How To Save Money Doing What You Love


Note: This is a guest post from Jen Gresham. A Ph.D. scientist turned writer and entrepreneur, Jen inspires people to find the clarity and courage they need to design a fulfilling career at her blog Everyday Bright. She is also the founder of the No Regrets Career Academy and The Bright Entrepreneur’s Club. Read more about Jen here.

I told myself I couldn’t afford to quit.

On the outside, everything looked normal. I was engaged in my work, did it dutifully, and casually chatted with co-workers in the hallways.

But on the inside, things weren’t right at all. My muscles tensed as soon as I walked in the office. I felt drained before I’d even sat down at my desk.

When my request for a transfer to another division was denied, I became depressed. I’d cry into my husband’s chest at night, saying “I can’t keep doing this.”

It took two miscarriages in the space of 12 months before I got serious about calculating the cost of change.

What’s your unhappiness costing you?

My normal coping strategy for stress is to eat.

But when my job stress became a daily shadow, food wasn’t just an escape, it was my lifeline. It not only got me out of the office, but the pleasure that came with a cup of tea or a toasted bagel smeared with cream cheese was a boost I felt I needed and deserved.

But it’s amazing how quickly these “pick-me-ups” can add up. Take a look at my eating expenses:

  • Bagel and tea at local cafe: $4
  • Mid-morning snack: $1
  • Lunch (out): $10
  • Mid-afternoon snack: $1

That doesn’t seem like a lot of money, does it?

But when you multiply it by the number of days worked (roughly 250 days a year), you get $4,000. Of course, you need to subtract the amount you’d pay for eating breakfast at home and packing lunches and snacks. Assuming you can do that for roughly $5/day, the cost of my stress was $2,750 a year.

That’s a fair chunk of change.

But it’s just the tip of the cupcake.

When I took a closer look at where my money was going, it became clear that a lot of my expenses were pick-me-ups in disguise. Most of them were small: clothes, a box of pretty notecards, a nice dinner out, some apps for my phone, new songs, another dinner out.

You see where I’m going with this? I spent about $2,000 a month on these kinds of expenses, hoping they could fill a hole inside me. (Spoiler alert: They can’t.)

What holds many back is the fear that doing what they love will involve a pay cut, and emotionally, they just can’t deal with it.

Notice I said “emotionally.” The inability to take a pay cut often isn’t logical or based on facts.

I’m not saying you should live in complete austerity. But when you add up all the “necessities” that come with an uncomfortable career, it’s easy to get a wacky sense of your salary requirements without even realizing it.

Simply by pursuing work that didn’t require all those pick-me-ups, I discovered I could easily save more than $20K a year. Your number may be more or less than that amount, but most of the clients I work with find they can save much more than they originally suspected.

Exercise 1: Study your bank and credit card statements over several months. Ask yourself, “Did I buy this because I needed it or because I felt I deserved it in exchange for the trials of my job?” Compute your annual unhappiness cost.

What’s your happiness worth?

It cracks me up.

The diamond industry has convinced people that unless you spend the equivalent of one month’s salary on your beloved’s engagement ring, you’re somehow selling the relationship short. And because the ring represents status as much as it does bliss, people go to great lengths to spend as much as possible on that small piece of jewelry.

Don’t even get me started on the cost of the wedding itself.

Assuming someone spends 45 hours a week working and commuting, that means 40% or more of their waking hours are spent at work. Apart from their education, most never invest another dime in creating a career they love.

It’s not that they’re not willing.

Imagine yourself in a unique auction, one that offered the winner work that energized you instead of draining you, that inspired you to fully express your potential. You’d be proud to tell others what you did. You’d feel like you were making a positive impact in a way that mattered to you.

And imagine this work came with a 100% happiness guarantee for one year.

How much would you be willing to pay?

This isn’t a theoretical exercise. See in your mind’s eye the bidding, the flurry of hands, the rising tension in the room. Are you going to let this opportunity slip away?

Exercise 2: Jot down a figure you’d be willing to pay if you knew, for certain, you could buy a job that was deeply fulfilling for at least one year.

Budgeting for (and believing in) a better life

Believe it or not, the easy part is the budgeting.

First, combine the estimated yearly cost of your despair (your answer from Exercise 1) with the amount you’d be willing to pay for one year’s worth of a fulfilling career (your answer from Exercise 2). Subtract that sum from your current income.

