When is that tiny paycheck worth it?
August 4, 2009 6:57 PM   Subscribe

My yearly take-home income at my day job is about 17K. I'm starting to reevaluate exactly how long I can live on something like that, and I'd like some advice. Is it foolish to leave a steady paycheck in a bad economy, even if that paycheck is peanuts, for a "possibly" more lucrative option? For those of you who have left a job you were unhappy with when times were rough, do you regret it?

I'll try to keep this concise.

I'm a 26-year-old woman, unmarried, no children. I'm in Ohio where the cost of living is low, but I still make very little money compared to people with similar experience. I got a bachelors degree in my chosen profession and have been working in it for several years at different companies and for different people. I'm pretty good with money--my only debt is my student loans and I rarely use credit cards. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot saved up. I pay for health insurance through this job and contribute to a 401(k).

I've been at this current job in my field for about 2 and a half years, where I work part-time, 32 hours a week. When I took this job, I didn't think working part-time would be a big deal, but now I'm getting worried that I won't be able to meet any of my long-term financial goals (buying a house, getting a better car) on the income I have now. I do freelance every once in a while, and when I do it, I make more in two hours than I do in an entire week at my day job, but I currently do not freelance enough to have it support me fully.

I've talked to the higher-ups about being a full time employee. They've basically told me that I could not get a promotion based on my own merits--I'd have to wait for one of my colleagues to quit (when the hell would that happen?! This isn't a job with a high turnover rate). When my immediate boss quit his job and they decided not to replace him, I asked again if I could be made full time and they said no.

I don't love this job. I enjoy my colleagues and every once in a while I have fun, exciting days, but out of all the jobs I've had in my field, this one is the worst. I don't want to change careers completely--I'm just looking for a workable solution so I can continue doing what I love in a better environment. I realize that building up a freelance business while I work probably makes the most sense, but my job requires me to work on Saturdays which cuts into a lot of freelance opportunities. (Perhaps I'm just making excuses.)

As time goes on, I get more and more depressed about this job because I don't see a future here. My ideal solution would be to quit this job and freelance full time, but part of me is scared to do that. All conventional wisdom says quitting a job, any job, in this economy is madness, especially when you don't have anything steady lined up waiting for you, and that it's getting harder and harder to freelance anyway. I'm told I should be grateful that I even have a job, but that doesn't make me feel any better. But I'm also not receiving any indication from my company that things will improve with the economy, and I keep asking myself how long I should wait for an improvement in the first place?

I'm having trouble coping with it all and I'm looking for info/anecdotes/advice for others who have been through this. Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Without knowing your field, it's hard (for me) to give you advice. I've bounced around a few times in the last couple years---and now I'm making less money (significantly) than I was 6 months ago, I'm much happier.

There is an entire article in this months Wired about leaving your job in a bad economy, or about getting downsized---and although it's focused on Tech people, I think some of it might apply to you. It outlines steps to future-proof yourself.
posted by TomMelee at 7:02 PM on August 4, 2009

Is it foolish to leave a steady paycheck in a bad economy, even if that paycheck is peanuts, for a "possibly" more lucrative option

in your question i don't see anything that indicates a more lucrative position on the horizon. quitting a job that pays your bills, but doesn't grow your savings, when you have no back up plan for paying your bills does seem a little foolish, no lie.

maybe do your budget and see if you can take a slight pay cut for an even more part time job, thus freeing up more of your time to find a better situation?

but, really, read some of the answers in this thread if you're at all optimistic about getting another, better, position in the current job market.
posted by nadawi at 7:04 PM on August 4, 2009

also - if you work 32 hours a week, and you have to work saturdays - are you really losing freelance time? how many days a week do you work? how many hours a day?

my dad, while i was growing up, often had his day job and freelance stuff on the side. he'd work 40-50 for his job and then 20-40 for freelance a week. he barely slept, but he made it happen because finding a better situation meant that much to him. maybe you need to do a priority shift on your free time vs freelance time.
posted by nadawi at 7:07 PM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Building up enough contracting/consulting/freelance jobs to keep you afloat is difficult. I say this as someone who has done this very successfully on two separate occasions in my life. And even when you build up a lucrative business, you also have to run that business, which takes a lot of time too. And in my opinion, without knowing your field and industry, now is not a good time to dive into that without a safety net -- either full-time employment somewhere, or significant savings.

