Updated on 09.29.14

Downgrading Your Job, Not Your Life

Trent Hamm

In March 2008, I walked away from a great job into a writing career path that, at the time, paid me about 50% of what I was making at my previous job.

To a lot of people in my life, this seemed like an amazingly difficult step. That move reduced our monthly household income (at the time) by about 30% and seemingly did away with a great deal of job security. Why would I possibly make this move?

Why I Downgraded My Job

1. I wanted to spend more time with my family

Over the last few years of my previous job, I felt like I was constantly traveling and away from my family. I also felt that, even when I was around, I was having my family time constantly interrupted by work needs. I did not want to be that kind of absent parent and, for me, talking about wanting to be a great parent was more than just talk. I was going to walk the walk, too.

2. This was probably the only window of opportunity life would hand me to become a writer

Writing is something I’d always dreamed of doing for a living, but it always felt like something that would never realistically happen. When I first went to college, part of me wanted to major in English lit, but I chose not to do that solely because I felt like there was no income-generating career path other than being an English teacher.

3. My career path was one where I would never be able to significantly increase my pay based on hard work

I had no chance of ever building a large income stream from my job, no matter what I did.

4. Our spending was under control

We were not only spending less than our combined salaries, we were spending less than our combined salaries after I switched career paths.

5. I did not feel as though my previous job was actually helping anyone improve their life

I spent most of my time exploring abstract problems and answering abstract questions. While it was intellectually stimulating, it was quite often spiritually depressing.

6. I wanted more time flexibility

I often felt very productive early in the morning and completely useless in the mid afternoon, with another productivity bounce in the evening. The nature of my job meant that I couldn’t work when I was productive and find other things to do during my unproductive periods. I had to work for a set period each day, and at least some of that set period overlapped with my unproductive times during the day.

These reasons together made for a compelling case to switch careers when the right opportunity came along.

But what made that opportunity? How did I find a situation where I could make that kind of radical change in my life without losing the things I valued?

For us, it broke down to six key elements. I believe that if you cultivate these six elements in your own life, you’ll open the doors to the kind of career and life change that you’ve always wanted.

Six Elements To Creating the Opportunity for Career Change

1. Live well below your means

This is first and foremost. If your standard of living makes your current salary a requirement, then your ability to make a major career change is almost nil. In short, you’re choosing the expensive things in your life over career freedom. For some people, that’s a healthy choice, but if you’re reading this article, chances are that you are yearning for some career freedom. Getting your spending under control is absolutely necessary.

Many people view such spending changes as deprivation. Instead, I suggest viewing it as an exploration. What’s the most enjoyment you can have without spending a dime? If you use that as a constraint right off the bat, you’ll often find yourself exploring new things while also channeling your life towards financial stability.

2. Maximize your monthly cash flow

This goes hand in hand with reducing your spending. A person maximizes their monthly cash flow by minimizing every single one of their bills. Pay off all of your debts. Focus on efforts to reduce your monthly bills – electricity, telephone, food, shelter, and so on. Live in a smaller place than you might otherwise afford.

The purpose of these steps is to maximize the difference between your income and your actual required spending each month so that, if you choose to take a lower paying job, you’re well prepared for any lifestyle changes that might be needed. Plus, you can save that extra income as an emergency fund or a startup fund for any ventures you might want to take on.

3. Fill your spare time by doing what you love

Rather than spending your spare time idling, spend every spare moment you can doing what you love to do. Don’t be afraid to be an unpaid volunteer if need be. Don’t be afraid to burn countless evenings practicing your skills. In fact, that’s the type of thing you should be doing if you want to make that kind of leap.

The more you practice something, the better you get at it, particularly if you try to change up what you’re doing and don’t just repeat the same routine over and over again.

4. Cultivate luck by collecting opportunities

Hand in hand with doing what you love is building connections within that field that you’re so passionate about. Spend time contacting anyone and everyone in that field. Get to know them as best you can. Don’t be afraid to do small favors for them as well in order to cultivate a good reputation.

At the same time, don’t hesitate to share the fruits from the time you’re spending doing what you love. The internet just begs for this, in the form of blogs, YouTube videos, Flickr pictures, and countless other avenues.

5. Reboot your social circle

If you find that your normal social circle is not absolutely supportive of the time you’re spending on new directions in your life, don’t be afraid to reboot that circle. Stick with the friends in your life that are supportive of your changes and find new people to spend time with to replace the people who doubt you or taunt your changes.

Quite often, you’ll find these new friends in the process of cultivating opportunities. As you begin to meet people with similar passions as your own, it’s easy to build new relationships with them. The key is to surround yourself with people that provide some degree of positive reinforcement to your new life directions rather than negative reinforcement.

6. Be a free agent

A final key step is to start looking at your current job in a new light. Your job is not your life. It’s a method of earning income, one where you exchange some of your energy and effort for some of the employer’s money. Your employer is obviously looking for the best exchange there, so you should do the same. Don’t dump all of your emotions and energy into your job – do your tasks and move on to the real place to utilize your emotions and energy, which is your new area of focus.

