Updated on 10.02.07

Your Money or Your Life: The Money Trap

Trent Hamm

YMOYLThis is the second part of The Simple Dollar Book Club reading of Your Money or Your Life. Want to know more?

This section focuses primarily on the psychological punishment that is the modern career, and when you look at it from the context of the idea that our jobs fill most of our waking hours, it’s rather depressing. Part of the appeal of television for many adults is not as a recreation in and of itself, but a very effective way to completely unwind from the grindstone that is the day – and an hour or two of television before bed becomes the only respite of “life” that we get from our jobs.

There are a lot of aspects to this psychological punishment discussed here, and it’s worth noting several of them.

Demanding hours We start preparing for work the moment we get up, and by the time we’re done for the day, sleep is often not very far away. In other words, we place far more emphasis on earning a bit more money than we do on enjoying it.

Lack of self-direction The vast majority of people spend their day following the orders of others rather than fully directing their own work.

Caste system of employment Some jobs simply have more prestige than others, leaving people doing, say, carpentry work feeling inadequate next to doctors. Even if you spend your day in a punishing job, quite often it doesn’t bring a significant level of social pride.

Stress-related disorders Jobs with a high level of stress often result in more sickness. Even if you don’t get sick, the constant wear of the grind can easily add a level of lethargy to your life.

Spending and consumerism as a balm Even though we live with all of this in order to earn more money, often we just spend that money on consumer goods in order to “compress” our time for recreation. We desperately seek out that peak experience in the little slots we have left in our lives for actually living.

Happiness On top of all of that, the overall life leaves people feeling unhappy. Even more interesting, earning more money doesn’t lead to more happiness at all.

Many of these factors speak directly to my life. By the time my head hits the pillow at night, I often feel completely blitzed. After working, spending time with my family, and writing every day, there isn’t a whole lot of time left in an average day for recreation or even doing a lot of little things I’d like to do with my life.

However, like a lot of people, I feel tied to my employment in a lot of ways – the self-definition, the money, and other factors. I could quit my “real” job today to become a stay-at-home dad and we’d probably make it just fine – but there’s some little part of me deep inside that’s scared to make that leap. Perhaps that’s another factor – to many Americans, their job seems like what they’re supposed to be doing.

Tomorrow, we’ll keep going through the first chapter, focusing on the section “Prosperity and the Planet.” That section is on pages 9 through 21 in my paperback version of the book.

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  1. Kim says:

    This section definitely rings true with me. I’ve always been pretty good about keeping my job within boundaries, but the pressure is always there to commit more more more of my time to travel, overtime, etc. I watch many of my co-workers get in too deep in terms of agreeing to leave their families and homes for extended work trips (2 weeks seems to be a very short trip around here). After doing it for a while, they seem to be expected to do it all the time. I’ve met many people here whose divorces coincide with extended tours of duty to field sites. I’m sure there were other problems, but that had to have played a role.

    It’s sad to see people who say and genuinely want family to be their first priority. But they feel so subservient to their jobs that functionally, work is their first priority. I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t scared of being pushed into that.

  2. tuck says:

    Really enjoying this book so far. (I’ve read ahead a bit.) It’s an interesting point about the jobs…in my personal situation, in terms of time commitment and money made, it’s pretty ideal, but the work itself is drier than sawdust and with no redeeming qualities. So I feel like I should be pretty satisfied with being most of the way there, but it still leaves me feeling like I am missing something…

  3. rhbee says:

    In teaching, self direction is seldom the problem. A teacher like a turtle can just pull in his or her head and just keep going. Even in today’s No Child Left Behind environment this is still true. The thing is that the stress this creates can be tremendous. The first year I taught I saw two teachers breakdown, one literally right in front of me in the lunch line. But teachers learn to live with stress, they cope by burying themselves in the task, or by drinking after work, especially on Friday’s so that they have the whole weekend to recover. But the work stress isn’t all of it. The community has their eyes on a teacher too. So again the stress is forced inside, often relieved by taking whole summers off. I spent my first 7 years working the whole year, then my next 15 taking every summer completely off and using all of my income to pay for it. The thing is, I worked three jobs, studied well into the night (thank the gods for Jonny Carson’s company), and walked a round trip of seven miles to take my classes so that I could become a teacher and a coach. It is all I ever wanted and it took 22 years of stress to finally make me quit. I loved the classroom but . . .

