Looking For A Way Out: “Can’t Quit” Syndrome, The Value of Job Happiness, And How To Escape

I received a very long email from “Tony,” a long time reader, who had this to say (among many other things):

I absolutely hate my job but it pays so well that I can’t quit. So I go into work each day dreading it and when I get home at night I am just drained and all I want to do is watch TV and veg out.

Those two sentences struck a real chord with me because they speak directly to the life experience of a lot of people. They are tied to a job that they’re unhappy with for financial reasons, because quitting and moving to a different employment situation would be a financial disaster.

It’s been shown time and time again that job stress is detrimental to quality of life and also to health in various ways, yet many people work in jobs that make them miserable in order to earn a few more dollars. They put themselves in a financial situation where they have to make a certain salary in order to maintain their life and continue making payments on the things that they already have.

If you’ve found yourself in this situation, realize that there is likely no immediate “out” short of bankruptcy; you’ll have to live with the situation while you refactor your life or find another job.

Having said that, “getting out of the rat race” is a legitimate investment goal. If your goal is to work frenetically for several years and save so that you can enjoy a simpler job with lower salary and free time to enjoy your interests, that’s as noble as any other investment goal. However, if you’re currently “locked” into your job, it’s going to take some significant work to get there.

A big first step is to pay off all of your debts. Debts are the biggest factor most of us have in terms of required expenditures each month, between paying off student loans, a car payment, a house payment, credit card payments, and so on. These can be eliminated with focus and commitment.

The “debt snowball” method works well for this. In essence, just take 10% (or greater) of your pretax income each month and directly apply it to debt repayment. Make the minimum payment on every debt you have, then apply the remainder of your debt repayment money to the smallest debt. When that’s paid off, move on to the next smallest, and so on, each time adding to the “snowball” the minimum payment of the debts you’ve already paid off.

Once you’ve done that, focus on investing that snowball in places that will earn a steady income for you. You’re looking for something that will be able to sustain you when you quit that job, so focus in on investments that earn a consistent return. A high-interest savings account is appropriate here. For the time being, keep rolling income from these investments back into itself.

What you’re seeking now is the crossover point: that point in time where your investment income and your new work income can sustain you. When you’re there (or very close), quit and enjoy the freedom!

That sounds like a long way off. It’s only as far off as you choose to make it. Instead of dining out every night and blowing money on entertainment expenses to ease the pain, buckle down and start tossing money furiously at your debts and watch them melt away. As the debts get smaller and smaller and you find yourself reaching financial freedom, it’s amazing how much freer you will feel.

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  1. Kenny says:

    I had fallen into a career field that turned out to be very much to my disliking. After six years, I felt I couldn’t go to anything else because I had so much experience in it and not much else.

    I ended up going to a job fair with my resume, and in my desparation had nothing to lose as I talked with various representatives from several companies. It turned out that the honest “I am trapped in a career I don’t like and want to completely change” was a good pitch to one of the recruiters there. He looked closer at my resume, saw things that could translate to this new field with a bit of training, and I got a new job in a completely different field.

    My pay went down a little bit, which should be a short-term issue because I love my new job so much that it really impresses the bosses. But the overall life satisfaction level has never been higher. Family relationships have improved, and some of my friends have asked if I have grown taller. Turns out it was just my posture went back to normal after being “beat down” by the bad job for six years.

    It does come down to the decision of “should I stay and be miserable or go and maybe be happy?” It’s hard to make that decision, but it becomes easier as your misery increases.

  2. Grayson De Ritis says:

    Fantastic blog post here, kudos. This goes to show, that money does not equal happiness. I agree, paying off all debts asap and setting one’s self up to live on a lower income and then transitioning into a better job somewhere else would be the best way to go about a big change. In the end, it’ll all be worth it, in many, many ways.

  3. Beth says:

    I was fortunate to have a talk with a boss when I was 23 and already in my second post-college field. She mentioned a friend of hers who made a lot of money, but hated her job, and felt trapped.

    From that moment I resolved never to be in a situation where I “had” to keep a job because i depended on a certain salary level. Mine has fluctuated quite a bit since then, but it’s been interesting all along the way, and I’ve never felt trapped for any significant amount of time (at my ripe old age of 35…).

  4. Grayson De Ritis says:

    Nice post, Beth. Professional freedom is a wonderful thing :-)

  5. James says:

    I hear you guys! I’m 24 and recently started a new job that more closely matches my personal values and more completely engages my skills and experience. I’m normally somewhat risk-averse, but after lots of thought, I realized that being happy at work and believing in what you do is such a great feeling, it’s well worth the risk. Great site Trent, I’m a regular reader. Keep it up!

