n hrs/wk = frugal livelihood; solve for lowest possible n
September 15, 2019 8:35 AM   Subscribe

Say you're choosing a career and your *only* criterion is that you want to work the fewest possible hours that will allow you to pay the bills. What options would you consider?

I've come to realize that, while I've never had any specific career ambitions, my free time is extremely important to me. This maybe means that my career ambition should be a job that maximizes free time. Please help me brainstorm such jobs!

For the purposes of this question, I'd like ideas about career options that would support a frugal but reasonably comfortable lifestyle somewhere in the US, working the fewest possible hours, for a single person who intends to stay that way. It's fine if it would take a few years of training/etc. to reach that situation -- I see this as a long-term goal.

Obviously in reality there will be other criteria I'll consider, but I'm deliberately leaving them out in order to keep this as broad as possible -- it's just a starting point for thinking about this question, so any and all ideas, wild as they might be, will be appreciated.
posted by zeri to Work & Money (24 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
If it’s workable for you in terms of your own capacities and the legal situation in your country, and you’re able to bear the risk and stigma, sex work.
posted by Mistress at 8:43 AM on September 15, 2019 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Substitute teaching in a larger district? It used to be you had to stand ready at the phone at 5am to get a sub job but now my (large, urban) district has an online system you can log into and see/accept all available jobs, and you can know the night before where you'll be going. Pay is per day, enough for a minimal lifestyle, and easy to scale up or down based on needs.
posted by Wulfhere at 9:01 AM on September 15, 2019 [10 favorites]

Best answer: In Oregon at least, I’ve seen state, county and city jobs be able to be split between individuals. In several instances I’ve seen two folks nearing retirement age and choose to make both their positions half time, allowing the govt body to hire another FTE. They work half time, and still retain some modicum of good benefits. Most of these instances were in mental health and medical jobs.

School based jobs (not just teachers) are often .8 time, since you get summers off. The pay is generally workable for frugal people, and you get a few months off each year.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:07 AM on September 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If you can buy rental property (e.g. even a duplex where you rent out one half and live in the other), the time required for maintenance may be relatively minimal.

I have a photographer friend who charges $550 per 45-minute headshot shoot. Obviously this person is very skilled, and this is in an area where there's high demand even at those rates.

Another friend is an SAT tutor for rich students in Manhattan. Bartending can also pay pretty well as a part-time job.
posted by pinochiette at 9:08 AM on September 15, 2019 [8 favorites]

Trader Joes.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:27 AM on September 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Programmers have a ton of labor flexibility these days, and great pay (and if you want a very chill area, get the right government contracts)
posted by wooh at 9:36 AM on September 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

I had a housemate who worked three (12hr) days a month as a nurse and otherwise did what she pleased.
posted by Mitheral at 9:58 AM on September 15, 2019 [7 favorites]

If you can invest a few years of training you could simply work hard for these years, invest >75% of your salary in a market index fund, do this for approx. 8 years and live of the interest forever. The term to look for is financial independence/early retirement (FIRE).
Look here for a start.
posted by SweetLiesOfBokonon at 10:22 AM on September 15, 2019 [9 favorites]

Something medical -- became a specialist, like maybe an anesthesiologist.
posted by Rash at 10:32 AM on September 15, 2019

For these goals, I’d say find a highly technical skill which is friendly to contract work, and where the majority of your work is solitary and can be scheduled flexibly. Programming is one example of this that I’m most familiar with; I also know people who do well as freelance accountants or consulting engineers.

One downside is that these jobs do often require a lot of training, and like all freelance work there’s a certain amount of hustle involved to find clients. I’d also say that the freelancers who do best seem to be doing work that their clients are thrilled to offload (taxes, compliance, fixing bugs in ancient legacy code) rather than the work everyone secretly wishes they could be doing (writing, art, designing the next big app).

Hours per week seem to vary among my acquaintances following this path: they definitely have some weeks of crunch time, but they also seem to have a lot more time for spontaneous hikes and fun trips than I do in a 9-5...
posted by a device for making your enemy change his mind at 10:43 AM on September 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Nurse. Many hospitals and clinics require 20 hours per week to get full benefits. You can do these hours in 2 shifts leaving you 5 days a week without work.
posted by scantee at 11:08 AM on September 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think that the way to achieve this goal (working as little as possible while living as frugally as is reasonable), is not to start with jobs, but to start with COL vs QOL considerations and tailor your job search/ life plan around that.

There are a lot of variables. What does "living frugally" actually mean to you? What are you willing to tolerate, and what are you able to do without? Is it okay to be an hour from the nearest hospital? From the nearest road? Is it okay to go without electricity? How about running water? (I'm not being a smart-ass, here. I've lived without both, and I'd give up running water- assuming some safe reliable water source like a hand pump was available- before giving up electricity again). Would you wipe yourself with a reusable rag to save the cost of TP? People do it (please don't). Is doing the work of sewing new clothes out of your old ones preferable to doing the work of earning money to buy clothes? If not, what percentage of a hypothetical income are you willing to devote to clothing? Start with the bare-bones basics and build up from there what you actually mean by living frugally. Get a sense of how you are willing to live and what percentage of an income you want to spend on different categories, and figure out how much it costs to live like that in various places.

