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Not long ago in an economy not so far away, a six-figure salary spelled arrival, success and wealth — not to mention future financial freedom and security. Times and prices change.

How quaint that $100,000 a year once seemed like millionaire status for wage-earners. When I was a kid, my parents said things like, "He can certainly afford it — he makes six figures!"

Earning a $100,000 salary remains special and rewarding. I find the happiest retirees had annual income peaking at more than $100,000 while they still worked. (The least happy group's pre-retirement wages averaged about $73,000.) Other research shows higher income correlates with increased happiness — to a point.

But $100,000 ain't easy street any more. Inflation ravages this once-status salary. In 2010, $100,000 bought what $109,291 buys today; in 2000, what $138,384 buys today; in 1990, $182,338; in 1980, $289,218.

The 1970s runaway inflation did the worst recent damage: To match the purchasing power of $100,000 in 1970 takes more than $600,000 today.

Prices for essentials like housing and medical care increase at many times the rate of inflation.

Taxes? Count on losing about 30 percent of your gross to federal, state and local taxes. If you earn $100,000 yearly, after taxes you bring through the front door about $5,800 per month or $69,600 annually.

Retirement savings also depend now, not on reasonably solid company and municipal pensions, but on accounts linked to temperamental stock markets. Even a $1 million retirement fund, once another Holy Grail of financial accomplishment, guarantees little security.

Now more than ever, you never feel financially free if you spend beyond your means, no matter how much you make. If you make six figures, you still must live by the same rules as someone earning $29,500.

Pay yourself first, setting aside money for savings and investment before you even see it. Payroll savings plans and auto-deposits are a good way to do this.

Create a spending budget and track your spending — this enlightens you about your situation, to say the least.

Set your goals. Determine what you save for and how much you need. Retirement? College? A home in the mountains?

Make a plan. Decide how much you need to save and how to maximize your return.

Let's hope your salary climbs and climbs, as long as you never forget: What you keep and not just what you make determines your financial security.

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