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I took a huge pay cut for a more meaningful job, and it was nothing like I expected

Most Americans say they would give up a more lucrative job for a more meaningful job that pays less in a heartbeat. But it’s a change that requires thought and careful planning–and doesn’t always go according to plan.

I took a huge pay cut for a more meaningful job, and it was nothing like I expected
[Photo: Burst /Pexels; Oleksandr Chaban/iStock]

In 2015, visual artist Vanita Lee-Tatum was feeling burned out after 12 years building a lucrative banking career. “I reached the VP level in my career and felt like all my dreams had come true,” she says. “I traveled the world; I was making lots of money. But I started to feel this nagging emptiness, and I just couldn’t shake it. And I was like, why am I not happy?” By the following year, Lee-Tatum had given up her banking job and taken up painting. “I just had this overwhelming need for change,” she says.

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Nine out of 10 Americans say they would give up a significant portion of their paycheck–up to 23% of their lifetime earnings–if they could swap their day job for more meaningful work, according to the Harvard Business Review. Employees who find that meaning are more likely to work more and stay loyal to their employers.

Many people I talked to about taking a pay cut echoed that sentiment. Most of them don’t regret their decision, but making such a change isn’t always financially within reach. For some, childcare expenses were a major consideration; other people I heard from underestimated the impact their pay cut would have on their wallet. Those with a spouse admit they couldn’t have done it without the security of a dual-income household.

“I’m getting paid in many different ways”

As an ex-banker, Lee-Tatum had some measure of financial security going into her career change. Since she worked in sales, she was also taking home commission. “I was able to essentially retire from banking at 36,” she says.

But at the time she was a single mom. Quitting her job meant she could spend more time with her daughter and offset some of her childcare expenses, but it also required her to make lifestyle changes–say, getting rid of her Benz, which she had driven for years, or cutting back on travel and food expenses. (She has since gotten married, and Lee-Tatum admits the support of a partner has also been helpful through the transition, as has having a strong coparent.) “I had to reorganize and rearrange all of my expenses from top to bottom,” she says.

When she started painting, Lee-Tatum was making barely one-third what she made in banking, so she relied on savings and investments. She also found other ways to bring in money–teaching art classes, for example. Now, she works as a consultant for small businesses while also pursuing her art. (In fact, she says her earnings this year will likely exceed what she made as a banker.) “I’m getting paid in many different ways, not just my paycheck, and I really enjoy that,” she says. “That’s what I really admired in my small business clients when I was a banker–the creativity and the bandwidth to monetize what you love and figuring out creative ways to do that. So the financial education in that part of my background translated really well; it kind of gave me a blueprint for what I could do in my own business.”

“I had the luxury to do that, and I don’t take that for granted”

For Ana Wagner, accepting a lesser paycheck was a small price to pay for a more supportive employer and better work culture. The move was also preceded by a difficult experience being let go by another employer, when she was pregnant with her first child. “I was eight months pregnant,” she says. “They escorted me to my desk with a box to collect my personal belongings, and that was it. I also almost gave birth that day prematurely. It was probably one of the most traumatizing experiences of my life.”

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Wagner was a channel director–more or less a marketing director, she says–at an automotive company when she decided to jump ship. The job required frequent travel, and she describes her workplace as old-fashioned and male-dominated; many of her colleagues were men with stay-at-home wives. “They just could not fathom why I had to leave at 5 p.m. to pick up my children from daycare,” she says. Even taking a few hours to take her child to a doctor’s appointment was looked down upon. (“Let’s not even talk about breastfeeding facilities,” she adds.) When she left the company, it was for a job that paid 15% less and was a step down in title–but the role allowed more flexibility and a kinder company culture. “I was very lucky that I’m not a single mom, and that my husband was working at the time,” she says. “I had the luxury to do that, and I don’t take that for granted at all.”

That was in 2011. Wagner has since left that company, as well, and doesn’t feel the move negatively impacted her career trajectory. Even when she took the role, her growth prospects were a key part of her decision, despite the pay cut and step down in title. “I knew I could work my way back up,” she says. “It hasn’t affected my growth.”

“It wasn’t worth it. I totally regretted my decision”

But sometimes, the job simply isn’t worth the trade-off. Katy Rey was running a large call center in Florida and working long hours when she heard about opportunities at Tesla’s solar panel division. Rey jumped at the chance to work for a company where she felt she could do something more meaningful, even though her salary would be slashed in half. “Everyone was taking pay cuts in the room,” she says of an early training in Vegas. “And the people they recruited were outstanding.” They could deal with the pay cut, Rey says, because they felt like they were “saving the world.”

The job ended up being even more time-consuming than her previous one, which was difficult to stomach between the pay cut and her family life, as a mother of two kids. “I was working so much,” she says. “I always say eight days because of how often you had to come home and keep working–it just included another day in the week.” Rey felt like the company found intelligent people and convinced them to push their limits. “It wasn’t worth it,” she says. “I totally regretted my decision.”

