This is the sixth entry in an eight part series exploring the connections between your finances and other areas of your life.
A few weeks ago, I started a series exploring the connections between personal finance and the other “spheres” of my life. The first entry covered the connections between one’s physical life and financial life, the second entry covered the connections between one’s mental and spiritual life and financial life, the third entry covered the connections between one’s intellectual life and financial life, the fourth entry covered the connections between one’s marital life and financial life, the fifth entry covered the connections between one’s parental life and financial life, and today we’re looking at one’s professional life and financial life.
As noted in the first entry, I tend to view life as a bunch of “spheres,” or areas of focus. I really like Michael Hyatt’s list of nine such “spheres”: physical, mental/spiritual, intellectual, social, marital, parental, avocational (hobbies), vocational, and financial – they cover much of what life is all about. I’ve come to view these spheres as deeply interconnected, in that success in one sphere is usually linked in some significant ways to success in other spheres (and failures are similarly connected) and that knowing the connections can help people figure out how to succeed in both areas at once.
Today, we’re going to look at the professional sphere and how it connects to one’s financial life.
What Is “Professional Life”?
One’s professional life is simply what one does with their time and energy in an effort to earn money. (Things you do outside of earning money tend to fall into the other spheres of life.)
My professional life is centered around being a freelance writer, with a few other side gigs here and there. My wife’s professional life is that of a teacher. My father’s professional life was commercial fishing and factory work.
Professional life encompasses both the day to day work that you have to do to fulfill the requirements of your job and get paid as well as the additional efforts you take on to discover new and better moneymaking opportunities, like furthering your education or getting a certification or going to professional conferences.
Obviously, the connections between one’s professional life and financial life are many. After all, for most people, their professional life is the source of income in their life.
Yet that’s just the start of the connections between your financial life and your professional life. Here are several more.
Often, your professional life comes with costs. Maybe you have to buy a particular wardrobe for work. Maybe you have to take classes in order to maintain certain certifications. Many people have some sort of commuting cost that’s required to get them to and from work. Those costs add up and they drain away from your income.
In fact, you’re usually better off working for a dollar or two per hour less if the extra costs (like commuting and clothing) are significantly lower or nonexistent. You’ll pay fewer taxes and have fewer expenses, which will recoup the salary difference.
Stressful jobs often require “unwinding,” which also has financial implications. Many people gravitate toward expensive ways to unwind after a busy day, or else they gravitate toward simply resting to unwind and that ends up bringing on other expenses.
I used to unwind by playing a lot of video games. I would often buy a new video game twice a month, which added up to $100 a month just to unwind from my job. I would often stop for a “snack” after work as well, because I would often eat to de-stress, and sometimes I’d hit a bookstore as well. Those costs can add up. The stress of work can really add to your life.
Your job benefits have a profound impact on your overall financial picture. A job with a strong 401(k) or 403(b) match, a continuing education program, and a great health care plan is well worth a lower salary than a job without any of those benefits. Jobs need to be considered in terms of the total value of their benefits and salary, not just the dollar amount on your paycheck.
No job is completely stable, and treating your job as permanent and untouchable is a huge financial risk. Your eyes should always be peering ahead at what your next gig is going to be. An unexpected job loss would be financially devastating to the majority of American households. Don’t leave your own household at risk.
This list could go on and on, of course. The core message here is that the connection between your financial life and your professional life is much deeper than your next paycheck.
Here are five low cost strategies I use for maintaining and improving my own professional life.
Strategy #1 – Never Stick with a Job You Hate
If you are genuinely unhappy going to work each morning, substantially beyond the mere preference of a day of leisure that we all have, then you should not stick around at that job. It is likely damaging you in a number of long term ways and making your daily life miserable. Stress and worry and unhappiness have tremendous negative long term health impacts. No job is worth that.
Your focus in that situation shouldn’t be on perfect job performance, but rather on doing enough to maintain that job while you work on an exit strategy. You should be doing everything you can to open a new door for you to walk through in your career.
What does that mean in practical terms?
Change your perspective and look at your work solely as a tool to get ready for your next job. Everything you do there should be oriented toward keeping the job in the short term and preparing yourself for your next career step. If your task isn’t doing either, then it should be a very, very low priority.
Figure out what kind of job you want when you leave, then start building the resume to get that job. I’ll cover this in more detail with strategy #2, but you should identify what the requirements and preferred skills and attributes are for the job that you are aiming for next. A good place to start is to go look at job listings for the job you want.