  4. Nadine says:

    Primarily, people feel trapped in their jobs, because they often spend more than they make. My job is a blessing that makes it possible for me to live comfortably. However, if my spending is out of control, I will feel like a rat in a wheel. I originally read this book several years ago and always disliked the negative terms used to describe the process of working for a living. I am sure that some people feel this way, but I know many others who enjoy their careers. I prefer some of the later sections of the book that refer to spending earned income wisely.

  5. LAMoneyGuy says:

    It’s a funny thing in our society. We’re all trying so hard to get to the point where we don’t have to work anymore (i.e. retirement). But if you talk to many retirees, you will find that most of them were ill prepared. Not financially, but psychologically. Like it or not, we find emotional and spiritual value in what we do for a living. Most people need to find a way to create that identity in ways that is not tied to their career.

  6. Moneymonk says:

    You always should have a backup money stream in addition to your job income. That way you are just not working to pay bills

  7. Susy says:

    I agree. My husband used to be a minister and that’s a tough profession for sure. On call 24/7 for anything and not much pay and no benefits. You can’t justify your working by the amount you make, I suppose the fact that it’s supposed to be a “higher calling” is supposed to make you feel that it’s worthwhile. But it was just too stressful!

    We (I say “we” because churches often assume that in hiring the husband the wife is also indentured to the church for free labor) decided to just quit and we had planned & saved to get us through. Fortunately our business picked up and we’re living our dream life right now. We probably work more hours, but at least we really enjoy our work, so it’s not like work. It would be hard to do this though if you had kids and if you needed health care (I have good health care through my part-time job). But he decided he would rather work at Home Depot or somewhere than his current job (not to mention he’d make more).

  8. Beth says:

    I don’t see myself ever having a backup money stream – I’m single, so no partner to help out, and I’m frankly not interested in working more than one job. I AM working on saving money and cutting expenses though; At points in my life I’ve taken great comfort from knowing that if I lost my job and got a minimum wage job for a while, I’d be able to get by.

    Now that’s not the case, but I *do* have two things I consciously decided I wanted before I got my current job: 1. a challenging & secure job, 2. a short commute. I became aware of this book and the simplicity movement in my twenties, so it really helped me structure an outlook on my work life that meshes well with my interests. (well, pretty well.. I wouldn’t mind not working at all!)

  9. Jeff Pershing says:

    This book sounds like it has a lot of promise. I am excited to get to the good stuff. Seems to take ot long to set up.

  10. Christine says:

    I agree with Nadine….As I read the prologue and into the first chapter I felt uneasy at the negative, depressed outlook it imparted. I think we’re fortunate in this country to have the option of worrying about whether we feel happy or fulfilled in our jobs. In most countries and most centuries before us we wouldn’t have that choice. I’m thankful for my job which can be aggravating and tiring from time to time. Looking forward to the rest of the book for more constructive approaches to dealing with money and priorities.

  11. Sunny says:

    This chapter was a reality check for me. I read it while hunched over my desk scarfing down my lunch. It is a job I love and find challenging everyday but I need to re-establish my limits.

  12. infix says:

    Another thing that traps people in their jobs is health insurance. In the US you get health insurance (and hence health care) through your job. Since I have no debt (even the house is paid off) and some savings, I’d really like to quit my job and start some kind of company of my own, but then I think about the health insurance implications. I think if I were in a country with government-provided health care I wouldn’t hesistate to quit and start something of my own.

    Also: it seems like I read recently that job satisfaction is at an all time low. Perhaps it’s because people don’t feel any sense of empowerment or fulfillment working to better the corporation. Corporations view us all as expendable, so what is it exactly that we’re getting out of the deal besides money and healthcare? I think people now want to get more than just the paycheck – they want interesting work that seems to serve some kind of purpose. As it is, I think a lot of us feel like Sysiphus rolling that rock up the hill every day only to find it at the bottom the next morning. Perhaps the Corporation is that last bastion of authoritarianism. Companies that allow their employees to feel empowered will have happier employees. I recall reading about a GE plant that makes jet engines that gives every employee the power to stop the assemply line for any reason as well as other “empowerments” – they have very high job satisfaction.

