These days, many people want their careers to be more than just a way to earn a living. They want their jobs to give them a sense of purpose and meaning.
While many have challenged the “do what you love and the money will follow” ethos, the idea that a career should be fulfilling and in line with your calling continues to dominate career content (yes, some of which Fast Company is responsible for). On the other side of the spectrum, there are plenty of warnings about choosing a career because of its financial prospects. Descriptions of burned-out, disillusioned, and overworked professionals can make taking a job for money seem like an inevitable road to misery.
When choosing a career for money is a necessity
But is choosing a career for money as terrible as it seems? After all, money is a necessary part of life. Sure, research shows that more money doesn’t always lead to happiness. But research also shows that not having enough money can lead to higher levels of stress and anxiety, which seems like an antithesis to what a purpose-driven career is supposed to bring in the first place.
Catherine Baab-Muguira, a full-time advertising copywriter (and a part-time journalist and freelance writer), discovered this as a newly minted MA graduate who had to navigate the 2008 job market. “Eight years ago, I was married and living with my in-laws. I had $300 in my checking account, no health insurance, and $22,000 in student debt. All of which highlights the first caveat about this pursue-your-passion business: It’s probably much better advice for someone who’s born rich, or holds a tenured academic position, than it is for the rest of us 99 percenters,” she wrote in a 2016 piece for Quartz.
“I had dreamt about being a full-time journalist or teaching at a college, but I simply couldn’t afford to do those things,” Baab-Muguira tells Fast Company. The entry-level publishing and journalism jobs she applied for paid very little, yet required her to live in high-cost cities. Her applications to obtain an adjunct professorship also yielded little results–though she did receive an offer at a liberal arts college 40 miles away that paid $3,000 per class (despite charging students around $50,000 a year in tuition.) She eventually landed on a career in advertising to take care of her finances and chose to treat her writing ambitions as a side hustle.
Ten years of climbing the ladder later, it’s a decision that she doesn’t regret. “Working for money has given me freedom and a sense of being independent and . . . led me to a lot of directions I don’t think I would have gone. It has expanded me as a person.”
The stigma of pursuing a career for money
Baab-Muguira is not alone in her approach. Michelle Gomez, a career coach who works largely with Latina women, spent two decades climbing the corporate ladder building leverage (and income) before starting her coaching business–a calling she discovered by accident. “Over the years, I had people come to me asking me for career strategies and coaching,” she tells Fast Company. She’d meet people for coffee, help with their resumes, all without charge for about nine years before she turned it into a business.
Like Baab-Muguira, she didn’t have the luxury of thinking about her “calling” when she graduated from college. She needed to get a job that paid the bills. But she also faced a competing challenge. “As women of Latin descent, we were brought up to see ambition and the pursuit of money as shameful,” she says. “The expectation is that men are the ones who pursue that stuff and we marry them.”
But even outside of cultural pressures, there is still a sense of stigma attached to talking about your financial decisions. In her Quartz article, Baab-Muguira argued for the benefits of working for money, rather than purpose or passion. She received backlash and was accused of being “greedy.” Baab-Muguira doesn’t praise capitalism, yet believes that the “cultural pressures to move away from it isn’t necessarily healthy. Your earning power is the greatest asset that you have. Not to closely examine and cultivate it could be the worst financial decision you ever make. We have this lingering hippie dream of what work actually is. I think our cultural dreams and values are still catching up to the reality of student debts.”
The importance of weighing up money in your career decisions
For Hailley Griffis, the public relations director of social media management platform Buffer, financial considerations forced her to leave a lifestyle and career path she had dreamed about. “When I left university, I had big dreams around being able to freelance,” Griffis says. But she found herself living in Colombia and struggling to make ends meet. “I have vivid memories of [where] I couldn’t pay my rent in full,” Griffis says. “I didn’t know how else to make money because the freelancing just wasn’t working.” She ended up taking a job at a startup in San Francisco to put herself in a stronger financial position. Eventually, she ended up landing her role at Buffer, a company that gave her the chance to work remotely and also doubled her salary.
Now, Griffis actively considers money whenever she makes a career decision. She tells Fast Company, “I just realized that there’s no getting away from this financial conversation. When I was in university, I was living off student loans. I didn’t feel the real pain of not having money or not being able to do certain things like buy groceries . . . I keep a close eye on my career progression now because it’s tied to my pay.” She also adds that she has started to hone in on her speaking skills in order to be in a better place to take advantage of paid speaking opportunities in the future.
The benefits of being financially focused
For Baab-Muguira and Gomez, making money the central focus of their career decisions has allowed them to pursue their “calling” without stress. “Now my mantra is that money can do a lot. I can do a lot to help people. If I’m making money and an organization asks me to speak for free, then I’m not going to be hung up about it. I can be of service, I can do charitable work, because my finances are taken care of,” Gomez says.
This is a sentiment that Jonathan Wilson, a digital marketing professional, echoes. Wilson had aspirations to work in government, but decided to go down the private-sector path for financial reasons. In an email to Fast Company, Wilson writes, “Twelve years later, I’m still in digital marketing, and it has treated me much better than a public sector role. I’ve felt I’ve been given opportunities to give back to the community, while still affording me significant opportunities, both during my ‘day job’ and through evening freelancing.”
“I never really intended to work in the internet, but seeing the financial freedom many folks had, I decided to put my idealistic passion for the public sector on hold and, ironically, it’s given me the ability to impact more people through volunteering than I ever would have if I had stayed as a super-underpaid public sector worker.”
Baab-Muguira notes, “Adult life is so much more expensive than we give it credit for being.” Especially in the earlier stage of your career, she says, “It helps to overcompensate with a fanatical focus on money.”
Gomez tells Fast Company, “It’s weird that people want to pursue their freedom, but they want to do it being broke. You can’t afford to live out your purpose if you can’t afford to pay for dinner. People need to take that into account. If you carry that with you, you will struggle to bring in money.”