The naked paycheck

A group of friends break the pay taboo and bare their salaries.

It's Friday -- payday for some of us -- and the last day in our Payday series. This week, the Wealth and Poverty Desk has been untangling some of the mysteries of pay in America.

The assumption about pay is that we all want more of it. Who ever asks the boss for a decrease? But there's research suggesting that beyond a point, a bigger paycheck is not always better.

A recent Princeton study found that more money doesn't make you happier once household income hits $75,000 a year. That same study also looked at life satisfaction, and in that case, there was no upper limit. The bigger your income, the more satisfied you feel about your life as a whole.

I tested out the theory with Jennifer Creswell, an Episcopal priest in Portland, Ore., who wrote to our Public Insight Network that she'd often "fantasized" about inviting friends over to talk about how much they make and their priorities for spending, sharing, saving. And she did just that, hosting a party with her husband Ian Doescher and four other friends to discuss and bare their salaries.

Here are some of the highlights:

"I was thinking of you all coming tonight. And I was thinking, like imagining, um, that we were all going to get naked together," Creswell said. "And I was thinking am I actually gonna do it? Am I actually going to share what I make?"

Another Episcopal priest, Shana McCauley, revealed her household income: "We together make just under $65,000...I feel like we're pretty low middle class. We're middle class because we have expendable income, but we've just been going through our bills and it doesn't look good."

Doescher, who works in marketing, said he often felt his paycheck should be bigger during boys' night out with his buddies. "I pretty much assume they all make more than I do. I honestly think that hanging out with them more since we've moved back to Portland was one of the things that made me think: I should be making more." He opened up about his and Creswell's salary: "We probably make...about $106,000 a year."

Shana's husband Ryan responded: "Well, I think it creates a little separation. You know, knowing that you have more means than we do and so we're not there yet. We've been trying to kick it together to buy a manufactured home and that's like our big dream right now but that seems like so far off. But on the other hand it still makes you human. You're not superhuman. You're not making millions of dollars a year."

Listen to more of the conversation in the full audio above.


We reached out to our Public Insight Network and asked "Are you comfortable telling others how much money you make?" We broke down the answers and data:

Share your stories with us.

Tess Vigeland: It's Friday. Payday for some of you, and the last day in our Payday series.

This week, the Wealth and Poverty Desk has been untangling some of the mysteries of pay in America. The assumption about pay is that we all want more of it. Who ever asks the boss for a decrease? But there's research suggesting that beyond a certain point, a bigger paycheck is not always better.

Marketplace's David Brancaccio reports on a group of friends who gathered to hash out what they really want out of their paychecks.


David Brancaccio: It's my kind of dinner party: nudity and salary, all-in-one.

Jennifer Creswell: I was thinking of you all coming tonight. And I was thinking, like imagining, um, that we were all going to get naked together.

And that's a priest talking.

Creswell: And I was thinking am I actually gonna do it? Am I actually going to share what I make?

Jennifer Creswell, Episcopal priest in Portland, Ore., and her husband Ian Doescher, who works in marketing, have invited four friends on a summer night to see if anyone might bare their salary. We'd asked our audience via our Public Insight Network about salary and happiness. Creswell wrote back she'd often "fantasized" about inviting friends over to talk about how much they make and their priorities for spending, sharing, saving. Which sounded like a fine idea.

Ryan McCauley: I've been broke for a long time. I know how to live broke.

Shana McCauley: We're VERY GOOD at broke!

Ryan McCauley works at a Boys' and Girls' club. His wife Shana is a second Episcopal priest here. We'd sent a link to a Princeton study that found that more money doesn't make you happier once household income hits $75,000 a year. It's when that $75,000 comes up that Shana and Ryan become the first couple to bare their paychecks.

Shana McCauley: It's not much actually. We together make just under $65,000. I did it! I broke the barrier! I feel like we're pretty low middle class. We're middle class because we have expendable income, but we've just been going through our bills and it doesn't look good.

Ryan McCauley: We're high-low class.

Jennifer Ott is a pastor in the United Church of Christ. She reveals her household income is $57,800 while her partner Hillary is in graduate school.

Jennifer Ott: It would be nice if we had more. I don't know if $75,000 would be the magic number, but we still have enough.

Kinda. Just barely.

Ott: It's been nice to also live off the generosity of friends, like you guys, who've said "Hey we have storage for you" so you don't have to pay $150 a month for a storage unit while we live in a 500-square-feet trying to save money.

The Princeton study found that happiness peaks at $75,000 by studying people who'd been asked "How happy were you yesterday?" But that same study also looked at life satisfaction. And in that case, there was no upper limit. The bigger your income, the more satisfied you feel about your life as a whole. Dinner party hosts Jennifer and Ian say their compensation is rising, but they don't feel more or less satisfied or happy.

Creswell: We expand into our new salary very easily.

We've been hearing folks at the party thinking about income in terms of what it buys you. But experts say there is another way:

Daniel Ariely: There's happiness with your salary, which is telling you about yourself and telling other people about you.

Daniel Ariely is a professor of behavioral economics at Duke and author of "Predictably Irrational."

Ariely: The moment the amount becomes public, all of a sudden your happiness with your salary could be motivated by different things then your happiness with the actual money that you really need.

That's because comparisons, if not envy, creep in. Ian starts thinking his paycheck should be bigger during boys' night out with his buddies -- including one who's in tech and another who's a health care executive.

Doescher: I pretty much assume they all make more than I do. I honestly think that hanging out with them more since we've moved back to Portland was one of the things that made me think: I should be making more. And I realize that we haven't yet shown ourselves naked, so we probably make...about $106,000 a year.

Seventy-one thousand dollars for Ian, $35,000 for Jennifer's part-time work as priest. To do the brutal math here, $106,000 a year is 63 percent more than the household income of Shana and Ryan across the dinner table.

Ryan McCauley: Well, I think it creates a little separation. You know, knowing that you have more means than we do and so we're not there yet. We've been trying to kick it together to buy a manufactured home and that's like our big dream right now but that seems like so far off. But on the other hand it still makes you human. You're not superhuman. You're not making millions of dollars a year.

And to be clear, the typical income in America, the median, is less than $52,000. This year, when a polling firm looked at income and well-being, it found that when you get below that $50,000 level, happiness goes down the tubes.

I'm David Brancaccio for Marketplace.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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