Who Actually Earns $400,000 Per Year?

by Emily Guy Birken · 9,116 comments

Aside from the major hiccup the economy faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy has been on a steady upward trajectory ever since years ago when we were talking about extending the Bush-era tax cuts. In case you don’t remember, we did end up keeping those cuts in place permanently for any individual making less than $400,000 per year, and for couples earning less than $450,000. Nowadays, those fortunate few who make more than that amount are paying a marginal rate of 35%.

But like I said, it’s been years since we passed the extension into law and I still don’t personally know anyone bringing home $400,000 per year. So who is actually paying that top tax rate these days? I decided to find out what kind of jobs command such high salaries:

how to earn a high salary

1. The President
Perhaps the most famous $400,000 per year job is the leader of the free world. The office of the president not only pays a $400,000 annual salary, but also provides the president with a $50,000 annual expense account, a $100,000 nontaxable travel account, and a $19,000 entertainment account.

There are some obvious downsides to this particular career, however. Besides being very difficult to get, the job is highly stressful, and advancement post-office can be considered somewhat iffy. And, of course, you can’t expect regular raises: the last salary increase for the commander-in-chief (from $200,000 to the current rate) was in 2001. Prior to that, the previous raise (from $100,000) occurred in 1969.

On the other hand, most presidents end up receiving so many requests for speaking engagements after they hold office that he or she will be set for life. They also get a pension equal to the salary of the head of an executive department (Executive Level I) would be paid. In 2020, that is $219,200.

2. Surgeons and specialists
Even a local general practitioner can expect to pull in over $100,000 per year, but the real money in medicine is reserved for those who specialize. Anesthesiologists, heart surgeons, and brain surgeons can all expect to make up to $400,000 per year at the height of their careers. Plastic surgeons can make up to twice that amount.

Most people are completely okay with that though. After all, these people do a very, very important job.

3. CEOs and Founders
The median salary of a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a public company is over $700,000. These individuals are in charge of both short- and long-term profitability for their companies. CEOs generally have to know the industry inside and out (although there are certainly plenty of counter-examples), and need to have worked their way up over many years.

There are also plenty of CEOs from private companies who make quite a bit of money. The job can be stressful, but when you are the top dog, you reap the reward whenever your company does well.

4. Wall Street Bankers and Lawyers
If you work in either finance or finance law, the place to go for fat paychecks is Wall Street. According to an October 2012 report, “the average salary of financial industry employees in New York City rose to $362,950 in 2011.” While that still falls short of the mark required for the higher tax bracket, it’s important to remember that this figure represents the average (meaning some people are making more) and that there have almost certainly been raises in the past few years.

5. Mortgage Loan Officers
This may be surprising to you because not many people think of this group of individuals as ones who can earn the big bucks. However, there are some loan officers, riding the wave of historic low rates, who are raking in the dough right now. After all, their salary is directly tied to commissions they earn as a percentage of the total loan amount they get approved for their clients. They work hard, often seven days a week in many cases due to unprecedented loan volume these days, but they are definitely getting rewarded for their hard work.

6. Speakers in Public Events
Before the pandemic, the good speakers were booking speaking engagements left and right. Not only do they speak at conferences, but they also have opportunities to speak to employees in their offices as well. Some people even write books that tie into their brand. They travel all over the country (and some all over the world), so clients are plentiful.

The pandemic has slowed business to a trickle, but these people will bounce back because everything will eventually go back to normal.

7. YouTubers
Can you see why your son or daughter would want to be a YouTuber yet? The popular video creators not only make $400,000 a year, but they can have earnings in the millions every year. The vast majority of people who try to make it big fail to amass a following, but many dream of the life of recording themselves play video games and earning the big bucks all the time. What they don’t realize is that those who earn millions not only have talent, but they also work extremely hard. If not, then they have a team of people who are behind all the videos that get produced. An entertaining video takes hours and hours of editing, but most people just see someone talk, have fun, and collect cash.

