When is good enough?
February 6, 2019 10:12 AM   Subscribe

For the first time in my life, I have a decent, well-paying job... but when can I leave?

I am a first-generation college student with a Masters degree in computer science. Two years ago I got a job at a major tech company in Silicon Valley. I “like” working there, in that the pay is very good, management is humane, and my work is challenging. But I am also an ex-working class young woman who gets pushed around a lot by big egos (working on my assertiveness), and I’m almost 30 and would like to start thinking about settling down. Which really, is never going to happen in the Bay Area. I am fourth (?) generation “tech money” at this point, which means I’m never really going to be able to reasonably afford a house in this area, and I am not into the idea of buying anyway.

I certainly don’t NEED a house to have a family. But I’d much prefer to move closer to my family— the Midwest— before actually starting one. But, like... what do I need? At what point would I not be shooting myself in the foot if I looked for a new job back home?

I started out at this job with $20,000 in revolving debt (half from being an idiot, half just from moving out here) which is just now almost finally paid off. I have a huge wad of student loans— about 100k, which I am not proud of, but are the thing which enabled me to switch careers to technology. I am just starting to save and have about $30k in a 401k and I can save $1500 a month, which I’ve just started to do now that credit cards are paid off.

So what’s a good jumping point to leave Silicon Valley for comfier pastures? Because I’m from a poor background I feel particularly addicted to the sense of safety I have in my current job— it’s with a big company, the company is doing well, etc. But I don’t want to live here forever. But it might be too expensive to leave? Can anyone who isn’t the first person in their family to ever rise above the poverty line give me some advice or guidance on what they would plan to do, if there are certain benchmarks, etc.? I want to sustain some prosperity (I send money back home to my family, too) but I don’t care about being upper middle class. But I’m starting to realize that I’m much too poor to have a “I can stop earning when...” conversation with myself, and I feel like I’m going to have to really shift my mindset to ever be able to move on with my life.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
As someone who went from a family of unstable but generally lowish financial status to a high-paying job in the private sector to a public-interest job, allow me to recommend: pay off your loans; fix your teeth; buy some decent furniture; save for a down payment if you think you might want a house in the Midwest. Then look for a more rewarding job.
posted by praemunire at 10:38 AM on February 6 [42 favorites]

I doesn't cost that much to sell everything you own except a car full of stuff and drive back to a new job in the midwest. I think you need to stop looking at your Big Tech job as the destination and instead see it as a launchboard. Chances are good that you can parlay your current role in CA into a more senior role in another firm in the midwest. The company name and Valley experience will make you a very attractive candidate.

At that point, it's about cost of living. Run the numbers and see how much you need to earn to still save but also to pay less for housing and food and possibly transport.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:42 AM on February 6 [5 favorites]

I will say that there are options within the Midwest, (primarily in Chicago, but also to a lesser degree in Minneapolis/KC/Indy) where you can make very good money in tech with a way, way lower CoL. I'm around your age and in Chicago (altho I got a late start into the tech industry through a bootcamp, rather than through CS) and I and the people I know in tech who are around our age/slightly ahead of us are living very comfortably and starting to buy homes and have kids. If you already have a job as an engineer at a major company (I'm guessing FAANG or MS? But it honestly doesn't matter that much), you could probably get a dev job in Chicago without much difficulty.

I honestly don't know if there's any clear cutoff for when to leave. If you're unhappy, and you want to be closer to family, and you want to ever actually own a home, it sounds like the time is now. The shortest time I'm personally comfortable hopping jobs is after about a year, so if you've got that time racked up, and given your circumstances, I'd say start looking for your next spot. (And if you do want to come to Chicago, hit me up via MeMail and I can put you in touch with some good resources/recruiters.)
posted by protocoach at 10:45 AM on February 6

If you really want to leave, you can probably do it now. Start looking at jobs in the places you want to live and see what's out there.

I'm guessing however that despite the high cost of living, you are able to save more where you are now. If that's true, after saving an emergency fund, I would prioritize saving enough for a 20% down payment on a house in the area you're looking at, if you will want to buy eventually. After that (or if you don't want to buy), work on chipping away on the student loans.
posted by metasarah at 10:48 AM on February 6

I have two thoughts and they are somewhat contradictory. This is based on my life experience. I am old. One, spend the next year crushing the savings. Put the $1500 per month away. Try to get it to $20,000 for the year. The more you bank, the easier the move will be. The second thought, and I moved from NY to Chicago to Marin to NYC in my life is that there is never a perfect time for a move. You just have to jump in when you can. Think long and think wrong. I moved from NY to Chicago on a week's notice.

Start looking for jobs in the place in which you think you might want to live. Take a flyer on an opening you see that is as close to a dream job as it can be. Maybe get lucky and land it and move.

