Updated on 08.15.08

The Big Debate #5: Chasing the Dreams or Chasing the Money?

Trent Hamm

?This week, The Simple Dollar is taking a deeper look at five common personal finance debates.

A while back, I posted an article entitled How to Choose a Career – The Simple Dollar Way, where I advocated strongly for allowing your passions and talents to lead you to a career, not the money.

This led to a lengthy discussion, where many people argued rather strongly on behalf of simply chasing the money. In the words of Carlos:

I’m not suggesting that you do something you hate, but, one’s income is the single largest ‘asset’ they have. Earn some bling, pile it up to the sun, walk away when you tire of it.

Which avenue is the right one to take?

What Are The Options?
On one hand, you have the option to do what you love. The careers that many people are most passionate about are not high paying – they usually revolve around chasing an artistic dream or taking on a social work-oriented career. Others might thrive on starting their own business, even though the odds of success are long and the income can be very dodgy, especially at first.

On the other hand, you have the option to do whatever makes the most money. For many people, this means doing something they’re not as happy doing as they might otherwise be.

Paul, another commenter, summed it up well:

I agree with some of the others here. I would have loved to continue to follow my passion, but I also have to feed my family. I loved being an Emergency Medical Technician but $10/hr doesn’t quite cover it.

So I switched to dispatch and make $15/hr, a 50% increase. Still in the same line of work, but I’d rather be back on the ambulance.

If Paul did what he loved, he’d be making $10 an hour as an EMT in the back of an ambulance. Instead, he chose to follow a path he didn’t like as much, but it earns him $15 an hour.

So What Should I Do?
The real answer to this dilemma comes down to this: what do you want out of life? What do you see when you close your eyes and imagine yourself in five years, the way (in your heart of hearts) you want things to be?

Do you see yourself working at a job that you’re truly passionate about, doing work that you feel is important? Do you see a career that flows so perfectly with your personal activities that the border between “work” and “fun” doesn’t even exist? If that’s the case, then chase the dream – it will lead you to that life. Find your passions, match those passions with your talents, and run with it.

On the other hand, maybe you see yourself enjoying the fruits of your labor. Do you see travel? Do you see a nice, big home with kids playing in the yard? If your visions show you the trappings of a life separate from work, then it might be wise to chase the money, as this will allow you to fill that life with as much value as you wish.

There is no right answer here. At different points in my life, I chose each path. Earlier on, I chose the money. I followed the training and a career path that I thought would pay well and that I enjoyed quite a bit, but I knew that it was not the thing that my heart cried out to do. Eventually, I jumped the rails and moved onto a path where my work days are often so enjoyable that they just naturally flow with my personal activities – chasing the dream.

The answer only comes with a lot of introspection, and just because you choose one answer right now doesn’t mean that later on you might not choose another. Perhaps you’ll work for the money for a while and spend your time really figuring out your dream and then one day you close your eyes and imagine yourself doing something completely different. Or maybe you follow your passions for a while, then eventually settle down with a spouse, two kids, a dog, and a house in the suburbs.

The only thing you must do is this: close your eyes, right now, and imagine where you’d like to be in five years. Don’t let anything else interfere with it – what do you want, in your heart of hearts? Then open your eyes and start moving in that direction.

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  1. Chris says:

    I love this article. It hits right at home. For example, I’m 23 years old. Graduated college about a year ago from a small state school in upstate New York. I lived in a small town, I wanted to pursue the “business” career. I picked up all of my things and moved to Boston! So I’m now here, I worked a year, and have now been accepted into graduate school here. Right now, I am chasing “the money” but that’s just short-term and it’s actually mandatory..I want to be a college professor. In order to do that, you HAVE to either: work many years in the field, or attain a phD. I’m going for doctorate degree after my master’s in hopes that it won’t take as long to become a professor. So I feel that some choices of “following your dream” require you to “chase the money” somewhere along that path. I can’t just hop into being a professor unforunately!

