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Career and Work

Wages for the working class tie directly to the performance of the overall economy. When the largest group of consumers feels they have money to spend, they will do so. This spending may be to the detriment of their own quest for financial independence, but it also allows businesses to thrive. It’s always been the policy of more liberal politicians to encourage higher pay for low-wage workers, while it’s always been the policy of the more conservative to spur the economy by directly making it easier for businesses to profit.

Last year, President Obama called for an increase to the federal minimum wage, proposing first a gradual increase to $9 an hour, and later changing the proposal to increase to $10.10 an hour.

Another way to help workers in low-wage jobs is to ensure they are getting the overtime pay they’re entitled to. My first major job after graduating college was with a non-profit organization. It was a salaried position, but the salary was pretty low. It was enough so that I wouldn’t be considered living in poverty, but living expenses in New Jersey were, and continue to be, high. During most of the year, I worked eighty hours a week. It wasn’t always difficult work, but there was much to do and few people to do it. And everything was urgent.

At one point, I calculated how much I was getting paid per hour, and it was right around minimum wage. While that put me in a much better position than your average fast-food worker who also wasn’t paid for working overtime, it didn’t necessarily reflect the unique, specialized work I was doing. You make these kind of personal sacrifices when you’re working for a mission, but it’s not a situation that is right for a recent college graduate who sees financial stability as a goal.

Obama is asking the Labor Department to issue new rules pertaining to overtime, ensuring more people — though probably not those in the nonprofit sector — receive overtime pay. This could be even more effective than a minimum wage hike if the goal is getting more money into the hands of worker-consumers who might be able to use it to build wealth over time.

The most important factor in terms of overpay is ensuring companies are complying. If there are any companies breaking the law by withholding overtime pay, this needs to be addressed first. A group of McDonald’s workers have recently files a class-action lawsuit that claims that the company is avoiding paying employees full wages by using underhanded tactics, like not starting the clock until a customer enters the restaurant instead of when workers arrive to begin their day. Regardless of whether overtime is expanded, these incidents need to stop.

The usual reaction from the middle class to situations like that is, rather than encouraging businesses to adhere to the law, is to suggest those in bad working situations find a new job. Unfortunately, that’s not always a possibility. If a shift at McDonald’s is followed by a shift at a clothing store, and perhaps even a third job following that, all just to earn enough money to feed and shelter a family, it’s no surprise people can get stuck in low-wage jobs.

Obama’s new proposal would expand the requirement for overtime pay. Currently, employers can get around overtime laws by offering salaried workers more than $455 a week. That annual salary of $23,660 still falls beneath the poverty level, so there are people living in poverty who are not qualifying for overtime pay. Two states, California and New York, have set their own overtime exemption minimum at $600 per week. Raising this level can effectively raise the total wages for millions of workers.

It seems to me that most companies would want to attract the best employees, and one way to do that is to offer competitive compensation.

There was a revolving door of employment at that nonprofit organization where I worked. The organization would attract highly-motivated young people initially, but these same overachievers quickly found that their skills were in demand and that they had many more opportunities for personal growth elsewhere. In some cases, the labor market appreciated the same traits that made them great at their jobs in nonprofit, and compensated them appropriately, and in other cases, the individuals used their skills to build their own companies and enjoy the fruits of their own labor.

Small businesses tend to be unable to offer competitive compensation because profit margins tend to be tight. Many will look for other ways to attract the best employees, but non-monetary compensation can only go so far when you need to pay rent and buy food.

As regulations call for higher pay for low-wage workers, businesses will continue finding ways to avoid the increases. If McDonald’s is finding ways to shave hours off employees’ time cards, you can be sure other low-wage employers are doing the same.


As I’ve mentioned often on Consumerism Commentary, after a a false start or two with jobs following my undergraduate studies, I started my career working for a non-profit organization involved in the arts. I followed one of my passions without considering my financial needs.

I want to be able to look back and see that despite my problems, the non-profit was a good choice for me, but I can’t honestly say that. I strongly believe in this organization’s mission, but maybe I wasn’t the right person for that kind of job.

Working as an employee for a non-profit organization can be rewarding — often more rewarding for your conscience than for your wallet, however. I came away from my three years as a non-profit employee with skills and traits that helped me succeed in other jobs:

When you work for a non-profit, you work hard. The best non-profit organizations use their funding, often from private donors but also from the government, to invest in their programs. Human resources are often an after-thought. You can see this with non-profit rankings on sites like Charity Navigator; charitable organizations are judged on how much of their funding goes to their programs.

As a result, many non-profits lack the resources necessary to do the best job they can. Working in this type of environment, it’s easy to develop skills related to making the most out of nothing and doing more with less.