Similarly, never fall into the trap of thinking of your boss or your employer as your friend. Yes, quite often they are nice to you because being nice to you is a highly effective way of getting you to go the extra mile. That’s not friendship, however, and if you find yourself going way above and beyond in order to help out a boss or an employer out of a sense of “friendship,” you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Remember, your goal is to get yourself into the right place so you can do what you love with your life. Keep that front and center and you’ll find that things will begin falling into place for you.

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  1. Jessica says:

    I could’ve written the first half of this article myself. I have two young children, 4 and an infant. I’m well educated with a Masters and have 8 years of experience in my field, and as a public employee, I earn a fair wage with decent benefits but I also will never get rich in this field of work. I’ve been miserable in my job for 3 years now. However, I earn more than my husband- I bring in 55% of our income. We have no debt- we paid off our mortgage last year. We have a 1 year emergency savings.

    I also started freelance writing two and a half years ago, and I enjoy that although at this time the income stream is small (full time job, two little kids).

    In December, I requested part-time but was quickly denied. I’d been using my paid leave to work a reduced schedule for 2 months (since returning from childbirth leave), so I had proven I could do the job in fewer hours.

    Now mid-February, we’re writing our grant to secure our federal funding for next fiscal year. Surprise, not enough $$$ in our budget. So I bring my request for part-time back to the table. It’s looking good that it will go through. I have a few other eggs in my basket too- an informal interview in about 3 weeks with a private company.

    However, my heart is at home with my children. I grew up in a working poor home, where we only had enough $ for 1 meal a day, I often didn’t have a winter coat that fit (grew up in a harsh winter climate). My parents didn’t take me to the doctor or dentist like they should have and I have reaped the consequences of that. Walking away from financial security is scary as heck. To top it off, after I delivered my infant, I suffered from postpartum depression which was severe and I was hospitalized because of it.

    I know what my mental health is worth and I know how much I nearly lost… I just need God to flash me a bright neon sign, I guess.

    What was your “sign” or “a-ha” moment?

  2. brad says:

    You follow up ‘don’t be afraid to do small favors to build connections’ with ‘don’t go above and beyond for your boss out of a sense of friendship’?

    I may be missing the point or taking it out of context of the article, but that is a REALLY pessimistic view on bosses. Maybe you have had bad experiences that make you feel this way, I don’t know. For me though, nothing is further from the truth. If you have a good manager, then no one will work harder to get you the recognition and responsibilities you deserve as a high performer.

  3. Jules says:

    If you like your job to the point where you’re going above and beyond because you want to, then this post doesn’t apply. I have held jobs where I did do extra work just because it was fun–I have just left a job where I would count the minutes until I could leave.

  4. valleycat1 says:

    I disagree with Trent’s assumption that everyone who lives paycheck to paycheck is doing so because of compulsive overspending and/or other bad financial decisions.

    And I’ll go out on a limb to say that not everyone who reads this blog wants to break free of the corporate world.

  5. S01 says:

    I can relate to #2, #1 and what Trent has written. I am lucky that I’m in a job I normally don’t mind doing and occasionally like which is better than despising my work. However there are other activities I enjoy more.

    However I will go the extra mile for my boss and the organization as a whole, but I do believe in what we do (helping protect the environment) so as my job aligns with some of my own personal beliefs going the extra mile occasionally doesn’t seem like such a big sacrifice. I also have a clear career path and promotional prospects if I’d like to take them up.

    I do still wonder if what I’m doing now will have an impact on the future or help future generations. Of course I may just be shuffling paper and deluding myself that what I’m doing truly is helping things now and down the road? No real way of knowing but the question and thoughts do have me re-evaluating my job/life and what I do fairly regularly.

    I guess I’m like everyone trying to search for some meaning in my life and provide positive benefit to people now and into the future.

    Sorry slipped of into a philosophical tangent a little.

  6. Melanie says:

    Total agreement with #4 (valleycat1)

  7. Stephan F- says:

    Rebooting friends is pretty hard. It gets so lonely without external people in your life. Family may or may not be wonderful, but it would be nice to have people that like being with you.

    How have you found new friends?

  8. KP says:

    The best part about people sharing their story is that it helps others move from thinking it’s impossible to seeing all of the possibilities.

    “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” – Rumi

  9. Kristen says:

    This is an interesting post. I think many of us need to change that perspective that yes, perhaps our jobs take up a big part of our time, but it’s not our entire life.

    This point resonates with me – “your goal is to get yourself into the right place so you can do what you love with your life.”

    The workplace could be a fun place if we do what we love, and no matter what the job is like, if it’s something we love, it will feel more fun than work. Of course, the other factors like having a good boss/team helps, but the core basis still remains with the individual – identify what you love, and doing it. No one else can determine that for us.

    If a job doesn’t work out, there are always other options. But the expenses have to be in order, else we are literally tied to our jobs.

    Good post!

  10. Crystal says:

    Great post. Literally just this morning my husband and I rolled out of bed and both groaned that we wished we could quit our jobs. The mundane repetition day-in and day-out has gotten very old.
    It’s posts like this that keep me motivated to keep plugging along and work on our financial independence so that one day we CAN quit our jobs, or at least switch to something we enjoy doing better.

