Updated on 05.04.08

Sunday Conversation #3

Trent Hamm

Over the next few Sundays, I’m going to post a conversation I’ve had with a person I know who has made interesting financial choices in their lives. Hopefully, these discussions will be enlightening and entertaining.

This week, I’m interviewing a close friend of mine named Rachel. Rachel is one of the most intelligent people I know – valedictorian of her high school class and so on. When she went to college, though, she made an interesting choice – she chose to go into social work instead of into a lucrative career. This always interested me – why would she make such a choice when it meant a lifetime of financial challenges? So we talked about it – I hope you’ll find the conversation interesting. I encouraged Rachel to read your comments and (hopefully) answer any questions that might come up.

You made an active decision at some point to pursue a life oriented around social work. What inspired you to make that choice?

I think the easy answer to is say, “Because I want to help people.” But really, how cliche is that! Also, it might have been an answer that could have gotten me to this point, but it certainly wouldn’t have been enough to keep me here. What keeps me here, simply put, are the people, both the ones I work with and the ones I “care for”. There’s just something very human about this work. Sometimes I think about looking for a job that pays better, but then I think about how much I’d be losing just so I could be “financially secure”. At this point in my life, not to say that it won’t change someday, I’d rather have the people than the money. My job isn’t something I do to make money. I do it because I love it and it happens to also make me enough money to pay the bills. Mostly. Well, at least all of us here are in it together and you know that no one is there for the money!

Do you feel any regrets about making that choice? Would you do it over again, knowing what you do now?

I don’t have any regrets about the path I’ve chosen. I love my job. I love the people I work with. I don’t think there’s a higher concentration of just honest, good people in the same place anywhere. If I had to do it all over again, though, I think I’d be more mindful of my finances at a much earlier point. No one tells you when you first start out that you ought to be thinking about your retirement fund as soon as you get going. Or that your benefits matter as much as your paycheck. Also, I think I would have tried to ask more questions about how slightly more complex financial matters work while I had the resources (such as my parents) right in front of me. You know, things like IRA’s and investing and CD’s and whatever else. Things that might not make me money now, but will in the future.

If someone is considering a career in social work but is concerned about the low pay, what advice would you give them?

Learn to eat lower on the food chain, for starters. It’s a good way to save a few bucks, eat a bit healthier and be more environmentally friendly. Other than that, meet some new people and learn how to have some free fun. Honestly, look into some of the various volunteer corps around the country. I spent a year in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps and much of the year was geared around how to live frugally. How frugally? After paying for food and shelter, I took home $100 a month. But those sorts of programs provide a great environment to learn how to live differently with other people going through the same thing. You don’t have to do it alone. And having company makes the poverty very nearly enjoyable! Just as an aside, Americorps is very similar in this way, but lacks the communal aspect, which, for me, was really important in my learning curve. And once you learn the lessons and learn another way to live, there aren’t many jobs that will pay you less than you make as a volunteer.

Do you feel any concern about your long term financial future? Why or why not?

Of course I do. Sometimes trying to plan for my financial future feels a bit like trying to get blood from a turnip. Statistically speaking, I have about 4 months of a salary saved away, but my salary is so low that realistically I could probably only live off of that on my own for maybe 2 months. It really brings back that whole people aspect, which is the big reason I’m still choosing this life. I don’t really have the financial reserves as this point to feel secure about my long-term future, but I do know that I have an amazing social support system that won’t let me fall through the cracks. Even if I wanted to, I think. The incredible thing is that it’s not just one circle around me, but many layered circles. I’m not confident at all that I’ll be able to retire early or own my dream home or own my own home at all, but I am entirely certain that I’ll never be homeless or starving or without company. There is a lot of freedom in having a lot of money. There’s also a lot of freedom in not needing a lot of money.

Are there any particular moves you’ve made to help secure your financial future, even while earning a relatively low income?