This number now represents your minimum annual salary.

A couple of things to keep in mind:

  1. Until you know what career or job would actually provide that sense of fulfillment, this number is generally meaningless, other than to reassure you that you need to earn less than you think. Many of us can, in fact, afford a pay cut.
  2. Remember, you don’t have to keep your minimum annual salary forever. Presumably you’ll progress faster and make more doing something you’re fully engaged in and passionate about.

You may not be able to afford this minimum salary today. You may have student loans, credit card debts, or an underwater mortgage that require your immediate financial attention.

But don’t use your finances as an excuse for staying in a soul-crushing career forever.

The biggest hurdle between you and your dream job isn’t your bank account.

It’s that you’ve stopped believing in yourself.

When you give the cynic inside you the microphone, everything’s impossible. You gloss over your successes and focus on your failures. You tell yourself they call it work for a reason, then convince yourself your dreams are out of reach.

The voice in your head convinces you that you deserve a donut or a new pair of shoes, but not meaningful work. That’s for someone else. Someone better.

The Dalai Lama said:

It is very wrong for people to feel deeply sad when they lose some money, yet when they waste the precious moments of their lives, they do not have the slightest feeling of repentance.

That’s not a call to be reckless. Absolutely take the time to make your budget. Design a plan to get you there.

But whatever you do, don’t tell yourself it’s OK to waste one more minute of your precious life.



You deserve more than just a paycheck. You deserve a better life.

Now go get it.

38 thoughts on “How To Save Money Doing What You Love”

  1. Oh, now that is a good one. It’s funny, I’ve been reading stuff like this and feeling inspired for the last 2 years or so. And I haven’t done a thing about it. We’re drowning in debt, and feeling pretty overwhelmed right now, but also feeling totally unsatisfied with our jobs. It’s not a fun way to live, and not a good example for our kids. Time to grab that bull by the horns I think.

  2. Wonderful article! It reinforces the decisions that I have made over the past 5 months! I will be retiring from my high tech job of 23 years to pursue more creative, fulfilling things. My decision to retire early was largely driven by the unexpected/sudden death of my husband two years ago. It took a tragedy to make me stop and reconsider what I am doing with “my one precious life”. Thankfully I have realized what is important (it’s not money) and have taken the steps to make early retirement a reality. I hope that many others will estimate what the true cost of unhappiness is and make the positive changes to create your own passionate life.

    1. Marci,
      I hear that all the time from career changers: it takes a tragedy to realize life is short. The same was true for me, obviously. My mission in life is to help people find that clarity and courage without the tragedy.

      Enjoy your early retirement!

  3. Leah,
    That’s such a big realization, and I wish more parents understood the relationship between their own job stress and the lessons they are unwittingly teaching their kids about work. It’s a vicious cycle that just passes through the generations.

    What’s great though, is that most parents are willing to do nearly anything, no matter how difficult, to improve the lives of their children. So tap into that energy and motivation and start making it happen today. Talk to your kids about what you’re doing and why you are absolutely worth it (and so are they). The time will go faster than you think. You can do it!

  4. “It is very wrong for people to feel deeply sad when they lose some money, yet when they waste the precious moments of their lives, they do not have the slightest feeling of repentance.” Such a sad societal pressure some people feel.

    I just want to be a conduit for blessing others 🙂

  5. I quit my old job 6 months ago and have been building my own business ever since. Great decision for family and quality of life, though the money is just now starting to come through. We were only able to make the jump b/c we were debt free and had savings + a super supportive spouse!

    1. Brent,
      Yes, it’s a funny thing. Starting a business is easier than we imagine it will be, but generating a full time income from it is usually harder than we imagined it would be. Having that cushion is so important. Here’s to practical passion!

  6. Wow! In a culture where we commodify everything from sex to God – we often times do a lousy job of managing our own life and we trade our days away.

    I printed this article as a reminder and I am actually planning an exit strategy from the 9-5. In order to do that I have to eliminate debt from my life.

    Thanks for the great reminder!

    1. JW,
      Printing a writer’s words out so you can refer back to them is one of the nicest compliments someone can give. Thanks for making my day.

      Glad to hear you’re making the exit strategy. It’s so worth it. Wish you the best and let me know if I can help.

  7. The beginning of this post was pretty heart-wrenching! I’m sorry you got into a position you disliked so much… but I’m glad you got out and indeed, calculating the cost of change is agreat idea… I think many of us would be surprised.