You learn to fill multiple roles. One side-effect of small administrative budgets is that there isn’t always someone to fill each unique role in the organization. Where I worked, I was the associate director of a division that related mostly with high schools, but I was also the office’s tech guy and troubleshooter, the web and database administrator, and an event planner. I often dealt with stakeholders other than the high schools.

No one in this organization would dare say, “That’s not in my job description.” For me, the most difficult part was the manual labor. I never pictured myself loading and unloading trucks, installing signage, or being a chauffeur as part of my occupation, but these were things that needed to be done, and everyone chipped in.

Talent and passion are contagious. When your occupation is built around a mission, you meet talented and passionate people who are interested in the same mission. Putting yourself in an environment where most people are motivated helps you rise to their level. Leadership differs from organization to organization, but if you have a culture of excellence and high expectations, it can be a stressful existence but it is rewarding.

You learn how to maintain high expectations in other aspects of your life. You expect to be surrounded by high-functioning adults. Life can be disappointing when you move on and realize that not everyone is as highly motivated or concerned about excellence, but when you find yourself in leadership roles, the environment of excellence can help make you a great leader.

Non-profits can force you to be frugal. Within the organization, you learn how to do more with less, and that bleeds into your personal life. Many times, it must, because you are unlikely to be paid the same salary you’d be able to garner with a private company (that is, not a non-profit organization).

There are many reasons for the lower salaries in non-profit. One I mentioned above: organizations want to devote more of their funding directly to programs instead of human resources. Non-profit executives believe that the reward of psychological fulfillment makes up for the low salaries. But non-profits simply offer lower salaries because they can. People will take the jobs. Now, you can’t always hire the best people with low salaries, and if the revolving-door employment of the organization I used to work for was any indication, great employees leave because their talents are valued by companies willing to pay much more.

Another reason non-profits can offer less money is because in many cases, people see non-profit work as their “third act.” They’ve worked a fulfilling career in some other field and are ready to retire. But they want to continue doing something rewarding with their time, and non-profit is a haven for people who have already earned their money. They aren’t looking for organizational advancement, and they aren’t looking to earn competitive income.

These challenges make it difficult to decide whether you should work for a non-profit.

I didn’t think about these concerns right out of college. I didn’t know how difficult my life was going to be; nobody warned me. Then again, even if I was aware of the consequences, I’m not sure I’d make a different decision. There are some questions you should consider before pursuing a career in non-profit.

1. Do you really believe in the organizations mission? You’re going to be putting a lot of yourself into your work. If you aren’t 100% committed to the organization’s mission, you’ll be losing a part of yourself for something you don’t really care about. At the same time, you’re gaining something important, perhaps a sense of fulfillment if you are committed to the mission. The mission will often be the excuse for your sacrifices.

2. Are you prepared for life sacrifices? My non-profit job took my weekends away from me. During certain times of the year, I worked more than 80 hours a week (without overtime pay). I had no time for the social life I would have liked to have had, and the commitment to my job negatively affected my personal relationships, especially the one with my girlfriend at the time.

3. Are you prepared for the financial sacrifices? My salary barely covered my living necessities and commuting to work. I was going further into debt each month, and it was easier for me to ignore my financial realities. By the time I was ready to make another personal sacrifice, moving away from my friends and closer to the office, where housing was much more expensive anyway, I was already halfway out the door at the job.

It’s not uncommon to see non-profit workers who come from privileged backgrounds, who rely on another family member for household income, who are living off of their retirement funds, or who are otherwise financially independent. I was taken aback the first time I met some of the people who worked or interned for one of the biggest music ensembles in the world, housed in New York City. Those interns could work for free without making any financial sacrifices, and sometimes working for a non-profit is close to working for free. Is that something you can do?

4. Are you capable of handling the demands? When I worked for a corporation later in my life, a few co-workers performed their duties with a sense of urgency. There was some kind of value in the perception that every task one pursued was important. People would rush around just to show everyone else how busy and important they believed they were. Coming from a non-profit background, it was hard for me to take that attitude seriously. In my experience, people were busy because they had to be — because they were trying to accomplish world-changing projects with a skeleton staff.

The “corporate urgency” was a joke to me — and that’s probably one reason I never fit in there. The demands in that corporate environment — demands on time, effort, and talent — were nothing compared to the work that needed to be accomplished in non-profit. If you want to work in non-profit, there’s a good chance it will consumer your life with its demands.

5. Is there anything else you could possibly do with your life to achieve fulfillment? First-year college students often hear this some time during their first few weeks: “If you can picture yourself being satisfied in any other field, this isn’t the right field for you.” I heard it when I was studying to become a music teacher. Engineers hear it, too, for different reasons. It’s even more relevant before considering a career in non-profit, especially for a college graduate with student loan debt.

The non-profit industry can be rewarding for your soul, particularly if you find an opportunity that is aligned with your passions. It isn’t an easy life for some of the most talented people who would like to pursue that type of path. Give the choice some consideration.

