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Is a Big Salary Worth Being Miserable?


We grew up hearing that money doesn’t buy happiness, but if the past few years of economic turmoil have proved anything, it’s that poverty can buy misery. It’s no wonder if many of us have now changed our tune when it comes to the actual price of the best things in life, etc. But, there’s a big difference between putting up with a less-than-exciting job in order to pay the bills and enduring a truly terrible work experience. The question is, does any salary, no matter how huge, make an awful job worth it?


(Photo Credit: Toni Birrer/Flickr)

That’s essentially the question a Forbes reader asks contributor Liz Ryan. A communications director, the reader works for a micromanager the likes of which you generally only see in movies. Not only does her boss call in the middle of the night with “brainstorms,” but she calls when she herself is on a ski vacation … demanding a press release by the time she gets to the bottom of the slope.

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“You might be wondering why I stay in my hellish job,” she writes. “Here’s why: My annual salary is more than the price of my house, and it’s a nice house. I realize that’s a bad reason for staying in an awful job that sucks away my will to live, but I don’t have a spare minute or an extra brain cell to devote to any kind of job-search plans. I feel like I’m stuck in a hamster wheel going eighty miles an hour.”

Ryan’s advice – pick a time, and quit, and start job searching while unemployed – is almost shocking in this post-Recession era. Most career experts advise people never to quit a job before securing another. (Of course, the only upside to being in the position where you’re considering staying put for a lot of cash is that, well, you have a lot of cash, and can presumably float for longer than a less well-compensated worker.)

There are lots of reasons to put up with a terrible job, especially if it pays a lot. But the bottom line is that you need an escape plan.

Depending on your situation, that might involve:

  • Thinking bigger. Where do you want to go from here? If there’s a title you’ve always wanted, or a dream employer you’d love to work for, start there. Look at PayScale’s Career Research Center and LinkedIn to see what people who already work in that position have that you don’t (yet) have.
  • Learning a new skill or getting more formal education. Once you’ve identified the gaps, it’ll be easier to fill them.
  • Making a budget. Most people aren’t in the position of being stuck in a job because it pays too well to quit, but even if you are, it’s a fact of life that you can spend whatever you earn. Start thinking about how long job searches take at your level, and make a budget that can support you, if you do need to call it quits.

It is possible to get free of a terrible work situation, if you make a solid plan. For example, a friend and former colleague of mine endured a stultifying corporate law job – think “The Devil Wears Prada” with less Prada and more devil – in order to pay off her law school loans. Because she was willing to continue living like a student, more or less, she did so in a matter of a few years.

Significantly, my lawyer friend was plotting her escape that whole time. If you have to put up with a job you hate, the only real solution is to know when you’ll get to leave. Whatever you have to do to make that happen – learn a new skill, get a certificate or degree, commit to networking on your off time – is worth knowing that you’re not stuck forever.

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Would you take a terrible job for a big paycheck? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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A big shift in career and lifestyles pay has been flat for nearly tow decades. The vast majority are in survival mode and are glad to have income. Unfortunately, I do not see or feel a pick up in hiring in my region. Eventually, the cost analysis of 12 medications, insomnia and chest pains do not equate to $100,000 salary . Second option, you get the “sugar boot” at 45 at get to start all over again. Pick your poison.… Read more »

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