Updated on 09.16.14

When Debt Forces You To Stay At An Untenable Job

Trent Hamm

Will wrote in with this terrible lament:

My boss keeps ratcheting up the hours that have to be worked and it has reached the point where I would rather do anything than go to work. The problem is that I can’t quit: I have a family and so much debt that if I were to quit my job, the foreclosure and repossession wouldn’t be far behind. What can I do?

For me, Will’s experience is the single worst aspect of having significant debt: it forces certain life choices upon you. It’s bad enough paying back the money itself, but the requirement of paying it all back, month after grinding month, means that it affects your other decisions, too. If you run up a credit card debt, suddenly you’re stuck at work, unable to quit and seek out better solutions in your life because you may default on the debt, destroy your credit, and face repossession issues, for example.

What’s the way out of this situation? There is no easy way out – you have to sit down and take control of your financial situation and eliminate that debt. There’s really no way around it, but there are a lot of little things you can do to make things move in the right direction. For starters, here’s a list of forty ways to reduce your monthly expenditures.

Another major step you can take is to minimize the interest rate on every debt you have. If you have credit cards, call the number on the back of the card, get to a human, ask to talk to their supervisor, then request a rate reduction. For your other debts, see if you can get a personal loan or a home equity loan at your local credit union (these are usually the best places to go for such loans).

You should also always look for additional sources of income. Start a side business or take a second job – you may find that you end up transitioning to that as your full-time employment without too much of a loss in salary if you find you’re good at it and there’s a demand for what you’re doing.

One final step is to find sources of positive reinforcement, not negative. Look for friends who spend less, not more. Visit websites with a positive financial focus, not ones that encourage you to spend your hard-earned cash. Find hobbies that are inexpensive (like reading) and scale back on more expensive hobbies. The more you surround yourself with positive financial influences, the better off you’ll be.

Required expenses (including debt) is one of the biggest reasons that people stick with jobs that drain their soul and their freedom. Don’t let the want of material goods ever put you into this position.

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  1. Matt says:

    Man, that is a tough situation. The second job is an idea but Will would have to really weigh the sacrifices (ie. spending less time with family).

    I would suggest to immediately start looking for another full-time job. If he has paid vacation time, schedule a week off in about a month and use that time for going on interviews and such. He can still quit his job if he has another lined up without missing payments. Who knows, maybe he can find a higher paying job.

    Also, if Will’s children are old enough to work, he can get them involved. It’s not the children’s responsibility for the debt but if Will comes clean with his situation to his whole family he might be able to have them chip in what they can. Some people will probably disagree with this but look at agricultural life. Kids were expected to help out on the farm as soon as they were old enough – that’s why schools have two months off in the summer.

  2. Avlor says:

    I agree. He needs to find another job, then quit if he hates his job so much. And stop getting further into debt. There have to be changes, for him AND the family. I’m sure he didn’t get into the debt alone.

  3. Avlor says:

    I realized I probably sounded callous in the post above. I don’t mean to be. There just has to be a stop to the insanity cycle.

  4. Laura says:

    At the risk of stating the obvious, why not job search for a similar position at a different firm or company? You don’t want to quit without having anything lined up, but there’s no reason why you can’t quit if you have a better alternative to go to. Even if the pay is the same, it would be better. But when you job search while employed, you are in a position of power in terms of negotiating, because if your potential employer wants you to work for them, they will feel as though they need to meet or beat your current salary in order to lure you away. Try not to give away too much about your discontentment so that they won’t know you’re desperate to leave your job; it will give you a bit of negotiating power if you seem as though you don’t NEED the new position.

  5. martha in mobile says:

    This is such a soul-sucking situation! Finding another job is at the top of the list, as is reducing debt. I have found that when I am unhappy, I spend more trying to “happify” myself, so a job that pays less could still help this person come out ahead, financially.

    Good luck!

  6. ben says:

    If the job description has changed and requires more work/responsibility, then thats a great time to ask for a raise. I would make the assumption that its a salaried job (or all that overtime should be going towards the debt) and most likely they can’t pull anyone off the street and get them up to speed, in which case you probably have more negotiating power than you think. Alternatively, if this is a company that is just trying to hang on in a rough period (ie no possibility of a raise) then you just simply have to make time to look for another job.

  7. Kristina says:

    This is a good situation if it sparks real, life-long change. Now, prior to making any purchase (or going out to eat or doing anything that is not an absolute need), stop and ask yourself if it’s worth being financially enslaved to have that item. Hopefully the answer will be “no” and you’ll get serious about paying off debt and staying out of it.

    Second, I agree with the above suggestions that in addition to getting a second job, this person should look for a different primary job. Often, people create a scenario in their heads where they are trapped or stuck, but in fact they haven’t done anything proactive to change their situation. The only way this person knows that he’s really trapped is if he’s already spent months looking for another full-time job. I doubt this has happened. So, get serious about a real job search. And do it with a positive, empowered attitude do that you look appealing to employers.

