Career Management: How We’re Reaching Financial Independence On Two Nonprofit Salaries

Frugal Hound: excellent at managing her hound career

Frugal Hound: excellent at managing her hound career

I devote most of my time here on Frugalwoods to discussing the power of frugality: how it’s enabling Mr. Frugalwoods and me to reach financial independence, how its application has made us happier, and how it can transform one’s relationship with our consumer-driven culture. But the very necessary other side of the frugality equation are earnings. After all, it’s impossible to save money you don’t have. So while it’s all well and good to embrace extreme frugality and minimize our expenses to the max, the key is that we’ve made money to save.

Quite a few folks have asked me how Mr. FW and I managed our careers over the years in order to save at such a high rate, especially after my recent article about how I started out on foodstamps with $2,000 to my name. And also in light of the fact that neither of us has ever worked at a for-profit company. I wasn’t sure I had much to share because we honestly haven’t done anything all that unusual. But, since I’m long-winded after some reflection, I realized that we have taken fairly specific risks in order to reap the benefits of larger paychecks.

Our Uncreative Earnings Approach

We’ve actually been fairly uncreative in our approach to earning money. We haven’t started a business or had extreme side hustles or hit it big with our custom greyhound baby carrier idea (imagine the possibilities!). Although I do now derive an extra income from freelance writing here on the old internet, the vast majority of our paychecks over the years came via traditional 9-5 jobs.

Writing for a living

Writing for a living

I sometimes perceive a misconception that anyone working towards financial independence needs to have a billion diverse revenue streams–like being an Uber driver and an AirBnB host and a bartender at night and a rock climbing instructor on the weekend–all while holding down a 9-5. While this is certainly valid and likely quite lucrative, Mr. FW and I took a far more conventional path.

Another misconception I hear is that in order to achieve financial independence, you’ve got to work for a mega corporation in a specialized field that’s entirely profit-driven. Not so. Something that’s very important to Mr. FW and me is the ability to do well while doing good.

A primary motivator for us is work that we believe in and that we feel is beneficial to society at large. For that reason, we’ve both always worked for nonprofit or mission-based organizations. At the exact same time, we’ve maximized our capacity to increase our salaries over the years.

A critical factor in our success is that we’ve consistently prioritized both of our careers. Neither of us took a back seat professionally for the other person, which enabled us to advance in parallel and hence have the luxury of saving both of our incomes. Although we made several geographic moves instigated by one person’s job or the other, we’ve ensured that the moves wouldn’t hinder the other’s professional trajectory. Flexibility and a focus on our aspirations as a unit–not as individuals–are chief determinants of our accomplishments.

And finally, the most imperative element is that we’ve both worked hard and gone above and beyond in our positions. What we’ve discovered is that being a middle of the road employee doesn’t yield anything worthwhile and certainly won’t net raises or promotions. You’ve got to go out on a limb, innovate, and–without fail–make your bosses look good. While strategically managing a career is crucial, there’s really no point if you’re not rocking it at your job. Attaining your highest earning potential is a two-fold strategy of performing at stellar levels and aggressively negotiating raises or, failing that, moving on to a new company.

Our Career Trajectories

Between the two of us we’ve followed contrasting, but equally meritorious, routes to career success.

1) Get hired by a well-established organization and then quit and move around to higher level jobs at other well-established organizations.

Me in NYC

Me in NYC

This is the model I followed. After my year-long stint with AmeriCorps in New York City post-college, I was primed for a career in the nonprofit sector. Since Mr. FW was living and working in Boston, I decided to make the second geographic move of my nascent professional life. I applied to a veritable ton of jobs–have no fear of sending out a bunch of resumes!–and was lucky enough to be hired by a large nonprofit. I happily worked there for three years and was promoted once in that timeframe and received several raises over the course of my tenure.

Then, Mr. FW had an opportunity to take a promotion and transfer to Washington, DC–and so, off we went. Rather than bemoan this uprooting of our life, I saw this as a chance to angle for a better paying role with an even larger institution. Thus, I applied for jobs at universities in the DC area with the goal of acquiring a free Master’s degree via tuition remission. This gamble paid off and I worked full-time while going to school full-time.