The Top Percent of the Top Percent

These high-income earners are really rare. Consider the fact that most articles listing the highest paying jobs in America don’t even include any professions with median salaries of $400,000. Those individuals making $400,000 per year are in the top one percent of the top one percent — and often, they’re also public figures.

Thankfully, even though individuals in this bracket are few and far in between, the government estimates that raising the tax rate on this small group raise about $600 billion in new revenues a decade.

Not bad for a group that small.

What other professions that earn annual incomes of $400,000? 

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Stevendad says:

    So Steven H. Trump is an ass, but “peacefully protest” is not insurrection. SCOTUS will overturn all the inevitable made up convictions. The cases are weak and a weaponization of the legal system. Juxtaposition of the White House assault with no investigation or consequences is ridiculously biased.
    Meanwhile, in the Biden family fiasco, there is public information of crimes by the then sitting VP. Whistleblowers are everywhere and there are bank records on the way. If it’s all disproven, so be it. BUT it is CLEARLY being stonewalled. That’s what Nixon was doing to be impeached for.
    Trump Russia was BS, at least acknowledge that.
    I’m fine with taxing unrealized gains at about 2% (or a similar EBITDA percentage) of stocks. In exchange, drop all the BS estate taxes the rich “legally” avoid.
    Yes, I wrote a book based in SWEAR. I just email it to people for free. Ask David if you can somehow send me your emails confidentially.

  • Rich Salvagni says:

    This article strikes me as obtuse. That’s who you come up with? Surgeons Youtubers and what was it… The president come on man business owners sales directors software engineers… The examples you suggested make up less than probably 1% of persons making that income. For examples, I make this income. I’m a sales person for a high value commodity, and I have several rental properties. There are more real estate investors and there are surgeons. There are more plumbers there are Youtubers.

    I suggest you go through this exercise another time and maybe not use the first results on Google as your reference material.

    • Andy says:

      100% agree. All the construction owners are killing it right now too. And on top small business owners have the ability to not get taxed.

  • Steven H says:

    Repost to follow article posting rules.

    Some fodder for discussion. Agree? Disagree? https://www.ft.com/content/ef265420-45e8-497b-b308-c951baa68945

    Britain and the US are poor societies with some very rich people When it comes to average household incomes, the UK may soon need to ask migrant labourers to take a pay cut. …

    … Across the Atlantic it’s the same story, only more so. The rich in the US are exceptionally rich — the top 10 per cent have the highest top-decile disposable incomes in the world, 50 per cent above their British counterparts. But the bottom decile struggle by with a standard of living that is worse than the poorest in 14 European countries including Slovenia.

    • Peter says:

      Welcome back, by the way!!!

      Excellent article – thanks for posting. I particularly find the graphs interesting, although not particularly surprising. Income disparity like we debated 10 years ago has just gotten worse. The handling of the pandemic certainly exacerbated this too….

      Of course, we might have somewhat different perspectives as to what we can do to bring the incomes – and quality of life – up for the bottom 5%. I continue to think that a lot of the problem lies in the way our government spends our money. Since the top .01% (not the top 10%) and corporations are the ones that fund elections on both sides (often donating to BOTH parties), they are the ones that benefit by the majority of Federal policy and spending. There currently isn’t any representation on the national scale for the laborer or low-income earner. They do not have a voice in this democracy. I would doubt that the majority of those people would be happy to hear how much we spent in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, etc. or the amount of subsidies and tax breaks given to large corporations.

      This is so much bigger than the rich vs. the poor. The vast majority of the top 10% are small-business owners and people in metropolitan areas earning high wages in technology, finance, medicine, etc. This is likely the same in a country like Norway (mentioned in the article). What makes America unique is the mega-wealthy top .01% who not only have money, but also have POWER. And our two major political parties are subsequently beholden to them. In the current system, the government’s hands are tied – only window dressing can be done in the current system. The renegades that want to shake up the system on the left and right – whether you agree with them or not – are quickly silenced due to the overwhelming power of the massive amount of money and influence of a very select few individuals and corporations.

      Not sure what there is to do until we have a major shakeup/revolution/sea change. This is boiling hotter and hotter in the last decade as the disparity widens, and we are starting to see more rebel-rousers in local governments and the House of Representatives. Will be interesting to see where this whole thing goes….

