I was really struck by Kristin Wong's recent article “Overwork and the illusion of a ‘high-paying' job.” It's not something that I've had to deal with personally, though I've seen people close to me wrestle with it. As an attorney, Jake makes a six-figure salary at his new job, but probably works 80+ hours in a week.
While this is undoubtedly tough (on his health, on his personal relationships, on his sanity), it's also the norm in his industry. He tried going out on his own for awhile, but it turned out that he didn't really work any less. He just spent his time on different things, primarily administrative tasks. And he was making less than half as much.
He concluded that if he had to work that much anyway, he might as well make the big salary that goes with it. And this time around he's much more focused on paying off his student and consumer debt as quickly as possible. Because of my own employment situation, however, I'm going to approach Kristin's question from the opposite angle: How much of a reduction in pay are you willing to take for the sake of work-life balance?
My day job
I now make $42,000 per year. When I took this job way back when, I viewed it as purely transitional. I needed to make money right away, and this was the first job I was offered. But I believed that I would get another job, making significantly more money, within three years.
I've interviewed for other jobs since then. I've even received an offer that I decided not to take, since they low-balled me by quite a bit. Like April Dykman, I attempted to negotiate but was shut down — hard. Was it because I'm a woman? Who knows. However, after my experience, I vowed not to apply for a position unless the low end of the posted salary range was at least 10 percent more than my current position.
But these days there's more to it than that. You see, in the beginning I had no choice but to scrimp and save and pay down my great big debt on my (relatively modest) salary. Since I started my day job, I've paid off more than $15,000 in consumer debt. When I started writing for GRS, I was down to the last $5,000 or so — I'd already paid off over 10 grand! I've also paid off over $8,000 in student loans.
I've finally reached the point where, after saving for retirement, paying my bills, and allocating some money for fun, I have $300 or so left over each month. At the moment, some gets saved and some is used for extra student-loan payments. Additionally, I've been expanding my side gigs so, while I do need my day job, I don't rely on it for everything.
The beauty of debt payoff
Take Kristin's original hypothetical …
“Let's say you have a choice between:
“A) 40-hour-a-week job that pays $100,000 a year, and
“B) 75-hour-a-week job that pays $100,000 a year.”
… and let's modify it a bit. Say, instead, you have a choice between:
A) 40-hour-a-week job that pays $50,000 a year, and
B) 80-hour-a-week job that pays $100,000 a year.
IMO, that's when you get to the really interesting questions. How much do you enjoy your job? How much do you need the money? Do you feel a duty to live up to your potential? Are you willing to sacrifice spending time with your family and loved ones? Give up your hobbies? Is time worth more than money? How much more?
As J.D. and many, many others on GRS and elsewhere have pointed out, the beauty of paying off debt is that you're able to live on less. These days, I've got a bit of a cushion. I'm happy to say that it's been years since I cried after going grocery shopping or didn't wash my hair for a month because I couldn't afford shampoo. Yes, both of those things happened.
I undoubtedly still have a long journey ahead of me. However, having some of the debt-related pressure taken off me leaves me free to enjoy a corporate culture where work-life balance is truly valued. I also enjoy feeling confident that I can handle any situation that arises. I both like and trust my colleagues. While I do keep my eyes peeled in case an exciting job opportunity comes along, I don't feel pressured to take another job just because of the salary.
All your time has value, not just the time you spend working
As Kristin pointed out in her article, there are many people who don't struggle with this choice. Why? Because, well, for them, it's not a choice. Maybe they can't get the “high-paying” job for whatever reason. Maybe they're in too deep and have to take the “high-paying” job even though they hate it. Everyone's journey is different, and there are lots of valid reasons for that.
But I keep thinking about this quote: “If I had no money, and I was struggling to pay my debts, and I lost my job, I'd definitely take the first job I could find. I just think, if we can, we should strive for more than that .” But more than what, exactly?
The obvious implication is that we should strive for more money. And sure, there's nothing inherently wrong with that. Sometimes it's even necessary. However, ultimately money is just a tool to get us the other things in life that we want. It can buy Stuff. Meh. It can buy Experiences. Better. And it can buy Time (not the magazine). Yea!
And fortunately, there are a couple of different ways to buy Time. One way is to save up enough in advance to achieve Financial Independence. Then you can choose not to work at all, or to only do work that interests you in whatever amount you desire. That way has been achieved by some people and is a goal for many more.
I think there's another way to buy Time, though. I get to leave work by 5 p.m. every day and I don't need to think about it until I get in the next morning. I get all the federal holidays plus generous sick and vacation time. Yes, you can get those things by “paying your dues” until you're important enough to demand them. But there are other ways.
What's worth more to you — time or money? Why?
Honey Smith has been reading GRS since at least 2008, right when she got her first â€œrealâ€ job and started getting serious about finances. She and her husband Jake are in their mid-30s and recently bought a home together. Currently, she manages graduate programs at a large state institution, and he is an attorney at a mid-sized firm.
Between them, they have paid off approximately $30,000 in consumer debt since she started writing for GRS in 2012. However, they still have nearly $200,000 of student loan debt, so she will continue to chronicle their debt-paydown journey. In addition to personal finance, Honey is interested in vegetarianism and cooking, gardening (despite living in the desert and having a black thumb), issues in higher education (including the student loan bubble and the slow death of tenure), and animal rights; however, her heart lies with fantasy novels, trashy TV and Skyrim.