Monday, December 13, 2010

love shack

(what I would be giving up)

For the most part, when I think about changing careers, I have talked about things like regret if I make the wrong choice, concern about dissatisfaction even if I change, ensuring that my new career lines up with my values, and the stress caused by a lack of work-life balance.  All of these intangible things are important.  But there is one big, fat, tangible pink elephant in the room.  Money. 

The salaries of junior associates at big New York law firms is public information.  If you're a halfway decent googler, you can find out roughly what I make each year.  I've narrowed my alternative career path options down to a select few, and if you just look in terms of raw numbers, it represents about a 73% pay cut.  SEVENTY-THREE PERCENT.  That means that if I move to the career I'm contemplating, I will make about 27% of what I am making now.  To be honest, even when I realized that, I thought, meh.  So what?  I've lived on less, rather happily.  I would have time to do the things I want to do.  You can't put a price on happiness.  Etc.  I convinced myself that, despite my enormous load of law school debt, I was not, in fact, wearing the golden handcuffs you hear so much about in law school.

Today, I was faced for the first time with the hard truth that if I wanted to quit my job on the timeline I am contemplating, and put into action some of the plans that Kathy and I have been making, I would have to give something up.  Something big, that I enjoy a lot, but which I can only afford on my lawyer salary.  Worse yet, it's not just me that has to give it up.  It's the whole family, Kathy and the kids too.  I have to ask the people that I love to make a sacrifice of something that they really like, so that I can have the potential (not the guarantee, just the potential) to be happier. 

This thing is the vacation house that we rent on Fire Island each summer.  I use the term "house" loosely.  It's actually a converted garage.  I affectionately call it a shack.  But it's been our shack for the last two summers, and we all love it.  And if I quit my job, we really can't afford it anymore.

Last week I alluded to a book by Joe Dominguez and V. Robin called Your Money or Your Life.  In this book, the very smart authors point out that you don't actually make what you think you do at your job.  Actually, you have to deduct a bunch of expenses from your salary, which represent things that you wouldn't need to spend money on if it wasn't for your job.  Then, you have to add together the hours you actually work, plus the hours that you spend doing work-related things. Like commuting.  Or checking your blackberry.  As we near the end of the year, and I looked at my billable hours, I am reminded of all the nonbillable stuff that I do.  So I decided to do a little experiment. 

First, I figured out what I actually make, per hour, at my current job.  This required adding up my billable and nonbillable hours, and including time spent commuting, as well as that half hour (at least) that I spend each day too cranky/distraught to actually do anything.  This is the time I click "refresh" on the facebook news feed over and over, or go get water when I am not thirsty because I can't bear sitting in my office anymore.  I'm sure it's more than a half hour a day, but I was estimating.  Then, I had to deduct commuting costs (since the alternative job would not be in Manhattan) and roughly the amount I spend on alcohol that I would not drink if I didn't hate my job so much (I am not kidding).  I also tried to take into account the fact that with the higher salary, I am bumped up into a higher tax bracket than I would be if I took a big salary hit.  I could have gotten more detailed, but this was just an experiment.

Then, I guessed what I would earn at the other job I am contemplating.  I used the lower tax bracket, and planned on a shorter, cheaper commute.  I used the reduced hours that I estimated the other job would require. 

Now you want to know how much of a pay cut I would be taking, once all this is taken into account?  Only 32.5%.  That sounds so much easier to stomach, doesn't it?  Per hour, I would make 2/3 as much as I do now.  Plus, there is the added bonus that I might actually be happy.  And I didn't account for how much money we could save if I had more time to do stuff around the house rather than paying someone else to do it.

All of this is interesting, but it doesn't make it any easier to contemplate giving up Fire Island.  Even if, per hour, I am making 2/3 of my lawyer salary, in terms of raw numbers, we still probably cannot afford the vacation house.  Kathy and I will have to talk about it and decide if we think it is worth it to try to make it work this summer, which means I could have to stay at the firm longer than I wanted to.  I feel guilty for even having to ask someone I love to give up something she enjoys so much so that I can screw around with my career.  I suppose all the playing with numbers is an attempt to rationalize it all, so I can get comfortable with the fact that I will be contributing significantly less to the family fisc.


  1. I'm reading your blog (Dec. 2012) in the order of when the posts were written (oldest to newest), and am a long way off from finding our how this ends (though I *did* skip ahead and see there's a house on FI still in the picture...) -- BUT I would like to add that there are also intangibles you would be gaining (again, maybe this comes up in a later post).

    If you were to do an economic analysis rather than a purely financial/monetary one, you would see that perhaps losing the summer on Fire Island is far than made up for by your wife and kids having a partner and mom who is in a better mood, around more, and able to actively participate in home life more. You made an allusion in an earlier post about how the mood of the parents can strongly effect the mood of the kids. I agree. And it sounds like if you were to make the shift you're considering, your family would be far better off for it (and so would you) -- and the FI house would seem so silly in comparison to the health and happiness of your family... I can't wait to see what happens next!

    1. I love this comment, because often we think of an "economic" analyis as the same thing as a financial analysis. It's not -- as you point out. In reality, that summer where I was not working but we forked over the money for the fire island house anyway was one of our best summers out there, because I actually had time to ENJOY it. That's where the struggle lies now. Trying to find a way to make enough to have the things we have come to love, but also time enough to actually enjoy having them. Not to mention time spent with the kids, who seem to be a year older each day.

  2. ...oh, and in the economic analysis world, that FI House-Happy You/Family trade-off would be termed a positive externality.