When I enrolled as an undergrad at UCLA in 2006, I had a clear vision of exactly what I wanted to do with my life.
I wanted to help people.
You see, before moving to Los Angeles, I’d grown up in Richmond, California—a poor suburb of San Francisco with one of the highest crime rates in the nation.
Even though we lived in the “nicer” part of town, it wasn’t unusual to encounter homelessness or hear gunshots from time to time.
My heart went out to those people—and I wanted to make a difference for them.
So over the next few years, I joined campus community service organizations, led youth camps for children from low-income families, and volunteered for various mentoring projects that reached underserved kids.
When I started applying for jobs after graduation, I sought out nonprofits that would let me continue this work.
But because my passion was so strong, it never even occurred to me to assess job prospects based on salary. And I certainly didn’t realize how difficult it would be to pay off the debt I’d accrued during and right after college.
And there was a lot of it.
A Dream Job…in Theory
When I graduated in 2010, my student loan balance was $25,000, which translated to a $250 monthly payment. I also purchased a $10,000 car that year, digging me further into the hole.
Still, when a volunteer organization I’d worked with in college offered me a position, I immediately—and happily—accepted it.
The job, which involved mentoring youth with incarcerated parents, was nothing short of amazing. I connected not only with the kids but also with other passionate mentors.
Many of them came from similar backgrounds as the kids, and watching them devote their lives to being great role models was inspiring. It made me feel like I was doing something truly worthwhile.
Another cool part about the job was that it scratched my itch for doing design and tech work. My dad was a programmer, and I’d taken some classes in the past. So I jumped at the opportunity to sharpen my skills by working on their website.
But for all the wonderful attributes of this job, there was one serious drawback: It paid $27,000 a year.
Nonprofit and Non-Sustainable: Waking Up From My Career Reverie
This paltry sum barely covered my financial responsibilities living in Los Angeles, like my rent, cell phone, car payment, and student loans. And forget about savings.
After about a year, it dawned on me just how much I was sacrificing. Not only was it dangerous to coast along with zero savings, but I was also ignoring a huge dream.
As a child, I’d always been curious about the world, wanting to travel to every corner of it. I remember spinning a globe with my older sister when we were kids, the excitement mounting as we waited to see where it would land. In college, I was an international development major, zeroing in on the Middle East and developing parts of Asia, which only fueled my wanderlust.
So I was faced with a tough question: Would I ever be able to travel on a $27,000 salary?
I sat down and did some calculations based on my income and debt—and determined it would take me about eight years to save up enough cash to see the world. This was definitely a wake-up call.
Not ready to give up my dream job just yet, I took up waitressing to pad my income. I juggled both gigs for a while—with mixed results. On the one hand, I was able to squirrel away $1,000 in my emergency fund. But I didn’t make any extra headway on my debt.
Plus, working both jobs left me utterly exhausted. After six months, I had to reevaluate whether this lifestyle was sustainable—and if it was really enough to help me reach my goals.
I came to the conclusion that I needed a better-paying job if I wanted to travel—or ever rid myself of the nagging debt that was weighing me down, which, at the time, was still about $26,000.
The decision to leave the nonprofit was bittersweet. But I was confident it was the right financial move.
My (Financially) Fulfilling New Gig
After I left the nonprofit, I accepted a job as an intern at an architectural design firm. I was making more than before—about $15 an hour—and had hopes of increasing my pay by ultimately transitioning to a full-time staff position.
Since the company was close to my mom’s house, I saved money by moving in with her, freeing up about $300 in my monthly budget.
While it may seem like architecture was a sharp turn from my previous career path, I was excited. The internship was in the company’s international department, which exposed me to the process of setting up new offices in different countries.
Best of all, I was eager to forge a new path that would lead to financial flexibility.
The move certainly didn’t disappoint. After just three months of interning, I learned about an opportunity in the company’s software department. Given my background in web design and tech, it seemed like a great fit.
Was it my dream job? Definitely not. But the work seemed interesting enough, and the pay—$55,000—was too good to pass up.
