Sep 13, 2010

When Your Career Ladder Looks Like a Jungle Gym

My resume was a great conversation starter at an MBA recruiting event I went to this weekend. My takeaways were that I can likely get into at least one of my top choice schools if I manage to get a really, really high score on the GMATs (as in, over 700.) Most schools seem to like that I'm not the typical MBA candidate, which is a good thing.

But this post isn't about my quest to get an MBA, or it isn't directly about this quest. Instead, it's about moving up, down, and diagonal on the career "ladder."

My current job is a huge leap up from any positions I had before in both responsibility, salary, and company respect. But it's a six month contract which is ending soon, and likely won't be renewed (more to do with the state the company is in than my work here, my boss wants to keep me on.) So I'm in a pickle. Where do I go from here?

The biggest problem is defining my career goals and understanding how my next steps will get me there. Incredibly, with the large-name company on my resume I'm getting calls back on my applications from other respectable companies. That's not to say I'll get past the first interview, but the phone is at least ringing.

It isn't clear where I'm supposed to step to go up in my career. Most of the jobs I really want require an MBA or a lot of luck. Then there are all these very good jobs that are all so very different and can lead me in very, very different directions. Do I want to do customer support? B2B or B2c? General marketing? Social media marketing? How do these answers change when each option has a specific company attached to it? How do they change when each company has a salary attached to it?

Honestly, I'd be happiest doing online customer support. Because I love helping people and solving problems. That role is at an excellent company, but I bet my pay would be cut in half. Or maybe I could negotiate a little more, but I can't imagine they'd pay a customer support person the same amount I'd make as a marketing manager or even marketing assistant. I'd be happier in the short-term, and there's a chance getting a foot in the door at this company can lead to bigger and better things, but is it really a step up in my career? Should I care?

When it comes down to it, I need to look at what I'm good at and what makes me happy. I know I get the most reward out of helping people, solving problems, etc. Those types of jobs don't pay as well as selling to people. Ideally I'd find a role where I can solve problems and help people while developing and marketing products. That may require an MBA. Right now I can possibly get hired as a social media manager, but that career path is limiting. It's also all marketing and not as much about improving a product. It can be, it just depends on the role, product and company.

Regardless, the pickle I'm in now will only continue to, well, pickle, before I can take a bite and discover the taste of my future.


Sep 8, 2010

Graduate School... Costs a Fortune Before You Get In

Forget the cost of tuition, room and board, the cost of applying to graduate school is fiercely staring at my quivering piggy bank like an angry honey badger ready to pounce on an unsuspecting snake long before I've even scribbled a sentence of my application essay.

To get into a top masters program -- MBA or otherwise -- you need to stand out for more than just your GPA. When your GPA makes you stand out for the wrong reasons, you're far behind the curve. It isn't clear if it's possible to run really fast and hard to make it over that hump (ie pay expert consultants a lot of money to teach you the right speed to run and how your feet should hit the ground every step of the way) but the consultants surely will tell you that without them, you'll be sitting down where you started, exhausted, looking up at a giant insurmountable lump of your future.

The cost for a live or online GMAT study program is somewhere around $1000 - $1400. There are cheaper programs, of course, and plenty of ways to get some books and study on your own, but many advise to take one of the classes if you're the kind of person to underachieve on standardized tests. But for the candidates who really want to do well, you can pour hundreds or thousands of dollars more into private tutoring... just so you'll break 700 or 750.

Consulting by admissions experts for the top programs is even more painful. One program I was examining the other night cost $3500 for a full package of help and edits to apply to just one school. Plenty may argue that putting $5000 - $10,000 into preparing yourself to apply for a top ranked program is worth it because on the other side of the hill... long after the field trips and late nights getting intimate with statistics... there's a miraculous salary increase that will improve your overall lifetime earnings by, well, something around a lot of money, give or take a decimal point. But that's IF you get in. All the coaching and test-taking advice in the world may never be enough. It's a gamble either way. And if you can do it on your own (obviously there are plenty of people who have got into top MBA programs without draining their savings on outside help) then why seek out an expert?