  2. writer dad says:

    “The only thing you must do is this: close your eyes, right now, and imagine where you’d like to be in five years. Don’t let anything else interfere with it”

    Wonderfully said. This is the mantra my wife and I are living with right now. So far, it’s working out beautifully.

  3. V says:

    I am struggling with this debate right now as a college student. I would like to follow the direction of my dreams, but I would feel terribly selfish about it. I will be the first one to graduate college from my family, and they are counting on me to help lift us out of poverty with a good paying future career. I don’t feel like I even have a choice between chasing money and chasing dreams. I must follow the money to get food on the table, but hopefully one day I will be able to chase my dream. :]

  4. clint lawton says:

    Do what you have to do for a wile.(till you are out of debt) Then do what you love. That is what has worked for me and hundreds of my clients. You do not want to be doing a job you hate 40 years from now just because you “have to” but you can do things now to make it so you don’t have to do it forever.

    Start a blog for example…it won’t give you a ton of money now but in a couple of years when you are out of debt you could live off the income. I do and love it.

    Start a side business pay off the debt and live off the income from the business. You would be suprised what you could live on if you don’t have any debt.

    The list could go on forever botom line. Do somthing NOW to get you ware you want to be in the next year or two. If you don’t you will be right ware you are now a year from now…wishing you had a side income to replace your job you don’t like.

    Clint Lawton


  5. I think you’ve got to be pragmatic. Find a job where you get along with the people and that gives you the money to achieve your goals in life. You can’t work somewhere where you’re miserable, but at the same time you don’t have to achieve personal fulfillment through your work. We all want to and if you can…GREAT! Look for fulfillment and joy from your friends and family. Let work be work.

  6. Kevin says:

    Is it a bad sign that I can’t see where I’ll be career-wise in 5 years? I know where I could be or might be, but not sure where I “want” to be.

  7. I really appreciate the way you put this. Neither option is better, or morally superior. It just comes down to what makes you fulfilled. Too many times the idea of passion is pushed too hard. For the people who want to give live on an island and soak up the margaritas as soon as possible, it creates a disconnect.

    With this approach, you’ve just made the perfect connection. Thanks!

  8. Jeremy says:

    > Is it a bad sign that I can’t see where I’ll be
    > career-wise in 5 years? I know where I could be
    > or might be, but not sure where I “want” to be.

    I’m in the same position. I’ve been thinking about this for over 2 years now and still no closer to an answer.

  9. plonkee says:

    What helps me is realising that I am not my job. And that it doesn’t need to fulfil every creative or intellectual need that I have. Instead I use my job to give me the things that I would find difficult to get from a hobby.

    I don’t need to be a professional musician to play music, and I don’t need to earn money from blogging to be a writer, but I can’t get my geeky maths fix from a hobby that I’m willing to take up, so I do it for a living instead.

  10. Julie says:

    For myself, having just started my first “real” job (as opposed to part-time, contract-based work), I’m saving up so that I have a large nest egg when I have kids, hopefully in 4-5 years. I want to stay home with them at least until they go to school. So I’m doing something that’s nice but not ideal right now, building up savings, and thinking about how nice it’ll be to not HAVE to work to support myself and my future children.

    @Kevin: I’m there with you. I know in very broad brush-strokes where I’d like to be eventually, but I have no idea about the details or how it’ll eventually play out.

  11. Jim says:

    One point to make is that unfortunately sometimes by working at a passion, you end up hating what it was you used to love. I had this problem with a music career. My love of performing was reduced to shabby gigs, long nights, and the pressure of making ends meet. Now I have a high paying job, and enjoy playing more than I ever have. Sometimes passions need to remain separate from work.

    As Kanye West says, “Money isn’t everything, but not having it is.”

    Money can’t fix your problems, unless your problem is worrying about money.

  12. deepali says:

    Some people are lucky enough to do both, I think. Part of that comes from either loving the intensive stuff, or knowing what to do without. I think my boyfriend and I have been able to do this in different ways. He makes a LOT of money and works a lot of hours, but he loves it. I make decent money (but by no means a lot), work slightly fewer hours and also love it. I can’t afford the last minute trips to Paris like he can, but I’m also ok without them.
    It helps, I think, to know how much you really need (or want) to make.