Have you considered this option? Keep working your current job. On your off hours, look for permanent work with a different company that will pay you more. When you find that other job, take it and quit your current job. Then start looking for a few freelance gigs, and start building your business. Start thinking of it as a business instead of freelance. When the time comes that you realize you are making enough with your business to satisfy your income needs, quit the permanent job.

The benefit to switching permanent job first is that it will give time for the economy to improve, might give you better exposure to better opportunities while you wait for your own business to grow, and will give you better pay. Plus you'll feel better about your work; it must be demoralizing to be told that they need you for 32 hours/week but oh boy not 40/week, and that you'll never get a full-time position or promotion there.
posted by Houstonian at 7:13 PM on August 4, 2009 [6 favorites]

I am a full-time freelancer and left my full-time job 7 months ago. Also, I’ve job hopped so many times, so I understand the desire to hit the exit hatch (and I think my answer to most people when they say they don’t like their job is “quit!”.

In your case, though, I would advise staying for now, though, unless you can first get 1) 4 months savings plus 2) a client or 2 to state that they have a lot of work for you.
When I left my full-time job, I had about 4 months of living expenses plus a client who promised me lots of work. They did give me lots of work (almost immediately), but I did not see any of the $ they owed me for 3 months. Plus, at some point during all of this, I could not find any freelance work for 3 weeks or so. To be a bit more succinct, I struggled with finding enough work and with getting people to pay on time. I’ve now solved several of these problems (I don’t work with clients unless they pay almost immediately or within 30 days; I don’t work for below a certain rate; and I have several clients I can get work from now and always go fishing for more).

There are things, though, that you can do for now. E-mail everyone in the universe in your downtime – potential companies, friends, former contacts, and tell them that you plan to become a full-time freelancer in X months (that is how I landed one of my large gigs before I left my job). Save as much money as you can. Go see someone at SCORE or get business mentors to help you form contracts or steps that you can take to increase the chance of constant money flow once you launch your business.

You’ll make in anonymous, but just wait a bit so that you don’t go bankrupt within the first few months. I’m also going to say that despite the lay offs and bad economy, I’m getting a lot of business (I think it saves the large companies $) – so the work is out there, but make sure you are protected first.
posted by Wolfster at 7:54 PM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

my job requires me to work on Saturdays which cuts into a lot of freelance opportunities. (Perhaps I'm just making excuses.)

I think you are making excuses. There are 168 hours in a week. You need to sleep for 56 of them. Your current work takes up another 32. Factor in another 10 hours for transport, 10 hours for shopping and preparing food, 10 hours for socialising and 10 hours for self-care/exercise and you still have 40 hours a week to spend on improving your freelance opportunities and/or looking for another job and/or improving your skill set in your chosen profession.

I don't think you should quit your job with a bill-paying income for the possibility of more lucrative work. Do you have a strict and solid plan for turning that 'possibiltiy' into reality? That said I also think it is a bad idea to let fear dictate our dreams.

Your time is yours to spend. Make your time priorities match your personal goals and things will move ahead for you. In other words, work your tush off to improve your freelancing options (rather than watching TV, playing D & D, hanging out online, whatever) and that work will pay off in a multitude of ways.
posted by Kerasia at 7:56 PM on August 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

The median household income in the United States is $50,000. The median per-household-member income was something like $26,000. The poverty line is $10,000. You're making a little bit above the poverty line but well below what's considered a reasonable income.

I am highly skeptical that with a bachelor's degree $17,000 is a reasonable income for your field, but as TomMelee suggests it's hard to know that without your field. You have, however, suggested you have several years of experience. I think there are enough clear signals here that you need to re-evaluate whether the income you're making in your profession is a reasonable one. I can't draw a parallel from my own experience as I went through several years where I achieved 50 or 100% y/y growth by switching employers, so I am not a good example of what typically happens.