More considerations:

-Places with low housing prices may have fewer jobs available, and those jobs may be dependant on one or two major companies that could be sold or go out of business.

-Places with lower housing costs may require a car, while places with good walkability or transit may have high rents.

-Cost of food and gas is often higher in less populated areas, but you may be able to produce your own food or barter. Utility costs and needs vary wildly in different regions.

- Low cost of home ownership does not always translate to affordable, or available, rentals. Places with expensive housing may also have more and cheaper amenities. But the housing may be in such high demand that you simply can't live as frugally as you wish, even if you're willing to tolerate bugs and scary neighbours.

Consider what you actually do want to do with all that spare time. If you live out in the sticks, you can't go to those discounted museum and theater nights, if you live in a metropolis you can't breed those llamas, if your happiness is having coffee date with friends you need access to both coffee and friends, etc.

-Loans. If you have to take out a loan for training, you may not realistically have the option of working part-time while you're in repayment. For example, you could become a family physician or veterinarian or etc. and open your own practice/office.
Theoretically you could then set your own hours, but in reality you're on the hook for thousands of dollars of school loans, plus the business loans, rent on the space, etc, and it might be decades before you have the freedom you want.

-What is the cost of doing the job? Are there union dues, annual certification fees, materials costs that you don't know about?

Also consider what jobs actually permit you to have part-time hours at a higher-than-minimum wage or salary. Just because it's theoretically possible to live on 4 or 3 days a week at a certain pay grade doesn't mean they're willing to hire a part-time employee.

A few options that come to my mind:

-Find a mininum wage service-type job at whatever is on offer in a low COL area that you like. Minimum wage jobs like fast food, stocking shelves, cleaning, etc usually allow for part-time work. No school debt. Don't become a manager, though, because then you'll have to work full time.

-Find an affordable region that pays firefighters. The paid firefighters I know only have to be at work 7 or 14 days out of the month (I forget which). I think it's also possible to work part time as an EMT and possibly in other emergency services as well.

-Find a job in healthcare (like nursing) or in a factory that has rotating continental shifts. The actual amount of hours are the same, but you work 12 hour shifts so you get more days off per week.

-Find seasonal work and live frugally enough that you don't work during the off season. Seasonal work exists in many industries. I think roofing and landscaping are two major ones in my part of the world, but there's also farm labor, hospitality/tourism (for example, working on cruise ships, or at amusement parks), and probably many others that I don't know about.

-Become a self-employed professional in a lucrative professional field as mentioned earlier.

-Become self-employed in a trade.

(Note: becoming self-employed runs you the risk of working significantly more than a standard 40 hour week, but in theory it's possible to do less).

-Work a LOT and save as much as you can, then retire really early with money-generating investments.

I'd venture to guess that most people want to live as comfortably as possible while working as little as possible, so the system is really hard to game if you aren't starting with a significant advantage. I got into my industry thinking I'd have a decent standard of living and work around 25 hours a week, but COL suddenly skyrocketing in virtually every populous area, plus a variety of industry changes did a real number on that plan.
posted by windykites at 11:46 AM on September 15, 2019 [14 favorites]

Health care is the big limiting factor. If that does not apply to you it opens up a lot of options. The people I know who do this largely work in nursing, imaging technician etc jobs where they do 2 shifts a week or similar.

Commercial drone operations is pretty lucrative now too, especially if you live near the border and get a Canadian license as they really tightened it up this year. It's not just video, it's lidar and other remote sending. I know people who make a ton of money doing this and obviously you set your own hours.

You could also do seasonal work in a setting where they pay for your food and lodging and then travel or live overseas or frugally the rest of the year
posted by fshgrl at 1:01 PM on September 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I do web stuff (WordPress development, full stack web apps) as a consultant, and this describes me. My husband (who works with me on data analysis/ads/etc.) and I could live frugally on it after about a year. After about five years, life is comfortable. Workload vacillates, but is pretty great most of the time. I started with no training -- only a will to learn and a useless graduate degree. (Music theory, I'm lookin' at you.)
posted by nosila at 1:47 PM on September 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

What are your skills? In Maine, if you can do construction, there are a lot of jobs. Electricians make a lot, and are in demand. Radiation tech, or other health affiliated jobs are in high demand. The govt. published a Job Outlook that lists the jobs expected by field; your library can help.
posted by theora55 at 2:17 PM on September 15, 2019

I'd try for something with the occasional big payout, like I imagine being a real estate agent would be. The training is not that hard. Then I'd set a tripwire level of money when I'd stop/start working. I wouldn't sell one house and then stop working until I was broke again because of the uncertainty of when I could sell the next house. But if I sold two, and then stopped working until I only had X months' runway left (where X is about as long as I expect to go without selling a house) it could work. Maybe with a backup plan of waiting tables or something if there was an unexpectedly long dry spell.