If you do not start researching, then it is a dream. It becomes a goal when you write it down and start the work/research.
posted by AugustWest at 10:54 AM on February 6 [4 favorites]

I can't speak to what "enough" is, but I would like to challenge your assumption that you can't afford to settle down in the bay area due to being "fourth generation". Many many junior engineers grossly underestimate the amount of compensation growth available to engineers as they move up in seniority. Even if you ultimately want to return to the midwest, you should consider that by growing your career to mid/senior at a major tech company you may substantially impact both your career options when you move and your cash on hand to make that transition.

Another good option may be to grow your career in CA and then transition to remote work or a mid-west office once you've established yourself well at headquarters.

Please feel free to memail me directly and I will happily go into details about career and comp growth options on the west coast from my perspective as a senior engineer at a major silicon valley tech firm.
posted by lucasks at 10:57 AM on February 6 [8 favorites]

Lots of tech jobs in the midwest - look at Ann Arbor, Detroit, Chicago, twin cities. They won't pay as well as CA most likely but the cost of living is way lower. I'd start job hunting and see what pops up. Also depending on your specific company might have options to transfer elsewhere?
posted by leslies at 11:39 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Congratulations on your successful career thus far. I am no financial expert but personally my short/medium term goal would be to pay off those student loans. I think home ownership can be overrated. Are you happy? Do you want to move, or do you just feel like you should?
posted by emd3737 at 11:50 AM on February 6

In my situation, when I was unhappy with the actual city I lived in, I asked if I could work remotely and I came up with a plan for how it would work and presented my boss with reasons it would be a positive. They let me work remotely and I moved to where I wanted to live, and I was much happier.

I know someone who lived in the Bay Area who was unhappy and didn't see herself settling down there. Also worked at a big tech company. She asked if she could be transferred to another office they have and they agreed. If your company has offices in other locations, maybe that's an option.

It's a risk you need to weigh, but if they know you really want to leave and they want to keep you, they may be willing to let you live somewhere else so you'll stay on board.

My general default stance is that happiness is better than money. However, you don't sound particularly miserable with your job, and it sounds like earning money may be necessary for you right now. I'm not sure this sounds particularly urgent, but without knowing the exact details of all your finances and your job prospects in the midwest, if any, it's tough to give any clear-cut advice.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:20 PM on February 6

As I have pursued jobs that have some work life balance I have struggled with negotiating for my value -- you don't necessarily have to give up all the financial benefits-- just a small percentage of them.
posted by typecloud at 1:49 PM on February 6

I went midwest to east coast. I get where you are coming from. Give it more time - the advantages start to compound. This job might not be all that different than a similar one in the midwest, but I suspect the opportunities for your next job are probably both better and far more plentiful than those available in the midwest. And if that next job sucks, you can find some other new spot and keep moving up. You've only been there two years and you are not even 30. You bet on yourself and it's paying off, you aren't saying you're miserable, and you have some time to play this out a little longer.

Also, if you aren't moving to the same city as your family, would moving to the midwest really be meaningfully closer? For example, a four hour drive is still an obstacle - in practical terms your involvement in each others lives might be basically the same as it is if you live on a coast.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 2:39 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]

Pay off your student debt while you're still living in a geographic location that pays you the wages to do so. If you're able to "save" $1500 a month, and if you used those "savings" to accelerate paying off your debt, it would take you about 5 more years.

Taking that debt to the Midwest with you would be an anchor on your neck.

I put "savings" in quotation marks because as long as you have consumer debt, which includes student loans (i.e., any loan that you're not leveraging to generate tangible equity), you're not saving, and the key to success in your late thirties and early forties is getting rid of useless debt.
posted by JamesBay at 4:05 PM on February 6 [6 favorites]

Could you negotiate for remote work, or find another Bay Area-based company willing to let you work remotely, so that you can move without leaving a secure and well-paying job?
posted by pinochiette at 8:39 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

I think your student loans are your main pinch point. You need to earn enough to pay those off so that they are not a millstone long term. If you threw all your spare cash at them they'd be gone in 5-6 years.

The information you need to help you understand when will be the right point for you to move is salaries and career trajectories in both locations. Without knowing the specifics, I would say that it's better to move a bit beyond entry level if you're going from an area of abundant jobs to an area with fewer opportunities, because you're more likely to have a better understanding of the career tradeoffs you're making and have a more certain idea of the kind of work that you want to pursue within your field.
posted by plonkee at 6:48 AM on February 7

Please pay off all of your debt before you move to the Midwest (or any other lower-COL area which will also pay a lower salary). Unless you're absolutely miserable in your current position, but it doesn't sound like you are.

My suggestion:
1) Save enough in your 401k to get the company match.
2) Save up a 6-month emergency fund that covers rent/food/fixed bills.
3) Throw everything else at your loans, starting with the highest interest rate and working downwards from there.
4) If you're receiving stock as part of your comp package, sell everything as soon as it vests and apply it towards step 2/3 (in that order).
posted by serelliya at 4:56 PM on February 8

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