• Alyssa Barton

Secrets of Six-Figure Women

Updated: Apr 23, 2019



“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” – William Butler Yeats

If you’re a woman, you should read this book.

The follow are notes from, and a review of: Stanny, Barbara. (2002). Secrets of Six-Figure Women. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

I have to say, I didn’t like this book at first. While I was only about two chapters in, the introduction and first chapter seemed kind of unnecessary. A friend asked me “what have you learned so far”? and I couldn’t answer besides a vague “not much, yet. It’s just excerpts from interviews with women who earn six figures.” It wasn’t until chapter two, the Lowdown on Low Earners, that I started to get pumped. By chapter three I was hooked. As a whole, this book gets my strong recommendation.

In retrospect, I do appreciate what I think Stanny was trying to do with the first chapters, which is to provide some over-arching, broad lessons learned and to explain that fundamentally this book is about psychology. Changing your financial situation requires psychological adjustments to your beliefs and thoughts. In some cases, therapy or coaching might be necessary to re-train your brain and overcome years of bad habits and subconscious self-sabotage. The lessons she learned from interviews are consistent with the lessons and tips I’ve learned from many other books, articles and podcasts about financial success. This process of mental re-wiring for success will necessarily have ramifications for all other areas of your life – your relationships, activities and interests will change as you grow and condition your brain for success.

In chapter one, Stanny lays out some basic takeaways, or 8 “secrets” of six figure women, paraphrased as:

  • Financial success is possible in almost any field, and education or lack thereof doesn’t have to hold you back

  • Working hard doesn’t mean working all the time – it’s more about working smart, with clear boundaries

  • Success more often comes from a desire to fulfill your values, not a desire for financial gain

  • For this reason, loving what you do is more important than what you do

  • Acknowledge fear and doubt, but try anyways

  • Frame striking a balance as “trade-offs” for success, not “sacrifice”, so as not to feel a sense of loss for what you cannot do

  • A good attitude matters – the ability to shrug it off and laugh instead of stewing is essential

  • Have gratitude – appreciate abundance

Chapter two, the Lowdown on Low Earners, really resonated with me. I’ve been on a psychology kick for a year. I’ve been gobbling up information about how to replace bad habits with healthy ones, how to rewire your brain to let go of beliefs and patterns of thinking that are holding you back and replace them with productive and nurturing ones. Chapter two is about how the phenomenon of underearning comes from our mindset.

As defined by Jerold Mundis, underearning means “to repeatedly gain less income than you need, or than would be beneficial, usually for no apparent reason and despite your desire to do otherwise.” “It is estimated that one out of every three workers is an underearner, most of them women.” (P. 46). So why do we underearn?


Women tend to come up with excuses, settle for less, give in to fear, not educate ourselves about how much money we could or should be making, and not advocate for ourselves even when that information is known. We also cling to self-deception and denial to protect ourselves from having to take actions that might feel uncomfortable – like approaching a boss for a raise, or questioning why a less experienced male got that promotion instead of me. Self- deception and denial can come in many forms, like responding: “no, I could never” …[insert: challenge my bosses decision, or sell my house in order to cut costs and save more, or leave my company and start up a business of my own, etc. etc. etc.]

Our subconscious brain tells us these stories to protect us from the fear of being harmed by rejection, conflict, or difficult conversations or social interactions. In so doing our minds help us to feel normal and natural when accepting the status quo, like the only rational and logical choice is to settle for less and not take risks that might reap us vast rewards. In reality, taking these risks is the only thing that will get us what we deserve – higher pay, that promotion, a better job, or financial freedom. In reality, when we don’t speak up for ourselves and take these risks, we cripple ourselves and stifle our dreams, we fail to live up to our values, and we fail to take steps to meet our needs.

Stanny describes 9 traits of underearning women. (pp. 52-67)

1. Underearners have a high tolerance for low pay. Some women don’t even imagine making six figures, or think about how much they might be able to earn, or might want to earn. For example, I myself never envisioned making $250,000.00 as an annual salary. In setting salary goals, I made $100,000 my ultimate goal – but why? This is because I work in non-profit as an environmental policy analyst. But there are opportunities for growth and development out there that could springboard me into the $250,000 range or more. And if I decided to start my own business, or side business – well – you see where I’m going. Having limiting goals will limit your growth and cap your potential at a lower ceiling.