      • AUTAEUS says:


      • Steven H says:

        Nice reply Peter, thanks.

        It’s interesting to me that income disparity has actually experienced a measurable decline since the latter 2010s and in 2023 (with the pandemic disrupting but not reversing that trend). The primary cause is noted to be the tight labor market which is broadly driving up wages. But the underlying causes of that market is probably disputed. But it is hard to dispute the benefits of Biden’s bipartisan legislation in bringing back more manufacturing jobs and keeping the post pandemic economy strong. The perpetuation of this strong economy must remain bound to support for middle and working class. To resolve the national debt issues, which are reap but not a crisis, we may have to boost taxes on the upper 0.1 % primarily but also across the upper 10%. But the real solution is through continued economic growth.


        • Peter says:

          Agreed with the comments on income disparity. Although the trend for growth in manufacturing jobs has pretty much been the same through the last several administrations (other than COVID of course).


          And you know I disagree about the raising taxes part. I think rather than hurting small-business owners (72% of all millionaires) – we need government reform to quit handing billions to large corporations. Pharmaceutical companies (COVID, Obamacare), big tech monopolies and the military-industrial complex have been the biggest winners in this disparate economy. It disgusts me to think that we take money from ANYONE to give more to Pfizer and Lockheed Martin.

    • Stevendad says:

      ALL Norwegians are
      Millionaires. That’s what happen when you divide their North sea income trust among a tiny country with huge income.

  • Steven H says:

    Some fodder for discussion. Agree? Disagree?

    Please use the sharing tools found via the share button at the top or side of articles. Copying articles to share with others is a breach of FT.com T&Cs and Copyright Policy. Email licensing@ft.com to buy additional rights. Subscribers may share up to 10 or 20 articles per month using the gift article service. More information can be found at https://www.ft.com/tour.

    Britain and the US are poor societies with some very rich people

    When it comes to average household incomes, the UK may soon need to ask migrant labourers to take a pay cut.

    Please use the sharing tools found via the share button at the top or side of articles. Copying articles to share with others is a breach of FT.com T&Cs and Copyright Policy. Email licensing@ft.com to buy additional rights. Subscribers may share up to 10 or 20 articles per month using the gift article service. More information can be found at https://www.ft.com/tour.

    Starting at the top of the ladder, Britons enjoy very high living standards by virtually any benchmark. Last year the top-earning 3 per cent of UK households each took home about £84,000 after tax, equivalent to $125,000 after adjusting for price differences between countries. This puts Britain’s highest earners narrowly behind the wealthiest Germans and Norwegians and comfortably among the global elite.

    So what happens when we move down the rungs? For Norway, it’s a consistently rosy picture. The top 10 per cent rank second for living standards among the top deciles in all countries; the median Norwegian household ranks second among all national averages, and all the way down at the other end, Norway’s poorest 5 per cent are the most prosperous bottom 5 per cent in the world. Norway is a good place to live, whether you are rich or poor.

    Britain is a different story. While the top earners rank fifth, the average household ranks 12th and the poorest 5 per cent rank 15th. Far from simply losing touch with their western European peers, last year the lowest-earning bracket of British households had a standard of living that was 20 per cent weaker than their counterparts in Slovenia.

    Please use the sharing tools found via the share button at the top or side of articles. Copying articles to share with others is a breach of FT.com T&Cs and Copyright Policy. Email licensing@ft.com to buy additional rights. Subscribers may share up to 10 or 20 articles per month using the gift article service. More information can be found at https://www.ft.com/tour.

    Across the Atlantic it’s the same story, only more so. The rich in the US are exceptionally rich — the top 10 per cent have the highest top-decile disposable incomes in the world, 50 per cent above their British counterparts. But the bottom decile struggle by with a standard of living that is worse than the poorest in 14 European countries including Slovenia.

