money talks

‘How I Prepared to Quit’

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Americans are quitting their jobs at a record rate. But how can they afford it? Here, five women discuss the financial plans they made while preparing to resign and how it’s working out for them so far.

“I was making more money from unemployment than I was from my job, and that made me so mad.” — Lauren, 28, brand manager in Maine

I used to work in marketing for a small independent hotel, and I was planning to quit before the pandemic. There was no upward mobility, and the salary was bad. But once the pandemic hit, I was like, Wait, I can’t quit. Everything is too uncertain. We laid off two-thirds of our staff. My position was cut to part time, but I was working constantly — nights and weekends, doing stuff that was way outside my job description. I did catering events and washed dishes and did night shifts watching the hotel because someone had to be there 24 hours a day, even when we were closed. It was miserable, and everyone was so stressed out.

At the same time, I started getting unemployment benefits because my hours had technically been reduced. Because I was getting the extra $600 a week, too, I was making more money from unemployment than I was from my job, and that made me even more mad at my employer. It felt twisted. And it was a huge boost — I felt more financially secure than I ever had, which I know was not the case for a lot of people. But it made me realize that I could be making a lot more money in general. The hotel was paying me so little for a lot of bullshit.

It took me months to work up the confidence to give my notice, and then it took another five months to actually leave. I saved up a lot during that time so that I would be able to sustain myself for a little while without working. By the time I officially quit on June 1st, I had about $10,000 in savings. My expenses were pretty low; my rent is $500 a month, and then I had my car payment, my phone bill, and health insurance through my state’s Medicaid program. So that was a pretty good cushion. And ultimately I needed it, because it was way harder for me to find a new job than I thought it would be.

The first few weeks after I quit were wonderful. I really crushed unemployment. I went swimming in the local river almost every day and spent a ton of time outdoors. I visited my family and went hiking in Acadia National Park. I felt lighter and more present, just so happy to be alive. But then one month turned into two months, which turned into three months, and I still couldn’t find work. I applied to over 50 marketing positions. And I wasn’t being picky. I was willing to move to a new state and go into an office. But there was just nothing. I had moments of being like, Was quitting my job a terrible mistake? Am I unemployable?

I finally got a new job as a brand manager at a local business. It’s not perfect, but the salary is great — I’m making $75,000, and the most I ever made at my old job was $48,000. I’m glad I’m not working in hospitality anymore. And that experience of quitting has already made me less afraid of doing it again. Like, maybe I’ll work at this place for a few years and then quit again and travel for a bit. I think that taking breaks should be more normal.

“I didn’t want to have any expenses that handcuffed me to being a doctor.” — Katie, 36, former ER doctor in Charlotte, North Carolina

I was burned out on clinical medicine before the pandemic, but COVID made everything worse. If you take the normal stresses that come with being an ER doctor and then you add the fear that your patients could give you a life-threatening virus — that’s a whole other level of anxiety. And the small vestiges of medicine I still enjoyed, like sitting bedside and interacting with patients — COVID took those away, too. I couldn’t even talk to patients very much because you’re both in masks and you can barely hear each other. So for me, the pandemic destroyed the best parts of being a doctor and just left the shitty parts. Also, morale at work was awful. Hospitals don’t know how to make money off COVID patients, so the administration cut our salaries, and it made for an even more toxic environment.

There were a few big financial things I did to prepare myself to leave medicine. One was to finish paying off my student loans, which was a really big deal. It would not have been possible for me to quit or even save much money until those were done with. I finally finished in 2019. Then, after the pandemic hit, I was like, I need to get out. I sold my house and downsized to a rental. I didn’t want to have any expenses that handcuffed me to my profession.

That type of thinking also changed how I spent money. Every time I wanted to buy something, I would ask myself, “Isn’t it more important that you give yourself the opportunity to leave medicine?” When you’re making a doctor’s salary, it doesn’t seem like a big deal to order out dinner three or four days a week. But it’s a vicious cycle — you’re making your life more convenient because you’re so burnt out from your job. And emotionally, you need to numb yourself with streaming services and nice dinners at the end of the day so you can forget how awful your shift was.

I’ve always enjoyed writing, and I’ve done freelance work for medical publications for a while. Then, at the beginning of this year, I saw an opening for an editorial job at one of the publications that I’d worked with. Once I started interviewing, I realized that this could be my ticket out of clinical medicine.

I’m very happy with my current income, but I definitely took a pay cut. It’s pretty easy to make $300,000 to $400,000 as an ER doctor, and my new job as an editor pays $175,000. That said, when I finally left emergency medicine, I was scaling back my shifts because I was so exhausted, and all of our compensation had gone down in the pandemic. So my paycheck ultimately didn’t look that different.

Lots of people thought I was making a huge mistake to quit. Number one being my mom. The most common response was, “But all that time and education! How could you throw it away?” Of course, every doctor understood. They were always like, “Good for you.” But friends and family just couldn’t. The analogy I often give is that it would be like staying with an abusive boyfriend just because you’ve been with him for years and put a lot of energy into the relationship. No matter how much time you put in, if he’s abusive, you have to leave.

“I’m going to subsidize my pension with income from my artwork.”
— Susan, 63, special education teacher from Massachusetts

I teach special ed, and at the beginning of the pandemic, our schools went all remote. It was tough. To be working alone all day with kids who really need interaction made me really fried. I was planning to retire at 65, or maybe even after that. I’ve been teaching for over 20 years. But now I’m planning to retire early. This will be my last year. I won’t get my full pension. But for my mental health, I just can’t do it anymore, even though I won’t be getting as much money. Longevity doesn’t run in my family, so I want to enjoy myself while I’m healthy and young enough to do things.

