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For Love or Money: How Much Should Salary Matter in Career Decisions?

As young workers and students we know that career advice is about as rare as sand in the Sahara. Good advice, however, can be as elusive as it is valuable.

As young workers and students we know that career advice is about as rare as sand in the Sahara. Good advice, however, can be as elusive as it is valuable.

Everybody over the age of 30 thinks they have the answer to what YOU should do with your life—even if they’re still aimless. Chances are their advice falls into one of two camps. The flowery: “Do what you love and money will follow;” or the hardened: “There’s no money in that!” But beware such narrow career advice. True, money can’t buy happiness; but it’s also hard to be happy without “enough” money.

Earning potential has always been a factor in making career decisions. But with today’s skyrocketing college costs and graduate debt loads, you may know somebody who has passed a dream job by for a higher-paying starting salary.

It’s hard to blame them, but where is the line in the sand? When do you give up salary for happiness and when should you take a job just for the check?

Call it the dark side of soul searching. Nobody likes to admit that money plays into their dreams, but doesn’t it?

These days, a young single person should be able to live on a starting salary of $25k in all but the most expensive cities. But making ends meet gets a lot harder when you add $20k – $50k in student loans. Have credit card debt too? Not only can you not get ahead at those salaries, chances are you will fall farther behind.

There aren’t any secret keys to finding a higher-paying job in your twenties or even discovering the right balance of income and job satisfaction. It is possible, however, to plan for a career transition.

If you’re looking to take a position you love that will mean a pay cut, increase the amount you automatically save from your paycheck (you do this, right?) to what you anticipate your new salary will be. Then add 10 more percent. Get used to living on the now-reduced paycheck for at least six months before making the transition. You won’t notice your reduce in pay, and you’ll have banked some extra bucks, too.

If you’re struggling to make ends meet, need to get out of debt, or otherwise feel like you don’t make enough money, it may be time to consider a better-paying career. Many people can adapt their skill-sets to a new industry to land a better paying gig. Sometimes it can be easy as leaving your job for a competitor. Always keep your options open to maximize your income. Just don’t become a job frog, leaping from cube to cube. More than three jobs in five years on your resume can spell trouble down the road.

For Students: Plan Ahead to Avoid Going Broke

In college it’s easy to be idealistic, to get lost in the “big ideas” of academia and to subscribe to college marketing promising future CEOs and world leaders. But underneath a university’s philosophical smoke and mirrors is the reality that students’ decisions influence earnings potential long before earning a single penny. Getting into college is a good first step; it’s certainly not everything.

Early financial planning for your first job and “entry-level life” is critical. This involves taking a realistic look at how much you can expect in a starting salary, to pay for an apartment and car, and repay in student loans each month. While it’s increasingly acceptable to crash at home for a year or two, squatting with the rents shouldn’t be a crutch to delay work or spend the would-be rent on the latest gear. The longer you delay taking financial responsibility for yourself, the longer you will be poor.

If you’re following a passion into a lower paying career, don’t go into overwhelming debt to get there. For students with an unyielding desire to become a writer, artist or musician, for example; balancing part-time formal training with an almost full-time job can be a longer but smarter route to the degree. There’s little worse than spending four full years preparing to pursue a career you love only to graduate and realize you can’t afford it.

Conversely, if your aim is a high-paying career, understand that your lifestyle will be the result of your monthly income minus your debt. So taking on monstrous debt to get a high-paying gig may not pay off with the plush pad and hot ride like you had hoped—at least at first. Sure, you will get rich down the road. But it’s also important to enjoy your twenties on the way.

Finding happiness in your career takes a lot more than a livable starting salary. But a little bit of financial planning when making education and career decisions can go a long way. Be wary of single-line career advice, but remember that happiness is a balance between enjoying work and being able to enjoy life.

Published or updated on September 25, 2006

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.


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