  • Steven H says:

    Peter, I am also interested in your views. You are welcome to post them here, of course. Also, if you do Facebook, I have a private discussion group called Middle Ground Discussions. Search it, ask to join and you will get in. It’s not always full of activity, but it has a few thoughtful posters on all sides. — Steve—
    PS, the invitation is open to anyone. Just post thoughtfully and follow the rules.

  • Steven H says:

    Well I popped in for hello over a year ago, and forgot to check for response. Hello to Peter and stevendad, and Ken and any other past posters. And where is the link to that book, stevendad?

    I look over some of the old posts and am astounded at the conversations, both for depth and duration. Not bad reading, for the most part, IMHO.

    As for your question Peter and what I think of events now … It seems that Trump proved out to be about 100x the disaster I portrayed/predicted him to be. Complete incompetence on the pandemic management (except for seeing that the vaccine got funded … although it appears he was motivated by hoping it would get named the Trump Vaccine). And the whole staging of an insurrection and sitting to watch it on TV rather than trying to stop it was a real historical low point for the nation. The bipartisan Jan 6 Committee work was riveting and astounding in its depth and uncovered honesty, revealing the tragic disappointment of Trump’s own inner circle in the hallowed orange savior after the veil of deception had been lifted from their eyes.

    As for Biden, the just-released unemployment numbers dropped below Trump’s and are lowest in 50 years. The post-pandemic inflation (also fueled by Putin’s war) is declining from its mid 2022 peak, and the historic and much-needed investment in infrastructure was passed with bipartisan votes. Things are looking good for Democrats and the country.

    That’s how I see it.

    Hope you all are well.

    Steven H

    Meanwhile, amidst these Democrat successes, the Republicans (if you can still call the Trumpers that) in Congress are making complete fools of themselves with baseless investigations of weaponization of government agencies (after Trump weaponized the Electoral process, the DOJ itself and even the Post Office … will they ever investigate that?) and support of Congressional intellectual pygmies/frauds like Boebert, MTG, and Santos.

    • Steven H says:

      Dang it my last paragraph (Meanwhile … ) was supposed to go just after the (As for Biden …) paragraph. Bad editing, sorry.

    • Peter says:

      I’m going to avoid this part of the conversation. In the past 10 years, we have simply gotten more divided with Republican/Democrat propaganda, while most of our issues remain and the debt keeps rising. I have no idea how anyone could be an enthusiastic member of either party – other than by feeling good that you are not part of the other one. Due to all of the misinformation and propaganda, it is somewhat pointless now to debate things like you mentioned in this post. Cheers to anyone who is a member of the Republican side who wants to debate Steven H’s views. (I would suggest that we don’t…haha) I’m more interested in what you posted next, which I will respond to now.

      • Peter says:

        Also – check out the group called “No labels” Would be wonderful to have another choice.

        • Steven H says:

          The concept of 3rd party is fine. Unfortunately, the existence of No Labels simply serves as a mechanism to siphon votes away from one or the other major party candidates who will undoubtedly win. It would be a shame if traitor Trump won because of people passing a feel-good meaningless vote for No Labels.

          • Peter says:

            This is exactly the kind of thinking that the powerful establishment types want you to have. Hopefully with candidates as terrible as Trump and Biden people will not worry about this and vote for someone else – or the people that don’t vote at all will show up and vote third party.

            At some point nominating a narcissist vs. someone with early onset Alzheimers will cross a line with the American voter. All it takes is a little momentum to fly in the face of the establishment.

            The mainstream media is already experiencing this with the rise of the political podcast format. They look so partisan, simple minded and foolish in contrast with in-depth 2 and 3 hour podcast discussions with actual intellectuals.

          • Andy H says:

            Siphoning votes away from the major parties is kind of the point, isn’t it? If I ran for office, I would hope to siphon votes from the other candidates. 🙂

  • Olubodun says:

    Principal software engineers at FAANG companies do earn that much, Netflix, Amazon, Google…

  • Deac H. says:

    when did this dialogue begin?

    • Peter says:

      I don’t even know – but before Obama was elected if I remember right…… went on strong for about 5-6 years and had some very good back and forth…. in the oddest of places.