Looking at my semi-healthy bank account, I can't fathom draining my cash or stocks for this kind of coaching. And maybe that's why I'll never be an MBA student or even masters student. I figure, if it's not meant to be, it's not meant to be. And, meanwhile, am somewhat jealous of the people in the world that can afford such coaching, and their Harvard / Stanford / Wharton / Kellogg / Haas / Ross pedigree.


Sep 7, 2010

What Salary Buys Happiness in Your City? $75k or $160k?

Today, the Wall Street Journal attempted to figure out just how much money (yearly, salary-wise) you need to be happy in any given city in the US. The article is quite relevant to the money tiffs my boyfriend and I have been having over how much a person / family needs in the Bay Area to be happy.

The whole concept is based on a study that says once people earn $75k, any additional income does not improve their happiness. But we all know $75k goes a lot further in the middle of nowhere than in Times Square. The WSJ attempted to figure out what $75k means across the US based on the cost of living.

Of course, my city is the second most expensive in the country, requiring an income of $118.5k to be happy. Only New York, which would require an income of $163k for the same level of happiness, is more expensive (and much more expensive at that, though I feel quality of life in the Bay Area is much higher.)

The chart is an interesting comparision of just what equals a really good salary in different parts of the country. This is the first year I’m, in theory, earning $120k (though likely only earning a little more than half of that due to on-and-off contract work) and I can attest to the fact that this is the first year I feel happy with my salary and quality of life. I’m living cheaper than I have to in order to save money, but that’s more because I’m going to end up earning $80k this year and not $120k. I can see that extra $40k just pushing me up to the amount where I’d feel stable, would be able to spend a little on things like… a car that has functioning air conditioning, and still not break the bank.

Hmm, maybe I should move to Dothan, Alabama.

Then again… they need to factor in how happy people are in each city to figure out the true cost of happiness where people live. In the Bay Area, I think happiness is cheaper because there’s so much to do outside – for free – and weather is generally decent enough to spend a good chunk of the year outside. Whereas, in Chicago, you may need less money to hit this target salary of fiscal happiness, but then that happiness is much more expensive… to keep yourself entertained all year long, you have to pay a lot more.

What do you think? What salary would you need to make in your city to reach the ultimate “happiness” a salary can offer before the excess is just luxury, without affecting your emotional state?


Clashing Long Term Fiscal Values in a Young Relationship

My boyfriend and I have been together four years. I quickly fell in love with his kindness and calm nature, which contrasted with my oft-anxious and somewhat self-centered relationship with the world. Mostly, though, I found that after dating a law student for two years I felt much more comfortable in a relationship with someone who had less motivation than I did than more. With the lawyer, who had an Ivy undergrad education and a JD from a top-10 school, I could never equal his level of success (or so I thought at the time) with my average schooling and internship salary.

Thus, dating a guy who wasn’t striving to become the next Joe Jamail was a refreshing relief. With the attorney, I always felt like he looked down on my choices and with that my depression over uncertainty, my 21-year-old lack of clarity. Enter my current boyfriend with his lack of concern over professional title or climbing up the corporate ladder, and I felt safe. With him, I felt comfortable moving up my own corporate ladder. It’s not that he is stupid or anything, he too has a degree from a top school with a high honors mark on his diploma to boot. So intelligence is not the factor here, more so, it’s the fundamentals of what motivates a person.

Four years later, my boyfriend and I still have little arguments about money. He doesn’t like discussing finances – which, fair enough, is not something two people dating oft discuss prior to marriage or at the very least engagement. After being unemployed for a year and not applying to jobs, he eventually landed a low-paid, part-time internship (one that I had completed earlier) and after that found an hourly editorial job at a non-profit that paid less than I made at my first non-profit job. It was obvious he hadn’t cared to negotiate for a better starting wage, but mostly I was proud of him for finally getting out of his funk and getting a job.

The years go by… and neither of us are by any means perfect. I manage to get fired from… a few jobs… because I lack motivation when I believe my contributions would be better contributed by a robot. As I learned to force myself to do my job no matter what, I got laid off because that job was no longer needed. To my credit, every time I lost my job I managed to practically double my salary in my next position. I moved across industries and tried out a lot of different things to figure out where I would be fulfilled. I realized that I am, to some extent, motivated by money – not by having nice, flashy things, but by watching my networth increase… my maxing out my 401k… by feeling that I may one day have enough to afford a house, even in the Bay Area.

