Money Matters

This week I was a guest on the excellent Personal Finance for PhDs podcast with the excellent Emily Roberts. I shared how I was forced to get real with my budget, REAL fast when I was laid off from my museum job.

Did I mention I was 3 months pregnant when I got laid off?

Or that all that happened in the midst of the Great Recession?

Adulting was coming on full force, all at once.

It all turned out fine. Great, actually!
And no, I don’t mean that in the way of the “this is fine!” meme.

That’s all true. That’s what led to my first career change.

But it also led me to a really powerful change in how I viewed my relationship with my career, and my paycheck.

When I was a grad student, we never had any extra money, at all. And it didn’t matter because I was happy.

When I went to work full-time in museums, I was working WAY more than 40 hours a week and making squat. And it didn’t matter. Because I was working in my dream career. I got to tell everyone what I did and where I worked, and that meant the world to me.

Except that it turns out it did matter that I wasn’t making any money. I just didn’t know it.

Making no money kept me from being able to stash away ANY savings. Like, for, say, an unforeseen layoff.

So yes, getting laid off was a huge blow to our already empty bank account. A blow that took a couple of years to recover from. But I did learn to recover from that ruin, with a financial advisor’s help. And I went from ruin to triumph over my paychecks, actually. (Listen to the podcast episode for full details).

But the defeat of having AWFUL finances taught me an important and priceless lesson about my career, too.

Getting laid off made me rethink my relationship with my career. Because here’s the thing. Being committed to a “passion” career also meant I was being exploited. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I was working 7 days a week and nights for many of my museum jobs. And dragging my husband to do some tasks, too. For free, obviously. In his ample “free” time as a PhD student.

All of that dedication to a career where I was not getting paid a living wage, nor getting any benefits. I didn’t have anything to set aside from my paychecks for retirement. I didn’t get any medical insurance. I didn’t get any employer match for retirement. I never had more than an 18-month contract. I’m not kidding: I didn’t get ANY benefits.

So yes, getting laid off made us rethink how we dealt with and managed money. But the real takeaway for me is it took a layoff at the exact moment we were facing one of the biggest expenses American families have (raising a child) to realize that I needed a different relationship with my career. And that switching from a career I had dreamed of since I was a kid…was going to be okay.

It turned out better than okay, actually. It’s probably the best thing that happened to me. Seriously.

It took a layoff, a having-no-money perspective for me to realize that it was OKAY that I needed more from a career.

That I wasn’t going to be a sell-out just because I factually needed a living wage. that I needed benefits. That there are REAL reasons you need to be able to set aside some savings. (Nevermind for an occasional splurge – GASP!)

And that it was okay to take a career where I would give at best *only* 40 hours a week so I could redirect my attention to my growing family. And myself. That I had changed. And so had my relationship with my career.

I don’t know when I would have come to that realization were it not for getting laid off. During a period when there WERE no museum jobs to pursue, so it wasn’t even an option.

But I do know I would have come to it eventually. I’m just glad that I came to it sooner rather than later.

My hope for you is this. That you don’t make my mistake! Don’t wait for a layoff or financial ruin for YOU to realize that your career should be more than just “interesting” to you. It’s okay to head down a different path. Pursue one that will pay you a better wage, give you better hours, give you benefits, and support the lifestyle you need and want.