This book challenges you to think about what your life might be like if you made $100,000, $150,000, or $250,000. Have you ever asked yourself these questions? I think the author could have gone further and asked readers: what would your life look like if you earned $500,000? What about $1,000,000 a year? You should think about it. Think about how freeing it would be. Think about all the good things that would come from such high earnings. Think about how much money you could donate to good causes or charities. You would have the freedom to take time to travel when and where you wish, to leave your job for a new one if you wished, to invest in new businesses that might help fix big problems in this world. You could contribute ten-fold to making the world a better place. And think of how much more you would leave behind for your children, enabling them to create legacies of their own in the future.

Ultimately, your failure to dream big and instead settle for less could be part of the problem holding you back. Bigger goals and aspirations will lead you to seek opportunities to develop your skills, to take on more responsibility, to seek out and learn from higher earners, and to risk going for positions or opportunities that might reap you great rewards.

2. Underearners underestimate their worth.

3. Underearners are willing to work for free.

4. Underearners are lousy negotiators. Again, we are reluctant to ask for more, and/or hold back out of fear. (P. 56) We might not even go so far as to do research or educate ourselves about our potential worth and different options that might be available to us.

5. Underearners practice reverse snobbery. This means that underearners have all kinds of distorted perceptions about money and a particularly negative attitude towards people who have it (P. 57). T. Harv Ekert talks about this phenomenon a lot in his book, Secreats of a Millionaire Mind. One AARP survey of 2,300 people found that “a full 40 percent of the women (versus 20 percent of the men) believe that people who have a lot of money are greedy, insensitive, and feel superior.” (P. 57) Underearners tend to think that the rich are snobs, mean, cheats, that they’ll do anything for a dollar, that they must be miserable and have poor marriages, or that they are otherwise morally bankrupt

6. Underearners believe in the nobility of poverty. As with number 5 above, these stereotypes hold us back from reaching our true potential. These stereotypes fail to account for the fact that deep down we also probably envy the rich and want to be like them – in any case, we should want to be like the rich. We should want more money to live with financial security so that we don’t become impoverished and have to rely on others down the line, we should want to emulate the practices of the rich that lead to their financial success – for our own well-being. “ ‘Money is a tool. It depends on how you use it,” said six-figure entrepreneur Vickie Sullivan. ‘You can enrich yourself to the detriment of others, or you can use it to make the world a better place. Do I have enough money? Yes. Do I want more? You bet. Wouldn’t it be great to give fifty grand to Habitat for Humanity so they can build houses for people? That would be amazing.’ “ (P. 61)

7. Underearners are subtle self-saboteurs. Stanny provides examples of applying for work we’re not qualified for, creating problems with coworkers, procrastinating or leaving projects unfinished, hopping from one job to another, and always stopping just short of reaching our goals. (P. 61). The common thread: a “propensity to be scattered, distracted, and unfocused.” (Id.) Stanny goes on to describe how her interviewees were often able to identify behaviors that adults exhibited around money or their careers when they were children, unproductive behaviors that they were subconsciously modelling.

8. Underearners are unequivocally codependent. While I don’t necessarily agree with this one, I can see how it might apply pretty universally otherwise. The author says that “underearners will sacrifice personal security and private dreams by putting other people’s needs before their own.” (P. 63)

9. Underearners live in financial chaos. And here’s the kicker: as a woman, you’ve got a lot of odds to overcome. “A 1998 study by the National Center for Women and Retirement Research found that among women age thirty-five to fifty-five, one-half to two-thirds will be impoverished by age seventy.” (pp 64-65) This isn’t the only study about retirement with startling conclusions that serve as an abrupt wakeup call! Many studies show that, in America, the vast majority of people retiring do not have enough money saved up to stop working. A CNBC article from 2016 cites an Economic Policy Institute (EPI) study finding that "nearly half of families have no retirement account savings at all.”[1] The average retirement savings of American families nearing retirement age (57-61 years old) in 2013 was $163,577, whereas experts estimate that the average American needs $1,000,000 to $1,500,000 saved up to retire. The takeaway? We are heading into old age unprepared and lacking financial security, and even those with savings worry that its not enough – because it probably isn’t.