I emerged two years later with a free Master’s degree in Public Administration with a focus on Nonprofit Management. As fate would have it, Mr. FW was then asked to transfer back up to Boston for a new promotion. We embraced yet another opportunity for advancement and I found a higher level, and more profitable, management position.

Had I stayed at the same organization for these nine years, there’s no way I could’ve risen through the ranks so quickly. It was only by moving and applying for increasingly lucrative positions that I was able to earn more in less time. It would’ve been easier to stay put at one institution, and not gotten my Master’s, but my salary surely would’ve atrophied.

2) Take a gamble on a really young, really small organization with a strong potential for growth.

Mr. FW adhered to this model and when I say a really small and really young organization, I mean tremendously small and young. For his second job out of college, Mr. FW was hired as the fourth employee at an organization that was barely three years old. Quite the inverse of my approach; however, it turned out to be an even more advantageous path.

Frugal Hound will interview you now

Frugal Hound will interview you now

When he was initially hired, it honestly wouldn’t have been all that shocking if the organization had gone out of business six months later. They were innovating fresh ideas and technology, which was super cool, but not at all well-established in the marketplace. As it turned out, the organization become wildly successful and we’re both incredibly proud of the work Mr. FW has done to help foster and build that success.

In diametric opposition to me, Mr. FW has been with this same organization for almost ten years now. Why stay so long? First and foremost because he enjoys the work. And secondly, because as the organization rapidly grew, he’s been able to commensurately advance. Mr. FW has held a whopping six different positions of elevated responsibility and pay over his ten year tenure at this organization. Essentially, he’s accelerated as quickly within this organization as he would’ve had he changed jobs.

Two other vital attributes of this job: 1) they’re willing to invest in his professional education, 2) they’ve allowed him to continuously experiment with his work. Mr. FW’s positions have spanned the gamut of the organization and when he started, he was the most entry-level, low person on the totem pole (his role included taking out the office trash) and he now holds one of the most senior positions.

Risk Is Good

After graduating with my Master's

After graduating with my Master’s

Both of our paths involved a fair amount of risk, which is something we had to embrace and get comfortable with. As with so many undertakings in life, without risk, there’s very little chance for great rewards. In retrospect, it would’ve been far easier and less uncertain if we’d never left Kansas after graduating from the University of Kansas. We could’ve snared perfectly fine jobs in our college town and we’d probably still be living there today. While there’d be absolutely nothing wrong with that, there’s almost zero chance we’d be well on our way to financial independence at age 31 as we are now.

By charting the unknown-to-us territory of the East Coast, we landed better paying, more prestigious jobs and we leveraged those experiences to the hilt. Neither of us are complacent people and I’ll admit we’re pretty competitive and constantly on the lookout for ways to improve our situations, try novel things, and live in unfamiliar places.

This joie de vivre is what led us to achieve in our careers and it’s the very same attribute that propels us to now seek out a wholly different life on a homestead in the woods of Vermont. We crave adventure and we’re fairly comfortable taking risks within reason and with a strong financial backing to prop us up.

And that’s where frugality comes in for us. Since we’ve consistently lived far below our means and saved the vast majority of our incomes, we’ve had the financial flexibility to pursue new ventures. We could’ve survived one of us losing a job at any juncture because we’ve always had plenty of money in the bank. Frugality is how we’ve enabled ourselves to take these calculated risks.

Your Undergrad Degree And College Do Not Matter. Like At All. I’m Serious.

Mr. FW and I have basically the most worthless undergraduate degrees conceivable. And we went to a state school in Kansas (which we loved by the way, Rock Chalk Jayhawk!!!). We didn’t go to Harvard, we didn’t go to Cornell, we didn’t go to Georgetown, we didn’t even go to Duke. And we have the lack of student loans to prove it.

I have a BA in Creative Writing (I’m not even kidding here) and a BA in Political Science. I mean seriously. But you know what? I now get paid to write. And none of my employers ever gave a rat’s booty about my degrees or my college. If anything, they made a joke about not being in Kansas anymore and then promptly moved on to hiring me.

Although Mr. Frugalwoods now works in software, his one and only higher education degree is a BA in Political Science. Yep. But it hasn’t mattered at all. He taught himself to program and turned this passion for computers into a lucrative career.