  11. Woolmeister says:

    Food for thought. It has set me thinking about my own job, work values and work-life balance.

  12. dh says:

    What perfect timing this post is for me. I am starting my first week as a part time worker in a position that I’ve had full time for about a year. I took this job after being laid off by the builder I worked for when the economy began to fail. It is a job I am grateful for in my best moments, but it has taken every ounce of will, strength and spiritual fortitude to do it 40 hours a week for this long.
    I started a small business which is beginning to gather steam and I also edit books and just finished a project with a great client and have another prospect, so I have been working hard and a lot to be able to move out of this pretty much soul stultifying desk job. My finances are ok for this but it’s a bit of a stretch for the next two months unless the book deal comes through. I get paid in my business one, two or three months after closing. I have done the numbers, talked to my financial support group and this is how I feel: my time, my health, my freedom to do what I enjoy is priceless — it’s the most important thing and now is the time for me to make this move. I have been getting so many signs from my body that I have to make this change — grinding my teeth, exhaustion, depression, feeling isolated from working so much — I don’t mind living more frugally in order to have space and time for fun, friends, family and myself. It’s a bit scary but honestly I believe that freeing up my energy will increase not only my enjoyment of life and my health but also my earnings. Money is necessary, yes, and one must learn to handle it wisely, and I think do one’s best to earn money in a sane, responsible, enjoyable, at least most of the time, way, but it’s not the main thing, not by any stretch of the imagination. One of the most helpful tools for me is to write down my goals regularly, keep my goals in focus at all times. It’s also important to spend time and talk with friends who are 100% supportive of my dreams and goals and who also understand my current situation. I am so looking forward to full time, prosperous self employment.

  13. RyanLoos says:

    Great Post! I too around 2008 was stuck in my job and felt that there was something else out there for me to-do. We were debt free with a 6 month emergency fund, so I started a part-time business. 1 year later I left the corporate world to work full-time at my business. I would never go back. I did not make as much but the satisfaction of doing what I love far made of the difference in pay. Find what you love to-do and the work aspect of it will fade away. I love Mondays and can not wait to get into work now!

  14. VickiB says:

    Trent and #9 – SPOT ON. #9, I am making the leap now from full time, unfulfilling job to “freeing my energy” for doing what I want ! I like your tip about writing goals. Some of the folks here commented on being happy in their jobs. I don’t believe Trent was aiming this at them. DH and I have NO debt – no mortgage, no payments, etc. We have paid the bills on his income for 8 months while I’ve squirreled away a nest egg. After 20 years in the corp world – I’m making the leap. I am terrified and excited all at the same time. Like Trent, I also realize that, even with a “nice” salary, I would never have the true financial freedom I desire unless I leave my current path. I would add that my mantra when I get scared is: “THIS IS MY LIFE WE’RE TALKING ABOUT !”. It is my reminder that none of us knows how much time we have, and that, at least for me, it is no longer acceptable to just “make it”. Prosperity, in my view, is the freedom to take my own path.

  15. nz says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I’m contemplating just this sort of transition, and hearing the stories of others that have successfully navigated these waters before is so encouraging and helpful. Thanks for continuing to share!

  16. Linda Sullivan says:

    Thirty years ago my husband was earning a killer salary working as a manager in a large accounting firm. He was miserable. We had three kids under 7 years old, a mortgage, two car payments, credit card bills (the usual baggage)…The big thing in our favor is we had just sold a hugely expensive home and bought an old Victorian (with plans to fix it up) at a much lower price.

    He got a part time job teaching a night course at a local college and found out he loved the work. They offered him a full time position at 50% lower pay.

    After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, he accepted the teaching job. We were amazed at how we were able to manage the bills and cope with the challenges with very little money. It was not all peaches and cream but the payoff was in the amount of time he had to spend with the kids and me and the freedom all the time off gave us to simply slow down and enjoy life.

    It was a big risk, but it paid off. Thirty years later he is about to retire, we are still happily married and have raised three sons who know what really matters in life. I would not trade what we had for all the money our friends had.

    If you can make this move, do it! You can always go back to the grind you have now if it does not work out.

  17. Alan W says:

    Thanks for this post and God bless you for your sharing!

    It touches a lot of things that are on my mind at the moment. It’s really refreshing to hear someone share so openly. By sharing you’ve allowed others to be blessed by your experience.

    Have a great day!

  18. Will says:

    Come on, Trent! What do you and your wife do about providing health care insurance for yourselves and your brood? What I gather, your wife is the one who works full-time and has access to health care insurance via her employer. Your blog and writings are intriguing and interesting, but I think your readers are entitled to the full picture. Obtaining employer sponsored health insurance — and holding on to it — prevents millions from pursuing their bliss.

  19. marta says:

    I think Trent said before that he was the one to pay for health insurance while his wife was on unpaid leave from work. So I guess he can afford it, but probably doing so for the long stretch would tighten belts a bit.

    Either way, I just think it’s terrible that HI needs to be in the equation when considering job or career changes. The mind, it boggles.

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