Tap your professional relationships for leads. Again, I’ll touch on this with strategy #3, but the key idea here is to reach out to your professional network to find out if there are any appropriate jobs available for you. Just ask around with professional colleagues who are employed elsewhere about the existence of jobs that you might be able to apply for and, ideally, those colleagues will help you get your foot in the door for those jobs.
It is never worthwhile to stick around at a job that you truly hate. There is always another job that you can do that will earn a similar income. Leave behind poisonous situations and move to pleasant ones.
Strategy #2 – Always Have a Plan in Place for Your Next Step, and Always Be Taking Daily Action on That Plan
Even if you’re reasonably happy at your current job, it’s still a good idea to have a plan in place for whatever your next professional step might be. It might even be something as simple as a raise at your current job. You might be aiming at a promotion at your current workplace. You might be aiming for a big promotion at another employer, or maybe you’re even considering moving to another career path entirely.
Whatever you might have in mind, you should move that daydream into reality, setting it as a goal and developing a plan to get there.
The first step, of course, is identifying where you want to go with your next professional step in a very concrete manner. Think seriously about where you want to be in a few years. It might be your current job with a bit more pay. It might be a promotion at work, or a move elsewhere. Whatever it is, give it serious thought and figure out what your goal is. Where do you really want to go next?
Once you’ve figured that out, you need to develop a plan for achieving that next step. This is going to vary widely depending on what your aim is.
If your aim is simply to get a raise at your current job or earn a small promotion at work, the best place to start is with your supervisor. Sit down with your supervisor and simply explain your goal to him or her, then ask for your supervisor’s help in developing a plan that will get you there.
If your aim is a major promotion or a move outside of your current employer, you will have to develop such a plan on your own. I would highly suggest finding a mentor (see the next strategy) to help you do this.
Regardless of how you develop a plan for your next career step, you need to be taking daily concrete action on it. This should not be just a fun exercise, but a very clear set of steps you should be following daily to move forward on your professional path.
Ideally, you can synergize some of these steps with the work you’re already doing by choosing tasks that will really help build you for what’s next. If not, you should do your best to block off some time each day for taking that next step, whether it’s within your workplace or outside of it.
If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. The river of professional life is always flowing against you.
Strategy #3 – Build and Maintain Positive Professional Relationships and Avoid Burning Bridges
Having a lot of positive professional relationships is a boon for any career. They can give you resources to draw on when things are difficult. They can give you a strong positive reputation in your field, one that will often precede you (and a negative reputation will precede you as well if you don’t have positive relationships or have a lot of negative ones). They can give you people to swap stories with and connect with in a professional setting. They can give you powerful guidance in terms of what to do next. Occasionally, these relationships can develop into lifelong ones.
Building a lot of good professional relationships requires a lot of effort, however. Here are some useful strategies I’ve found for doing just that.
Don’t speak negatively about others, even when they’re not around. If you do speak negatively about others, not only do you establish a reputation for being a person who will trash other people, the word often gets back to the people you trash. The safest rule of thumb is to just avoid it entirely. Don’t speak negatively about others, even when they’re not around. If you must criticize someone, do it to their face in a one-on-one session and do it in a constructive way so that they can move forward in a more positive direction. Speaking negatively just damages relationships.
Don’t burn bridges. If you step down from a position, do it with as much grace as possible. Don’t destroy things or say negative things about people on your way out. It doesn’t help you; all it does is close doors that you might want to have open in the future.
Build positive relationships with everyone you work with. You should have some level of positive relationship with everyone you work with, if that’s possible (obviously, there may be a few people who are difficult, but if you’re finding most people to be difficult, you may want to look at yourself). Get to know everyone, even the quiet people, and have some things with which you can relate to them. Try to spend at least some time with everyone in your office and be a generally helpful and positive person.
Get involved in local professional groups as well as conferences, and use those situations as an opportunity to make yourself known and to get to know others. Beyond your workplace, get involved in every situation you can where you will get to know professional colleagues in your field. Join any local professional groups you can find. Go to conferences. Look for any opportunity you can to present your work to people. Use social media in the same way.
Give abundant credit to others and minimize the credit you take for yourself. This is one of the best things you can do for your own reputation. When you’re discussing a work project, give as much credit as possible to the other people on the team and don’t even mention your own efforts, and if they’re brought up, be humble about them. Talk about what other people contributed to the work in a very positive way. Your own efforts will be known anyway, you’ll be seen as humble, the reputation of those who helped you will be raised, and they’ll think more of you, too. It’s one of the best things you can do to build relationships while also building your own reputation.