Be Awesome

My final thought is to be awesome at what you do. Doggedly pursue a career–in whatever field you choose–and make yourself rise through the ranks. No college degree or ivy league pedigree or career jujitsu will matter in the least if you’re a slacker. If your goal is to reach financial independence at a young age, or if your goal is to climb the ladder in your chosen profession, the same metrics and lessons apply. It’s all about being purposeful, passionate, and driven.

What advice do you have for wisely managing a budding career?

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87 Responses

  1. We’ve also found that changing employers, even when that meant changing industries, allowed for more advancement. I also agree that you don’t need to go to an elite university to make your way in the world. Employers have been far more interested in our demonstrable skills, license exam results, and work ethic than anything else.

    Taking calculated risks feels a lot less risky when you have the financial flexibility of savings and low living expenses. Also important is having a strong marriage to support each other through change.

  2. The two body problem is a really difficult one to solve, especially when your career path is focused enough that you are only employable at one or two locations in a given city. I work at a hospital and my husband teaches at the undergraduate level. We’ve had to move twice now in the position where only one of us had a job, and although we look at the opportunities for the other person before moving, there might not be a lot you can do. We feel pretty lucky that it has worked out both times, but it really requires that the other person be willing to be incredibly flexible (and accept the possibility that they might be searching for a while). I hope we get to stay put for a while now. Looking forward to seeing the greyhound baby carrier in an upcoming post!

  3. Auntie V says:

    I keep sending off links to your blog articles to my younger nieces and nephews. One is recently graduated and just made her first job change to a university where she can get a free master’s degree (yay!), one at Cornell now (funny you should mention it – $$$$) and the other two at state university ($$). I hope they can benefit from your experience — which I wish I had understood these life lessons 30 or so years ago!

  4. Kim says:

    excellent advice!

  5. I find it funny when I hear people talk about their degree or higher institution. I attended a community college before transferring to the four-year, snooty school. Guess what. I had tougher classes at the community college. I went on to graduate from the snooty, private college with a BA in psychology. After realizing I couldn’t earn a high salary in that field with a BA, I decided to go into pharmaceuticals. I’ve worked my entire career as a microbiologist for major, for-profit companies…with a BA in psychology. Ha! I also took advantage of the 100% tuition reimbursement my company offered to attain my master’s degree in biology. So, I completely agree with you on the degree and institution not amounting to a hill of beans. God, I’ve always wanted to use that expression 😉 Fortunately, I chose a high-paying path out of dumb luck. The one thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of people on the path to early retirement are quite young and without children. Upward mobility gets a little more tricky when you need to consider children (home stability, school district, grandparents, etc.). I wish I had known about the possibility of bucking the traditional retirement system 10 years ago. It would’ve afforded me more options in terms of mobility for my career and income. Great post!

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Nicely done! That’s a perfect illustration of how unimportant one’s actual degree is! And, I think you’re absolutely right that it gets tougher to move around as we get older and assume more responsibilities/stability in our lives.

  6. Wow, I definitely didn’t realize you both worked for non-profits! This is especially interesting to me because I just accepted a job at a non-profit yesterday. I don’t think I’ve ever worked at one before, and I’m excited about it.

    Some thoughts on starting one’s career… I think when I was in my 20s, I was sort of caught up in the idea of “pursue your passion and the money will follow” — which I think can be good advice for people who *know* what their passion is, but can also potentially be misleading for people who don’t really know what it is yet. In my case, for example, I didn’t really have a passion, so I just wandered aimlessly between several different random jobs (mostly retail) for years, wondering what my passion might be, not wanting to commit to a career until I figured out what my passion was. I think if I had said to myself, okay, I’m not sure yet what my passion is, but I do need to gain more skills while I’m discovering what it is, then I would have made different choices and maybe even wandered into something I really liked. So I would say to other people who aren’t sure what their passion is: Hey, that’s okay. Maybe you have lots of passions. You’ll figure that out as you go along. But in the meantime, find an entry level job at an organization that seems interesting, work hard at it, learn as much as you can, and try to move up. You can decide later if you want to switch careers or go to grad school. But take advantage of whatever is in front of you right now, and gain as much experience as possible.