Six months into the job, Rey was abruptly laid off over the phone, as part of a restructuring last year that affected more than 4,000 employees. (When reached for comment, Tesla echoed its statement from last year, which said the layoffs that affected Rey were part of a “comprehensive organizational restructuring across our whole company.”) For her, it ended up being a blessing in disguise, and she had the support of a husband who was gainfully employed. But countless people who took jobs with Tesla turned their lives upside down to afford it, Rey says, from single parents to employees who were in their 60s. “The way they got everyone on a call and said ‘this is your last day’ was so impersonal,” she says. “We put our heart into this.”

“We don’t have the ability to actively put money into savings”

Even when a job is worth taking a pay cut for, accepting your new reality can be harder than you thought. For Colby Chilcote, the decision to swap her eight-year tenure at Google for a position at a conservation nonprofit was about more than just her career–it was also tied to a desired lifestyle change. “We didn’t want to be in a metropolitan area long-term,” she says. Her family lived in Ann Arbor at the time, but Chilcote and her husband had always hoped to eventually move to northern Michigan. And after nearly a decade at Google, Chilcote wasn’t sure she liked the path she was on. “There were a lot of forced career development conversations [at Google],” she says. “And after a point I realized there wasn’t anything on the horizon that was particularly appealing to me.”

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That, coupled with a desire to move out of Ann Arbor, led her to a role at a nonprofit in northern Michigan. Since Chilcote was looking for jobs in a certain area, her options were limited–and after years at Google, she also wasn’t sure what constituted a “normal” nonprofit salary or benefits outside of a city. “I make a third of what I made at Google,” she says. “And I don’t get any benefits, which, right now, is one of the biggest issues that comes up again and again. I was so used to having such great benefits. It was hard for us to even estimate what it would even be like to pay for benefits.” That was compounded by the fact that Chilcote had a second child right before making the move. Since her husband works freelance, they had also assumed Chilcote’s job would cover benefits.

Chilcote sold her house in Ann Arbor and made the move up north while she was still on maternity leave at Google, so she was able to save some money during that period. The couple had also saved consistently over the years. But that’s no longer the case, despite a lower cost of living, and the couple now has to be much more conscientious of their budget. “That’s one of the biggest changes,” Chilcote says. “We still have a savings account from then, but we don’t have the ability to actively put money into savings every time I get a paycheck in the way we used to.”

“I had this idealistic view of how magical it was going to be”

Amanda Ponzar had a similar experience when she gave up a corporate job to work at a nonprofit. “I definitely felt like there wasn’t a lot of purpose in my work,” she says. “I found myself volunteering all the time on the side.” Eventually, she felt she should integrate the impact and meaning she was craving with her actual day job. When she negotiated her new salary, she managed to match her corporate pay–but she didn’t fully account for the gap in her cost of living, given she was also moving from St. Louis to Washington, D.C.

“I took the job, we found a place to live, and we moved all our stuff out here,” she says, adding that she had wanted to move back to the East Coast for some time. “But I never looked at housing or anything. So I was really startled when I started working in this area and realized oh, there’s a very different cost of living.” It didn’t take long for Ponzar to conclude that she couldn’t stay in that job. “We saw pretty much right away that this was not going to be sustainable, and I was going to have to make an adjustment,” she says. “So I was only at that nonprofit for six months.”

It wasn’t just the money. Ponzar was also unhappy with the role and team–even the commute was more than she could stomach. “I felt terrible because that was my dream,” she says. “I had this idealistic view of how magical it was going to be.” But Ponzar didn’t let that scare her off the nonprofit path. Eventually, she found another job that paid more and was a better fit. “I didn’t give up on the idea of having a more meaningful job,” she says. “My number-one takeaway is that everyone can switch to a more meaningful career, but you might not get it right the first time.”

Timing was key for Ponzar. She points to many people, from employees to friends, who tried to make the move to nonprofit but couldn’t stick it out–some who, like Chilcote, tried to take a nonprofit role after having children or were too young and saddled with student loans. “I definitely have seen a lot of millennials and younger people that have worked for me leave and go corporate,” she says. “I do think when you’re more entry level at a nonprofit, that is extremely difficult for many people.” If Ponzar was able to stay in nonprofit, it’s in large part because she made the move before she had children and did not have outstanding loans, since her previous corporate employer had footed her master’s degree. And over the last 12 years, she has worked her way up the nonprofit ladder, so to speak, and up the pay scale. “It’s not that nonprofit can’t pay well,” she says. “It can, but you can’t always get there fast enough.”

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Still, one year in, Chilcote has no regrets about her job change, though she is more realistic about her financial circumstances and the sacrifices associated with her new job. “In the beginning I was like, this is amazing!” she says. “Now it’s leveled off and I’m still very happy with my decision, but I realize it’s also a job. And now I’m more aware of the financial burden.” She doesn’t miss Google, though she does wistfully remember the perks. “Every once in a while I have a dream that I’m eating lunch in the Google cafeteria–but it’s never that I work there again,” she says. “It’s just that I’m visiting for free food.”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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