It’s the eternal question. Should I do what I love, money be darned, or should I go for the big bucks, idealism be darned? Just how much should money factor into your career decision? It’s a big question, one that you can’t be expected to have a ready answer for right out of school. And it’s an ever-evolving question, the answer to which will likely change throughout different stages of your life. The answer isn’t easy, but, as always, there are both practical and personal things to consider.
Choose Your Field
Different fields have different compensation standards; research average salaries for careers in your field. Typically, for example, someone in a technical or engineering field can realistically expect to make more than someone in an arts or service field. But also keep in mind that where you start doesn’t necessarily determine where you’ll finish. Your field doesn’t have to limit you. There’s creativity to be found in utilizing your individual skills to create your own unique niche. The maxim “Do what you love and the money will follow” is often true.
Leverage Your Skills
You can also leverage your skill set and passions in different ways. If you’re an English major, a future in teaching or publishing isn’t set in stone; you could use your writing skills in the communications or public relations department of a big company. If art is your passion, consider a commercially viable creative path such as graphic design. Every industry you can think of needs a whole team of people with different skill sets behind it.
Intangibles vs. Tangibles
No matter what, there are two tangible aspects of your life to which your work is undeniably tied: money and time. What you do does determine how much you earn, and how much you earn reasonably affects other aspects of your life, like how much time it will take to pay off student loans, how much you can save, how much you can afford to spend on essentials like rent and groceries, and how much you have left over for luxuries and fun. Living on less isn’t impossible, but will involve some budgeting and prioritizing. You might have to look into free or cheap fun things to do and (gasp!) learn how to cook. In terms of time, different fields require different time commitments from their employees. An investment banker far out-earns an editorial assistant, but makes up for that money working double the hours. Are you willing to put in all the hours required in a demanding position, or would you rather spend fewer hours at work and have more free time to yourself? There’s a reason they say “time is money.” If anything, time is more important than money. No one lies on their deathbed wishing they had more money, but everyone wishes they had more time.
On the other hand, there is a huge intangible aspect of your work, the importance of which is equal to or greater than that of the tangible aspects: job satisfaction. Do you find fulfillment in your work? Do you wake up every morning dreading the day to come, or do you wake up in the morning in anticipation of it? Do the hours at the office drag or do they fly by? Hours spent at the office don’t seem like a burden if you enjoy every second.
More than likely, you will find that you can’t always have everything. A job that you love which pays you millions and allows you plenty of free time is rare—especially when starting out but also throughout your life. Prioritize the things that matter to you the most and go from there. If you want to become a public interest lawyer because service is your passion, being able to devote all your working hours to it will make the lower paychecks seem like a worthwhile trade. But if numbers below a certain threshold of zeros stress you out too much, you may be happier doing pro bono work on the side. If you’re going into corporate law for the money, you might not be fulfilled or have a lot of free time, but you’ll be rewarded with that fat paycheck at the end of the week. But if you love the intellectual challenges of corporate law, then the monetary rewards are just a bonus.
Ultimately, the decision between love and money is one that only you can make. It might take some time and a few years trying out different things to figure out what is most important to you. The answer isn’t always as cut and dry or extreme as people would have you believe. You don’t have to necessarily choose between being a starving artist living out of a cardboard box or being a big-shot CEO raking in millions. With some soul-searching, prioritizing, and willingness to compromise, it is completely possible to find a reasonable balance between both.