    • Ashley says:

      This is a great point! Especially the idea that sometimes it makes sense to pursue jobs that will help you learn specific skills or give you insight into an industry or field of work, even if ultimately you don’t wind up feeling “passionate” about that particular job for the long term. I do agree that people should attempt to find a job that they enjoy and where they can learn and grow, but maybe their passion is the work they do outside of work hours, and that’s ok too. I always felt too much pressure in my 20s to find a job that fulfilled me in a way that I don’t necessarily think a job needs to now that I’m a little older.

      • MichelleC says:

        I agree! I was a temp secretary for awhile, and at each job I learned a skill or gained knowledge that helped me later. I had a spouse with health insurance, so I was able to have these jobs. I definitely suggest temping if you haven’t found a permanent job and you can do it – look at it as a learning experience.

        • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

          These are excellent points! I worked as a temp the summer after college and I’m glad I did–I earned money while job searching for something better.

          • MichelleC says:

            I even learned how to make coffee! (Although I was not thrilled with being the one who was expected to make the coffee, considering I don’t drink it.)

  7. Lady FruFru says:

    Another great article, Mrs F. There’s something to be said about trusting your instinct in all things, including your career path. If you do what you like, in an place that feels good (which may be self employment), chances are you will excel. And who says you have to do the same thing all your life? Interests change. I am 50 and I have a grad degree in English (paid for, like you, via working at the uni) and an undergrad degree in related arts (visual arts, dance, theater, english), also from a state school. Over the years, I have worked so many different jobs and I enjoyed and learned (& earned) something from all of them: dance instructor, freelance medical writer, retail, cookbook author, etc. I’ve been in advertising for the past 10 or so years and enjoy it, but I am not sure I’ll do it forever. I have learned that if I follow my bliss, it will take me to the right places.

  8. Mrs. CTC says:

    Lovely post as always Mrs. FW, and exactly at the right time I might add. I have the opportunity of making a job change that would involve some major improvements overall, but there is a risk involved. I have to admit that that scares me a bit since I’m actually trying to work towards financial freedom and security.

    I will calculate them wisely and keep in mind that risk is what made the Frugalwoods big. And be awesome while I’m at it 🙂

  9. Hannah says:

    I think it’s great that you’ve been able to advance in parallel. My husband and I have definitely had to sacrifice for each other, but still no regrets. As you said, taking risks while you’re young can really pay off.

  10. Kathryn K. says:

    Very interesting, thanks for sharing.

  11. It’s invaluable to have people talk about financial independence on a variety of incomes. My husband and I are both teachers in public schools, so we could make a lot more money in other fields…but we could also earn less. I will say in teaching that undergrad and graduate degrees matter a great deal in terms of licensing, certifications, and whatnot. What’s interesting in teaching, though, is that it isn’t the *where* so much as the *what* that matters when it comes to a degree. Thanks for letting us peek into your earnings and careers like this!

  12. Mrs PoP says:

    It’s amazing how little your undergrad degree matters. Mr PoP and I attended a “no name” school for undergrad, and while my degree was directly relevant to my future master’s degree and job, Mr PoP’s (philosophy) definitely was not. Other than being a random sidenote on our resumes or icebreaking conversation as (or with) a new hire/interviewee, the location and content of our undergrad degrees hasn’t mattered a hoot. Grad school… well, I’d argue that’s where it does start to matter, at least in my field.

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      I agree with you about grad school mattering in some fields. Makes it even more critical to save the money on undergrad!

  13. pat pickett says:

    When I was 14 I knew what I wanted to do. I had two different ways I wanted to go and neither of them are known for their large incomes. Besides wanting to be a mom – I longed to be an artist and a theologian. Yeah – how’s that for earning the big bucks? Like the Frugalwoods, I am highly motivated and competitive. I managed to get through college and grad school with scholarships and had no student loans to pay off.

    While advanced degrees don’t matter a whole lot in the work force, you’d better have a doctorate if you want to go into theology. Eventually, I managed all three of my dreams but children came in-between. I love what I do so I would die if I had to retire in my thirties. I was still having babies and hadn’t gone to graduate school till I was in my forties. But, the children are grown. I am a working artist and actually sell “stuff.” I also am a theologian. I have a book in the works which is a combination of my art and theology. I teach Hebrew and Old Testament part time and am also a part time pastor for a small country church. That happened after I lost my dream job which was the chaplain at a state institution for the differently able. I was chaplain and art therapist and there was my “theology” and “art.” Theology is stretching it there. I was more pastor and not-so-much teacher. BUT, the governor decided, and with the stroke of his pen, that since these people didn’t pay taxes, nor could they vote – he was going to close the institution. How’s that for taking care of the least of my brothers and sisters. All 300+ had to move out and their families had to find places for them to live. This was a horrible time for everyone – most of all the people who lived there for 20, 30, 50, and even 60 years! I was able to find another position –

    I guess this whole thing is about finding your reality and what makes you realize where you can become what you were meant to become. I DO live frugally and simply but that is part of my theology. I’d do that no matter if I had a million dollars (which I don’t) or not.