  6. Kristina says:

    For 90% of people I know who use the “I can’t quit excuse,” it is total bull. Some people really can’t take an income hit due to overwhelming debt, and in that case I certainly think they should stick it out long enough to be financially responsible. As for the majority of people I hear make that excuse, it just translates into, “I’m willing to make myself miserable for 40-60 hours a week because I’m not willing to make tough choices to cut down my lifestyle” They “can’t quit” because their kids are in private school, they own a McMansion, they drive excessively expensive cars, etc. Put the kids in public school, move to a cheaper house or cheaper apartment, sell your cars and get decent used ones, stop going out to eat all the time — and they you’ll be freed up to actually be happy with your job and your more balanced life.

  7. WTBC says:

    My life is in this post. While I used to like my job and I still like my field, I now dread going to work. Student loans, 2 kids and a mortgage mean I have to roll in the dough but I am looking for the answer!

  8. Pam says:

    If you are not going to quit that jopb you hate, then by all means, find anything to like about it.

    I hate my job sometimes, and get sucked into a rut. It takes action on my part to get out of that rut.

    If it’s that bad, then make a goal of when to quit. Is it bills that need to be paid off? Figure out how long it will take to snowball your debt. Then you will have a timeline on when to look for another job.

    If it is lack of skills, then do something to beef up your resume. Take a class, volunteer. Network – often times its not what you know, but who you know.

    At any rate, vegging on the couch isn’t going to get you anywhere.

  9. Minimum Wage says:

    I absolutely hate my job but it pays minimum wage so I can’t afford to quit, and I have no marketable skills and no “career-related experience, so I’m stuck until I drop dead or something.

  10. Minimum Wage says:

    Oh, and since I earn minimum wage, there’s not much that can be cut from my lifestyle.

  11. Trent Trent says:

    Minimum Wage: maybe you could get a second job or look at self employment opportunities instead of spending your time commenting on dozens of personal finance blogs?

  12. Minimum Wage says:

    I’ve already tried working TWO jobs I hate, and that sucks even worse. (Apparently, without marketable skills, a job I don’t hate is not an option.) I’m working on the self-employment thing, but without, say, craft skills, and without startup capital, it’s pretty hard to get it rolling.

  13. beth says:

    @Minimum Wage – it seems like most min.wage jobs do give a person marketable skills: customer service, organization, punctuality all come to mind. if nothing else, see about picking up a 2nd min.wage job that WOULD start to give you transferrable skills – book store if you’re into informational interviews, restaurant if you want to get into food service, etc.

    My sister started at the front desk of a hotel and is FAR beyond that now, having spent the last 10 years working her way up within the company.

  14. reulte says:

    I used to have the ability (self-security) to be able to quit work whenever I needed just to take a road trip or visit a friend 2 states away for a month (that is also the key to being able to tell your boss/supervisor that s/he needs a reality check – right now).

    However, now I am a single mother and need to work for the benefits – particularly insurance. Now I am not only responsible for myself, but for my son as well. I work at the highest paying, most benefits possible job (that I don’t despise) and save quite a bit of money. However, no matter how I figure it out, the cost of health insurance is what puts me into the hypothetical red when trying to determine if I can quite my job for a year or two. I’m 49 – not qualified for retirement and my boy is 5.

    I’d be grateful for any suggestions.

  15. Great post Trent! I think you hit the nail on the head that job stress is due to “bills that need to be paid”. The only way around it is if you take control of your own financial future! Save like you’ve never saved before, pay off those debts. The more you have to your name, the less dependent you will be on your job.

    FT

  16. Nebraska Jess says:

    Thank you for that post – it comes exactly at a time where I know my job is costing me my happiness, but financially my husband and I do not think we can afford for me to be without a job while I focus on realizing my career goals and dreams.

    It’s difficult when you have a spouse that loves his job and is sometimes more concerned with the money than with my happiness – but I know that with our already successful budgeting skills and some time, we should be able to come down to an agreement.

    In the meantime, if anyone out there is in the Omaha area and can suggest a great company looking for a great worker, let me know! :)

  17. Farley says:

    Only one comment mentioned one of the main reasons people are “trapped” in their jobs – insurance.

    My son has a chronic illness and the fact is I would never be able to get insurance for our family if I didn’t work somewhere that offered insurance.

    We have no debt except mortgage, extremely good credit, and are putting away for retirement but I am completely trapped by insurance.

    Yes I could switch to another job but I could never be self employed, or even take some time off to go back to school (although I could do nights).

    Insurance is something hardly ever talked about here but it is a very looming reality for many Americans

  18. Jason Alba says:

    As usual you have solid financial advice. I think for people like me it’s a pipedream as the debt continues to grow, and chipping away doesn’t seem to get anywhere.

    I see this issue of job satisfaction tied closely to job security.