I don’t plan to stop working entirely, though. To get through the early dark days of the pandemic, I started doing glass art in my basement, just as a hobby. I’d learned how to do stained glass many years ago, but I picked it back up again and was making windows and sun catchers. One day, I was doing a telehealth meeting with my doctor, and he saw one of my pieces in my background and asked me about it. Then he asked if I could make a stained-glass portrait of his dog and sell it to him. When I told him it would be $25, he was like, “What! Are you kidding me? That’s not enough. You’ve got to charge more. You’re a local artist, it’s all handmade.” Finally I told him it would be $500. He paid me double that and told me that I needed to take myself seriously. He really built up my confidence. Then he hung the piece behind him so that his other patients could see it during their telehealth meetings. The next thing I know, they’re calling me and asking for their own custom pieces. Now I’ve fixed up a little studio for myself in the basement and I’ve got tons of orders coming in. The pet portraits are really popular.

I’d do the art even if it wasn’t making money, but now it’s a nice subsidy. I think if I had more time to work on it, I could probably bring in about $1,000 a week, which is around half of my current salary. It’ll be a great supplement to my pension once I retire. For now, I’m just saving the money, but I think my husband and I are going to use some of it to take a vacation someplace tropical this spring. We’ve never done that before — even if we had the money, there was always something more important to spend it on. So this will be a first. I can’t wait.

“I’m literally selling off my furniture.” — Eva, 35, former business manager in Los Angeles, California

I started working for my former employer, who was an architect, in mid-2019. When I first got hired, it was part time, just to handle a few things in the office. Ironically, I took the job because I was hoping that it would be better hours than my former job in television production. But pretty quickly, it became way worse. Soon I was working 70 hours a week, and I was still getting paid $20 an hour with no benefits or overtime. My take-home pay was about $35,000 a year. When the pandemic happened, my boss told me that I should consider myself an essential worker because we technically skirted the line on construction and housing repair, even though he was designing custom homes. I also couldn’t find a new job because everything was shut down. So I was trapped. I had to pay my bills somehow.

About a year into the pandemic, I got COVID. As soon as I got the positive test results, I called my boss to tell him I couldn’t come in. And he asked if I could come in the next day for at least an hour. That was the point where I was like, I can’t do this anymore.

I was not in a good position to quit. I’ve never made enough money to plan ahead; I’ve always just been trying to figure out how to pay my bills next week or next month. I don’t have retirement savings or own a home. My car is paid off, but that’s about it.

To save up some money, I downsized my apartment and moved to a smaller unit in my building. I’m friends with my landlord, so he’s helped me out. He sometimes pays me $20 an hour to clean his Airbnb homes after people have stayed there. My rent is $1,700 a month, and that includes my utilities and parking, which is a really good deal in L.A. I don’t go to the grocery store unless I absolutely have to. I don’t go out. I canceled all my subscriptions. My car insurance is $200 a month, and health insurance is $200 a month. Including my credit-card payments, my monthly expenses are between $3,200 to $3,500 a month. I’m really trying to be creative about cutting things out of my life.

For my last few months at work, I just banked as much cash as possible. I saved about $6,500 total before my last day, which was at the end of July.

I feel a lot of relief to not be in that situation anymore, but now I still can’t find anything that pays a living wage. I’ve had multiple interviews, but I can’t reasonably accept a job where I’m working 60 to 65 hours a week but still can’t pay the bills. So that’s a new conundrum. I just feel like there’s no winning. But there is some comfort in knowing that I’m not alone. There’s a huge group of people in my same position. And I love to work! I want to work hard. I just need to be able to work in a way that allows me to take care of myself.

I recently sold the last of my furniture — a metal cabinet, these two light fixtures, and a sofa — and that enables me to make this month’s rent. But now I’m out of furniture that I can sell. I’m applying for every job I can find. I even tried to get a position at the post office, and they told me I wasn’t qualified. I’m doing my best, but it’s stressful. How can I set myself up to move forward and build a life for myself? It’s baffling.

“We couldn’t find affordable child care, so I’m staying at home to take care of our baby.” — Kira, 36, former events coordinator from Queens, New York

I worked for an events company for over four years. The pandemic hit us hard, and my hours and salary were cut. My husband is a freelance video producer, so he was furloughed when production on his project was shut down. Luckily, both of us qualified for unemployment benefits, and as a result, we actually managed to save quite a bit of money. It helped that we’ve always kept our overheads very low, so we’re used to living with a small budget. Then I got pregnant and had our son in May of 2021.

I took about four months of maternity leave, and I intended to return to work; my position had returned to full time by then. But we had a really hard time finding child care. Our families live overseas, so they weren’t able to come and help us out because of pandemic travel restrictions. We looked at day-care options, and everything near our home was expensive, understaffed, and inadequate for such a small baby. We also tried to find a nanny share, but everything kept falling through. And paying a nanny to take care of our baby one-on-one would cost almost my entire take-home pay.

Finally, my husband and I looked at our budget and decided that he would go back to work and I would stay home. I was the one with the salaried position, but he has more earning potential when he’s working full time. We live frugally already, and our lifestyle with a baby is pretty inexpensive — we don’t go out much. So it hasn’t been too difficult to make financial adjustments. One new expense was health insurance. We got it through the marketplace, and it’s about $1,300 a month for the three of us. We’re getting a tax credit for a portion of it, so it wasn’t too hard to plan for.

It was scary to quit. I wish that we’d been able to find a better child-care solution. I plan to start looking for a new position at the beginning of next year, when my son is a bit older. But for now, this is working. He’s so little, and I know this time will pass quickly. I don’t have any regrets about the decision.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

‘How I Prepared to Quit’