  8. Amanda says:

    I agree with Kristina. There is always something you can do to help yourself. I’ve been in this situation before. My required hours slowly crept from 40 to over 60. I spent the last month at that job searching for a new position. I found one which paid over $13k more and made fewer requirements on my time. If Will really wants to make a change (some people just want to complain – hopefully that’s not the case) then he can do it. The short-term effort is definitely worth the long-term reward.

  9. It’s truly such a sad catch-22 for many. In the end, it’s about trying to find that way out – perhaps by finding a new job with less hours and possibly lower pay just so that you get the time to learn new skills applicable for a career that can pay you better. It’s about investing in yourself but I can imagine how difficult this can be for those financially underwater to begin with. Clearly, a tough uphill battle. But one that can be won with hard determination.

  10. Minimum Wage says:

    What if you have no marketable skills and the only jobs you can get are crummy jobs that you hate? I once had two jobs I hated but the stress was unsustainable so I quit the second job.

  11. Ben Atkin says:

    From the sound of it, I think he probably needs to work another couple of months and save some money. Even if you have a new job lined up right after the old one, it’s good to have a paycheck’s worth saved up (and not relied upon for other things). What if the new job has a different pay schedule? What if there are unexpected expenses for things like uniforms, equipment, or study materials that are needed for the new job?

    He’s probably discouraged and could pull off switching to a new job quicker than he thinks, but perhaps not immediately.

  12. Nick in Iraq says:

    Debt is one of the most effective ways of controlling people, and this is exactly how. When you are scared of losing “things” like that new car you don’t need, the McMansion, and the big screen TV, that you don’t speak out, you stay in in your crummy job, and hope that eventually you can pay it off.

    When you are in the situation, you can’t voice complaints in your job or any authority for that matter. Forget about taking time off to work on things that are important, you have to keep earning that paycheck!

    Best of luck getting out of debt, I know how tough it is, but it’s worth it.

  13. It is amazing how much better you can cope with a crappy job or situation when you have a plan. When you can see the light at the end of the tunnel that helps know that the current pain is temporary and part of a bigger larger better plan.

  14. Amanda says:

    If you have no marketable skills… get skills! Many libraries have free seminars on learning computer basics like the Microsoft Office suite. Almost any college will have a continuing education program which will provide all sorts of classes geared towards beginners in just about any subject. Look into vo-tech schools. A typical program could last 12-16 months and provide you with a marketable skill in, say, auto mechanics or AC repair.

    There is no reason why you cannot get the skills to get a better job, if getting those skills is a priority for you. If your priority is self-pity, though, I definitely agree with you that you’re sunk.

    By the way, that may sound callous, but I have been absolutely dirt poor (the kind of poor where you really wonder where your next meal is coming from) and built myself up from nothing. I have no patience with people who won’t help themselves and then complain that things aren’t magically handed to them. Getting out of poverty and learning a trade is not a cakewalk by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s very necessary.

  15. Minimum Wage says:

    Local libraries here don’t have anything like what you describe. I earn minimum wage and have debt and a collector suing me – I expect to have no money for the foreseeable future, i.e. going to school or a training programis not an option.

  16. Amanda says:

    Then go to the library and use the tutorials in the programs and the training books the library will have (try the For Dummies series, or use whatever else they have) to teach yourself. Educate yourself. That’s what I did. If there are a number of unemployed people in your area, why not try to convince the librarian to hold such a seminar? I’m sure it would be useful for more people than just you.

    Stop making excuses, really. You can acknowledge that getting skills is not a priority for you. That’s absolutely fine. That’s valid. Trying to delude yourself (and by extension, us) into believing that there is absolutely nothing you can do, however, is absolutely the worst thing for you TO do. The only thing that it does is force you into a helplessness that you don’t need to be in.

    With self-discipline comes self-respect. With knowledge and education comes self-respect. Just take the first step and it will work itself out – or, more properly, you will be able to work it out yourself. I’ve always found that to be the case.

  17. Jean says:

    What if the spouse won’t co-operate in getting out of debt? So many people I know of have spouses that spend…and spend…and spend. And there seems to be no way to get them to see what it’s doing to them.

    Since my hubby and I are on the same page spending and savings-wise, I can’t help… any body else know how to get the spouse on board?

  18. Matt says:

    I’ve been in that situation where I had to stay in a job that was driving my nuts but one I couldn’t quit because I needed to keep paying my debts. The worst part of the whole situation was that defaulting on anything would impact my parents who had co-signed a loan for me so I had the extra guilt of being forced to stay. I hated the situation and unfortunately I was too comfortable to fight my way out of it… I just dealt with a job I didn’t really like.

    Now I’m getting my debt under control in those small ways to be sure I am no longer controlled by my work.

  19. Monica says:

    Minimum Wage – some of us took student loans to go to school and don’t regret it. I don’t know what on earth I would have done if I didn’t have the education that enabled me to enter this career.