  13. Lise says:

    I read this book a couple of months ago, and this part really resonated with me. Even when my job is going well, I feel like it has nothing to do with who I really am and that it’s stealing the best hours of my day, and the best years of my life. I have no fear that I wouldn’t know what to do with my time if I didn’t work; I have too many hobbies–too many neglected hobbies that I’m just too tired to do when I get home at night.
    I am pursuing a different degree that will hopefully lead me to a career more in line with who I am, but even that’s a guess… I worry that I’m just overall the kind of person who gets bored with things easily and thus any position is going to ultimately make me fidgety and anxious in this same way.

  14. Marsha says:

    I am just starting not only a new job, but a new career, this week.

    After having done many kinds of work, it’s my observation that it’s very tough to choose work that demands enough to be interesting and challenging but doesn’t demand so much as to leave one sapped or bitter.

    Still, I recognize that I have been blessed to have the ability to change jobs, and I feel very sad for people who do not believe they have the ability to leave a job they hate. Sometimes people are trapped by their own decisions, but sometimes life just doesn’t deal a fair hand.

    That said, I’ve also made decisions and taken actions that have put me significantly in debt. So in a sense, I’ll be chained to this new job and career at least long enough to get out of this debt. Still, I’m optimistic that the work will also be personally satisfying and the co-workers will be rewarding to know.

  15. Mrs. Micah says:

    I’m going to have to catch up on this. It sounds really good.

    I follow certain tv shows in the same way that I like very long books. It’s the unfolding drama. But tv can also be a drug to take away the pain of the day.

    I applied for a part-time job which earns about the same amount as I make now but less than I can make if I stay with the company for another 5 months or so. However, it’s somewhere I’d rather be (the freaking Library of Congress!!!) and it’s more sane time. I can probably take part-time work with the library or copyediting at home, both of which I also like.

    Here’s hoping. :-)

  16. Like many others have said, this section really hits home. I’m mostly satisfied with my job, but it’s not what I truly want to be doing.

    Lately, the commute has really been wearing on me too. If traffic goes bad, it can take me an hour one way. Typically, I burn about an hour and a half a day commuting and I know my real income per hour is going to turn out to be really low when we get to that section of the book. :)

    I would quit today and go freelance if I didn’t have any debt. At least that gives me something else to look forward to the day I am debt free.

  17. Daisy says:

    This section was something I could really agree on though I do think it was extremely negative.

    I always feel the conflict between my schoolwork — I’m an Engineering student running after my homework and projects on very little sleep — and other hobbies and passions I have that I wish could be more. When I get home after more than 12 hours of school, there just isn’t enough energy to do the hobbies I want to do.

    I am happy with the choices I’ve made but I sometimes wonder if this is how the rest of my life is going to be like: squeezing in what I love in between the commitments I also love but seem to take too much time.

    Looking forward to the rest of the book!

  18. Kris says:

    I agree with Daisy, Christine and Nadine in that this part of the book seemed a tad negative, especially for a first chapter. While I understand some look at employment as an endless cycle of futility, I treasure the daily feeling of accomplishment my job gives me. I’m contributing to society and making moves towards bettering my own future.

    Conversely, the authors DO make an excellent point about not letting our employment positions define us. After a lifetime of being a student or worker, other monikers seem strange. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

    The commentary on consumerism struck much closer to home. We’re bombarded by so many ads, it becomes difficult to imagine a world where stuff, growth, and accumulation aren’t cure-alls. I’m hoping their tips on how to avoid the lure of materialism will be applicable and not too out-there.

    Finally, I’m digging how Vicki and Joe seem to be framing this discussion in several different contexts: psychological, cultural, etc. The thoroughness and thoughtfulness supports every argument they’re making so far.

    On to tomorrow.

  19. A good way of dealing with this problem is think about what you really want to do in life everyday. I’ve started doing this recently: in the evening for 15 minutes I lie down with my eyes closed, and think about what I really want to do in life. I discuss whatever I’ve done the whole day and what I’m planning to do in the next few hours and how they are going to impact my “real” goals. This helps a lot.

  20. plonkee says:

    This doesn’t really speak to me. I enjoy the mental challenge of my job, the people I work with and I feel like I’m making the world a better place. Why not spend the next 5-10 years working here?

  21. M Lubbers says:

    I think this is an issue that everyone I know struggles with. A few years ago I took a higher paying job with more responsibility that was supposed to be a great career move–and I was absolutely miserable. In hindsight, I was lucky to have that experience in my mid-20s because it made me think hard about how I define myself. I’m now at a lower-pay job with less responsibility that is strictly 40hrs/wk. The job is alright and I like the people I work with, but I find fulfillment in everything I do outside of the job.

