We’ve all been there. We were excited to get a job, but it just didn’t pay all that much. Maybe it was a babysitting gig when you were 13, maybe it was your first job out of college. Maybe, like me, you spent your career in nonprofit, where salaries are notoriously low. Whatever it was, it just didn’t pay enough.

And maybe you’re considering a new low-paying job right now. People often ask me what they should do about this new job they want to take, even though the pay is low. “Low” could mean a lot of things. Let’s just assume it’s lower than what you make now and/or lower than you think you need to cover your bills.

What most people do

Ok, to be fair, I’m not sure what “most” people do, but I know what many people do. And it doesn’t work. Oh sure, it seems to work great in the short term. But in the end, they end up with a huge pile of debt, a lot of trouble, and a hell of a hard time digging their way out. It’s harder to fix the problem than it would have been to prevent it in the first place.

What do they do? They ignore the problem. They assume they can take that job and keep on spending how they want. Maybe you’ve done the same thing. Well, there are ways around that. But first….

Watch out for the debt monster

No matter how much you earn, your earnings are finite. Even Bill Gates’ earnings are finite, even though they’re a whole lot larger than yours and mine. Because they’re finite, that means it’s possible for you to spend more than you earn. And if you spend more than you earn, you’ll use up your savings and then build up debt. When your salary is low, that’s easy to do.

We want to avoid that. Debt = bad. Once you’re in debt, it’s hard to get out. And when you’re in debt, it’s impossible to have financial freedom. That’s why your choices now are extra important.

You have options

I’ll say it again: you have options. They aren’t always good options, but they’re your options. Let’s review a few that you have now.

1) Spend what you feel is a reasonable amount, even if that means spending more than you earn.

2) Decide that no matter what you will not spend more than you earn.

3) Take on some extra work. Spend more than you earn at your main job, but cover it with your side job.

4) You might have another option: take a different, higher paying job, even if you don’t want it.

The realities of each scenario

Ok, that all looks nice on paper (well, on screen) but what does it really mean?

Take a moment and imagine your future. Think about what it would mean to take this job. There’s a reason you want it. How badly do you want it? Will it make you happy?

Spend what you want

Now picture the first scenario above. You take the job and keep on spending the way you want to. You don’t worry about eating out whenever you feel like it, you buy a new car, and you buy some nice new work clothes. It’s all good and easy.

After a few months, your savings have started to dwindle. You’re not paying your credit card bills in full, but you figure you’re ok because you’re paying the minimum balance. You ignore the grand total.

Life is good and you’re happy. Then you start looking towards the future. Maybe you want to get married, and you sit with your fiance to discuss money. Now you have to admit you have no savings, and you have a whole bunch of debt. What will that mean for your future? You might want a house, but you don’t have any chance at saving up a down payment, and your credit score might not be so hot. Maybe you want kids, but you can’t afford childcare.

You’d like to retire at a reasonably young age, but you don’t have savings. Even if you start earning more, you have to pay off your debt before you can begin to save anything.

You’re living for today, which is great. But you’re doing it at the expense of tomorrow.

Set the limit

Now imagine scenario two, where you decide that no matter what, you won’t spend more than you’re earning. This is hard. Your salary is low, so you have to find a way to cut expenses.

You cut some things you don’t care about. You don’t watch much tv, so the cable is cut. You’re happy to ride a bike and take the bus, so you don’t bother to buy a car. Some things are harder. They feel like sacrifices. You move to an area you’re not crazy about. You have to have roommates. You have to skip some concerts you wanted to go to. You can’t travel abroad on your vacation. That sucks.

But then you look at your bank statements. Your savings stay intact. They might even go up a bit. Each time your salary goes up, you watch out for lifestyle inflation and you save the extra cash. It’s not easy, but you’re glad to see your savings going up a bit.

When you eventually want to get married and buy a house, you don’t have any debt and you have enough savings to get started. You even build up a retirement fund, slowly but surely.

You make some sacrifices now, but you feel it’s worth it to know that you have a bright future ahead.