    In the olden days they said to get job security by getting your high school diploma. Then you had to have a college degree. Now you have to have a college degree in certain fields, or a graduate degree. And even then there isn’t job security.

    I would strongly encourage this person to actively increase the quality and quantity of his network. Knowing people, and having them know you, might be the most important factor in job security. If you can become employable at any time…. now there is peace in that!

    It takes time and effort but it is fun and rewarding. There are many ways to do it, but as your network strengthens you’ll be prime to hear about new opportunities and maybe the fear of losing a job won’t be so big.

    I was fortunate in that I got laid off (er, kicked out), and was forced out of the job I didn’t like but was bound to because of the pay. Life goes on and, for me, the grass is way greener on the other side of the fence :)

    Jason Alba
    CEO – JibberJobber.com
    :: self-serve career management ::

  19. FS says:

    –>Minimum Wage-As long as you keep working at it and are optimistic, you can make anything happen. This is coming from someone who used to work at McDonald’s for almost a year after high school and then feeling worthless. I started networking and eventually got an entry level part time position at a produce company working nights. I then started going to college part time in the day time, and took all the courses that applied to what I enjoyed doing (Business/accounting) and continued to network. I knew I wouldn’t finish college because I felt it just wasn’t for me, however I left with all the knowledge that mattered. Also, with all the free tutorials and courses you can get online, and other free resources out there, it’s almost absurd to say that you’ll be stuck in one place until you’re dead. Trust me, I’ve had my share of falling for get rich quick schemes. I’ve invested about $500.00 in the course of 5 years and saw nothing. I did a lot of research and read Entrepreneur and Small Business Magazines, but a lot of those required a substantial capital startup. Even a couple thousand is a lot to me. So from the produce company, I moved on to a good company that was run by a crazy boss. I got so stressed out there I nearly had a nervous breakdown. My quality of life began to fail, my health was out of whack and on top of all this they laid me off. I wanted to quit so many times but was afraid because I kept holding myself back. After that, I never let a job control me again. I felt so betrayed. I worked so hard and they let me go like I was nothing. However, that only made me a stronger person, because now I know what type of workplace I DIDN’T want to work in. Now I’m 24 and at a different company that’s 10 times better than the previous ones I’ve worked at. My schedule is more flexible, my bosses and coworkers are awesome and the benefits are excellent. On top of all that, we’re free to dress the way we like and are ENCOURAGED to express ourselves. I never thought that this type of company would beckon me, but it did (through a temp agency!). Hard work definitely pays off. Also, another self employment opportunity beckoned to me, AVON! It’s only $10 to start and there is constant customer and group support that’s FREE. I sure hope this post reaches out to someone because there were so many times when I wanted to give up and lost hope, but that dream of owning/managing my own business would not allow me to fail. Thanks Trent for providing us with life changing advice and tips! Keep up the excellent work!

  20. Brip Blap says:

    It’s a problem that I constantly feel ashamed of: I hate my job but I make so much money at it that I would feel like a complete fool for leaving it. Everyone who knows how much I make think I’m insane for complaining. I hardly do any work and make more money than anyone I know. But the work is mind-numbing, everyone I work with acts like they hate their job too, and I dread getting on the train for work every day. I know a lot of people would love to be making the money I make for being bored and unfulfilled, so it’s a problem I keep to myself. Keeping a blog has helped a lot, though – this was one of the 3 sites that inspired me to start writing a blog and it’s helped a lot, actually, just to unload some of my angst and practice my talents. The first dollar I earned from AdSense felt like ten thousand from my day job. Thanks Trent!

  21. Steve Deve says:

    I’m sorry, there’s no way I can pay off my mortgage any time soon. This is just wishful thinking and isn’t really that much help.

  22. Unhappy says:

    I’m 33 and used to subscribe to the point of view of the author of this little article. I believe the author is well-intentioned. I have 2 kids and a partially disabled wife to house, clothe and feed. I have rent to pay each month. I have tried quite a range of jobs in my life thus far, and hate them all. I made the wrong choices earlier on, when I was at college. I only ever loved astronomy and physics, yet I let my parents convince me to study computer science instead. The result? I can’t get a job I like. I could go back to college; I could take a huge financial risk and start my own company. But with what money? My parents aren’t around. How could I possibly go back to college at the age of 33 with 2 kids, and demand that they submit to a life of insecurity because of bad choices I made when I was 21??

    How could I start a company? With what capital? The only “capital” I have is my savings… and because I am a responsible father, that is (and always will be) reserved for some sort of financial emergency or disaster. I am simply not selfish enough to jeopardize my kids’ wellbeing in order to take a chance at “simplifying” my life while I find my dream job (or a job I don’t hate, at least).

    For someone with a family to support & 2 very small children, as in my case, I think that this article is unrealistic, though well intentioned. Life is a bitch.

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