My boyfriend, on the otherhand, spent those three years working at the non-profit. He did his job very well, followed orders, increased productivity in the company by making many of the processes more efficient. He never asked for a raise. His boss gave him a very small “raise” when he decided to work less hours and go 1099 contract instead of W2 hourly. He’s still making $20/hr, while I’m billing upwards of $80/hr on some of my projects.

This isn’t to say that I would judge anyone for working a job that makes $20/hr – there are plenty of jobs I respect out there that earn this. If you’re talking about $20/hr in Kansas, that’s also a very different income than $20/hr where the average small house costs over $1M. But this is where we always get into our little tiffs about money… I argue that before I have kids, I’d like to have an average yearly dual income of at least $150k. Long-term, I see no reason why that dual income can’t be $300k. And I would feel more comfortable in life, before deciding to have children, to know that we’d make that kind of income in our lifetimes.

My boyfriend thinks I’m crazy. Maybe I am. $150k for a family income is not unreasonable, but the majority of people in America live on much less than that – and many of them have healthy, happy families. I just look at my current spending – which could be more frugal, but is by no means extravagant – and wonder how I’d ever be able to save for retirement and pay for a house and potentially pay back graduate school loans, all while also affording children (I want two or three of them within the next 10 years.)

My boyfriend, who also wants to return for graduate school (either to become a teacher or psychology researcher) will never care about income above and beyond middle class. It’s not that he’d mind if his field paid more, he just will never be the type to push for raises or chose a job because it pays better. And as much as I admire that about him – as much as I feel safer in my own career journey knowing that my partner will accept me and love me if I make $30k a year or $200k a year, I still feel like sometime down the road this difference in fiscal values will start to hurt us a lot more than it does now.

There are times when I think of what it would be like to continue my search for my life partner, and I just can’t imagine being with anyone else. I love this guy to death, and again, I couldn’t be with someone who cared that much about money. If anything, I know that I’m most comfortable bringing home the bacon because then I feel I have more right to be in charge of the household finances. My mom is clueless when it comes to money and my entire life my parents have argued about how it should be spent. As my father was the one bringing home a single income (albeit over $200k by the time he retired) he never felt she had any right to be involved in financial decisions. If I was with a guy who understood finances more than I did… and made more money… then I might end up in that situation too. So I’d rather be the one in charge, making more money, and with a guy who maybe doesn’t care that much about his salary.

It just makes me nervous about limiting my choices later in life. What if I want to take a year off to spend time with my newborn child? What if I want to work part-time to be able to go to my child’s plays during the school day or drive them to soccer practice? On the whole other hand of this, I’m terrified of knowing I’m worth “$200/hr” or whatever my going rate would be at the time, and then deciding not work that hour because I want to spend it with my family. It would almost be easier to have less money, have a stable job, and never feel like my time is stamped with a dollar value. Or, at the least, have a partner who earns as much as I do, or around the same amount, so we could contribute to a goal income for the year… and enjoy the time we have off without the calculator in my head exploding over lost income opportunities.


Sep 3, 2010

September Networth: $77,434

Will I or won't I hit my goal this year of a $100k networth? It's possible. I'm at around $77.4k right now.

I need to be extremely frugal over the next four months to hit my goal.

As far as income goes, I'm expecting:

Potential September Income

Project A: $10000 pre-tax this month
Project B: owed $1600 + potential income of $3200 (pre-tax)
Project C: owed $300 (pre-tax)

Total: $14000 pre-tax... ~$9000 after tax.

I'll prob spend $2000 this month on rent, food, insurance, gas, health, etc.

So if I can do +$7000 this month I'll be at $84k.

That leaves $16k that I need to make in 3 months between Oct & Dec, or $5.3k per month after tax.

It's possible for Project #C I will start a $5k-$10k per month contract for 1 month. That would help a lot! Project B will likely pay around $3200 pre-tax for part-time, though it's not guaranteed. Project A is likely ending this month.