The one piece of advice I have to give you is this. Employers will get away with whatever you let them get away with. This is true until you start working for extremely large companies, and then the problem still exists although to a lesser extent depending on the company you're working for. You need to negotiate hard for better opportunities and even in a down economy they are out there in almost all fields. There are plenty of people in the world who sit in jobs where they think they're making a "reasonable" income but I know several people in job x who could be doing job y somewhere else with over 200% pay growth. What stops them is fear.

Consider this. You are making slightly above minimum wage (32 hours a week @ 7.30 an hour in Ohio is about $11,680 for 50 weeks a year). The average salary for basic secretarial work in Ohio is $35,000.

Ask yourself: Are you doing work above the grade of an administrative assistant? Are you utilizing your degree in the field you currently work in now?

I would strongly consider looking at either a job with a different employer or a new career altogether leveraging your experience in a kind of quasi-lateral move.
posted by arimathea at 7:59 PM on August 4, 2009 [4 favorites]

Nthing the idea that you should definitely look for a full-time job at another company. It doesn't say in your post whether you've pursued this option, but it seems fairly obvious as one way out of your current job, a job that is dead-end for the foreseeable future. Your pay is quite low for someone with a degree and several years in the field, and I say this as someone who works in a pretty modest-paying entry level position at a non-profit.
posted by ishotjr at 8:07 PM on August 4, 2009

I'm a woman with a bachelor's who had several jobs that sound exactly like the one you're in now. The only way I ever got a decent raise was by quitting. I'd get a slightly better job each time I quit, until it became clear that the only way I was going to make what I felt I deserved was by becoming self-employed.

I'm not sure if this applies to you, but in my slightly techie field, women tend to make significantly less than men, all the way up the career ladder. The only women who make as much as men are the ones who quit and start their own businesses. The most recent salary statistics for my niche show that this is still the case, which really ticks me off.

I built my business during a time when I worked 30 intense hours a week. I used my "free" time to find clients, put up a web site, and all that. When I had some steady-ish clients and was pretty sure I could make a go of it, I quit the crap job. That was 8 years ago and I'm doing fine, even though things got a little dicey earlier this year. So it's doable, but I'm not sure how enthusiastically I'd recommend it in this economy, especially when it sounds like you're not super eager to run your own business right away. Houstonian's solution is more cautious and probably better for you.

If you see a pattern in your approach to jobs and pay, you might get good ideas from Overcoming Underearning by Barbara Stanny. It gave me a big kick in the pants. See the reviews here. You should be able to find it at your public library.
posted by PatoPata at 8:13 PM on August 4, 2009

My situation wasn't the exact same as yours but I asked a similar question just about four years ago which may provide some other perspectives.

In my case, it was whether to stay in a field and with an organization I loved but a job that I found personally very frustrating or move into a different line of work. (I had an offer but it was only for part-time and a lot less money so I ended up turning it down.) But that whole discussion (both on AskMF and with friends and family) helped give me the courage to leave the security of a very good, full-time job to head for the unknown (I went back to graduate school to complete my Masters of Library Science.)

Of course, I don't know very many details about your situation, your line of work and being in the States, I know that health insurance is a huge issue for many people that we don't have to worry about in Canada (not to mention the current economic climate.)

But I can tell you that, as scary as it was at the time, it's a decision I haven't regretted once (okay, only when I think about how much additional student debt I took on - having just recently paid off my undergrad student loans.) I'm now in a field I love, I have the potential to earn more than double what I was in my previous job and I go to work every day excited to find out what will come my way!