      • Stevendad says:

        Hey! So let’s recap: inflating our war out of debt. Trump Russia was much ado about (almost) nothing. The Dems went nuts (ACTUALLY inciting riots, trying to get if police, etc). Sounds like I was dead on. Hope we can survive the present regime without any major catastrophes, skeptical though.

  • Steven H. says:

    Hello again

  • Jake says:

    Forgot door to door solar sales reps

    I’m at 417,000 this year so far.

    Our industry is full of top earners a handful making millions a year.

    • Peter says:

      That’s awesome Jake – good for you! When this article was written, I don’t think there were door-to-door solar salespeople hahaha

  • Stevendad says:

    I suspect Steven H has gone underground due to being wrong about nearly EVERYTHING. Still want to tour your island….

    • Peter says:

      Ha ha – no island but certainly making a lot more money than when we originally had this chat. I remember finding this article when I made $400k/year. Things are certainly different now. Do you have an island I should consider? Might need to move to one soon….

    • Steven H says:

      Sorry, stevendad, but your perception is bad again. I was correct on all counts. Trump was a garbage President, an embarrassment, a scam artist, an absolute and utter catastrophe. He took over the Presidency on 3rd base, inheriting the flowering and growing economy built by Obama, and then Trump claimed to have hit a triple. Job growth actually SLOWED slightly after he took office despite his unnecessary and deficit ridden tax cuts to the rich. And he never really exceeded the gdpgrowth record of Obama despite empty promises of 5 or 6 % growth. Trump was an intellectual idiot who filled his administration with fraudsters and sycophants and ultimately staged a fully planned insurrection to topple the structures of government and attempt to steal the Presidency.

      Meanwhile the pandemic/Putin fueled inflation is now fading, unemployment is lowest in 50 years, and we have a stable government driven by integrity instead of fraud.

      So just what do you think I was wrong about?

      • Peter says:

        When you ask what to pick apart in your argument, hyperbole is probably not a great idea. Could you prove everything you said above in court? 🙂 This whole post is an opinion – even if it ends up being a largely correct opinion, it’s too extreme and lacks nuance to say the least.

  • Ken says:

    There is a dis-incentive to take the risks and do the work to earn above 400k, but the larger point is Raising the taxes on that very small percentage of people to 70% will not start to bring in even 1/2 trillion dollars , let alone what we are suddenly spending

    • Peter says:

      Welcome back Ken – assuming it is the same “Ken”. I think the other problem with the dis-incentive is the difficulty for young people to live a decent life while taking those risks – especially in major metropolitan areas where the opportunities are. I took all my risks making $20k a year, declining by 25% every 6 months until it went to zero – but was buoyed by lower costs of living … and here’s the key …. a spouse who also made $20k/year. That is what enabled us to live – albeit off beans/rice/peanut butter/etc. with no vacations and one beat-up car – while we took risks and built my business. This is harder for young people today. I am also not sure that they prioritize competitiveness, entrepreneurship and (frankly) money in the same way older generations have.

      • Peter says:

        I should add….the differences in recent generations isn’t necessarily a bad thing either.

      • Steven H says:

        Peter, you make a great point. It is very difficult these days for young people to live a decent life while pursuing risky ventures, building a business or even building a family. College costs, housing costs, and medical costs, even before our recent inflation bubble, are much much higher than in our youthful years. It’s important that we explore why this is the case and attempt to correct it. Any thoughts on that?

        • Peter says:

          Some of it is a culture change, which I don’t know that we need to “fix”. The everything-now instant gratification of technology has impacted this generation tremendously as well. If anything, I would like to see our government stand up to the pharmaceutical and health insurance industry to lower the costs of medical care. Not the cumbersome and still largely expensive Obamacare, but true reform. The government can also play a role in low-income housing and improving education (particularly on the state and local levels).

          As you will see from my other posts, I’m not hopeful that the two major parties will ever address this and stand up to the people paying for their campaigns and making them very, very wealthy.

          Waiting for our inept government to fix this or waiting for a generation to “grow up” is silly and an exercise in futility. As a business owner and father I just have to adjust to the times the best that I can.