    As a pastor, I’ve been able to use art in many ways, one of which is an art outreach program for kids who can’t afford the luxury of after school programs like my kids did. Besides teaching art to kids, I get to teach graduate school. Though not on a tenure track because of starting late teaching grad school, I’m fine with that because it gives me the freedom to pastor and to be an artist. I do try to model good stewardship which I believe includes moving away from conspicuous consumption. So, like Mrs. Frugal woods, I don’t always buy the newest clothes but I do have a luxury I can’t do without. In the summer I die for a pedicure. Believe me, I go barefoot a lot on the farm and being able to go to a spa during the summer is my wonderful extravagance. In the winter? Well, I wear shoes for sure but the money I spent on the spa in the summer? Well, I do get my hair done but I have a friend who does it for $15 as opposed to $100 if I went into Nashville and had it done at one of the super duper places. I will add that SHE wouldn’t let me pay anymore than that and she does everything they do in a full scale salon. So, I’m pretty lucky –

    What it amounts to, I’m thinking, is that retirement for the Frugalwoods is basically following their passion. For me following my passion is continuing to work and not even thinking about retirement. I’ll never be wealthy but that never was my goal.

    • Bonnie says:

      Thank you for this! I’m in my mid-to-late 50s and facing losing my job of over 30 years, which I never thought would happen (my boss has decided to relocate). I have never made much money but was able to have flexibility as I feared my two boys. My husband lost his job of 35 years last February, and between the lower pay and higher (ridiculously so) health care costs, things are tight. We will have to work until full retirement age most likely. Your post gives me renewed optimism about being able to (1) get a job (2) doing something I would enjoy. The cherry on top would be (3) affordable health insurance (that would give my husband a big “raise”). Thanks for sharing your winding employment road.

  14. Awesome post! And it’s so inspiring to see that earning a higher income is possible without compromising your values. As a recent career changer, maximizing what I could learn from my first career was essential. I looked for opportunities to take on social media projects. And that’s led to my new career in tech.

  15. Veronica says:

    I go to school in the DC/Northern Virginia area so I scrolled to the bottom of this post to see if it was my school, haha! I have friends who did attend American University though. Thankfully, my parents also have paid for my college education with the Virginia 529 (discounted college tuition/room and board!). My school also offers accelerated masters programs and I could graduate with an undergrad in software engineering and two masters degrees in software engineering and assistive technology in six years.

  16. Jane says:

    I love you blog. I completely agree with you that moving organizations is the best way to get a quick pay bump. I’ve left two jobs that I loved to move up and get paid more in new organizations. Each time it’s paid off…literally. I’ve more than doubled the salary I started with when I graduated from KU in 2008. Along the way I got a free MBA. My role now is different than my undergrad degree. I love my current job and it feels good to get paid what I feel I’m worth. I know that the colleagues I’ve worked with along the way are still making roughly the same salary, and they complain about not getting paid enough! It can be scary to change jobs and careers…especially if you’re comfortable where you are, but so far I’ve greatly benefited from it. I always recommend people look for higher paying positions at new companies, but not many people take the leap. Fear of change?

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      That’s awesome! And, happy to hear from a fellow KU grad :). It’s challenging to change jobs, but the rewards really can be quite great. All about putting yourself out there!

  17. Ms. FireDink says:

    Oh AmeriCorps! I took a break from college to serve ten months with NCCC which I wrote about earlier this week. I blew through my stipend (and ed award) like nobody’s business. However like you, I was able to parlay that experience into years of working for nonprofits that championed causes I believed in. I later transitioned to the for-profit sphere, but even now I get nostalgia pangs for the days of cause-driven work instead of profit-driven work.