    Even if, for whatever reason, you are unable or unwilling to go to school at this time, you can work at some other marketable skills.

    You obviously have access to a computer, so you could teach yourself web design skills, then volunteer these web design skills for free (perhaps to charities or local churches who don’t yet have a web presence), then use those sites as a portfolio to convince paying customers that you would be a great choice to design/redesign their site.

    You could find a way to improve your language skills. For example, you could get together with a recent Spanish-speaking immigrant on a regular basis. He could practice English with you, then the next time you could practice Spanish with him. Supplement with some library books (a Spanish grammar, etc.).

    If you’re interested in writing/research, start writing articles and submitting them to magazines. You can look at a book at the library (the title escapes me) which lists the different magazines, tells you what kind of articles they publish, how much they pay, etc.

    Volunteer work is another way to pick up new skills. Contact the local volunteer bureau to see what opportunities there are. If there isn’t anything that would be useful to you, consider approaching some organizations to offer yourself. Think about what kind of skills you would like to acquire. If you’re interested in getting experience working with the public, maybe you could be a tour guide at the museum. If you want outdoorsy/nature skills, maybe look into a local park or nature society.

    You can also gain leadership/management/supervisory experience through volunteer work. If you are reliable you may be asked to be “in charge” of something.

    Toastmasters is a way of gaining public speaking skills.

    If you are in any religious or community group, your greater involvement there could gain you skills that would transfer to the workplace. For example, teaching Sunday School could lead to daycare work.

    Also, maybe there are ways to move up at your present employer, or in that industry. I know someone who started working at McDonald’s as a teenager and is now in his mid-twenties the manager of several different McDonald’s.

  20. Minimum Wage says:

    I think my best shot is in doing something online. I already took student loans, ultimately defaulted after four rent increases in four years with no corresponding wage increase. I am currently making interest-only payments but my loans are still in default and I’m not reducing the principal, which is why I can’t go back to school. Even if I did go back to school, at my age I don’t think I’m employable. (Does anyone hire middle aged people for entry level positions?)

    I have found a little niche in which I think I can profitably sell stuff online. What I’m looking for is a good, affordable, user-friendly website builder for getting started. (I learned HTML ten years ago but never kept up with Java and XTML and all the newfangled stuff, so I’m not even going to try to do a website from scratch.) If I can get a website up and running I think I can run with it from there.

  21. Mitch says:

    MW, I got a couple of early jobs temp-to-hire (summer jobs then first year out of college), making 2x minimum wage, enough to get by on as a single person and room in large organizations to develop etc. It may matter what job market you are in, but 1. you have a college degree, 2. you have experience, 3. you are computer literate–if you find yourself out of a job I bet the temp agencies will be excited to have you and employers tend to like hiring people they know. They just like people they know, it’s social psychology.

    As for websites, I don’t know what the latest-and-greatest is in secure “shopping carts,” credit verification, merchant accounts &/or paypal, but if my freelance friend has any ideas I’ll post back. I know she tends to proffer Expression Engine as an affordable content-management system that her clients can use without a lot of training. Or, you might like to start with more of a service like Catalog.com’s hosting club.

    Good luck! (8

  22. db says:

    Well dang, Minimum Wage.

    Your 10-year old html knowledge is out of date. Why not pick up a book on Java and teach yourself how to program, then bid yourself out on elance.com? Anything beats whining about your lack of skills.

    I’m in IT, and a lot of my peers never went to school to learn programming, they just picked up a programming book and started teaching themselves.

  23. Mitch says:

    Frankly I’m proud of MW, who begins to sound a sliver… dare I say… hopeful. No idea whether the TSD commenters we had anything to do with it or not, but I for one am strangely warmed.

    But you’re right, DB: learning Java or even one of the frameworks could be another smart move if we can assume sufficient computer access. I also know a lot of people find programming much more difficult than markup, and OOP may be another beast altogether–so MW has no need to lose confidence if it breaks the brain, but all the more opportunity if s/he succeeds. Also, like the webstore idea, if it doesn’t work out perfectly it could still be an experience valuable to employers (go-getter, cross-training, etc.).

  24. R Kyles says:

    Well on the 2nd job tip, if you have high speed internet and a land line, you can supplement your income with an online job. I’m an independent contractor with http://www.liveops.com and it has helps a lot… Just an idea. :-)

  25. Matt says:

    A bit off-topic but if you are interested in programming I would recommend learning Ruby and Ruby on Rails. It is currently the “hot” programming language and framework. If you devote yourself to learning it and can demonstrate your skills you should have little problem finding a well-paying, interesting job in 6 months.

  26. I completely agree with this. I sepnt over 3 years in a job that I really did not enjoy because of financial constriants. It really doesn’t help you, health wise or relationship wise. Furtunately myself and my wife got through it, but the excessive pressure of debt or financial committments should never force your hand to such an extent.

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