    Sometimes I get uncomfortable knowing that I’m being judged as ONLY an administrative assistant when, to me, that is the smallest part of who I am. But overall I’m happy with my choices.

    On the other hand, I know that I was incredibly lucky to get to make that choice, because my husband has a very well-paying job. All of our healthcare and benefits are through him. So I definitely don’t think I can criticize anyone who is staying in a higher-paying position, because if I couldn’t rely on my husband’s salary/benefits, who knows if I would still be there and be miserable? I agree with infix that health care is a HUGE roadblock on the journey to job/life balance and satisfaction.

  22. Susy says:

    One great way to counter consumerism is to decide to not buy anything you don’t “need” for an entire year. Hubby and I decide this was our year of “not buying crap we don’t need”. It’s amazing how much better we’ve gotten throughout the year just by asking ourselves when we’re shopping if we actually need the item. It becomes easier and easier. I would say we’ve saved bout $100 per month not buying little things we don’t need (including the little plastic Qtip holder I almost bought at Target yesterday until husband said, “do we really need that, won’t a small ziploc do the same thing for free?”). We’ve actually gotten so good at it we rarely even go shopping any more. We don’t need anything, and when we do we just buy what we need, not crap to sell at a yard sale in a couple years. This system also works with clothing. Spend an entire year not buying any new clothes and when you do start again you’ll be much better at evaluating what you really need.

  23. Marcy says:

    I’ve been reading the Simple Dollar for about 6 months and jumped at the chance to participate online in this book discussion. I have a good job in the non-profit field that really works for a good cause, but I think I’m burned out and want to do something else. I too am slightly afraid about the loss of “identity” that might come, but I’m trying to work hard on learning that I am not what I do. I’m also trying to discern what my next steps should be when I leave (which I hope to be in 9-12 months.) It’s so scary, especially since I have some debt. I can’t wait to be debt free; I just want the freedom to do something else…

  24. rita says:

    Is my current job something i like to do, or would like doing for a long time?

    but I don’t have much of a choice right now, since it is very lucrative (I’m in sales) and the schedule lets me take up my masteral classes.

    But the past quarter all I can think about is “I want to do someting else…or be anywhere but here.” I know I am extremely blessed with having such a high-paying job, but is being happy every payday all there is to it?

    I think I want to teach…but my attention span is very short. Let’s wait and see.

  25. Jim says:

    I have issues with this section. I understand the concept of making sure you plan your life, but this section is cherry picking anecdotes to make it sound like we should all live the pastoral life. Now I believe there is a time and a place for living the pastoral life, but they might be making the same mistake of some young couples that go heavily into debt to buy a big home and furninsh it. Your parents worked for years to get theirs. You don’t need it all now.

    As someone who sometimes likes to restart computer games in order to play more efficiently and see how few turns I can win, sometimes I wish I could live my life over and learn things quicker and advance more efficiently. I even consider manipulating my children to get them to advance quicker sometimes, but haven’t come up with a way that doesn’t seem dictatorial or tyranical. In any case, there is a certain satisfaction in building things, and learning things, and experiencing things, and progressing. Sometimes it’s worth the stress to be efficient and get stuff done.

    I also disagree that watching television is an effective way to wind down. Well, for me, anyway. I do love to see a good episode of Mythbusters sometimes, but it takes a freaking hour, unless I can skip the commercials. I can wind down much quicker by taking the dog for a walk, or taking a spin on the ATV, or reading a book to my son. Surfing the net is more effective for me as well, but I get sucked in sometimes and it takes more than an hour. Usually it’s more educational, though.

    I really love water skiing and snow skiing. But they’re very expensive and time consuming and take a lot of work to plan and do. Sometimes I enjoy just as much reading a good book, or watching a good video, or playing a good computer game, or playing a game with my children. Especially if I can get the right ambience. A good chess game on the carpet in front of the fire on a cold winter evening, with a nice cup of hazelnut flavored hot chocolate with marshmallows is hard to beat. But if I did that stuff all day every day I’d start to feel like a drain on society. It feels even better after you’ve been out fixing the fence or shoveling the snow. I think you should earn your rewards.

