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Dear Money Mom,
I’m stuck with a useless degree, about $90,000 in student-loan debt and a job that’s going nowhere.
I thought I wanted to be a high-school English teacher, so I got a B.A. in English and went to grad school for education. Halfway through the program, I realized that teaching wasn’t for me, so I finished the degree but skipped certification. Now, I can’t teach and I have no idea what I want to do, period.
For the past five years, I’ve worked at my alma mater. I’m currently an admissions coordinator, which is basically an event-planning assistant position with an overinflated job description and no room for growth. I want to move on but I’m worried that if I leave the university, I won’t qualify for my public-service loan-forgiveness program anymore. Jobs at my school are hard for outsiders to get, so it seems stupid to give mine up. I’ve gone to networking activities, tried career counseling, and applied to other jobs within the school, but I haven’t gotten any offers. I think I’m capable of more, but don’t know where to start.
I’m 30, married, and own a house that needs tons of repairs we can’t afford. I carry the brunt of our mortgage payments, which are more than 30 percent of my income (I make just under $50,000, and my husband makes around $28,000). Overall, I feel like I’m drowning.
My instincts tell me to get some other kind of degree, but financially that just isn’t feasible. If I can’t get another degree or another job, how am I supposed to get experience that will break me out of this track? And how do I figure out what I want to do in the first place?
As a fellow English major, I heard “Oh, so you must want to be a teacher” for years. But I didn’t, and neither did my college roommate (also an English major) or many other people in our literature seminars. Now, that roommate is a marketing director, and our classmates’ careers are all over the map (publishing, law, banking, you name it). The point is, even if your diplomas aren’t directly applicable to your vocational future, they’re not a prison sentence. It seems like you’re even more trapped by the guilt of your indecision than the debt it saddled you with. You’re sitting in the shadow of your former life plans (and still paying for them), but it’s not a cage. You have a lot more freedom than you think you do.
On paper, you are the picture of what many people aspire to be at 30: a well-educated adult with a house, a spouse, and a decent job. But propping up this rosy portrait seems like a lot of thankless work, and may be part of what’s making you so frustrated. “We often think that if we check all the right boxes, our career will unfold the way we want it to — get a degree, work hard, and the rest will follow — and that’s just not true in the same way that it may have been for previous generations,” says Amanda Steinberg, the founder of DailyWorth and author of Worth It: Your Life, Your Money, Your Terms. “It can be incredibly difficult to accept that the life you expected to build doesn’t match up with the hard numbers.”
Clinging to what you know is a powerful, stubborn instinct. Humans also have a tendency to stick with what they’ve invested in (in your case, school and homeownership), even when the benefits (stability, student-loan forgiveness) are no longer worth the compromises (a higher salary, career advancement). This phenomenon is known in behavioral economics as the sunk-cost fallacy; it often walks hand in hand with an equally paralyzing associate, the status quo bias, which is exactly what it sounds like: inertia. Neither is conducive to the growth you’re so desperate for.
First, let’s address ways to lighten your financial load. “Anything that takes financial pressure off you right now will make you feel less trapped and more nimble,” says Bari Tessler, a financial therapist. “I know it’s not what you want to hear, but most financial advisers would suggest that you consider selling your house. Personally, I rented until my 40s.” Steinberg agrees. “I went into deep personal debt twice in the past decade — once because of taxes, and more recently because of my divorce — and sometimes the solutions are uncomfortable,” she says. “You cancel summer plans that seemed un-cancellable. You sell a house you love and move to a cheaper location. You figure out a side hustle and, yes, it fills your nights and weekends and feels exhausting, but it doesn’t last forever. Financial liberation sure as hell exceeds whatever ‘freedom’ you got from owning a house that made you poor.”
Speaking of side hustles, it’s time to get imaginative with them, especially if your current job feels like a dead end. Tessler can attest to this: “In my late 20s, I was making $11 an hour as a social worker, and I went into forbearance for my student loans,” she says. “I began my career thinking I just wanted to help people, but then I realized that wasn’t enough. So I asked myself, ‘What else can I do? What are other ways I can use my skills to earn money?’” She made a list of “ten crazy ideas,” one of which was bookkeeping — yawn, but it was something. “I was initially worried about leaving the psychotherapy field behind, but eventually, that training came back into play,” she says. “I didn’t start out with a clear picture that one day I would be able to mesh these two vocations together and create a methodology that made a lot more money. I just had to teach myself to think outside the box.”
On that note, hold off on another degree until you’ve gotten a taste for your next career (at which point you might realize more schooling isn’t necessary). “Feeling like you aren’t qualified for a job in a certain field until you’ve gone to school for it can be a form of imposter syndrome,” says Steinberg. “You can get a degree later if it’s required, but for now, test the waters.” While you’re at it, stop thinking of your master’s as “worthless,” adds Tessler. “It may feel that way now, but give it another five, ten, or even 15 years, and that knowledge and training will be incorporated into what you do next,” she says. “Those skills will be applicable elsewhere.”
As for your loan-forgiveness program: It’s a great deal, especially if you’re already five years in. But if it feels like it’s holding you back, don’t deprive yourself of other options. I know what it’s like to plod through a workday feeling unappreciated — it’s suffocating. But instead of beating your head against your campus walls, why not take advantage of the stability (and monotony) of your job and use the extra mental energy to see what else is out there? In addition to following Tessler’s advice about listing possibilities— no idea too weird or random — think about what you’re good at. What comes easily to you? What skill do you overlook because it’s so obvious and innate? In career-coach parlance, this is “your superpower,” and it’ll be what makes you stand out — not just checking the right boxes, or getting the right degree.
And finally, get specific about numbers. How much money do you want to make, or need in order to live the life that you’re envisioning? “You seem very clear that you’re earning under your potential, but I find that people often start on the wrong side of the equation,” says Mikelann Valterra, a Seattle-based money coach. “The question is: How much money do you want and need to earn? A lot of people don’t know, but it’s worth coming up with a figure that you want to see in five years, and then exploring different options of how to get there.”
This flies in the face of popular beliefs about “doing what you love and the money will come,” but Valterra thinks those maxims are unrealistic and even gendered. “Women are taught, much more than men, that their work should be passion-based, and that can put a lot of painful constraints on your career decisions,” she says. “People don’t run around telling men to ‘follow their bliss.’ You want a job you like, but you can’t expect it to provide all your joy and passion. A more balanced approach is to find out what you like to do, pinpoint how much money you want to make, and then match them with a suitable career. It’s a long-term equation that you solve in increments.”
What you’re really after is a feeling of control, which is a good thing. Psychological studies have shown that those who believe that their own actions determine their rewards (also known as having an “internal locus of control”) tend to do better in school and hold better-paying jobs. However, Australian psychologist James T. Neill cautions people with this tendency “to have a realistic sense of their circle of influence in order to experience ‘success.’” Right now, your circle of influence is more like an amorphous blob of bills and obligations that’s swallowing you whole. Reshape that circle, and you’ll begin to find places where your influence hits home.