  • Mike says:

    It makes no sense to earn less. Biden’s proposed taxes are marginal taxes. Only the income in excess of $400k would be subject to increased taxes. In other words, if your income is $500k, only $100k is subject to the tax increase.

    • Tony says:

      Would you work another hour if it was taxed at 90%?

      At some point you value your time more than marginal income benefit. In this regard, you might choose to make less (work less) due to Bidens tax increase.

      Marginal analysis

      • Aca says:

        That is correct. We lived in Canada for 3 years. People in Canada do not want to work overtime, because tax is 50%.

        • Steven H says:

          Is that a bad thing? Discouraging overtime compels people to make more time for family and non-work which is psychologically a more healthy path. Simultaneously it eaves more work available for others … more jobs for more people rather than just more hours for workaholics.

  • Cyndy says:

    I own my own company work from my bedroom and make 450k A year. My family is in no way rich. Unfortunately if Biden holds to his belief that household incomes if 450k can afford to pay more in taxes. I will down size my company laying off my 32 employees. So I can make the 265k he wants to leave me with after Taxes.
    I am not slum lord boss. I pay my staff to attend school functions(back to school night, sporting events) I pay my staff to stay home on school holidays in fact if your child is out if school I would be disappointed if you were working. Healthcare is covered 100% employee and families starting salaries are a minimum of $20 a hour. I always believed that happy employees make for a healthy and wealthy company. How ever I will draw the line in the sand at having to pay 50% of my take home income in taxes

    • Peter says:

      That’s what happens….It’s unfortunate. I’ve said many times that it is not those that make 400k that need to be the target. If they truly want to take from the rich and give to the poor it should be from the narrow sliver of people at the top. Problem is they have all the power politically. So they take it from you. And you lay off people or travel/spend less. And low income people lose their jobs.

    • Martin says:

      Yeah I’m a have to say this is nonsense. You would still be taxed at 265K. Even taxed at 450K you still have your tax breaks, and if you’re smart investments that you can leverage to reduce the burden. I know real people that earn $400K+ and none of them are using your strategy if this tax height was implemented so I’m questioning if you’re even honest on who you say you are.

      • John says:

        With all due respect, your reply does not make much sense (to me). I’m sure you have a valid point somewhere in your head, and I would love to hear it if you could explain it a bit more clearly.

    • CRS says:

      Wait? You’re going to lay off 32 people because you’ll have to pay $1500 more in taxes?

  • Peter says:

    Steven H? Still around???

    • Peter N says:

      I still am from time to time.
      I am retired now.
      I see the history is now hidden.

      • Peter says:

        Peter N = Steven H?

        I didn’t remember that. We had some good discussions in here. Miss those days. I bet it would be a mess now with all the propaganda and political anger that has been stirred up. I think of our talks as better days.

        • Peter N says:

          What? Steven H is a liberal.
          I own a business still and work a little still but I go camping when I want.

          What I don’t like is how businesses are taxed with capital gains. Growing a business is not like buying a stock, doing nothing but watch it grow then sell it. I business takes a lot of effort and when you sell it the government wants to take 23.8% now and more under Biden. It effectively means the government indirectly owns 23.8% of my business and indirectly controls it with all of its rules and regulations.

      • Stevendad says:

        R U guys from the old days? I miss giving StevenH crap. I figured you would own your own island by now Peter.

        • Peter says:

          Yeah – it’s me from the old days. Pop in here every now and then because I’m interested in seeing what our old conversation would look like now.

          • Stevendad says:

            It was mostly just true predictions of what has and will happen. Remember inflating the debt and crushing the poor? It’s where we are heading.

  • Handsome Jack says:

    “Can you see why your son or daughter would want to be a YouTuber yet? The popular video creators not only make $400,000 a year, but they can have earnings in the millions every year. ”

    omg.. donkeys pointing to a bubble and then actively popping that bubble by overloading it with people.

  • Handsome Jack says:

    but how does 600 billion (for one year, since they won’t have that 400M the next year) pay for 10 trillion dollars of entitlement programs?

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