I'm sure it's harder than it seems, or everyone would do it. On the other hand, all the hard-working agents I know are trying to get rich, not just support a bare-minimum income.
posted by ctmf at 5:17 PM on September 15, 2019

Radiation tech, or other health affiliated jobs are in high demand.

I could get you a job right now as a radiation tech (not in health care) if you wanted it*. It doesn't count as an answer to your question though, because if you stop showing up to work 40 hrs/week, you'll get fired.

* well, a generic good candidate with minimal training and no degree. If I hate you in the interview or see red flags like "no math ability like can't even balance a checkbook" or "not interested in showing up to work regularly", probably not.
posted by ctmf at 5:26 PM on September 15, 2019

It used to be that you could work on a fishing boat, especially in Alaska, and work seasonally, earning enough to live off of the rest of the year. I'm not 100% sure if that's still viable, but if that interests you, it might be worth looking into.

In your research, maybe look into jobs that are super-intense, but only seasonally? Maybe hotshot firefighting?
posted by hydra77 at 6:38 PM on September 15, 2019

Nursing is also a great way to make great money, and work fewer hours with a fair amount of flexibility.
posted by hydra77 at 6:39 PM on September 15, 2019

Substitute teaching in a metropolitan area (various school districts) is definitely a thing. Summer school subbing is also an option.
You may need a teaching degree or a recommendation from a principal to get started. There may be limits on the number of days you are allowed to sub without a degree, hence working for several districts. Long-term assignments may also be available.
If this becomes a career path, there are usually greater demands for more teachers in math, science and special education. Provisional certification is an option, which varies from state to state.

On the frugal side: van life and RV life seem to be more prevalent. There are So. Many. YouTube channels. about cutting the cord and taking to the road, as long as you are able to drive a vehicle and are willing to downsize your worldly possessions.
You could a) find someone who would let you park in their driveway or on their land for cheap/free; b) find cheap or free boondocking campsites on BLM or state or federal land; c) pay rental fees at RV properties; or d) have a revolving group of stealth parking sites. Or all of the above, until you were ready to chase better weather to another part of the country (winter in Texas and the southwest, summer in northern states).
posted by TrishaU at 9:50 AM on September 16, 2019

My brother in law is a captain for Alaska airlines and has a lot of free time but not nearly as much as my neighbor who is the chief pilot for a very wealthy family with a three biz-jet fleet. Yes, they are both gone for several days at a time but are home more than anyone else I know who is not retired.
posted by bz at 3:09 PM on September 16, 2019

If your goal is to live a frugal life, working as little as possible, one important thing to consider is finding places to live and work that are most likely to keep you wanting that goal.

Obviously no one has suggested that you should go to law school, because that's a bad idea for most people and definitely for you, but law school is, for other people, an example of what I'm talking about here. People go into it wanting to make the world a better place, spend three years in a competitive status-conscious environment that's lousy with biglaw recruiters, leave with 100-300k of debt, and become soulless and overworked corporate lawyers. Every year. They think they'll quit when they pay off their loans but then they get a mortgage and a boat and they're toast. So any prospective lawyer who wants to make the world a better place has to think very intentionally about how not to be changed by law school.

Similarly, if your training or job or geography are going to put you in a place where the values of all the people around you cut strongly against your current goals, you may find your goals changing. Our sense of what's normal in getting and spending is always relative. Make sure you don't get in a situation where making money by working hard is too easy, too fun, or too normal.
posted by sy at 4:39 PM on September 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

Possibly smoke jumping, steam jumping (nuclear reactor maintenance, time-limited by radiation exposure), repairing big wind turbines in remote areas.

All of which require both physical and mental ability above average and are still risky - but as windykites points out, lots of people want this, you’ll need some edge.
posted by clew at 3:38 PM on September 24, 2019

I am a grey-haired accountant with about 1200-1500 clients that I have known over 20-30 years.

My recommendations to my children - architecture, pharmacy, nursing, teaching and engineering.

Architecture - even if you aren't earning much money, you know how to create a welcoming home. And you can often sell that home to the next person, because they have no idea.

Pharmacy - the lowest gender pay gap; family friendly hours as it is based on standard retail hours; high barrier to entry so if you are doing a good job, little risk of price competition.

Nursing - NO-ONE wants to deal with bed pans, so you get paid good money. Not an occupation for full-time work after age 40 - too hard on the back.

Teaching - TEENAGERS are awful - high school teachers deserve danger money. Who in their right mind would try and create responsible adults from teenagers? (cf. Jonathon Swift's recommendations)

Engineering - the numbers don't lie. Just realise you need to be measuring the right things.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 4:05 AM on September 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

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