What does all this mean? We have to straighten out our finances, ladies!!! We need to start planning for our futures now. Now is the time – however old you are – to take a good hard look at our finances and our career, and to plan for success. This includes charting a path out of financial chaos, while mapping out a path forward in our careers towards a six figure – or more! - income.

A great feature of this book are the quizzes and exercises. The author asks readers to really engage with the text by thinking about our situations and applying the lessons learned, by asking probing questions of ourselves and performing exercises to challenge our biases and subconscious mental roadblocks. Doing these exercises will help you develop or further crystallize your dreams into more concrete and hopefully actionable goals.

Through Stanny’s interviews, she discovered that many of the six-figure ladies were formerly underearners, and that their shift into six-figures was preceded by a financial challenge they had to overcome. “Most of us wouldn’t budge, either, without a kick in the pants…The key is to tackle your troubles early enough, while they’re still only mildly disturbing.” (P. 72) “Most chronic underearners find themselves in this position. They either refuse to acknowledge their predicament or passively accept their fate. Thus, their incomes remain low, their troubles intensify, and their lives are defined by mediocrity or mayhem. But the ones who recognize something is wrong and decide to take action have very different outcomes.” (P. 73)

The path is two-pronged, both outer and inner. To achieve financial success, we have to work on the outer world (ask for that raise, apply for that job, start that business!), but we also have to work on the inner world – our mind, our thoughts, and our habits. Many of us have undermined ourselves imperceptibly and unconsciously - we must identify and overcome internal barriers that trip us up. (P. 75). This resonates with me SO MUCH! My goal for 2018 was to identify and break down barriers to my happiness. The same thought-processes and tactics can and should be applied to financial success. “The inner work doesn’t require intensive therapy. But it does take some internal reflection, ferreting out the beliefs and attitudes about money that were forged at an early age by family patterns and cultural precedents. What we observe growing up sticks with us forever… Our psyches become programmed. Our actions go on autopilot.” (P. 77)

Stanny identified four must-have traits and three extremely beneficial qualities of six-figure women through her interviews. (pp. 78-79) The remaining chapters, 4- 10, take a deep dive into these traits and qualities. Here are the 7 traits of six figure women she discusses:

  1. a profit motive

  2. audacity

  3. resilience

  4. encouragement

  5. self-awareness

  6. non-attachment (the willingness to let go of what holds you back)

  7. financial know-how (you must understand and follow the rules of money).


Chapter 4, A Declaration of Intention: “One of the most hopeful messages I learned from these six-figure women is that we need not fully believe something is possible, much less have a full-blown plan firmly in place. We just have to decide what we want and be willing to do whatever comes next…in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step in faith.’ ” (P. 90) “Luck is a frequent companion of a firmly fixed focus.” (P. 90) Remember, too, that “you get what you want, not what you ask for.” (P. 93)

To understand what you really want, you can engage in values and needs identification exercises. For example, to identify values, write down lists of things that make you happy, things you excel at, and times when you have found yourself laser-focused and excited to perform a task vs. times when you found yourself cringing, procrastinating and delaying because you couldn’t stand a task. For needs, think about the things you can’t do without, the features and characteristics of relationships and your career that are essential to your happiness. These types of exercises are critical, but can be very difficult to perform! Just have patience and know that it’s normal for this process to take some time and deep exploration of yourself. I should know – I’ve struggled to identify my romantic relationship needs for the past 8 months!

To help you discern and shape your intentions around money, Stanny provides several techniques (pp. 102-103):

  • Write it down. The author provides three values and motivational pattern exercises that are GREAT!! I’d recommend doing these.

  • Watch yourself around money – observe your attitudes, believes, thoughts, feelings, decision, and choices around all things financial without judgment or criticism

  • Affirmations. I can’t tell you how important affirmations are for your soul.

