Over the course of a 40-year career, the average American with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn about $1.8 million.
When viewed by gender, the cumulative earnings shift somewhat, with women taking home $1.4 million over four decades compared to an average of $2.1 million for men, according to estimates by the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business,
The substantial gender pay gap aside, when viewed in this way, it becomes far more obvious just how valuable one’s career can be. And those figures are just the averages. For those who manage a career as actively and shrewdly as they might an investment portfolio, aggressively working to maximize its potential as a financial asset all along the way, a career’s worth of earnings could be worth far, far more.
“The most important part of thinking of your job as an investment is actually pretty basic: realizing that you don’t just have to make an investment, you have to manage it as well,” says from Emmet Savage, chief investor at MyWallSt, a learning and investing app.
What does that mean exactly? Here are some ways to help make the most of your career arc and the amount of financial gain, growth, and opportunity you realize over the course of a lifetime.
Change Your Mindset
In many ways, treating your career as a multimillion-dollar investment begins with altering the way you view work in general.
“For most people, a job is just that. Something they do as a ‘must’ to pay bills without really thinking about their end goal or ideal outcomes,” says 35-year-old Greg Dorban, chief marketing officer for Ledger Bennett.
Dorban, however, never viewed work on such simplistic terms. In the space of just five years, he progressed from intern to co-owner of a multinational marketing agency that generates eight-figure revenues, a meteoric rise he attributes to starting out with a much broader view of work than merely making ends meet.
Early on Dorban established a North Star for himself – the goal of owning a business in short order. This shining beacon guided his subsequent steps, inspiring him to take actions to rise above the day to day hustle of earning a living, including consistently investing in himself and in the training needed to maximize his professional potential.
“Building the right skills will be the best investment you can make as the payoff positively impacts so many areas of your life, not just your wallet,” says Dorban.
The underlying message of his story, Dorban adds, is that when considering your career, allow yourself to think bigger than simply bringing home a paycheck to cover the next rent or mortgage payment. Then identify the training, new skills, or specific experiences and growth opportunities needed to reach that higher goal.
Maximize the Benefits of Everything You Do
The idea of always being “on” and bringing your professional A-game wherever you go can be off-putting to some, but there’s something to be said for recognizing the potential of all situations, including the most ordinary of moments.
Erica McCurdy, a certified master coach and managing member of McCurdy Solutions Group, calls this utilizing and maximizing the benefits of everything you do, which she says can accelerate the power of your time and efforts with regard to your career.
This includes “making sure to introduce yourself to everyone at a meeting and at every place you pause on the way to and from the meeting,” says McCurdy. It also means collecting business cards, connecting with each person on LinkedIn, including a personal message, and scheduling coffee meetings with those people who pique your interest.
“Never forget to send thank you notes to those who helped make the day possible,” adds McCurdy. “Finish up the day by updating your career and contact log so you don’t lose any valuable information.”
There are countless points along the way where you might come into contact with someone who can open a new door for you or somehow play a pivotal role in moving your career to the next level, so keep your eyes open to the possibilities.
Don’t Pass Up Free Money
Maximizing your earnings over the course of a career also means taking some very practical steps as well with the financial opportunities your career presents.
This includes being sure to enroll in an employer sponsored 401(k) plan, particularly if the employer matches your contributions, as that match is free money and can add up over the course of a lifetime.
“The first and best advice I give to new hires is to contribute the maximum to their 401(k),” says careers analyst Laura Handrick of FitSmallBusiness.com. “Many don’t understand the concept of compound interest, so as an HR professional, it’s important to educate employees.”
Handrick also suggests that if your company offers financial planning workshops, be sure to attend. This is another opportunity to expand your financial skills at no cost to you.
But 401(k) matches are merely one example of the financial opportunities available through your workplace.
Take Advantage of Tuition Reimbursement
Many companies offer tuition reimbursement programs to help cover the costs of continuing education for employees who want to go back to school and obtain degrees or certifications.
Brent Michaels, a registered nurse and creator of the website Debt & Cupcakes, says these offers have financial value on multiple levels.
“I graduated from nursing school with minimal student loan debt and have been able to work toward my Bachelor of Science in nursing and other certifications without spending a dime,” he explained. “In addition, as I complete classes, I grow professionally and personally, and the knowledge from these courses helped me secure promotions and business opportunities that would not have been available to me otherwise.”
Even just earning certifications, says Michaels, allows him to stand out as a motivated employee, which pays off in spades over the long run.
…and On the Job Training
Obtaining an advanced degree or certification isn’t the only way to distinguish yourself and maximize career earning potential. Many employers offer on the job training related to specific tasks the organization deems important, said Michaels. Don’t pass up this opportunity, either. You may also want to actively search out such opportunities if they’re not openly available.
“I knew that project management was needed for a promotion I was hoping to obtain in the future, but I had no experience. I intentionally volunteered to work on projects so that I could network with the project managers,” he explained. “I developed relationships and obtained free project management training. This cost nothing more than my time, and allowed me to secure a promotion a few years later that increased my salary by over 25 percent.”
Your network is everything; use it to maximize your ROI.
“Let’s face it, you can have the best resume, you can be the best employee out there, but having people of trust who can vouch for you is irreplaceable. Nothing can beat that,” begins Peter Koch, creator of the site Seller at Heart, which is focused on how to save and make extra money.
Koch is obviously on to something: As many as 85% of jobs are filled via networking, according to a LinkedIn survey.
“This means that when you’re searching for new career opportunities to boost your pay, it really is who you know,” continues Koch. “If you’re able to make good impressions on others in your field and provide value to them, they’ll be happy to recommend you next time their company has an opening you could fill. Employers want to build a team of people they trust, and a personal recommendation from a colleague will always carry more weight than an unknown applicant emailing their resume.”
Need an added reason why networking is so important? Switching jobs is often a better way to increase your salary more significantly, as opposed to waiting for a raise at your current company. In fact, those who leave their employers to take a new job are realizing pay raises that are about one-third larger than those who stay put.
As of this past July, wages for job hoppers grew 3.8% from a year earlier, compared with 2.9% for those who opted to stay with their current employer, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
All of these tips and tactics really lead to what career coach Denise Riebman refers to as “leaning out” with your career. Ribeman recently gave a keynote speech about building your career capital — here’s what that means.
“It’s really about doing a skill and knowledge gap analysis and asking where you do you want to go to in your career and investing in yourself to get there,” she explains. “See who is a couple chapters ahead of you and identify the gaps to get there.”
And like Koch, Riebman says a critical part of leaning out means actively expanding that professional network, or having what she calls an “open network,” which will ultimately help you to be more successful professionally and financially over the long term.
“Traditionally people like to stay in our tribes, among people we know, people we went to school with,” said Riebman. “The problem is that those people have same ideas and same information as you. Having an open network is about building your career capital.”
Mia Taylor is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. She has worked for some of the nation’s best-known news organizations, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the San Diego Union-Tribune.