I’m in the process of working on that right now. Two of my goals for 2008 were to become debt free and to open some sort of IRA and/or investing portfolio. I’ve accomplished my first goal and am just beginning to hammer out the details on the second goal. (I just did the math in my head and realized that I’ve paid off about $25,000 in undergrad, graduate, and car loans in under five years. That’s pretty cool.) I know there’s a lot of debate about whether or not debt ought to get paid as quickly as possible or if it all depends on interest rates or whatever, but for me, it was important to have that off my back before I could even begin to think about spending more money someplace else. You know, it’s one of those mental things. Kind of like eating mushrooms. I really don’t care what they taste like, I don’t want to be eating fungus on purpose. So the next step is to start educating myself on those other things. I’ve still got eight months before the end of the year. Any suggestions on how to get started? And think really, really basic. I’m new to this arena.

Do you feel guilty if someone helps you financially? Does that answer depend on who it is, or their reason for doing it?

I know I have people in my life who can be financial resources for me and who I can depend on to be there for me if I ever really needed money. But I definitely won’t tap into those resources until or if I absolutely need it. And yes, I would feel guilty about that. I don’t think it would matter who it was from or what for. That’s not to say that I would rather live on the streets than ask for help, but it would be a hard thing to do. I am more than willing to ask for help in how to manage my finances and get advice in those matters, but asking for actually money is a different beast all together.

Have you had any non-family mentors that have helped guide you to your current place in life? How did you find these people?

Absolutely. I don’t think I would have ended up or stayed where I’m at without some really critical people in my life. Probably the first really influential, non-family person in my life was the chairwoman of the social work department where I went to school. She pushed us to see social work not as a profession, but a perspective, something that we don’t do from 9 to 5, but we live it in everything. She taught me that being a social worker isn’t about the job you hold, but about how you live your life. I believe that how we live matters. How we spend our money matters. That whole “no man is an island” thing, I buy that. I fail often, but I try to be mindful of my impact on others in all things. My diet, my driving habits, my spending habits, my social interactions all have the ability to harm or to help. And I didn’t learn any of that on my own.

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  1. More scholarships need to be made available for people like Rachel. I have know several people from high school that went on to get masters degrees and phd’s that paid over a $100k for their educations, only to make $30k a year.

    It’s their choice I know, but if these individuals don’t fill these positions, who will?

  2. Julia says:

    This was very helpful. I’m about to graduate college in less than a month and many of the things she said resonated deeply with me. I would love a career in social work, so it is reassuring to see the financial aspects of it openly discussed instead of just how great it would be.

    I just wanted to point out that Americorps does offer a program which is more communal. I’m applying to Americorps*NCCC, which IS a very community/team based program and that’s the main reason why I’m applying to it. Just wanted to offer that as an option to people who aren’t affiliated with a religion and would still like to do social service in a community setting. They let you defer your student loans for a year and give you a $4,700 educational grant afterward, which is even nicer.


  3. Christa says:

    Great article! I have been a social worker for 20+ years and love my profession too! I believe the work we do is important and sometimes saves lives. It is depressing, however, that we are not paid well for our degrees and/or experience. Like I said, I have over two decades of experience in multiple settings and I make $50,000 a year less than my sister who is a nurse with much less experience. I would never change professions because, like Rachel, it IS much more than a paycheck!

  4. I chose a “lucrative career”. I went to law school and worked several years as an attorney. I was miserable, so I quit.

    After a few years as a stay at home mom, I am now with a Silicon Valley startup, which isn’t exactly giving up on making money, but I am there because I love being involved with a new startup.

    There’s more to life than making a lot of money doing something you hate. I do wish our society acknowledged teachers, social workers etc. by paying them more.

  5. Mike says:

    It’s always nice to see a personal finance blog post about how money isn’t the most important thing in the world. So true! (I’m a personal finance blogger as well, so obviously I think money is important, but you’ve gotta maintain perspective.) I also admire people who learn to live on less for a good reason, which it sounds like Rachel is doing.

  6. guinness416 says:

    The last two lines of the interview are great, and a wonderful counterpoint to a lot of the “I’ve got mine” garbage that gets written about personal finance.