Add a second job

You’ve imagined two scenarios and you don’t like either one. You don’t want to cut back on so much of what you want, but you don’t want to build up debt and ruin your future either. It’s time to envision getting a second job.

Your second job could be anything. It could be stacking boxes in a warehouse, walking dogs, doing TaskRabbit gigs, or finding online proofreading jobs. Maybe you work 5 hours per week, maybe you work 40 hours per week. Whatever you do, you make some extra bucks.

You going on vacation, buy a car, and live in a nice but not too fancy apartment. You’re working a lot, but you have what you want. You watch your savings go up bit by bit. It’s not fast, because your main salary and part of your side job are paying for your expenses. But there’s a bit left over. You start a retirement plan and continue to save. When your salary goes up, you have the choice of putting it into savings, keeping your savings the same but cutting back the hours on your second job, or spending the extra income.

When the time comes to plan for marriage, a house, kids, and retirement, you have a solid safety net. You can start building your future.

You’re busy, though. When you want to make time for your spouse, for house repairs, or for kids, you might need to cut back on the second job. Hopefully you’ve been avoiding lifestyle inflation when you get raises at work, so you can afford to cut back.

You’ve worked extra hard so that you can live it up today while also saving for the future.

Take a different job

If you’re lucky, you might have the option of taking a higher paying job. Not everyone has this choice, so you know you’re lucky that you do. You don’t want this job. Maybe the hours are longer, it’s far away, you don’t like the people, there’s no room for advancement, or you don’t like the work. Whatever it is, you don’t want it, but you decide to take it anyway. Imagine what that would be like.

You can buy all the things we discussed above. You eat out, buy a car, take a trip. You’re able to put money into savings. Maybe you even spend less so you can save more.

When the time comes to plan for the future, you have a good setup. You’re ready to go.

After a few years, maybe you’ve grown to like the job, or maybe you can’t wait to leave. Either way, you’ve sacrificed a bit in the present so you can spend more in the present while also being set up for tomorrow.

What I would do

Personally, I’d go for a combination of scenarios 2 and 3: I would decide not to spend more than I earned at the job (scenario 2) while also taking on some part-time work (scenario 3). That way I wouldn’t have to cut back quite as much, and I’d really be able to save.

I wouldn’t want to take a job I hated. I’d rather cut back on expenses. I’ve had to make this choice a few times and I’ve always chosen scenario 2: cutting back on expenses and managing to save a bit. Sometimes I also did some side work, sometimes I didn’t. I was lucky that I had the option of avoiding the job that I knew I’d dislike.

What most people do, revisited

Unfortunately, too many people I know go for scenario #1. They take the lower paying job and keep on spending. They assume it will all work out somehow. Please go reread that scenario above. How would it work out for you? If you started piling up debt, would it magically go away? I can tell you: it wouldn’t. That’s why so many people have come to me asking for help. They spent years at a low-paying job while spending without worrying about the future. Then the future came, and they didn’t know what to do.

The problem is, once you start spending more, it’s hard to cut back. Not only would you have to cut back expenses to live within your salary, but then you’d also have cut back even more to pay off that debt!

The good news is, you know it now, so you can do something about it!

Something’s gotta give

If you take a lower paying job, whether or not it’s by choice, you have to find a way to live within your means. Whether you cut back on expenses or take on another job is your choice, but you have to do something. Otherwise, you’re going to end up drowning in debt.

I know you don’t want that. If you were happy to just build up debt, you wouldn’t be reading this. No, you want a relaxed, debt-free life. And that’s probably within your grasp with just some changes to your lifestyle. But that doesn’t happen by itself. You need to make the decision that you’re going to make it happen. So how will you make it happen? Will you cut back expenses? Take on a second job? Take a different job altogether?

The choice is yours. Make it a good one.

What choice are you making now?

Are you making this decision right now? What factors are you considering? Please comment below and share – I’d love to give you some ideas, and maybe you can help someone else who’s going through the same thing!

If you want to see how these different options would play out for you, try this free calculator below. Enter your current income and expenses, then add some hypothetical numbers and see how your situation might change.

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