  18. Laura says:

    Useless BAs for the win! lol I have a BA in poly sci and Russian lit. 😉

    Awesome post – I wish more young people these days (I’m sooooo old at 40…lol) could read this and find the inspiration/drive to work their way through career paths like this.

    • Don says:

      Oh Laura. I have MORE than 30 years on you and like you, I wish more young people could read this.
      It is our job to forward these blogs to them

  19. Wonderful! Thanks for letting us know your background. I think it’s quite amazing you have managed early retirement working for non profits.

  20. Kim says:

    What a great article!! I’m in the verge of making a career transition into a new industry and company after 10 years at my current company. Your examples above give me more confidence that change is a good thing and as long as I’m going above and beyond in whatever I’m doing, I’ll succeed. Thanks so much for sharing! It helped a lot this morning.

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Oh good! I’m so glad to hear it helped! I really do believe that if you’re rocking it, you’re going to experience success. Wishing you all the best :)!

  21. I’d be interested in hearing more about how you will continue to serve society after financial independence. This is one of the nagging moral questions in my mind about the endeavour – taking highly skilled people who add value to the economy and society out of the value creation machine. Both of you obviously benefit the world a lot with the work that you do. How do you feel about the moral choice of financial independence?

    • Marcia says:

      What is more moral, really?
      – you open up decent paying jobs to people who need work
      – you continue to write a fabulous blog teaching others very useful things, like not consuming the earth’s resources
      – you raise loving, responsible children (<- this is the biggie!!) And I have to say as a parent, this comes (for many) with "baggage" from a societal standpoint. If you are an involved parent, try – just TRY to send your kids to public school and NOT volunteer at the school

      – as people working in non-profits, I'd imagine it would be even harder for them to be "uninvolved" than someone like me, who is an engineer. I wonder sometimes if people really have (and still do) undervalued the "free" work that stay at home, or non-working parents, have done in the past: volunteering at the school, being part of the PTA, taking food to the sick, getting your neighbor's mail when they are on vacation, keeping an eye on the neighborhood, volunteering at the church.

      Times have changed.

      • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

        Justin–I think you raise a great question and I’ll have to write a post on it at some point :). Marcia–you really hit on many of my feelings about the topic.

        Mr. FW and I don’t view financial independence as a chance for us to do nothing–rather, we see it as an opportunity to do things for our community that we wouldn’t be able to manage with two full-time jobs. We envision ourselves being very involved at Babywoods’ school, at our church, and in our broader community. Additionally, we plan to pursue our hobbies on the homestead, such as gardening, woodworking, writing, etc that I think can be beneficial to society as well. Financial independence for us is really just a question of us being in control of our time more so than we are now.

  22. Great post and advice!! As a (private, liberal arts) college career counselor, I wholeheartedly agree that majors DO NOT matter! If you look up my school’s history major alumni/ae, you’ll find them working as doctors, lawyers, teachers, business people, and all sorts of other things. The only caveat I would add is that if you want to work as a mechanical/electrical/civil engineer, those are some of the few fields where majors do become a lot more important.

    I agree that overall college name doesn’t matter most of the time, but I know from experience that candidates with brand-name schools on their resumes often receive the benefit of the doubt over candidates with less impressive schools on their resumes. Also, some big companies (P&G, Goldman, etc.) will only recruit at a very small number of highly-selective colleges. It’s not impossible for students/graduates of other colleges to get hired by these companies, but it is MUCH more difficult. Again, it’s a small pool of employers, but to them school name does matter. Is this worth the price tag of these generally much more expensive schools? Probably not for most students.

  23. K says:

    It is definitely refreshing to see a FI blogger without the “standard” billion streams of alternative income and “side hustles” (a term I hate, by the way).

    Unfortunately I wasted my initial drive spending the first three years of my adult earning life at an organization that refused to give merit raises, which nobody told me about and I didn’t know any better since it was my first job.

  24. I agree with the college your degree is from really doesn’t matter. I have hired many staff over the years and it’s a non-factor. The major depending on your role might be. I have seen for-profit companies review this and re-evaluate requirements and staff has been out of jobs. Moving companies, and increase salary is much more common these days. Its also a great way to gain experience and see what type of work / role you really enjoy.

