Your review of your current financial situation should pave the way for determining how much you need to make in your next position. Making this determination is crucial but very difficult. Most of us have been conditioned to equate money with freedom we feel free when we are free to buy anything we want but the more income you require, the less freedom you have in making vocational choices. All too often, real or imagined financial requirements prevent people from making career moves toward jobs more consistent with their values, talents, and desires.
Unfortunately, distinguishing between real and imagined needs is very tricky, particularly in a society that measures success primarily in financial terms.
You alone can determine the price tag on your happiness, but as you assess your situation in order to define an acceptable range of income, consider the following accounts:
1. Six months after Alex was promoted into a position where he earned close to $100K a year, he was fired. Alex had no quarrel with the decision because he agreed that his performance had been questionable and that he had taken an extraordinary amount of sick leave without having any major illnesses. He readily admitted that he had never liked the position or the people with whom it brought him into contact and that most of his sick days had resulted from being unable to face another day in the office.
He insisted, however, that he had to "make at least as much" in his next job as he had made in his last and decided that to do so, he would have to seek a similar position in a similar kind of organization. He got one with little difficulty, largely because he was a likable fellow, a good talker, and had made many contacts in his field. But within a year, he was again out of a job this time because he repeatedly showed up drunk at meetings with clients.
2. Kate was a fast track MBA from Harvard who within five years of graduation was earning $95K as vice president of marketing for a company that packaged and sold gourmet foods. Her true love, however, was magazine publishing, which she had abandoned because she didn't feel she could earn enough in the publishing industry. To prove her point, she often ran through a listing of her current expenses, which included;
- $800 a month for psychotherapy, which she had been doing intensively for four and a half years.
- $200 a month for massage and chiropractic adjustments, which she explained she needed because her back and neck muscles went into spasms when she was tense.
- $200 a month for health club membership so she could relax in the steam room and sauna after work, without which she was unable to sleep.
- $400 a month on marijuana because she needed something to "free up" her mind to "think creatively" when working under the pressure of deadlines.
- $300 a month to garage her car, which she felt she needed in New York City so she could "get away quickly on weekends."
- $200 a month to have her apartment cleaned, even though she was single and professed to actually enjoy housework, for which she simply didn't have time.
"Even though I'm making $95K, I still live from paycheck to pay check," she notes with a sign of resignation.
3. Maryann's company went into bankruptcy, and she was let go along with most of the other people in her division. She had enjoyed her former job as director of public relations, but she took a job selling insurance within six weeks of termination. She disliked her new job yet professed to be glad to have it because she "couldn't afford more than a couple of months of unemployment." When asked why, she explained that she had promised her son a car when he graduated from high school, and the car he wanted carried an $8,000 price tag. "Without a job, I could never have gotten a loan to buy it for him."
4. Edward resigned from his position as a computer programmer for a large university and began doing similar work as a free lancer for a variety of colleges and universities in the Boston area. When he left, he had been earning about $40K a year, but as a free lancer, he was getting by on about half that amount. Despite his reduced income, he said he was happier than he had ever been before in his adult life because he was now able to devote two or three days a week to oil painting. He said his ability to get by on less demonstrated "the expense of having a 'real' job." "Now I spend almost nothing on clothes because I don't have to dress in a suit and tie unless I'm meeting with clients. I no longer spend $75 a month just to get to and from my job, and I don't spend an additional $50 a month on magazines to read during the commute. You know, I must have spent over $100 a month on little crap like candy bars, coffee, do nuts, and awful sandwiches from vending machines. Plus, now I almost never eat dinner out when working frill time, I always felt too tired to cook, but now I enjoy it. In fact, I get a kick out of buying inexpensive food at the grocery store and turning it into great meals."
These tales demonstrate the high cost, both emotionally and financially, of working in a job you dislike or that causes you to be tense, angry, and anxious most of the time. They also demonstrate the subjectivity involved in assessing financial needs. Did Maryann's son need to have an $8,000 car or any car for that matter and did she have to buy it for him? Did Kate need to earn $95K a year so she could afford to spend over $2,000 a month to recover from the ravages of her job? How badly did Alex need a $100 + K job that he would lose in less than a year? As you explore your own financial needs, take time to sit down with your family or lover or spouse and discuss finances openly. If you decide that getting the job you want means taking a cut in pay, talk about what that will mean for those who depend on you financially: get them involved in discussing and solving the problems that may arise. Brainstorm with them (or with a close friend, if you are unattached) about ways to cut expenses and generate additional income. Above all, remember that vocational dissatisfaction is tremendously expensive and that it is just as costly for those you love as it is for you.