Photo: Flickr/robert.claypool


Financial independence has become an important topic for me over the course of my adult life. It’s been a progression. First, I discovered the concept of spending less than I earn — simple mathematics but a behavioral change — and how that, in addition to making better choices, could eventually lead to financial independence through the slow path to wealth.

Yet, I have been bothered by problems with the “getting rich slowly” concept, some of which I addressed in this video about quantum leaps in finance, and which I explained better in the article linked in the previous paragraph. Just because I’m not sold on the idea that just making better decisions over the course of a lifetime will lead to wealth doesn’t mean that I think there’s a consistent method of getting rich quicker.

I am fascinated be people who report success finding financial independence early by making some extreme choices in their lives. Several years ago, during the first few weeks of the Consumerism Commentary Podcast, host Tom Dziubek and I interviewed an individual with a popular website who preaches about early retirement and the extreme choices he made to get to that point.

What is retirement, anyway?

Before I can talk about the interview, I have to point out there is some disagreement, or at least variation, regarding the meaning of retirement. I entered the interview with a traditional view. Retirement is the point at which your career has come to an end. If you work in an office or at a police station, your co-workers will throw you a going-away party with cake. You leave your job, perhaps collect a pension, move to Florida or Arizona, and live out the rest of your life in leisurely activities like sitting by the pool, playing golf, traveling, cultivating hobbies, and doting on your grandchildren.

This is, of course, a narrow view of retirement, despite it being a relatively accurate, if stereotypical, picture of a form of retirement that has certainly been popular in American culture over the last generation or two, especially with corporate workers who stay with the same company or a small number of employers within one industry throughout their lives. The disappearance of pensions in favor of 401(k) plans and a lower prioritization of human capital have encouraged employees to be less loyal to their employers and more faithful to their own needs and desires.

Average lifespans are increasing. Access to healthcare, despite the industry’s troubles, is helping people live healthier in older age. Add these to a decreased reliance on government support like Social Security and increased expectations for quality of living, retirees need more money than ever to provide the cash flow necessary to live as they are accustomed.

One result to this increased financial pressure is that many of today’s workers think they’ll never be able to retire. According to a recent Wells Fargo study — keep in mind that Wells Fargo sells “retirement planning” as a product — 37% of middle class Americans believe they will need to work until they’re too sick or until they die, at which point, retirement will lose some or all of its enjoyment.

As the world changes around us, so does the concept of retirement. The motivation for working is changing. It’s less likely that one can expect to follow the traditional path of working for thirty years and living in retirement on a pension or from returns from a risky 401(k) portfolio, so people who preach taking a more active approach to earning and saving wealth have grown in popularity. That takes me back to the interview.

Is he really retired?

In retirement, what should disappear is the need to trade time and effort, a function of labor, for capital needed to pay for living expenses. When we work, we take a certain amount of time that could be spent on activities that are more enjoyable, and use that time in manual or mental labor. Assuming a person like most people is not lucky enough to truly enjoy the work they do and to continue that enjoyment for years after turning a passion into an occupation, there’s eventually some desire to stop.

Other income sources take the place of trading labor for capital.

  • Income can come from converting retirement savings into cash flow, quickly depleting a finite resource.
  • Investments can generate income while depleting a resource at a slower rate. Financial planners suggest a safe withdrawal rate of 4% for the first year with a portfolio balanced between stocks and bonds.
  • Retirees can rely, to some extent, on government benefits for income or to pay for expenses like healthcare.

The main idea is that trading labor for income stops. Does it count as retirement when the supposed retiree is not only still working to produce income (whether he claims to need it, despite this work being different than his initial, primary career) or if he continues to rely on his wife’s income for covering expenses? It’s certainly a different level of financial independence. In this podcast guest’s particular case, a vigorous approach to saving as much income as possible, reducing material needs, and continually considering methods of downsizing all helped him reach a point at which he could quit and take more risk by starting his own business with savings and his wife’s income as a cushion.

Unfortunately, as this was one of the first podcast interviews we produced, the audio quality was not sufficient. I decided not to re-record the interview because I felt there was a bit of a lack of authenticity. I did not feel the early retirement in this case was not real enough to serve as a legitimate story. There are some interesting concepts behind the philosophy, but the holes in the logic were too large for me to feel comfortable with the story.

Is real early retirement a myth?

Let’s say you have no savings, but you also have no debt. You can “retire” any time you want. You can live off the land. Find unclaimed space and build a shelter and hunt for food. Barter for any needs you have. I suppose that can be a legitimate retirement if that type of life sounds good to you. If you change how you approach your needs for the rest of your life, you don’t need a lot of money to retire.

