My first job was terrible. The boss was a bully and a sexual harasser. The work was brain numbingly boring, and the office politics were bloody and cruel. It was a lot like a game of Survivor without the eating of bugs. On top of it all, the company scammed its clients and lied to them. I wanted nothing more than to get out of that place but being fresh out of college and having no money, I had to stay until I could find something else. At the time, the economy wasn’t much better than it is now, so I had to hold on much longer than I would have liked because jobs were hard to find.
Despite the horror of that job, I did learn a lot. I learned how to play the office games and win (not that I wanted to, but I had to learn to survive). I learned how to focus on my work when everything around me was crazy. And I learned how to nurse myself through a toxic work environment with my sanity (mostly) intact. I learned how to quit gracefully despite all that was going on. I also learned quite a bit about money at that job, despite the job itself having nothing to do with money. Here are a few of the more important money lessons that I learned.
Saving money is essential if you want to escape a bad situation or have more choices
I was raised to save money, but nothing brought home the need for savings like that job. Because I didn’t have any money saved, I had to stay in that job until another job could be found. I didn’t have the freedom to leave because I had no money to fall back on. Today things would be different because I have enough money saved that I could survive for a couple of years without a job. Saving has literally bought me my freedom. I don’t have to be stuck in that situation again.
The Lesson: Having money saved gives you freedom. When you have enough saved that you can go without an income for a while, you have many more choices. You can leave an awful job before it wrecks your self esteem and your health. You can escape an abusive relationship. You can take a job that you love but which pays very little. You can travel, stay home with kids, or take time to pursue meaningful volunteer work. Scrimping in the short term is worth it for the long term freedom that savings can buy you.
Trust your gut instincts
When I interviewed for the position, I had a gut feeling that something was wrong. The questions they asked seemed strange and I got a bad vibe from the boss and his wife. But the money was good and so I took the job when it was offered. I should have listened to my gut and stayed far away. It might have meant living on the edge for a while longer but, looking back, I would have preferred that to the hell of that job.
The Lesson: Don’t allow yourself to be blinded by money in any financial transaction. Whether it’s a job offer, a big purchase, a loan, or an investment scheme, listen to what your gut is telling you. Chances are that if something feels off, it is. Step back and reassess the situation before you get into something you can’t get out of. You’ll likely save yourself a lot of money and/or heartache.
Sometimes you have to endure short term pain for long term gain
When I realized what I mess I was in, I cut all of my spending to the bone so I could get out that much faster. I took a night job working retail so I could make money faster. I gave up all of my luxuries and just plowed money into my “freedom” account. When I wasn’t working, I was doing everything I could to find another job, too. I took some classes to strengthen my skills. It took a year and a half before I was offered another job. By then I was almost ready to quit anyway because I’d saved enough money that I could survive on my part-time income for a while. It was a hard year, but it was what I had to do to get where I needed to go.
The Lesson: Suffering in the short term is better than suffering for a long time. That year was a misery in every way. I was working too much, sleeping too little, studying, and I had precious little fun in my life. However, I kept reminding myself of what I was trying to achieve and how good I’d feel when I was able to leave that job. In the short term it was no fun but it was best for the long term. I could have kept my luxuries, not worked an extra job and saved at a slower rate. I could have taken fewer classes at a time to ease my workload, but all of that that would have prolonged my agony. Sometimes you have to endure a lot of pain and frustration in the short term in order to achieve that long term goal. It’s hard but worthwhile when compared to dragging out the process. Whether you’re trying to save to leave a job, pay off debt, or start an emergency fund, it’s often best to get all the pain over with as soon as possible.
Money isn’t everything
During that year and a half of working and having no fun, I realized that money isn’t everything. No amount of money could have made that job better or compensated me for the toll it took on my mental and physical health. I needed money so I could pay my bills, but beyond that I only wanted to preserve what was left of my health and my sanity. Money was part of the equation, but far from the only thing that mattered. I learned that, if I had enough money to meet my basic needs, that was all I really needed. The things that really mattered were my family and my health.
The Lesson Money isn’t everything. I was desperate for money at the time and I let that lead me into a job that I knew deep down was terrible. I quickly learned that I would have been better off taking much less money than taking the beating that job gave me. Money is certainly nice but it’s not everything. When you’re pondering any sort of financial opportunity or transaction, think about whether the money is worth it. Whether you’ll be spending or earning money, ask yourself if whatever it is is worth the cost to your health, ethics, goals, or family life.
Misery can be one of the best motivators
I have never been so motivated to save money as I was that year. Nothing could distract me from my goal. I erased the latte factor. Friends would call and ask if I wanted to go to dinner and I said, “No.” I turned down vacations and other fun things. I was so miserable that it was easy to focus on my goal. I wanted to stop being miserable and I only knew one way to do that for the long term.
The Lesson: Misery might not make good company, but it does make for a great motivator. I’m not saying you have to be miserable to succeed, but the truth is that hitting bottom is often the thing that finally pushes you to seriously work on your goals. If you find yourself desperately unhappy, use that unhappiness to turn things around.
That job is long in my past now, but I still sometimes wake up with nightmares from it. Whenever I’m tempted to go on a spending binge or to take on any sort of working opportunity I think back to that job and ask myself if whatever I’m contemplating is worth the potential loss of freedom or the damage it might do to my health. Of course I’m always pursuing more income, but I also know that money isn’t everything and that some things cost a lot more than their price tag.
(Photo courtesy of mickyc82)