Chapter 5, Letting Go of the Ledge: Ledges can take many forms, “from unfulfilling jobs to unpleasant relationships, from inappropriate goals to inaccurate believes, from damaging habits to detrimental emotions.” (P. 107) Whatever it is that's propping you up, let it go - it's holding you back!


This is such a fundamentally important piece of advice. You must be willing to let go of things that are holding you back even though they may seem to be holding you up. These barriers may even seem to be so fundamentally a part of your landscape that it’s hard to imagine life without them, but it’s a universal principle that “[y]ou must let go of where you are to get where you want to go.” (P. 108) Stanny "heard from one woman after another that once they let go [of their ledges], once they stopped holding on to what they thought they had to have and instead practiced nonattachment,” things fell into place, doors opened, and their lives pivoted. (P. 110).

Letting go of the ledge can also include turning down less – saying no to opportunities that fall short, even if they might also be good, or comfortable. If your cup is overflowing you have to empty it before you can fill it anew. “Whenever you feel stuck, it’s time to let go.” (P. 117) Feeling stuck is just another way of saying you’re scared, and you’re not growing unless you get outside of your comfort zone. You know you’re stuck when you “start procrastinating, forgetting, blaming, becoming too busy, making excuses, losing interest, creating distractions, or scaring yourself with worst-case scenarios. Resistance is normal. Notice it, but still be willing to loosen your grip.” (P. 120)

“When I asked my interviewees about their biggest regrets, “staying too long” was the one most often cited.” This includes marriages, jobs, or various situations – and this resonates so strongly for me. I chose to move to Miami Florida from Maryland in order to attend Law School from 2006 – 2009. Instead of mapping out the ideal life and lifestyle I wanted for myself when I graduated, I allowed circumstances to take me where they would. I found myself feeling stuck in South Florida for ten whole years despite that I never truly felt like I belonged there. Despite finding myself in good situations in work and in relationships, something was missing and I never felt complete in Miami. I never felt 100% satisfied. I was restless and knew in my heart that I didn’t want to grow old in Miami. I had to let it go in order to become the person I am now, the person I started to become when I decided to pack up and move across the country to Seattle based on my values, and how I wanted to live my life!

Chapter 6, Get in the Game (and stay in the game): this is where thoughts and intentions become actions. Thoughts and intentions can only get you so far. I should know: I’m incredible at making lists and organizing to-do’s, but sometimes I get stuck in the execution phase! Execution is critical – as Master Yoda says, “do or do not, there is no try.”

There are two games you can play: not to lose, or to win. Choose to win. “The desire to avoid fear is what keeps most of us in the Not to Lose game – and in low-paying jobs.” (P. 131) To win you’ve got to jump in whether you feel ready or not, though you should take necessary and reasonable steps to ensure that you are ready and prepared, to the extent that you can. And once you’re in, stay there! “Unfortunately, a lot of people bail out before they realize how close they are to taking the prize.” (P. 135) Persistence is critical. As a successful freelance writer said, “There are a lot more talented writers than me not making a decent living…I only write when I’m inspired, and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at none A.M.” (P. 136) There is no “I don’t feel like it” – you must do whatever it takes (Id.) Remember, your persistence must be tied to a profit motive. Otherwise, you might burn yourself out working hard with little or no return. “In the game of six figures, excuses are to earnings what doughnuts are to dieters – strictly forbidden, or they’ll be your undoing.” (P. 142)

Another good tidbit: ignore naysayers. “My theory is that whenever we dare to do something different, some benevolent cosmic being sends a whole bunch of people to tell us what a dumb idea it is. These people actually perform a valuable service. They come to test our level of commitment.” (pp 143-144). I also completely relate to this!

After losing a cushy law firm job in 2013, I had a life changing opportunity to decide what it was I actually wanted to do next in my career. For four years I had been working jobs I wasn’t too thrilled about. In my first job I felt stressed, overworked and under-appreciated. In my second job I felt comfortable and part of a collegial team, but I wasn’t challenged and didn’t feel fulfilled. I hadn’t liked what I did at either law firm. Anyways, in 2013 I had a good severance package and a lot of savings, so I was able to take the time to really think about what kind of job I might want that actually matched my values and interests.