So, again, it's a scary proposition to take the leap. But I'd like to offer one suggestion that often, the thought of making the leap is scarier than actually doing it!
posted by Jaybo at 8:16 PM on August 4, 2009

I think we're in the same boat. I'm also an Ohio resident, making about 18k (although I'm full time) and looking for another job at the same time. This will likely take a long time, especially if you want to stay in OH. I am in the newspaper industry, so there you go.
At this point, I'd be happy to be a secretary or some type of cubicle slave. I've learned I would be happy reporting on a freelance basis as a hobby. You said you don't want to leave your career completely, but everything is so screwed up now, I'm not sure if any future employers can hold it against you.
It sounds like you are at the point where I am-- my desire to make more money trumps any creative or career goals. There is nothing wrong with this and is probably a sign of maturity for a single person.
posted by greatalleycat at 8:22 PM on August 4, 2009

And another thing--When I quit my last job, they immediately wanted to hire me as a freelancer. They agreed to a rate that was more than twice what they had been paying me when I was an "employee" with no benefits or vacation. I instantly became 2.4 times more valuable to them just by saying "I quit."

I now make far more money than I ever did as an employee, have far more interesting work, and love having creative control and passion for what I do.
posted by PatoPata at 8:23 PM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Keep your job, and also keep looking for a better one.

Thanks to your current under-employment, you have plenty of time for job hunting, and it should be easy to "sneak" off for interviews, too.
posted by rokusan at 9:10 PM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is it foolish to leave a steady paycheck in a bad economy, even if that paycheck is peanuts, for a "possibly" more lucrative option

This is easy:

Total monetary value of current job = ( annual salary + plus benefits ) * chance you'll retain job for a year

Total monetary value of prospective job = ( annual salary + plus benefits ) * chance you'll get and retain job for a year.

Leaving intangibles (job satisfaction, location, famiy) aside, when Total value of prospective job - costs of changing jobs >Total value of current job, change jobs. But get the new job first.
posted by orthogonality at 9:31 PM on August 4, 2009

I'm gonna try to encourage you and say it: Make more money. Think carefully through how you're gonna try to do it, then DO IT.

Get this, you're young, no kids... You can do no wrong, don't you see that. If you make a go of it right now and you crash and burn... oh well, so what?

Take a chance, make some $$$. You have nothing to lose.
posted by Theloupgarou at 9:38 PM on August 4, 2009

I would look for a better job. There really is no down-side to doing this. Life is too short.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 1:49 AM on August 5, 2009


I read this again and have another idea for you (re: finding a new job, meeting your economic goals, and just getting to another environment, which should equal less depression)

Do informational interviews. Google your field title and other vairables (eg, anonymy poster at metafilter, Ohio, etc) and see what comes up. Contact those people by email and ask if they would talk on the phone, email, whatever, for a limitted amt of time. Ask them how they got their position, what are the desired job skills, and if you can be subtle about it, the pay.

I did the above when I wanted to use my biology graduate degree to transition into medical writing. I also wanted to earn more money than my previous job, and this task pointed me in the right direction (I wanted to make sure that I enjoyed the new job and earned a tad more).

Anyway, I think this could help because you will be taking steps (where to go next) and learning about other opportunities, Finally, when I did this, a few people told me about options that were not advertised (a contact person who probably would hire someone like me if I asked to meet with him, or a paid internship program, etc.). Just suggesting this because as some of the posters mentioned above, sometimes a person can undersell him or herself in terms of pay.

Finally, I think someone above mentioned this idea, but I would also consider looking for jobs that do whatever it is that you do as a freelancer - so if you are a freelance writer, find a job that has a lot of writing or if you make webpages, find a job that does this for other companies. That was another step I took before freelancing and it was the best thing that I did - 1) I made contacts, some who were later in a position to offer me freelance gigs, 2) I obtained great samples, 3) the name of the workplace alone gets me freelance gigs - people know I have the relevant experience. 4) You learn a bit more about the business (as in, how much do they charge per hour? what are the best practices? any industry trends?)

Good luck anony...you'll break out of the cage.
posted by Wolfster at 5:08 AM on August 5, 2009

It's hard to say without knowing your field, but I really doubt 17k take-home is reasonable for a BA-holder in your field, even for part time. Consider: in college I worked about the same number of hours as a clerk at a supermarket. After taxes and union dues, my take home was around 19k. Granted, I'm on the East Coast, but I kinda think you're getting hosed.

