself? This is where money lessons and parenting get tricky, in my experience.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a kick from shopping trips that weren’t done on a budget, when I can afford posh olives from the deli counter and the hummus with the caramelised onions. Granted, these things might not be the answer to ever-lasting happiness, but being able to afford them gives me a little boost, a pick-me-up on a bad day.

Getting serious though, the idea that money and happiness are linked is backed up by plenty of research. Or, possibly, more accurately – a link between a lack of money and unhappiness. According to The Samaritans, suicide rates are twice as high in deprived areas, with poor mental health being a real equality issue.

“Struggling to get by on a low income can lead to stress, and worrying about finances can affect mood, sleep, eating habits and the quality of your relationships, all of which are important factors in mental health,” psychologist Honey Langcaster-James is quoted as saying in a recent Metro article on the subject.

Lessons in self-worth and money

The values I’ve been brought up with and the ones I want to instil in my kids around money are pretty simple. I don’t believe that having more money means you are automatically a better, more important and more worthwhile person than someone who has less.

Just as I don’t want my kids’ feelings of self-worth to be defined by how they look, neither do I want them to be defined by how much they earn or how much stuff they can buy. Indeed, some of the most worthy jobs are also some of the lowest paid.

However, I also know that I have a real weak spot when it comes to defining my self-worth by how much I earn. I call it a weak spot, because it’s so at odds with what I’m trying to teach my kids.

Self-employed life

This is something I’ve been battling with recently. No matter how much the rational side of my brain knows January is often a quiet time for freelancers, a time to “get your house in order” and focus on admin (I think there’s a reason the dreaded tax return has to be filed by 31st January) my inner mean girl voice keeps whispering “But maybe you’re just really rubbish at what you do. You’re a failure. You’re a nobody. You’re worth nothing. You’re only as good as your bank balance.”

Last week, as the mean girl voice got louder, I found it an uphill struggle to motivate myself to even sit at my laptop. Every hour my inbox remained empty my self-doubt increased. All I had the energy for was mindless scrolling through Instagram while my inner mean girl kept up a running commentary on how crap I was compared to everyone else because I couldn’t afford X, Y or Z.

Again, totally at odds with lessons I’m attempting to teach my children about money, self-worth and the power of perseverance.

A dirty secret

It’s exceptionally uncool to admit to crises of confidence in an age where we’re all told to Dream Big and Sell Ourselves online. But after asking around, I know I’m not the only one to ever feel like this.

“I definitely find my self worth is tied up in earnings – which is tricky when you have an income that fluctuates,” says fellow blogger and writer Alison Perry.  “I also think some of the good feeling when you’re having a good month comes from relief – thank goodness my card won’t be declined this week and I can contribute to that birthday whip round and buy my child some new shoes without stressing about money. So for me that feeling of confidence comes because I feel like I’m nailing being a grown up!”

I can completely relate to this. After getting three new commissions for work this week and putting a clear work plan in place I can already feel my confidence peaking compared to the nosedive it took last week.

But that frustrates me – what happens the next time I have a lull? What happens when I’m no longer working and (maybe one day in the far-distant future!) retire? It’s not healthy to place so much of my confidence, happiness and feelings of self-worth in how much money I earn, or how many commissions I get. Without going all hippy, that stuff has to come from within. This is what I preach to my kids anyway.

I’ve written and re-written this post so many times, with more quotes from other mums who’ve experienced feelings of decreased self-worth after going on maternity leave and earning less, or giving up high powered jobs to look after their children. I’ve argued that it’s a feminist issue and then re-argued that it’s not – men struggle with this stuff too.

I’ve written myself in circles but I always come back to the same conclusion: the lessons I teach my kids are the ones I need to start living by myself.


Tell me, how much are your feelings of self-worth tied up in how much you earn? Do you feel more confident when you’re earning more money? What lessons do you teach your kids about money and social value?





  1. p no diddy says

    The struggle is real. In fact, I “stumbled upon” (you’re familiar with the awesome time-wasting app, I’m sure) your article when I should really be getting dressed to go into the office where I don’t get paid to work. You see, I work at my husband and his mother’s insurance agency, where they tell me that the pillow I sleep on, the food I eat, the car I drive and the health insurance I use are how I get paid for my professional skills and labor. For years I’ve been told to stop whining that I don’t get a paycheck. But its difficult to be almost 50 and have no money (I’m not given access to any bank accounts, credit cards or given any cash to spend). I don’t know if it’s punishment for not having kids but I have a college degree and my self-esteem is absolutely shot over my inability to make money. My husband tells me I’m worthless all the time. He’s even begun asking me what I’m going to do for retirement. How brutal is that?
    Well, I just inherited $13k when my mom died so I’m hiding it from him and hoping it can earn a little interest over the next 20 years. It’s all I’m gonna have because I never paid into Social Security. I feel like a complete loser.

  2. says

    I totally get this. I’m all for ‘money doesn’t matter’ and ‘money doesn’t buy happiness’ but when your card is getting declined and you can’t afford some things that others can, your self-confidence and self-esteem is bound to take a nosedive and mine definitely does! I think it’s worse when you’re a parent because you want your children to have the best that you can give them but you’re also trying to bring them up in a humble way with morals!

    • says

      You’re so right – it’s definitely a difficult balance to tread isn’t it? I think there’s a certain level of privilege that comes with being able to not have any of your self-confidence bound by what you earn or what you have. It’s such an emotive subject!

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