A lightbulb eventually went off. Environmental law or policy! I have always been a huge environmentalist and love the outdoors. I want my work to make a difference, and to believe strongly in the goals and principles of the organization I work for. So in 2013, I launched my life in a new path to practice environmental law or policy.

My transition into the field was long and tough. For three years I attended conferences, workshops and trainings, and networked with other attorneys and non-profit staff. All I heard about practicing tree-hugger law was: “there are no jobs,” “the jobs out there are too competitive,” “you really need a very strong background in this area to even get your foot in the door,” and “the jobs out there don’t pay enough for you to ever make a living.” And I saw truth in their words. I barely saw any job postings, and when I did, I saw salaries listed in the $25,000 - $30,000 range, which was quite a bit below what I'd made before, and not enough to survive on while still juggling student debt.

I have to be honest: I let the naysayers get me down. I believed what they said. After a few years of working unpaid fellowships and doing environmental work for free to try to “get my foot in the door,” I opened up a law firm to contract myself out doing environmental law- but I never really jumped in and got started on the actual work I set out to do. I was holding myself back out of fear.

I gave up. I became very distraught and confused. I was about 30 years old, unsure of what to do next with my life, stuck in an hourly job I took to pay the bills while pursuing my dream, where I had little opportunity (and no desire) for advancement. I traveled around a lot and explored new areas of the United States, telling myself: “I’ve got to get out of Miami.” I had a crisis. I dyed my long beautiful curly dark brunette hair blonde - I was really struggling. Then I sat down and did a values assessment. You can read more about that process in my blog, “So I’m Selling All My Sh*t and Moving From Miami to Seattle,” here. Through this process, I ended up discovering some of my core values, moving to Seattle, and ultimately (drum roll please)... landed a job I love as the Policy Analyst and Executive Coordinator of an environmental non-profit – despite all the naysayers!! And, I am able to both pay my bills and save for my retirement!

The moral of the story is: you've gotta hold on to your goals and get past the naysayers! There are lots of tips and tricks for how to deal with the Debbie Downers - I'll talk about that another time.

Chapter 7, Speak Up: this is a simple, universal principle. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. If we don’t advocate for ourselves as women, no one else will. You’ve got to start demanding what you’re worth, raise your fees appropriately (based on research of the market), and then keep on thinking bigger and bigger if you want to join the six figures club.

This chapter goes on to outline lots of useful negotiation tips. For one, always aim high and ask for more than what you’re willing to settle for, because the rule of all negotiation is to aim for the stars but settle for the moon. To convince people of your worth, it’s also important to act your worth. “If you communicate with authority, you’ll always get more.” (P. 164)

When negotiating, make sure to bring your achievements and wins to the table to demonstrate your value. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn. Women are often afraid of bragging, but as I learned from a Lean In group recently, you’ve got to learn to brag in a way that showcases your abilities and talents. Then when people think of you, they’ll think of all the great things you’ve done and can toot your horn for you – when a promotion or new job opportunity arises that matches what you’re looking for, they will only think of you if you’ve told them what you can do and make it clear that you’d be a good fit for that kind of opportunity.

Chapter 8, The Stretch: the concept of this chapter is to stretch farther, to bite off more than you can chew, to step outside of your comfort zone and push yourself to be more. “The quickest way to become a high earner is not to wait until all bases are covered or for opportunities to fall at your feet, but to go out and consciously seek them.” (P. 174) A caveat: “bit off more than you can chew, but not so much you choke.” (P. 180) Sometimes, it might be hard to distinguish where this line is. I think the only way to really suss out whether an opportunity is a good fit that will be a doable challenge vs. an impossible task, is to ask yourself honest questions. What does the opportunity entail, what will you need to do to succeed, what are the tradeoffs and what will be the benefits? To get started, Stanny says “do just a little bit more” (P. 183) And, start anywhere.

