The Science of Personal Finance

Clothes and Personal Grooming Can Affect Earnings

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Time spent in front of the mirror styling hair, trimming nails, applying makeup and doing other personal grooming tasks may affect how much money you earn, depending on your race and gender, according to a recent survey.

The study, conducted by members of the economics department at Elon University in North Carolina, concluded that increased grooming time has a large, positive effect on minority men, a negative effect on women and no effect on white males.

“What we found is, at least for some people, that grooming has a pretty large effect on earnings,” said Stephen De Loach, Elon economics professor.

Since outward appearance can be an important source of information about workers, De Loach said certain personality traits may be inferred by observing personal grooming.

“Grooming can signal something about your personality,” De Loach told LiveScience, noting that not ironing a shirt, not shaving or heading into the office with a loose tie could all be interpreted as an employee not being committed to the job.

Stereotypes rule

According to the study, minority men who spent at least 80 minutes per day on personal grooming saw a 4 percent increase in average earnings, while women who spent more than 90 minutes on grooming saw an average earnings decrease of 3.4 percent.

De Loach attributes the large, positive effect on minority men to them having to overcome stereotypes of their agreeableness, conscientiousness or preferred social identity.

“They are maybe countering those negative stereotypes by sending signals about their social identity,” he said.

The negative effect on women, De Loach said, could be because excess grooming can sometimes send signals that the employee is more focused on his or her appearance than the job at hand.

“A little too much makeup in the business world can signal you are interested in a mate, as opposed to a career,” he said.

What you can do

Sherry Maysonave, an Austin, Texas-based image consultant and author of the book "Casual Power: How to Power Up Your Nonverbal Communication and Dress Down for Success" (Bright Books, 1999), said there are many simple ways to upgrade an image without spending too much of time on it.

“It is all about presenting a polished look,” she said.

A proper haircut is critical, Maysonave said, because it’s one of the first thing people notice. “You want a haircut that says, ‘I’m serious about my career,’ ” she said.

For women, she added, less is more when it comes to makeup, jewelry and perfume. “You don’t want to overdo it,” Maysonave said. “You can be sending a signal that you are more interested in being a fashionista versus a professional.”

Men, meanwhile, should pay close attention to both the appropriateness and condition of the shoes they wear to work, Maysonave said.

“If your shoes are scruffy,” she said, “that can send a signal that you don’t care about details.”

Out of your control

Some salary factors are out of your control. Research finds that taller people earn more — several hundred dollars per inch per year, on average. And despite a narrowing of the pay gap, men still earn more than women.

De Loach said the study, published in the February issue of the Journal of Socio-Economics, illustrated that personal grooming has a large impact on others' perceptions.

“Regardless of who you are, you are sending signals with your grooming,” he said. “So you need to think very carefully about it.”

This $ci-Fi article is part of an ongoing LiveScience series that explores the science of personal finance to help you navigate everyday life.

LiveScience Contributor