What Does Earn Your Keep Mean?

Earn Your Keep Meaning

Definition: To work sufficiently for one’s compensation.

A similar expression is to be worth one’s salt, which means to be worth one’s salary.

Origin of Earning Your Keep

This idiom dates back to the 1800s. The word keep in this expression means room and board. In the past, it was common for people to work for room and board rather than money, especially on farms. Earn has the same meaning in the expression as it always does, to gain something in exchange for work.

Nowadays, people can use this idiom to refer to earning money, but it still often retains the connotation of room and board.

Since this expression is quite direct, many people consider it rude. If you want to tell someone that he or she needs to do more work, earn your keep is not the most polite way to do so. One common example of this idiom is when parents say this to lazy children.

Examples of Earning Your Keep

earn my keep In the example below, two friends are talking about their jobs.

Ted: I accepted a job that gave me a position as the director of a department. It sounded like a dream job. I’d get to still teach, which I love doing, and also write curriculum which I always wanted to do. I’d also get to help form policies for the school. In addition to my salary, the job offered me room and board.

Rufio: That’s great! Do you love the job?

Ted: No, it’s a nightmare! I work 12 – 14 hour days almost every day. And, yesterday, the CEO told me that I wasn’t earning my keep! If he really thinks that, I don’t know what else I can do to convince him I’m worth what he is paying me. I can’t work any harder. I need to sleep!

earning his keep This dialogue shows two friends who are discussing the living situation that one of them has.

Zayna: Since I lost my job, I had to move into my parents’ house. I thought they would be more supportive of me, but they told me that I would have to earn my keep by doing all of their housekeeping for them. Honestly, I would have done that regardless, but I’m a little annoyed that they ordered me to do it.

Ben: That stinks. You can stay with me for a while if you want.

More Examples

The excerpt is from an article about new clothing designers.

  • Indeed, Cohen says stores will give the lines a year or so to gain traction, but “retailers have a short string, and you have to earn your keep.” –Denver Post

This excerpt is from an article about a famous musician who died.

  • At 8, “His uncle put him to work to earn his keep, so he would send him out to sell gum at the bars,” Dies said. “He doesn’t have good memories of that. He was not looked after. He was not loved there.”–Chicago Sun Times


The phrase to earn one’s keep means to work enough to deserve what you get paid.