Stanny recounts that her friend Stacy saw “a direct connection between her spike in salary and her success on a strict diet cutting out all dairy, wheat, and sugar. [She] ‘saw I could count on myself to stick to this diet, which I’ve never ben able to do before and certainly not for this length of time. I started taking myself more seriously, especially at work.’” Thus, stretching outside of your comfort zone in one area of your life can have a ripple effect into others (P. 185) I can attest to the truth of this for the very same reason: I also had to start a very strict diet for health reasons, and the timing of the diet ultimately coincided with the first time I negotiated for (and obtained) a raise at work! And by quitting drinking alcohol, a bad habit that held me back for years, I was able to free up the time to actually commit to pursuing goals and activities to increase my skillsets at work, and thus up my market value and income.

Chapter 9, Seek Support: an oh so critical piece of the success puzzle is support. Support from friends, family, and mentors (and spouses) can be the backbone of success. Underearners seem to lack two critical support types: “True Believers, people who recognize their potential and offer encouragement, and Way Showers, people who provide the map and serve as proof that success is possible.” (P. 189)

It is important to be able to seek help, and also to be receptive to help when it’s offered. As a person who feels strongly that my friends are my family and for whom having a strong social network is a must, I recently realized that I lack – and could really benefit from! – a mentor or mentors in Seattle. This realization has motivated me to reach out to experienced leaders in my field to try to connect over a coffee and seek advice, and to see if any mentor relationships develop. I also realized that I don’t have any real life role models to aspire to, and so I’m doing research inside and outside of my field to identify inspirational leaders to model.

The author also explores the potential for spousal backlash, an interesting aspect of success where support fails and once supportive relationships become negative or even toxic. Spousal backlash, when a spouse feels challenged by or becomes resentful of the other partners success and thus lashes out, is one potential response to female success.

Chapter 10, Obey the Rules of Money: if you don’t obey the rules of money you can earn six figures and yet never seem to have a dime. “Making a lot of money is a lot different from having a lot of money.” (P. 213) Six figure earners can be either “Modest Accumulators – high earners who spend too much and save too little,” or “Wealth Builders. These women have both substantial salaries and sizable bank balances. They didn’t necessarily have the highest incomes, but each had a growing net worth.” (Id.)

Here we get into some meet and potatoes about financial management and budgeting. You’ve got to read this chapter to realize the importance of financial planning and a solid strategy to build wealth and become financially independent - the hot new alternative vision for the old term “retirement.” The rules, in a nutshell, are:

  1. spend less than you earn

  2. pay yourself first, and

  3. put your money to work.


In Radical Personal Finance, Joshua Sheats elaborates on these rules. He says there are only 3 ways to make more money. You can increase your income. You can reduce costs by eliminating or reducing the price you pay for bills, goods, services, etc. And then there’s what you do with the difference between your income and your costs – what you earn and the bills and necessities you have to pay. What you do with the difference can be the biggest ‘maker’ or ‘breaker’ of your financial well-being. This is where “putting your money to work” comes in to play – i.e., investing in stocks, property, or business investments that will add to your passive income streams; or spending that difference on self-education, trainings and skill development tools that will help you increase your value in the marketplace, thus increasing your income potential.

Chapter 11, Claiming Our Power: this is a lovely concluding chapter about moving past the fear of our power – something that really scares most women. “Let me make an important distinction: Money does not give you power. It allows you to exercise power by providing choices. Your power comes from the choices you make, choices that reflect who you are, not what someone else thinks.” (p. 244) To that end, Stanny states that the 4th, perhaps lesser known or discussed rule of money is to give generously.

There’s lots more packed into this, and all of, the chapters in this book. I love this book (or else I wouldn’t have just sat down and written 9 pages about it). It is so rich and full of useful lessons and tools – you’ve got to read it.

[1] Elkins, Kathleen. (Sept 12th, 2016) “Here's how much the average American family has saved for retirement.” CNBC Money. Available online at: https://www.cnbc.com/2016/09/12/heres-how-much-the-average-american-family-has-saved-for-retirement.html

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©2019 by Alyssa Barton