Or, you can plan to retire with a combination of lowering your expectations and increasing your savings for, say, five years. If you and your spouse expect to earn $400,000 over the next five years and manage to save 90% of that, your nest egg totals $360,000. If you can live off $12,000 a year — and I know people who have — you can make that nest egg last thirty years without even investing in the stock market.

It can be done. Early retirement is real for the middle class, but only those who are willing to make extreme changes to expectations and behavior today. But it’s not very realistic, and the extreme savings path is fraught with problems.

In most cases, because most will not be interested or able to make those sacrifices, early retirement is a myth, and setting that goal is a recipe for disappointment in the long run. Most people are not willing to make the kind of sacrifices necessary to make early retirement — the kind in which you actually do stop trading labor for capital and do not have a spouse’s salary to rely upon — a reality. Be sure, if you follow a guru who preaches early retirement, that you maintain realistic expectations and a good understanding of the guru’s actual retirement situation.

For the most part, the middle class is not interested in denouncing the consumerism culture perpetuated not only by the media but by our communities and society at large, but the more a guru professes early retirement, the more likely he or she is still working and generating an income in exchange for some type of labor.

Are you on a path towards early retirement? What does retirement look like to you, and what are you doing to make it happen?


Looking back over my career, which for me started in non-profit out of college in 1998 and 1999, included teaching middle school and high school, transitioned into the finance industry, and eventually culminated in working for myself full-time, I’ve had an opportunity to consider my approach to “sick days.”

In the early days, I took as many sick days as possible. The organizations or companies I worked for had policies that guaranteed no fewer than a certain number of sick days. I didn’t normally take sick days to conceal the lack of a desire to go to the office; for the most part, I was sick as frequently as I took advantage of these days, usually several each month. And for me, being sick involved something like the flu or flu-like symptoms.

Perhaps I was exposed to unhealthy people more often because I lived in an apartment with several roommates, shared an office with other people who would go to work while they were contagious, or spent weekends with hundreds of high school students. Perhaps it was a combination of all the above. On most these days I formulated the courage to call a judgmental boss to let him know I wouldn’t be making it in, I was actually sick.

I never once had an employer ask for a doctor’s note, but I’m sure a few times in my first job with the non-profit I received a call from the office to check up on me. I was not calling out sick to go to a concert, I was not partying. If I called out sick, I was either sick or recovering. Every once in a while I would use a sick day for a personal recovery day; but when you work long hours seven days a week because the organization is under-staffed and over-reaching, I think that’s acceptable. Occasionally.

But as I got older, my approach to sick days — and possibly my general health — changed. When my schedule was no longer super-packed, I didn’t get sick as often. I moved out of the communal apartment and found a place with just one roommate — and a few years later, lived on my own. I was no longer exposed to hundreds of children each week. My need to take advantage of the maximum number of sick days allowed by company policy decreased, even though I managed to fill the rest of my at-home schedule with working for myself.

Also, the company I worked for began offering an opportunity for employees to work from home. Although this wasn’t the intent of the flexible arrangement was, I could occasionally work from home if I felt under the weather, and the more relaxed environment might have saved me from developing a more serious affliction each time.

Officially, the financial company I worked for did not want employees to come to the office if they were sick because of the fear of an ailment spreading through the office. Of course, this not a genuine concern of a corporate entity; the company policy was such to avoid the possibility of reduced efficiency among the employees. While staying at home in the event of sickness was the official approach, at the team level it was a different story. Employees were expected to come to the office as much as possible despite the threat of transmitting sickness to others.

Quitting the corporate day job and working for myself full time probably had the biggest effect on my health. By writing this, I hope I’m not tempting fate, but I haven’t really been sick since quitting my job. Perhaps I’ve felt sick enough once or twice a year to prevent me from getting everything done in a particular day, but that certainly isn’t the same frequency of immobilization as I was experiencing towards the beginning of my working life.

It’s also true that my environment is more isolated today than it’s been any other time in my career. I have no office to go to. I do not work with high school or middle school children. I see people only when I choose, and so perhaps I’m not exposed to many of the same infections I would be had I remained in other jobs. I don’t have a stressful schedule. I don’t have stressful deadlines unless I create them for myself. I have control over the way I live and work, which was less true earlier in my life.

And, in some ways, if I have to take a sick day, it affects my own bottom line. That was not the case in the past, though if my superiors and co-workers thought I was taking advantage of company policy — and I’m sure they did — it would affect my reputation at the office.

If you work in an office, when do you call out sick? Have you used employer-provided sick days to take care of chores or to take care of your children, or do you just call out when you’re actually unable to make it to the office? Do you try to go in when you’re sick to continue work?

If you don’t work in an office, do you find that you’re not getting sick as often? Are there other factors that contribute to your health, like being around children or other adults frequently? Are you motivated to be sick less often if you’re working for yourself?

Photo: Flickr/kodomut


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