Don’t Follow the Money to an Unremarkable Career

Follow the moneyI fell into my career at age 23.

A childhood friend worked for a nearby information technology (IT) consulting company in a hiring frenzy. 

It was 1998. Dot-coms were booming. Y2K loomed.

The U.S. government had a revenue surplus, and we lived in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C.

Experienced talent was scarce, opening well-paying job opportunities for new grads.  

My friend’s only interview advice was to act passionate about IT. That’s all.

Funny thing, I didn’t know what IT was. 

He explained it to me, but I still didn’t understand. 

Nonetheless, I acted enthusiastic about IT in the interview. A few days later, they hired me. 

I requested $31,000. The company offered $39,000.

It took me another six months to understand what IT was.

In my first role, I learned a software program that automated high-volume paper correspondence (letters, notices, etc.). 

That skillset helped me land my second job in 2003 after a long travel hiatus, and I’ve been working for the same customer ever since. 

You could say my whole career path is based on a lie — I wasn’t passionate about information technology at age 23, and I’m still not today. 

I followed the money.

Uninspired

Information technology is the massive computer systems that process large amounts of data and transactions behind the scenes when you bank, invest, shop online, or interact with HR, customer service, or websites.

The field combines software engineering, hardware infrastructure, finance, accounting, management consulting, and diverse technical and business know-how. 

The pay is excellent. 

Corporations, governments, and everything in between spend heavily on IT to operate efficiently and compete. 

After a few years of experience, salaries become very competitive. Leaving the field often means accepting a lower salary elsewhere. 

On the plus side, income growth is substantial and steady.

The downside — IT consulting can be an unfulfilling career. 

Projects can seem pointless. There’s a lot of wasteful spending and dead weight.

Customers and coworkers can be difficult because of tight budgets and timelines. 

Assessments, strategic plans, contract proposals, requirements documentation, quality reviews, and operations manuals are common project outcomes — these aren’t sexy, people. 

I’m always surprised to hear someone is passionate about a corporate IT career. There isn’t much to be passionate about (in my opinion).

Some of the new technology is interesting, but so much IT still involves legacy technology

From an earnings and professional perspective, my career path has been fulfilling. 

It’s enabled me to live comfortably, support a family, max out tax-advantaged employer plans, and associate with high-quality people over the past 20+ years. 

But it also means I’ve ignored the most ubiquitous career advice you’ve already heard — follow your passion.

Path of Least Resistance

I describe my career as the path of least resistance to financial independence. 

That’s because it’s provided a lucrative income source to help save and invest for early retirement

I contemplated career changes and pursuing a graduate degree over the years but kept landing where I already was — in a high-demand field that pays well. 

Leaving this career for one that paid less, or taking time off for more education, never made sense to me because it would delay saving for my retirement goal.

But that calculus has changed in the past few years. 

Assuming a conservative rate of return and moderate inflation for the next 15 years, the savings in my retirement accounts today will be enough to fund my post-retirement lifestyle starting at age 59 1/2 — without adding anything more.

Reaching this retirement savings level is called “Coast FI” in the F.I.R.E. movement vernacular (that link shares a formula to calculate your Coast FI number). 

So now it’s a matter of having enough income to get from today, age 45, to age 59 1/2 (the “gap”).

This means I need to keep working (either my current career or another), tap cash savings, or live off my taxable investment accounts.

My passive income isn’t enough to cover family expenses today, so I would need to sell assets to make it happen, reducing passive income before retirement.

The “gap” is what I’ve been planning for since the beginning, building income streams to support early retirement and post-retirement travel (though reality has changed a bit since my 20s). 

When I was more naïve, I planned to replace my entire full-time salary with investment income (as of today, I can only cover about 31% of my starting salary in 1998).

Now that I’m closer to retirement, I realize that won’t happen, and it doesn’t need to happen. 

A combination of income sources and conservative savings withdrawals should uphold my early career exit goal ahead of schedule. 

But what got me here was a rather unremarkable career — hopefully, a short blip in my 2075 obituary

Follow the Money is Not Good Career Advice

Follow the money isn’t my career advice to soon-to-be graduates.

Follow your passion isn’t either. 

I’ll never know if staying in IT consulting was the right decision.

I’ve always chosen a stable salary with cushy benefits over a more tantalizing career path.

But here’s the thing — if I had built a career that was more inspiring way back when, maybe I wouldn’t be so eager to retire.

I disliked my career so much at age 27 that I set a goal to retire from it 28 years later instead of changing it ASAP.

That was unhealthy, in hindsight.

Here’s better career advice that no one told me in my 20s — build a career from which you don’t want to retire.

Maybe that’s how career enthusiasm emerges from boring industries. People learn to love their careers because it consumes so much of their lifetime.

Careers like IT consulting are exciting when you make it your passion.

But that’s not me. 

Regardless of how you view your career choice, focus on keeping what you earn. Obsess with saving and investing to build wealth, giving you options in life.

I have other interests that will never be replaced by new cloud computing architecture standards or innovative ways to analyze unstructured datasets. 

Yet, I continue down the same career path. 

But my story isn’t over — I’m only 45.

Every day I work a full-time job, I can decide to leave and pursue another path — one that excites me to get out of bed Monday morning. 

Or I can cut spending and quit work altogether when I surpass my financial independence number

I prefer the allure of the former.

Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.

Featured photo via Unsplash

 

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11 Comments

  1. Maybe it’s not what you do, but who you work for.

    At age 50, I was laid off along with 10 other sales managers thanks to the Great Recession of 2009. I had a three year non-compete, a non-disclosure, and they withheld my 13 weeks of severance pay for 6 months. In an earlier layoff, one of the guys went to work for a competitor after my company paid him severance. I felt a sense of relief when my ex boss drove my company vehicle out of my driveway with my laptop, some files, and my BlackBerry.

