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How to Find a Job You Love and Still Pay the Bills


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No one wants to make it to their retirement party after a lifelong career and say to themselves, “Well, that was pointless.” But many workers feel tied to jobs they simply tolerate because they’re not sure how to invest their time, financial decisions, and savings in a career plan that will allow them to pursue their dreams.

Whether you’re a fresh-faced college student or a mid-career employee, you need to work hard and be creative to obtain the knowledge, security, and savings needed to make the leap into the career path you love. You can do this by fully considering both the dream you want to pursue and the lifestyle you want to live, and formulating a clear plan for how to reconcile the two.

Live to Work or Work to Live?

When I was 18 years old, I decided to become a social worker because I wanted to help people in need. I didn’t have a specific population or cause I wanted to pursue, but rather I knew that I just wanted to make a difference in the lives of others. I thought that the median salary of roughly $40,000 for a master’s level social worker was noble. Unfortunately, the impetus that moved me into my chosen career wasn’t enough to sustain me when bills were hard to pay and I didn’t have the money to invest in self-care strategies to prevent burnout.

Finally, I landed on a career that reconciled both my passions and talents with the money I needed to make to support my family. I work as an independent contractor with several clients, spending half my time writing for websites and social service agencies, and the other half working as a case manager with women who are trying to leave sexually oriented businesses. This arrangement works beautifully for me, as it allows me to do what I love – writing and working with people – while still paying the bills.

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If you’re considering a career change or just want to enjoy your time on the clock, it’s important to have an understanding of the tasks involved in your dream profession, your dream profession’s job market, and the costs associated with the family life you want to live.

How to Make Money Doing What You Love

1. Investigate Your Dream Profession

Sometimes, people have an expectation of what their dream job will entail that doesn’t match up with what is actually required. For example, when I worked for an international aid agency, I was deeply interested in humanitarian aid and social justice, but I enjoyed nothing about my job. The day-to-day tasks of sitting at my desk, answering my phone, participating in meetings, and talking about food shipments were nothing I was particularly talented at or interested in. I’ve also worked closely with nurses who chose their profession because they wanted to help people, but were dismayed to find that they spent most of their work hours charting medications and vital signs and cleaning body fluids.

The dream we have in our minds doesn’t always match the reality, so it’s extremely important to gain a strong dose of reality before idealizing a specific career path. If a dream job isn’t closely linked with what you’re good at or comfortable doing on a daily basis, it’s not a good fit, and you shouldn’t sacrifice your time and money to pursue it.

2. Use a Well-Paying Job to Reach Your Goal

Dream jobs don’t always present themselves exactly when you’re ready for one – or you may not know what you want to do yet. In this case, diligently bide your time before making a job transition.

Greg Mortenson, the co-founder of the nonprofit Central Asia Institute, became passionate about bringing education to Pakistani children after he nearly died during a climb on K2. He was rescued by the villagers in the Pakistani town of Korphe and promised to return to build a school for the children who lived there. His story is chronicled in his biography “Three Cups of Tea,” but it’s especially interesting because of how he was able to return to Pakistan to build the school.

Although Central Asia became his focus and life’s work, Mortenson was also trained as a nurse. He dutifully worked his hospital shifts as needed to build his savings, prior to investing those savings in lengthy trips and expensive building projects in Pakistan. Mortenson no longer works as a nurse, but he used his day job to propel him towards his ultimate passion, and has therefore made a difference in the lives of countless people.

You too can develop yourself as a worker at a 9-to-5 job while navigating your interests in creative ways. For instance, if you enjoy crunching numbers and are passionate about equitable healthcare, don’t give up your job as an accountant to deliver medical aid to Africa. Instead, take a small cut in pay to work as an accountant for a nonprofit that addresses your social concerns. Pursuing your deepest convictions doesn’t have to look glamorous – it just needs to fit with how you’re wired.

There are other ways to gain the freedom to pursue your passions while working a day job:

  • Use Savings. Some jobs have typically large paychecks, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Use the savings you’ve worked hard for in a high-paying job to travel or pursue education in the area you want to work in.
  • Retire Early. People who have retired from the military or from a high-paying career can use their retirement savings and income to support a lower-paying second career, such as teaching or creating art. Consider whether you can retire early from a lucrative career to more fully pursue a career that better suits you.
  • Invest Vacation Time. Greg Mortenson’s story is compelling because he truly invested his time off from work and used it to his advantage. If you have considerable vacation time, free summers, or lengthy periods of down-time, use the time to your advantage.
  • Find Flexibility. Many jobs require standard eight-hour work days, but many jobs do not. A flexible job that provides reliable cash flow can free up time to pursue other interests.
Use Well Paying Jobs Reach Goal

3. Make Sound Financial Decisions Along the Way

If you know that you want to pursue a career that doesn’t pay very much, do whatever you can to prevent racking up massive student loan debt or other financial obligations. For example, take classes at community colleges, work hard to finish early, or take on a part-time job to support yourself while in school. Large amounts of debt can make it difficult, if not impossible, to fully commit yourself to the career you badly want, and it will not be easy to change course from your commitments when additional financial responsibilities (such as children or a mortgage) inevitably arise.

In addition to avoiding student loan debt, it is also crucial to prevent yourself from accruing credit card debt, expensive car debt, and a costly mortgage. Many young professionals spend frivolously, taking costly vacations and purchasing luxury cars and an oversized home once the paychecks start coming in. But these debts quickly add up, and can just as quickly chain a worker to an unfulfilling job.

Even if you have done an excellent job of avoiding debt, remember that small financial choices can make a big difference over time. A cup of Starbucks coffee a few times per week can turn into hundreds of dollars over the course of a year. If you are concerned that your small choices are eating into your savings, try to make a concerted effort to live within the budget you think you’ll have when you make the leap into your dream job. Small sacrifices here and there could eventually help you transition into a fulfilling career.

Final Word

Remember: You don’t have to work a job you hate to pay the bills, and pursuing your dream doesn’t have to equate to poverty. With a little planning, creativity, and sacrifice, you can do what you love. Pay attention to the activities you enjoy, and find a pragmatic way to dedicate ample time to them. It can feel like a risk, but it’s worth it to live a life well-spent.

What additional tips can you suggest to transition away from an unfulfilling job into a career you enjoy?

Mary McCoy, LMSW is a licensed social worker who works closely with individuals, families, and organizations in crisis. She knows first-hand how financial choices can prevent and mitigate crises, and she's therefore passionate about equipping people with the information they need to make solid financial decisions for themselves and their loved ones. When Mary isn't on her soap box, you can find her hiking, jogging, yoga-ing, or frolicking with her family.