When Is a Pay Cut Worth It?

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People tend to think the right career move is always the one that includes a higher salary, and oftentimes, it’s no different for social-impact professionals. And while this can be the case, career progression isn’t always linear, and no two people have the same journey.

If you’re contemplating accepting a position that requires you to take a pay cut, it’s important to have a clear sense of how this move will impact your career (for better or worse) down the road.

The right fit

The concept of “fit” comes up a lot in the job search. Finding the best working situation for both you and your employer often takes some trial and error.

The culture of an organization is an important factor in finding a great mutual fit, but your goals, priorities, and values are just as important. If you haven’t done this already, spend some time thinking about what you want your ideal working environment to look like. Or, think about this question in another way by asking yourself: “Outside of a paycheck, what do I want or need from my current job that I’m not getting?”

  • Consider big-picture factors like the mission of an organization or the title you’d ultimately like to earn.
  • Think about day-to-day factors too—your work habits, personality type, and leadership style. For instance, if you work best independently and thrive on flexibility, you might be ready to make a switch to freelancing. If interpersonal mentorship and collaboration are vital to you job satisfaction, maybe you want a lively office with a close-knit team.
  • And think about logistics, since they often play a bigger role in our daily lives than we may realize. How long do you want your commute to be? Which commitments outside of work do you need to honor, including commitments to yourself?

Then figure out which elements of a job are the most important to you. No job will be perfect, but once you know what matters to you the most, you can discern whether a pay cut is worth the trade off.

A better field for you

Stepping into a new field, especially after years in the same place, can be disorienting. You’re a beginner all over again, and since you have less relevant experience, you’re likely to start out with a lower salary.

Your passion for the new field will play a big role in whether you make the switch, and a career you love may be worth a temporary financial setback. Depending on your new industry, you may be earning your original salary—or higher!—in a few years once you’ve learned the ropes. As you take on bigger projects and greater responsibility, revisit your original salary and ask for the raise you’ve earned.

Also, you’ll want to keep in mind that perhaps you have progressed as far as you can (or want to) in your current field when it comes to responsibilities and salary. If you don’t see potential for advancement and you’d rather not stay where you are, a career switch may be the best long-term choice.

A less stressful life

It’s hard to put a dollar amount on work-life balance. But you know your own stress-tolerance level, and you can probably gauge how much you’d benefit from reduced stress in the workplace, even if a pay reduction is a side effect.

Once work starts taking a toll on your physical and mental health, it’s time to make some changes. Fortunately you have plenty of options without switching jobs or career fields. But keep in mind that constant job-related trauma, however, could be a sign you need to scale back or step away.

As a bonus, you may be swapping a higher paycheck for a money-saving investment in your well-being. Whether you’re saving gas on the long commute that drives you crazy, time that can now be spent on a side gig you love, or room on your calendar for preventative care appointments, you could actually be doing yourself a financial favor.

How to prepare

You’ve planned to make a career move resulting in a pay cut; now what?

  • Take a look at your budget. Pay special attention to spending patterns, which are hard to analyze on a daily basis but easy to identify on a credit card statement. Considering how your values affect your spending can be a big help in figuring out which expenses to cut. You may be surprised how quickly small changes to non-essential spending will add up to big monthly savings.
  • Pay down debt as you are able. It’s not a bad idea to put down more money toward debts while you still have the higher paycheck. In the meantime, see where you can work with your creditors to adjust any payment plans.
  • Give a heads up to anyone else who will be affected. If you share financial responsibilities with a partner or spouse, discuss your plans with them, especially if the pay cut is a large one and likely to affect your mutual spending habits.
  • See what benefits are available. You may have access to grants and scholarships if higher education is part of your new plan. And your old employer might offer temporary continuation of health insurance coverage. Look for benefits in your new job too—perks like a great health plan and tuition for higher education courses can often turn a lower-salaried job into a money saver.

Accepting a lower-paying job can lead to a career more suited for you, as long as you plan ahead. Thinking long-term will help you fit your new job into the bigger picture of where you want to achieve.

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Have you ever excepted a pay cut in order to make a career move that was right for you at the time? Would you do it again? Let us know in the comments!

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Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.
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