I plan to donate 10% of any income above $100k that I earn and 15% of all income above $120k, if I happen to earn that much, 25% of all income over $150k. It's not much, but I like the idea of donating a portion of income I earn over $100k.


I Will Teach -- Me -- to Be Rich

Earlier today on my lunch break I opened up the PDF first chapter of Ramit Sethi's "I Will Teach You To Be Rich" and read through it quickly.

One part that stuck out was early on when he poses the question "what do you define as rich?" He argues that you first must figure out what rich means to you in order to get there.

What does "rich" mean to me?

It means...

  1. Having enough passive income to not have to work.
  2. Having enough passive income to fund my own business.
  3. Having enough passive income to fund my own business and fail. Maybe 3 times.
  4. Being able to work when I want, for who I want.
  5. Having enough money to donate large sums each year without feeling like it hurts my ability to achieve above goals.
  6. Manage to do this while also having a family with 2-3 kids and supporting an upper middle class lifestyle and occasional splurges.

A few years ago, I would have said "making over $50k a year." Well, that was never rich in my mind, but it sure came close. I recently reviewed my social security statement for the past six years and realized that with the exception of last year, my largest yearly income to date was $25k. Last year I made about $63k. This year, I should hit $80k-$100k. And that still doesn't feel rich. I feel less rich now than I did when I was making $25k because instead of wealth being impossible, it instead is a hard, yet achievable road of long hours, late nights, working for 'the man', or finding the right startup to get lucky at.

If I never have kids, never buy a house, avoid graduate school, and maintain my current level of saving ($50k per year) with a 5% rate of return on average, I'll have over $1 million by the time I'm 40.

But is that rich? Not at all.

What does "being rich" mean to you?


Sep 2, 2010

Graduate School -- Calculating a Reality Check

I've been doing a lot of daydreaming about graduate school as of late. If I can manage to get past the GMATs and possibly retake the GREs for a better score, there's still one more overwhelming knot I must tackle: reward vs. cost of a graduate degree.

Today, I started a spreadsheet to attempt understanding just how much money over time each of my top-choice programs would cost me. I tried my best to fairly estimate how much it would cost for a year including tuition, room, board and other necessary costs. My top-choice schools range from $30k a year to $80k a year. Most programs are 2 years, some are 3. Some are MBA programs, others are in design research. My top choice is in both, and happens to cost the most when lost salary is added in (it's a 3 year program.)

Based on my current income, I feel it is safe to say that I could make $100k average per year during the time I would be in graduate school. So to understand the total cost of school, I've added that yearly lost income. Granted, I could freelance and consult on the side during school or obtain scholarships and other work situations, but at this time I'm looking at the cost of graduate school w/ no work vs. working full time. And I can't handle the results of my calculations.

My top choice school, which would grant me an MBA and a Design masters degree, will cost approx $500k over 3 years. (WHAT? A HALF MILLION DOLLARS?) It's $160k total, give or take, without the income loss factored in. Quite frankly if I continue on the professional track I'm on now I can probably match any income bump I'd get from having an advanced degree.

Now, the thing is, I'm not going for my masters degree for a raise. I'm going because I want to give myself a fighting change to lead product management for an innovative company. That leads me to wondering, however, if I'd be better off investing that $500k in starting a company instead of going to grad school.

Even the in-state program that I'm interested in will cost me $260k over a period of 2 years including lost income. How can I justify this kind of spending?

This all comes at a time when my networth is eeking closer and closer to $100k. At the moment, that seems like A LOT of money. But when I look at the cost of these graduate degrees (and the cost of life in general), it seems like pocket change.

Looking ahead to the future I know I won't have the luxury to save as much as I do now. I'd like to start a family when I'm in my early 30s. My boyfriend is also planning on going to school so will have loans as well. Once I go to graduate school my value will be entirely in the amount of time I work in life. These days I feel like it's a waste of time to do anything other than work... all my freelance projects earn me additional income - why spend time outside at a park when I can be earning valuable cash to invest when the market is down and I'm still young?

Not that I'm complaining... life is going really well, esp given the current economic circumstances. I'm just trying to figure out how to justify graduate school to myself when on paper (eh, Google docs spreadsheet) it just doesn't make fiscal sense. Then there's this whole "having to get in" issue as well.