    I was resentful, hated my micromanaging boss, the company became focused on making cuts to achieve profitability instead of taking care of customers, introducing new products and growing organically. I became self employed at the urging of a colleague who is really a mentor to me. It was the best career decision I ever made.

    The beauty of self employment is that I get to choose the customers and suppliers who appreciate my value. I’m not wasting countless hours filling out forecasts, budgets and nonsense reports. My time is my own and I only answer to my customers. I love what I do.

    Life is too short to hate Monday mornings, find what it will take for you to welcome the new work week again.

    1. Hi Jim, thanks for sharing your story. This post doesn’t tell the entire story. My career has improved dramatically over the last three years with my current employer. I’ve left behind some toxic situations and it ismuch better than it was. But I still have days when I look at what I do and see limitations to its meaningfulness. Considering the wealth and income sources that I’ve built, it’s becoming less important and financially necessary that I stay with my career. And this is on my mind a lot, and these posts just come out how they do. It’s going to be tough to give up the health benefits while still supporting a family. But that must happen at some point, even if I work full-time another 10 years. So I don’t hate my work or career, it’s unexciting, and I don’t think I can choose to make it exciting, or do enough extraordinary things to make a huge impact.

  2. Is there a way that you can stay in IT, yet find a role or create one that you are passionate about?

    I worked for ibm as a software development manager for 33 years and ‘retired’ at 55. At about 40 or so I decided to make a mental shift to become an independent contractor in my mind. I was never passionate about software. I was however passionate about counseling Nd coaching the people on my team about life. And being well rounded. This became my mission. And I still had the good pay/income. And I also was focused on musical theatre outside work which was another passion. So I taught people to be well rounded and explore their passions. And keep the income. I am 61 now and have more money than when I retired and a great small business with vacation rentals. Just saying there is more than one way to be passionate than leaving or accepting less pay. Randy

    1. Thanks for your take on this. The blog has enabled me to harness my passion to work and earn. So I have outlets. However, my primary work has never excited me, except the paycheck. Things are much better than they were, but writing this made me think about my mindset when I was 27, how I didn’t try hard enough to forge another path when I had few responsibilities. Today, I have more resources to make a change, but I haven’t yet. It’s something I think about a lot, especially on days when my real job is challenging.

  3. Shannon@RetiresGreat says:

    Great post!

    Your story has many similarities with my career in the corporate world of telecom. The pay and benefits were great, but the bureaucracy and management really sucked. I stuck it out for 25 years and am now comfortably retired. Looking back, I probably should have done things differently, but it’s hard to argue with a paycheck.

    The silver lining is now I can do whatever I want. My wife and I started a website on retirement which has been exceedingly rewarding. In many respects, it’s provided us a sense of purpose.

  4. Hi RBD. Your post is intriguing and your articulated and written desire to effect change is the beginning of the transformation. May I share a recipe for success? I don’t know if you’re a believer, but putting plans and aspirations out there in prayer gives the creator license to help and to work things out for your good and for his glory, a win-win!
    I’ve been there, working as an LVN for over 20 years, squeezing shifts around ‘home and family management’. I found different venues in which to practice nursing and this helped diversify and challenge me when I felt stuck. Then, an opportunity arose to keep my well-paying job and good income but also to try self employment as a wedding stager/coordinator/concierge. I had to trust my skill set and creativity, take myself and the commitment I was making seriously, and take the plunge. I did it for one season, and every moment was exhilarating! But it also helped me make peace with my longer, more established nursing career, which I worked at again with gratitude. It’s flexible, great paying, and can be done at any age. Concurrently, other interests and passions are pursued for enjoyment rather than income. My lesson is this: if you try something else and it sticks, huzzah! But there will always be IT work to fall back on or restyle into a better fit! Thanks for blogging with integrity and honesty. My husband and I recently retired (in our 50’s), and your blogging advice played a part! You’ve been an inspiration! I wish you all success.

    1. Thanks for your comments and kind words. Falling back is always an option. That’s sort of frowned upon in the early retirement community. But wealth gives us options, one of which is to go back to where you left.

  5. Great advice. Following the money might make you wealthy but it may not make you happy.

    1. Succinctly put. I wouldn’t say I’m not happy. But my happiness is not a result of my IT career!

  6. A very reflective post and one that resonates strongly with me. As I also come from IT and also fell into it. It pays well and it’s hard to rationalize leaving it.

    I’ve spent the last few years trying to formulate a way out. Initially like you I also hoped FIRE was the ultimate escape but I also think I want to work. But more than that I was to experience more in this world and a more varied work life can do that.

    Yet here I am still doing the rational thing and working the dull IT job. I’ve seen others leave and return. Other get pushed out and eventually move onto other things. Most just stay and “work to live”.

    Do you know what other careers/jobs you would like to explore?

    1. Thanks for chiming in, Bludger.

      At this point, I’m staying in my career because of the excellent benefits. Healthcare, specifically. The salary is nice, of course. But if I were working in another field or self-employed, I’m confident I could earn enough to sustain our current lifestyle and maintain our existing wealth. But rising healthcare costs is a whammy. As for alternate careers, I’m already an established writer, so that’s certainly on the table, both as a blogger and freelancer. But I’m curious in topics beyond personal finance and investing. Mainly, global challenges that can be solved with technology and innovative business ideas. This sort of ties into investing.