    Maybe part of the problem is that we really do get some of our perceptions from fiction. Books and TV and movies seldom (with a few notable exceptions) have heroes that are normal people. Because we’re not as exciting as people who are rich or beautiful or famous or have super powers. Or a combination of the above. And we don’t meet ripped young independently wealthy sailors without shirts to make passionate love to us on our vacation. Also we might have misperceptions about what our job is going to be like. I have a friend who became an architect because he wanted to design cool buildings. He should have talked to an actual architect before he did that. Now he spends all his working time making sure buildings (that other people designed) meet code. Or maybe there’s too much competition for the few jobs that pay money doing what we’d really like. Lots of people major in music or dance or art because they love it, but not so many can make a living doing it. Farming is even worse. Some people do farming because they love it, but don’t even break even. They have to have another job to support their expensive hobby. That just isn’t right. Anything that takes that much hard work oughta be worth a lot in my opinion.

    Well, adjusting your expectations of life downward is one solution. Or you could be like Selby and adjust your abilities upward. He got a Ph.D. in Entomology, but there weren’t many jobs around for someone who knows a lot about the life tendencies of ticks. So he went back to school for some computer and management skills and became my manager.

  26. Doug says:

    I went through most of what is in this book several years before I read it. I had read ‘Zen and the Art of Making a Living’ a couple years before that, and many of those ideas were still in my head. I’m not in to the Zen aspect of the book, but it gets you to ask yourself questions about how to establish a work-life balance. I started thinking about having multiple streams of income from agreeable sources (for lack of a better term) instead of being anchored to a job for financial security. It may be helpful for those who didn’t find enough in this chapter of the book.

  27. lorax says:

    The “statistics” of unhappy people are suspect. It’s not possible to extrapolate from answers of people who attended the seminars to the general population.

    It was also interesting to me how things change.

    The book was published in the early 90s, everything was doom and gloom. And this is the tone of the book. It was visceral at the time, and I felt it. “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap ruled. Blue collar jobs were being outsourced. Energy prices were going up. I wish I had read the book then.

    In the late 90s, things were turning around. The US deficit spending had been reversed and we were making inroads into the bond backlog. We were going to actually save Social Security. (Remember Al Gore’s lockbox for SS money?) Jobs were plentiful, paid well, and flex hours and telecommuting were taking off like crazy. Energy prices were cheap.

    Now in 2007, many of us have lived with nominal or real pay decreases for 7 years in a row. White collar jobs are getting outsourced. Health care is skyrocketing. The government is deep in the red. Energy prices prices are up.

    At the very least, this book gives you some insight into how to ride these economic waves.

  28. Rob in Madrid says:

    “We (I say “we” because churches often assume that in hiring the husband the wife is also indentured to the church for free labor) ….”

    Oh how true it is. I commented to Riekje the other day “I thought all these events (curryoake, kids services Easter Christmas etc) all planned themselves I had no idea she did it all. No wonder her and Richard were burning out.

    I’ve been reading the Overspent American. Very interesting, bit dry and text bookish but has really helped me with how much we use retail therapy. Particualy helpful as Chris just got a larger than expected end of year bonus. Ummmm spending NOT

  29. Rob in Madrid says:

    Infix your correct, Healthcare, that is one issue I haven’t seen discussed here or in any of the other blogs which surprising considering how unbelievably expensive it is and the risk that a major illness can undo years of furgal living (regardless of healthcare coverage).

    Just a note the proper term is single payer coverage or universal healthcare. Socialst medicine refers to goverments that have banned private healthcare, currently only Canada and Cuba do that. Every country in Europe offers both public and private healthcare.

    anyways enough said way off topic :)

  30. Jennifer says:

    After being a stay at home mom for the past eleven (wow – eleven!) years, I have already gone through the stress of not having a job or career to define myself. Yes, I am a mom, but that doesn’t garner much respect in social circles. Now that I am just getting used to that, my youngest will start full day school in just a year and I’ll need to decide what I will “be” next. Not an easy proposition. Of course, my lifestyle is made possible because of my husband and his job/career. He works very long hours and has a very long commute. He earns a good income and views this as the price to pay. I think it is a very high price. I know he would rather be a teacher, but that wouldn’t pay anywhere near what his current job pays. I think this book at least makes you look at the choices you are making with honesty. I’d love my husband to read this – he believes he will need to continue to work until basically forever, and that we will always be in debt. He sees this kind of lifestyle all around and assumes it is the only way. I find hope in this book – that there could be another way.

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