    1. Yes, it WAS a heart-wrenching time. I think what’s sad though is that I know now that I wasn’t alone in feeling that way. Like me, most people keep this kind of desperation inside them, afraid that expressing it (often rightly) will lead to losing their job or at the least, losing support for other opportunities. My hope is that I can help give voice to those who feel the way I did, and help them find a way out.

  8. I’m not sure I completely buy the idea that you would eat breakfast at home and pack a lunch every day if you liked your work more. Maybe if you are working from home, but I’m not sure there is a necessarily a direct correlation between job enjoyment and going out for lunch.

    That said, I can understand the overspending. Whatever the reason for it, overspending on essentially useless items, can really add up. And if you were spending over $2000 per month on junk, then that is definately a spending problem. Taking a good look at spending is a worth-while exercise. We did this and realized we were spending too much on our must haves, and didn’t have much left for wants and savings. We’ve made some major changes and turned that situation around.

    1. I agree–that won’t be true for everyone. It was true for me because the eating, especially eating out, was driven by stress. Before I made the leap to working for myself, I eventually was able to move to another division that was a much, much better work environment. All of a sudden, my need for snacks and expensive lunches went away.

      But you’re right, the actual expenses driven by stress will vary from individual to individual.

      1. I just have to chip in on that – when I had an office job that was very time-demanding, I was definitely a convenience-store addict. I still like that food, but most of the reason I was eating it was that I literally had no energy in me for things like cooking or packing even an already-prepared lunch. I’m sure that makes me sound lazy, but with a 65+ hour a week job and an elementary-age child, something had to give. When I moved to working mostly (but not entirely) from home, I quickly realized that when I had the energy to take that time for myself, I didn’t “need” that junky food as often!

        And by the same token, on some days, my “lunch” at the office – running out to grab fast food – was literally the only time I was able to stand up all day because of how hectic things were. And so it became my escape. Again, NOT true for everyone, but I could so relate to Jen’s post – one of many reasons she was selected to kick off our new occasional guest-posting feature! 🙂

  9. Yep, after the last four months leaving my son at daycare and paying them each week to watch him grow up the decision was made that as soon as our debts are paid I’m quiting! Hopefully it will be sooner than later this year but it’s not fair to me to pay for someone else to raise him when I know I can make money at home doing what I love- Painting and making Jewelry and raise him too. I have felt so much relief in that decision.

    1. Isn’t that so often the case? We drive ourselves mad trying to make a decision, and then feel such a relief at just making one. Congrats and enjoy your new life, Hillary!

  10. I can totally relate to this. My work has a system set up so that you can have purchases from the cafeteria automatically from your paycheck. All you have to do is swipe your ID badge. It doesn’t seem like a lot in the moment but it sure adds up quick and is sometimes shocking when you go to open your pay stub.

    1. Eric,
      It’s probably almost better that way, because the tracking is so easy and thus the loss is stark (I could have made $X more dollars this month if not for my bagel habit!). The connection to your paycheck I think would be beneficial, at least after the first month.

  11. Heart-wrenching… but also sooo relatable. This article puts into concrete words what I was intuiting about why it makes ‘rational’ sense for me to move from my current 9-5 job, which is a ‘good’ one, judged by one standard, to my own business environment. Thank you, Jen- Your perceptive writing is helpful when I try to explain to others why I feel the NEED to do what I WANT to do, instead of stick with a ‘good’ job… There are costs, and there are costs.

    1. Thanks, Margaret. I love the way you phrased that: “why I feed the NEED to do what I WANT to do…there are costs and there are costs.”

      So true. Good luck and feel free to keep me posted. I’m always happy to be a one-woman cheering section (I’ve done it before!).

  12. This post really reminds me of YMOYL, which people really need to talk more about. I think I stopped believing in myself for a while, but I have really been working on changing my point of view.

    You’re right, I really shouldn’t use my finances as an excuse to stay in a soul-crushing career, but for now I have to put my head down so I can pay off some debt and accrue some extra savings before I take the leap. It’s hard not to be practical with a mortgage and a baby on the way : )

    1. I agree you should be practical. Absolutely pay down the debt and stash some savings. But make an exit strategy. Set a target figure for when you’re going to make the leap. Believe me, if you don’t do that, the fear inside you will keep telling you to wait, that you don’t have enough. Be practical, but plan for a better life and believe that you can do it. You owe your baby that!

