Sunday Conversation #3

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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