  7. Financial success is apparently over-rated. Self fulfillment and satisfaction are just as important.

    Furthermore I believe that if you’re good at what you do financial success will follow.

  8. My Small Cents says:

    This was a great conversation. I’ve always worked in low paying jobs that were high on the emotional value scale, although never as a social worker. There’s really something very gratifying about making that choice. Good for you, Rachel, to have paid off that much debt and saved that much money- I know it’s not easy! And I totally agree with your comment about mushrooms…

  9. Gary Hardin says:

    Please relay to your friend Rachel how much all of us appreciate her words, her attitude, her choices. What a blessing! And keep up the good work of interviewing people. Love reading this kind of stuff.

  10. As someone working in the nonprofit sector, I really appreciate Rachel’s perspective – especially her idea of developing a support network that is so much more valuable than 6 months of salary in the bank.

    I will say, however, that I personally don’t think there is anything wrong with pursuing higher paying work for at least some portion of a career. This is something that I’m working at and may be appropriate for Rachel at some point as well.

  11. typome says:

    This is inspirational! I kept wanting to quote so many of the things she wrote in the article, especially the freedom about not needing money. I think it’s great that she followed her passion, and not just because it’s social work. After all, I know lawyers who love their jobs and they get paid well. But definitely it’s important to take a job not just for the money.

  12. Robin says:

    I also have been a social worker for many years, and I find the work to be incredibly fulfulling. However, I would like to add that there are social work jobs that do pay more fairly. Often they are in the private sector, though not always (the VA being an example). As a social worker I have worked in geriatric case management and currently work with a private not for profit hospice, and I am paid enough to live comfortably. I didn’t go into social work for the fame, glory, or money, but I do expect to be compensated fairly to put my heart into what I do. There are still glaring inequities in the pay scale of my organization – LPNs with a 2 year degree make about the same as I do with a masters. I feel strongly that as social workers we need to continue to advocate for ourselves, and the need to be paid fairly for the hard work we do. And Rachel is right, we are definitely social workers beyond the confines of the workweek!

  13. Sheila says:

    Congratulations Rachel. It sounds like you made the right choice. I’d like to send my appreciation and thanks for all you (and others like you) do for our country.

    It took me 25 years of chasing the more lucrative deal and beating my head against a glass ceiling to realize that my family and the time I spend with them is much more valuable than a big paycheck.

  14. J says:

    I can totally relate to Rachel. I was also valedictorian on my high school, and my bachelor’s is in math/computer science, so everyone expected me to go onto some high-paying job after graduation. But, instead, I chose to follow my true calling of being a librarian! :) I took a lot of flack from my family who thought I was under-utilizing my talents and selling myself short, but after ~5 years in the profession, I think I’ve finally convinced them otherwise. I’m using plenty of my intelligence and skills daily in my job as a librarian, and I love every minute of it! I love hearing about others who followed their hearts above lure of the almighty dollar…

  15. Phil A says:

    Nice interview.

  16. finaidgirl says:

    Thank you for interviewing Rachel. I also participated in Americorps*VISTA which encouraged us to create our own community but it wasn’t as “built-in” to the program as in others. I wonder how far along financially I could be if I hadn’t given up a year’s worth of salary for Americorps, but I’ve never regretted it. So true that there is perhaps just as much freedom (if not more) in not needing money as opposed to having more than you need.

  17. Rachel says:

    I really related to this interview– and not just because of the name thing :)

    I originally went to college as a psych major with intentions of getting my PhD and eventually becoming a psychologist/therapist in a private practice. Long story short, things changed and I ended up going to grad school for Library Science and am currently at my first librarian job– which took me a year to get, after graduating.

    Librarians are another group who are definitely not in it for the money– we do not make what we’re really worth, especially since we have to go to grad school to get here. And the librarian job market is tough in a lot of areas too, mine included. We’re here because we enjoy what we’re doing and want to do it badly enough that we’ll brave both the job market and our marked-down price tags.

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