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  14. This reminds me of the day I started looking at the price tag on things not just as dollars but as how many hours of my life I had to work to make that much money. It put a whole different perspective on purchases and their “value”. Jen, if you were able to afford $2000 per month on “extras”, you must have had a really high paying job!

    1. Well, we had my husband’s income as well. But we were both in the military, so while we certainly made good money, it wasn’t extravagant. Our biggest benefit was that we had no debt other than a mortgage. We never bought a car unless we could pay cash. In fact, we never bought anything (again, other than a house) that would mean we couldn’t pay off our credit card in full that month. Lack of debt makes a good salary go a long way!

  15. I am now doing what I love. I write full time when my kids are at school and I spend a few hours after they are in bed promoting my blog. I am also working toward finishing a book. Writing is my life and I couldn’t be happier right now! We don’t make a lot of money and as far as my blog is concerned, it makes no money. The choice for me was to make a couple extra thousand a year continuing to work while spending money on childcare, extra gas and eating out more often or… Staying at home, doing what I love and being there for my kids all of the time. Once my husband and I started thinking it through, there wasn’t much of a choice to be made. We have made some sacrifices to live the lifestyle we currently live, but we have also never been happier. The hope, someday, would be that my husband and myself could both stay home writing and doing what we love, but in the meantime… We’re at least half-way there! =)

  16. As someone which is in a somewhat similar position as Jen was time ago, I understand the feelings that she mentions very well. My current job (a PhD in chemistry) makes me sad. Dull, isolating, never-ending. I’ll mention an example which makes me really wonder if some people ever questions how fulfilling is the job in which they are: I just printed one paper of mine, and a colleague asked me if he could check it. After some 5 seconds of turning the pages, he said the usual answer: “nice!”. Next, out of curiosity, I asked him whether he sometimes checked his own papers after being published, just out of the pleasure of enjoying re-reading his own work finished. He laughed at me: “well, usually after publishing a paper, we don’t want to see that ever again!”.
    I’d like to disagree, but I feel exactly the same way. It’s a pity that you don’t ever want to re-read what took you so much effort to do, what you put so much into, is it?
    I believe that this experience hits well enough one of the -serious- problematic points of common status-quo: A job is not meant to be enjoyable. And if you got a job that you like, then you’re “a very lucky person”.
    Fortunately, I recently discovered that there are other possibilities -after finally reaching the providencial time of crisis when one asks himself “is this all that there is?”-, and that there is more, much more. That this is merely a beginning.
    I enjoyed very much this post, and I feel identified and curious about the author, so I’ll make sure to follow her.

    1. Hi Luis,
      Interesting connection! My PhD is in chemistry as well (biochem), so we definitely have a lot in common. I made my leap when everyone except my husband and close circle of friends said I was crazy. When they saw how happy and successful I became in my new life, many contacted me to ask how they could follow in my footsteps. You’re exactly right: it’s the dirty little secret of the professional world. Most aren’t happy in their jobs and tell themselves there’s nothing better. Work doesn’t have to be a four letter word. I look forward to connecting. 🙂

      1. Thank you Jen,
        I’m looking forward to hearing more from you and the things that you do (and how you accomplished shifting from research to entrepreneurship!). After hearing you story, I’m glad that you made the big leap so that now you’re happier.

  17. Would a gift or reward to yourself count as an extravagance? Like treating yourself to eat outside, pampering yourself like going to the parlor or buying yourself a new blouse. I usually do it and I think I need to cut on that.

    1. I don’t think any one purchase types counts as an extravagance or not. The question is: why are your buying it and does it serve its purpose? There are plenty of things I don’t really need, but they do make me happy. For example, I love buying used clothes for my daughter that are in excellent condition. So that’s not part of my unhappiness cost. It’s only when you’re buying to fill another need, when you say things like “I deserve this” when justifying the purchase, that you have to be careful of what’s really driving the behavior.

  18. I got into this blogging thing a couple of months ago. I’m now following many great ones, and reading tons of good articles (google reader rules).

    But this is one of the most inspiring ones I’ve seen around! you completely put on paper the weird thoughts I ‘ve had in my head for a time, i final.y understand them now! 🙂

    Anyway, this one gets a star in my reader app and will sure check out your blog!


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