Keep this job, look for a full-time position with another employer. Your experience will matter. It is really hard to develop the steady clients to go freelance. It would be better to put away savings and develop contacts for a while. Full-time, better-paying work will give you that chance.
posted by spaltavian at 7:31 AM on August 5, 2009

Unless you're pretty sure finding another job will take a really long time, my advice is to quit. I've quit jobs and been laid off from jobs, and although there has been momentary panic, every single time I've wound up better off. There's a lot of inertia involved in sticking with a crappy job, and it's not easy overcoming it, but it sounds like you've given it a lot of thought and are well on your way. Good luck!
posted by languagehat at 8:30 AM on August 5, 2009

Keep your job and and work towards setting yourself up for what you really want to do. I used to have a job that I was miserable at and didn't make much money. I had credit card debt and school loans to pay and there was no end in sight. What really got me out of the funk was the resolution that I have to do something to change the situation, and that action was better than no action. Finally, I found a job similar to what I did, it paid a little bit more, but I actually liked what I did. I've moved on from that job after five years and I'm now making the money I want to. It has become a career for me. Basically, nothing will change unless you take action--any action is a step closer to what you want.
Good luck!
posted by mspisces at 8:51 AM on August 5, 2009

The median household income in the United States is $50,000. The median per-household-member income was something like $26,000. The poverty line is $10,000. You're making a little bit above the poverty line but well below what's considered a reasonable income.

I am highly skeptical that with a bachelor's degree $17,000 is a reasonable income for your field...

She said $17K was her "take-home" pay. Her official income is presumably more like $26K. Possibly more, depending whether she is counting the 401k and health insurance as part of take-home or not (ie, if it is just after taxes that gets separated)...

32 hrs per week including a saturday means you have two weekdays free, doesn't it? Those would be good times to look into other jobs or freelance opportunities if that is the route you wish to pursue. I would do a bit of research before just quitting the job, since your schedule allows it.
posted by mdn at 10:12 AM on August 5, 2009

I'm there right now.

I've been working at this job for a year, and for the past 9 or 10 months, I've been trying to find a way out of it. It's a long and complicated story, so I won't go into too many details, but what I'll say about it is that despite the paycheck, the benefits, and everyone else's advice to not quit this job until I had something else lined up, I knew that I had to leave. As time went on, the management has become increasingly ineffective and incompetent, to the point that I started having dreams and nightmares about work every night, and then I would wake up in the morning with sharp pains in my stomach and chest. Even with therapy, nothing seemed to improve.

Finally, I knew that I had to act on the decision that I had already made months ago. I submitted my resignation letter, and now I have about a week and a half left until my last day on the job. Ever since I took that step last week, I've felt so much better than I have in a very long time. I've felt like I have a lot more motivation to work on other job applications, and my physical energy has also gone back up to what feels like a much healthier level for me. In short, I feel hopeful again.

In the meantime, I've signed up with a few temp agencies, but nothing definite has come through yet. After I receive my last paycheck from this job, I honestly have no idea what my next source of income will be. That scares me a little bit, but what scares me even more is the thought of what might have happened to me if I had decided to stay at this job.

Without knowing your specific situation, I can't say what may or may not be the best decision for you. Obviously, you have to take a lot of factors into consideration, but for me, the decision ultimately came down to knowing my own personal limits. Being bored with my job was one thing, but it was something entirely different for me to see that for months, this job was causing me physical and emotional distress. That was my breaking point, because in my opinion, NO job is worth having to go through all of that.

I hope that this all works out for you. Being there myself, I know all too well how tough it is to spend the majority of your week at a place that makes you so unhappy, especially when other people tell you to feel lucky for what you do have in this economy. Whatever choice you make, my advice is to stay positive and keep moving forward. Even if you send out 50 resumes a week and hear absolutely nothing back, keep going, because the alternative (i.e. simply settling for what you have now) is unthinkable.

Good luck.
posted by sabira at 3:28 PM on August 5, 2009 [4 favorites]

« Older How do you find out which areas of town are zoned...   |   Help me stop sounding like such a ditz on the... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.