  13. Plonkee hit on what I was going to say. Some of us are in positions where we can’t really give up the job in order to pursue our dreams, but a lot of times, the dream stuff can be done on the side. You don’t necessarily need to do something full-time in order to get a sense of fulfillment.

  14. Carrie says:

    What Jim @ 3:35 said. My two passions are music and writing, both known for being notoriously low-paying. I like my creature comforts and can’t stand worry about money, so I chose the high-paying career. The toughest part is squeezing in time for my passions so that when I have enough money socked away, I’ll still have my skills. I’ve had to make adjustments in my career and remind myself that my dreams, not my day job, take highest priority. It makes for a busy schedule, but it’s worth it.

  15. Jim says:

    I can relate Carrie. I make it a point of practicing every morning, even if it’s just for ten minutes. It gives me a great perspective on my day job. Don’t worry about your skills withering. If you make just a little time in your day (as you seem to), I think the passion will make up for the rest.

    I studied with so many music teachers when I was young: they hated school, they hated kids, they hated teaching. They had even less time to pursue their dreams, because they were playing weddings on weekends, giving private lessons at night, all because they couldn’t make ends meet.

    I’ll never forget a gig I had a long time ago where we had a substitute player – a superb sax player who just got off a jazz tour. I was in college at the time, and I was admiring his life. He looked at me and said, “Man, if I was good at math like you, I’d *never* do this for a living!” I feel lucky to have interacted with so many honest musicians before I made a mistake studying the wrong thing in college.

  16. Todd A says:

    I’m doing both currently ! I work the daytime job to pay the bills, provide health insurance, etc.. It’s the same genre of work that I’m passionate about, but the particulars/details/deadlines make the daytime job far from a dream. Nights and weekends (apart from family life) are invested in my own company, which is getting interesting as my first product has rolled out. BUT, it does require a fairly endless supply of energy …

  17. I agree with Trent’s views and simply want to note this mild cultural criticism from another writer:

    In “It’s a Meaningful Life: It Just Takes Practice,” Bo Lozoff questions the need for a grand “career” with which we define ourselves. He notes that in the past “so, what do you do?” would have been answered with a list of passions, hobbies, volunteer work, family relations … not a job description. And he argues that the old way was better.

    So maybe those who feel a niggling sense of guilt that they’ve “sold out” by taking a higher-paying but less-wonderful job need to ask themselves if they assume their job is a means to an end or an end in itself. Each person’s answer to that question may be another way s/he can decide which choice to make in this Big Debate.

  18. Novice says:


    I think this is a great post. Some people are mentally and emotionally trained to take on any job and excel at it, but happiness is a different story. It’s hard to pinpoint what one would want years down the road, a general idea exists, but there are many twists and turns while living which may defer or divert goals to something else, which may include a spouse or a child. I think the best type of work is where one can realistically accomplish its requirements, earn just enough to spend and save, and have a schedule which does not limit spending time with loved ones. No job is worth the money earned if it takes time away from the personal life. No job is worth keeping no matter how happy it makes you, if the people who support you emotionally cannot be cared for financially.


  19. Matt R. says:

    Great article. This concept fits nicely with my 5-year plan. I’m trying to find a way to do what I love and not take too much of a financial hit in the process. Both my passion and my financial well-being are important to me, and I don’t necessarily think you have to sacrifice either if you plan and execute wisely.

  20. This is a nice article. Lucky for me I have always enjoyed doing what I currently do for a living and earn a decent salary. I have actually even performed a similar function on a couple occasions for free, just for the experience and references.

    I do agree that even though some of us might have their gigs with trying out higher paying jobs that we don’t like untill we find that great career opportunity that we truly enjoy doing.
    But those options are as unique as the 6 billion unique individuals on our planet.

