I tell people all the time to change their job if they don’t like it, and people tell me this is totally impractical advice. A lot of people write to me to say that my advice only applies to rich people. Or they tell me that single parents, families living paycheck to paycheck, people in debt, cannot use my advice.
I think these people are in denial. Of course, there are exceptions, but usually these people are really saying that the things they have in their current standard of living are more important than being happy in their job. That’s fine. But don’t complain that the advice doesn’t apply to you. It does. You choose to have an expensive lifestyle instead.
I want to tell you a short history of my financial life. It is so unstable that when I told my brothers that I was writing for Yahoo Finance, they thought it was a joke. And then they got concerned for me that Yahoo would find out the real me, and I’d lose my job.
My bank account looked very good when I was running my own companies. They were well funded, and I extracted a large salary from investors — on top of equity — because it used to be okay to do that. The year my husband and I moved to New York City, I earned more than $200,000.
I had never lived in New York City before. But I had seen photos of John and Carolyn Kennedy coming out of their Tribeca loft, and I figured that’s where I would live with my husband. It was a harsh reality when I discovered that our combined income would need to be in the millions in order to have a loft in Tribeca. So we moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn that was so small that I had to buy storage for all my books. And just about everything else, too.
Then the World Trade Center fell. I was there, and my being there changed me and my husband. We both realized we wanted kids right away, and we wanted to change careers: Bye-bye big paychecks.
My husband started volunteering at human rights organizations. I became a freelance writer and had a poverty-level income for New York City. Then we had a baby. I want to tell you that we lived off our savings for a while, but we didn’t. It lasted about nine months in New York City.
That’s when we realized we had to totally shift our lifestyle to accommodate our work choices. We made big decisions. We stopped being friends with people who couldn’t stop ordering $70 bottles of wine at dinner. We didn’t go to the beach because we didn’t have a car to get there, and besides, beach passes were too expensive.
Soon, we found ourselves making almost every decision based on money, and we didn’t want to live that way. So after a lot of research, we moved out of New York City. We moved to Madison, Wisconsin. I write a lot about how we chose Madison, but the bottom line is that we looked for the city with the lowest cost of living that we could be happy in. (Other runners-up, in case you’re interested: Minneapolis, Portland (Oregon), and Austin.)
Once we got to Madison, things changed. Money was not nearly such a big issue. We became more flexible, we have more freedom in our decision making. I’m not going to tell you that Madison is a bastion of culture and innovation. It’s not. But if you want to live in a bastion of culture and innovation, it’ll cost you. In personal flexibility.
If you want personal stability, flexibility to find fulfilling work, and meaningful personal relationships, that’s about as much as you can ask for in life. That’s a lot. All the other stuff is secondary. Great if you can get it, but not as important as this stuff. I am not positive, but I have a feeling that I do not need to live in a major city in order to get these three things.
If you want to have the ability to change careers and quit jobs you don’t like and try out new things, then you might need to make huge life decisions to accommodate that. I have friends in San Francisco who had only one kid so they could afford to keep their low-paying jobs. This is a big decision. I have friends who are moving from the center of Portland to the boondocks of Portland so they can afford for one of them to be a stay-at-home parent.
I’m not saying you have to live in rural Alabama or forgo having kids. I’m saying you need to be an adult, and realize that adults make big decisions. Things don’t just happen to you. You have power to decide what your life will be like.
And if you set your life up so you can’t change jobs, take personal responsibility for that. It didn’t just happen to you. You are making decisions about that.