  25. Miranda says:

    Thanks for another wonderfully detailed post! I live in Missouri, where I finished my masters degree in social work and started at $30,000. That’s considered a good salary for a nonprofit here. I have gotten raises and new opportunities by working hard, but still don’t make enough for FI. I’ve considered moving to one of the coasts for higher pay, but housing goes up so much more, I don’t know if it would be worth it. You’ve given me some more to consider. Thanks for stimulating my thoughts!

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      I went to middle and high school in Missouri :)! The cost of living calculation is a tough one. Our housing is vastly more expensive here than it would be in the midwest, but our salaries are also a lot higher. The key for us has been to frugalize everything else in our lives–so while we’re spending more on our mortgage, we’re not spending more on anything else.

  26. Justin says:

    Grow complacent in your career and your long term earnings will suffer!

    In mid career, I made a switch from the private sector in consulting to the public sector at a tiny government start up (building our state’s first toll road) and landed a pay bump and better benefits. The job was also much more exciting and interesting since we were starting something new. It definitely helped pave the way to FIRE and keep me engaged in the work force a little longer.

  27. Marcia says:

    These are some good points. I have lectured many a young engineer (working for me or not) that the way to more money is to change jobs. The promotions are easier to come by WITHIN a company (who knows your strengths), but the money is easier to come by somewhere else. Some of them listen, and some of them do not.

    I have to say, that at some point it becomes difficult to have two equal trajectories. Luckily, you will be retired by then. Specifically, in a smallish-city, it’s hard to find enough companies to “jump around” as you get older. Eventually, a move will be required (unless you work in a large industry or get lucky). I found that it was around age 40 that the promotions stopped – and we simply decided that it’s okay that my career atrophies. I’m not sure that I’m okay with it, but I am accepting it – and in exchange I get a LOT of flexibility – needed for the two kiddos.

    As far as schools and majors, I would say that it does matter, but only for a few years. The school gets you your first “network”. Same with the major, at least in engineering. While it’s certainly way less common now, occasionally someone will say “wow, you went to a really good school”. I think it mattered for me, up until about age 30. At that point, with 8 years experience, my network became coworkers.

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      I think that, at a certain point, having a lot of flexibility in a job–especially when you have kids–is just about as good as a promotion. That’s awesome you’re about to get the flexibility you need!

  28. BeachMama says:

    I’ve found that in my field (environmental) the more you earn, the more you have to sell your soul. I recently took a 15K cut in salary to leave a large corporation – it hurt our pockets a bit, and it’s going to take a long time before we can climb out of our giant debt hole. But at the end of the day I go home with a clean conscience, I am much happier and I rest well at night 🙂

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      A clear conscience is a wonderful thing!! Mr. FW and I definitely could’ve made more in the for-profit sector, but we too were happy to trade higher salaries for work we believe in.

  29. Ashley says:

    Great advice. I am the worst at taking risks! The. WORST! Super conservative, that’s me! However I agree, it is in your best interest to take smart risks. I hope to give the same career advice to my children some day.

  30. Leanne says:

    You mentioned in the article that you “aggressively negotiated raises”. Can you talk about the specific details of how those conversations went? I’m early on in my career and the idea of asking for more money still seems kind of intimidating.

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Great question! So here’s my quick rundown of how I suggest negotiating for a raise:

      Step 1: be outstanding as compared with your peers in your job and also make sure that your superiors know (by which I mean do great work that makes your bosses look good).
      Step 2: find out what people in similar positions elsewhere are making.
      Step 3: ask during a period of time when things are going well at the organization–when your boss is feeling positive about work and the budget, that’s a good time to ask.

      In general, present your case thoroughly and with specific examples of the excellent work you’ve done. And at the end of it all, if you don’t receive a raise, then consider moving to another job.

      I hope this helps and I wish you all the very best!!