  21. IC says:

    I have always chased the money, I guess I never really had a perticular job I wanted to do, I like working hard pyhsically but jobs like that dont pay alot of money, I dislike working for others period, so I always felt if I had to work for someone I should make as much money as I could doing it, so I could stop working for them when it suited me. I have worked abroad half of my adult life, and yes I have missed out on family, and events, as they are not always able to join me, but I now have alot of time off and I am able to enjoy my family alot more, when I know I have months off and do not have to worry about a paycheck or will I get the raise, bonus or new position.

    There is no right answer to this question, each will answer it on thier own in thier own way, for me, I am an independent contractor, I choose the places I want to go and the job I want to accept, and the compensation I will recieve, yes I still am working for someone but I have a little more say in the matter.

    Who knows maybe one day I will figure out my dream Career or maybe figure out I just want to travel, study, or play who knows.

  22. Georgia says:

    I have a different problem. I have so many interests and abilities that I couldn’t settle on one thing to do. So I tried many different things and enjoyed them all. I do have the ability to find something great in everything I do. Don’t know why, but I’m not complaining. I have been a waitress, shoe factory worker, insurance office help, federal worker (SD & GSA), teller in an S&L & later it’s branch manager, and lastly I worked for the state as a Clerk Typist II (in a max. sec. mental institution) and for home health agencies as a home health aide. (Someone once told me I couldn’t keep a job.) Ha!

    Now I am planning on returning to finish my degree in college as a 71 y/o. I have to decide on a degree to work toward. I have finally settled (I think) on Accounting. It is very easy and interesting to me, but I know it will also work me hard and tax my brain before I get the degree. Even at 74-75 I should have no trouble getting a job because I have SS & 2 small retirements, so I won’t need top dollar in any job I apply for. There are many small businesses, hospitals, schools, etc. that can’t afford to pay that top dollar and would be glad of good help.

    But this is not the passion of my life, I don’t have one – except for reading and that isn’t a job description totally. But I will be happy and useful as long as I am alive and will be getting extra money to do some traveling, etc.

    In fact, shortly after my husband died, I went back to my old job at the mental inst. and worked for 6 months- the amount allowed so I wouldn’t lose my retirement. I had a ball, helped them out immensely, and saved enough money to do a lot of traveling in country this year.

    I don’t think I’ve ever had a job or lived anywhere that I absoutely hated. Too much wonder abroad in God’s world!

  23. MVP says:

    What do you do when you visualize yourself as a stay-at-home parent in five years (or less)? You’ve stuck with a fairly lucrative but unsatisfying job for several years to earn money to finish paying off debt and gradually set your life up so you can start a family and have one parent stay home. But then the getting pregnant part doesn’t come quickly. At what point do you stop waiting to get pregnant to leave your unsatisfying job, and start considering other options like adoption or changing careers – even though your ultimate goal is to be a parent, not find a new career?

  24. Kevin says:

    Glad to hear I’m not the only one who is having an issue with the 5 year plan thing. I currently have a really great job (CPA) and have been asked to become a partner of my firm in a few years, the problem is the current partners are kind of dragging their feet a little. Last year I had to ask for my review, which was 5 months late. Just this week I asked for this year’s review as well as to follow up in questions I raised at last year’s (actually in January) that they never got back to me with answers. It is a little frustrating, to say the least.

    Another option is opening my own firm, but that takes clients, which is not my strong suit. It would be really cool to start something of my own, but do I stick with the current firm which will eventually become partly mine? Hopefully this year’s review will answer a lot of my questions.

  25. So says:

    in my expirience and all of the people around me, It always PAYS OFF to do what you love. B sides it is the best way to live and enjoy your money!

  26. Lady Tawodi says:

    Right now I chase the money to support my father and build my equity and retirement funds. But once I am not taking care of my father anymore, I may change things up a bit and chase the dream instead.

  27. Jessica says:

    Great article! I am not a 9-5 person. I am working on starting my own business. I have learned to be patient and most of all not give up.

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