Check in with those people with whom you have a positive professional relationship regularly to maintain that relationship. One of the best strategies I’ve actually found is to simply keep a list of people with whom I really want to keep a good professional relationship, split them into three groups basically at random, and then each month, check in and touch base with everyone in one of those groups, then rotate to the next group the following month. So, let’s say you have 99 professional relationships. You split them into three groups of 33 each and then you touch base with everyone in one of those groups in January, then another group in February, then another in March. I do this simply to make sure that someone I care about doesn’t fall through the cracks. I do it with both professional and personal relationships.
When you can do a favor for someone without too much cost to yourself, do it without expecting reciprocation. To me, this is just a natural extension of the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What you’ll find is that if you have a reputation of being helpful without expecting a tit-for-tat, when you actually do need help, a lot of those people you helped will be right there to help you if you ask.
Find a “mentor,” but don’t use that word and be careful with it. A mentor is someone many years ahead of you on a career path that you hope to follow. A good professional mentor is incredibly helpful to have, but there are a few challenges, the biggest being the fact that most of the people you would want to have as a mentor are incredibly busy and view a formal “mentor” relationship as yet another commitment that they don’t have time for. It can also be difficult to be on their radar in a positive way – if you go in trying to garner attention to yourself, it won’t go well.
A good approach is to not be formal about it. Rather, simply look for an opportunity to help someone that you would like to be your mentor figure. Then, when you have that opportunity, knock it out of the park without expecting reciprocation. Just nail whatever it is you’ve agreed to do. Do it so well that they notice your effort above all else, not your hand-waving.
This usually opens a door, at least a little. In that situation, don’t ask for a formal mentor relationship then, either. Instead, simply ask them that if you are ever in a very difficult situation and you’ve tried everything you can think of, if it would be okay to contact them once and ask for advice. They’ll likely say yes. Then, wait until you actually are in that situation and ask for that advice. List out all of the things you’ve already done, and then just ask what they would do.
Don’t try to schedule a lunch. Don’t try to schedule any meeting. Do this by email. If the mentor is engaged and wants to help, they’ll schedule a meeting; most likely, they’ll just give you a good response by email. Leave it at that and don’t make a pest of yourself. Rather, look for another opportunity to volunteer and wow that person.
The most valuable thing that will happen here, however, is when you’re not around. You will be thought of as a person that your mentor can use for an opportunity or recommend to someone else, and that will happen when you’re not in the room.
Strategy #4 – Don’t Shy Away from Professional Challenges, Even If You Fear Failure
If you’re in a situation where there’s a big professional challenge on the offer at work and you’re scared of taking it on… that’s a sure sign that you should take it on. Take that opportunity and give it your genuine best shot.
Sure, maybe you’ll fail. That’s okay. You’ll likely learn a ton from failure and that failure likely won’t be the end of your career.
Or, maybe you’ll succeed and you’ll find yourself in a much better professional position than you could have ever dreamed.
In either case, you’ll push your limits and learn a ton along the way. You’ll probably have experiences that will burnish your resume for whatever comes next.
Remember, in these situations, a professional network is helpful. If you’re really challenged by something, ask for help. If you happen to have a mentor, ask for help (in the hands-off way mentioned above).
Don’t back down from a challenge. It will open doors for you whether you succeed or fail, as long as you give it your genuine best shot.
Strategy #5 – Always Be Prepared for Unexpected Unemployment
No matter how great your job seems, no matter how stable it seems, no matter how good your career seems to be going, unexpected events can and will happen. The government might shut down for a couple of months. Your boss that’s your biggest advocate might suddenly die. The owner of your business might be secretly bankrupting the company and then one day it’s just out of business.
Those things can and will happen, and you owe it to yourself and your family to be prepared. Here are a few things you can always do.
One, have an emergency fund in a savings account that has at least a month or two of living expenses in it. That way, if you’re suddenly out of a job, your financial situation doesn’t immediately collapse. You have some breathing room and can immediately focus on finding a new job without worrying about paying the bills next week.
Two, have your resume ready to go at all times. Have a well-formatted one you can send out, as well as at least one or two online where they can be found. Keep those resumes updated all the time.
Three, know who you can immediately talk to in your professional network. If you lose your job, who might be able to help you quickly find more work? If you don’t have those kinds of relationships, start building them.
You should have those things in hand at all times.
Your professional life is a vital source of income that you’ll use to support the rest of your life. Your financial life is mostly about processing the income earned by your professional life.
Thus, if you want to get ahead financially, you should focus on getting the most value possible out of your career.
If you want to get ahead and build your income, you can’t just go to work, clock in, and go home. That will help you keep your job, but it won’t help you get ahead in your career and make more money. Hard work is a key ingredient, but so is smart work – building relationships, working toward the skills you need for the next step, and making sure that a setback isn’t devastating.