After accepting the job, I sat down and mapped out a financial plan. After all, that’s the reason I took it—to make enough money to fund a savings account big enough to pause my career and travel for several months.
I know what you’re thinking: Why not just scratch my itch with a weeklong vacation? But the truth is that I’d been fantasizing about living abroad for so long, I didn’t think I’d be happy with a quickie trip. I wanted to take my time and see it all.
After running the numbers—making sure to factor in debt repayment and retirement savings—I figured that if I could save $16,000, I could afford to take some time off. I’d earmark $4,000 to pay my bills for about eight months, put $6,000 in emergency savings, and then spend the leftover $6,000 on my travels.
While I realize financial professionals probably wouldn’t recommend prioritizing travel as my #1 goal, I did have the good sense to pay for it all in cash.
I went to work every day with that goal in mind. While I did enjoy some parts of the job—like my software-designing tasks—I never really felt connected to the place. I was frustrated by corporate life, including the unnecessary daily meetings and inter-office politics that came with it.
I’m the type of person who wants to put 110% into my work, but it seemed like my co-workers were fine just skating by, which was a big contrast from my nonprofit colleagues.
In truth, it wasn’t an awful job, but it wasn’t personally fulfilling—a fact that helped me view the position as a temporary one.
So to help accelerate progress on my goal, I started making small lifestyle changes, like packing lunch, meeting friends for coffee instead of restaurant meals, and ordering cheaper items when I did go out. But the hefty salary was really what made the biggest difference.
After a year and a half at the architecture firm, I finally hit my savings target—and it felt amazing! Giddy with excitement, I put in my notice and exited on a positive note.
Then I hit the local bookstore and scoured the travel section, making a spreadsheet of all the destinations I wanted to see. Since Indonesia had always been on my must-visit list, my boyfriend and I searched for the cheapest flight—and off we went.
A Trip of a Lifetime Leads to a New Outlook on Life
In July 2013 we began our six-month adventure, visiting Bali, Thailand, India, Nepal, and Hong Kong.
It was incredible—and I checked off many bucket-list items. I got certified as a yoga instructor in India, earned my scuba certification in Thailand, and stayed at an ashram in Indonesia.
I learned so much through these experiences, and I don’t regret a minute of this once-in-a-lifetime getaway—or my time at the well-paying software gig that made it financially feasible.
By the time February 2014 rolled around, I was ready to come back to the States and resume “real life.” And one of my first to-dos was to take a close look at my finances to see where I stood.
To my pleasant surprise, I’d spent less in Asia than anticipated and still had $1,500 in my travel stash, which I used to cover everyday living expenses when I first returned. I was still living modestly with my mom, so I was able to make this stretch while I debated my next move.
The rest of my financial picture was looking good too. I still had my $6,000 emergency fund, my student loan balance was down to $12,000, and I was at the tail end of my car loan.
After weighing my career options, I decided to start doing some freelance web design and marketing work to generate regular, reliable income. While it was a slow start—I was earning just $1,000 a month at first—it was enough to cover my bills.
Fortunately, as I networked and landed more clients, my earnings shot through the roof. In January 2015 I had my best month yet, raking in $8,000—and I don’t plan to slow down.
Plus, the income uptick has helped me double-down on my debt repayment: My car is now paid off, and I expect to cancel out my student loans by the end of this year.
Some people may not understand my journey, but everyone’s priorities are different—and I’m happy I fulfilled mine by scouting out jobs with higher salaries and kicking my savings habits into overdrive.
The best part is that I’m not even close to being done pursuing my passions. I’m actually making it one of my jobs to help others do the same by launching a website devoted to encouraging women to achieve whatever is important to them in life, whether that’s starting a business, running a marathon, or traveling the world.
The site features quotes and interviews designed to inspire and motivate others to do exactly what I did: Embrace their inner dreamer and hustler.
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TopicsMoney , Personal Finance , Salaries , Non-Profits , Career Paths , Exploring Career Paths , Career Changes , Negotiation & Money , LearnVest
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