  31. Sarah says:

    Great post. Wise advice as always.
    Do you mind my asking whether you plan to stop working altogether when you retire early to your dream home in the woods? Or perhaps carry on ‘just’ with your blog?
    Also curious about what you’ll do after your maternity leave- I have two preschoolers in the UK and childcare takes a large chunk of my income, even through I only work part time.
    You’re a very talented writer, btw 🙂

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Great questions! Fear not, I’ll be covering both points in posts before too long here (I just need to get around to writing them ;), but I will!!). And many thanks for the kind words, I appreciate it 🙂

  32. Caitlin says:

    I think there is a big difference between non-profits and government work, though. There are several jobs–teacher, social work, librarian (which is my job)–where you can’t necessarily quit and move to a different organization to get a significant raise. There is a ceiling on what you can earn. The benefits might be better but sometimes it makes more sense to stay in one place because you don’t earn some of the benefits until you’ve been there for a certain amount of time (I won’t receive retirement funds contributed by my employer unless I stay here for ten years, for example).

    It is also tricky because all of these fields require master’s degrees (teachers can often wait till they start teaching but are expected to pursue one or more master’s at some point) and there often isn’t a way to have this paid for by the employer because you need the degree to get the job. There are also limited jobs in my field and in my area.

    I’m not complaining, just trying to point that there are significant differences. Your experiences are certainly valid and helpful but it does only apply to a certain section and there are other factors to consider.

    • Dee says:

      I have a masters in social work. I got my degree part time, so I was able to work for the first two years, including one where I was also doing an internship. However, the third year required many more hours in an internship, and I had to quit my job to do it. I was going to school with people who were also employed by the University, and they ended up switching programs because there wasn’t a way to get the degree with the University paying it due to the number of hours required in internship.

  33. AN says:

    I have taken a very similar path! A BA in Creative Writing and now work at a non-profit university which enabled me to get a nearly-free master’s degree. I have stayed at the same university, but was able to take on a adjunct faculty role in addition to my 9-5 job. The mission itself is worth it to me, and this new role will be helpful down the line if I want to advance. I really appreciate your thoughts in this post!

  34. JH says:

    My career (spanning 20+ years) has involved a mix of profit and non-profit organizations. As I look back on my career path (and I’m pretty happy with most of the jobs I’ve held) and as a hiring manager, I’d extract the following pointers:

    1) Your undergrad college/major don’t matter, but your grades do. Go ahead, get a degree in what you love, and get it somewhere affordable. But focus on your performance in those courses and make sure you focus and achieve your potential. If possible, try to get at least a stellar grade or two (or five) – it will show employers you have potential. Also, don’t slack off in your final year (when everyone else does) – this is a great opportunity to do relatively well and show an upward trend in grades that will impress an employer. And grades will continue to be important if you job-hop for at least a few years after you graduate.

    2) In addition, even if you hate and/or feel you’re terrible at numbers, finance and STEM, try to take at least a few courses in economics, accounting, statistics, management and/or technology (ideally, all of the above). You don’t have to take them for grades at university – you can take them as a continuing studies student if you want, especially if you don’t have a natural aptitude for these subjects and are worried about the impact on your GPA.. Courses like these give you some knowledge that employers can use right away – and they also show employers (even non-profits) that you’re interested in helping the organization perform.

    3) Learn how to listen, and then make sure you do it effectively. Many people are lousy at it, so if you’re good you’ll stand out. More importantly, if you listen well, you’ll learn how to help your organization succeed and how you can be most effective in that organization.

    4) Make learning new skills or subjects a priority. I start each year with a list of two or three subjects or skills that I want to develop or improve. Some of them are very job-related (e.g., SharePoint), some of them combine personal and work-related interests (e.g., Spanish, Adobe InDesign) and some of them are purely personal (e.g., photography). Regardless of whether the subject or skill is personally or professionally relevant, learning will enrich your life, and enhance your flexibility and resilience. Structured learning programs also often increase your network of contacts, and that can help you in future job searches. Skills and knowledge that are specifically relevant to your career are also of interest to your current and future employers, and demonstrate a willingness and ability to grow. And, while you’re at it, make sure that each new role you take on presents a concrete learning opportunity that will challenge you.

    5) I notice that the Frugalwoods have taken different approaches to career progression. If you are part of a couple, there can be advantages to diversification of career-related risks. Sometimes, if one person wants to or needs to take a risk with his/her career, it may be appropriate for the other person to temporarily take a less risky path – or at least to take a different kind of risk. For example, if one of you has an interesting opportunity to work with a start-up, this might not be the best time for the other person to quit a stable and reasonably satisfying (if not thrilling) job in a stable organization.

    6) I’ll conclude by saying that you don’t need to be a super-contributor in your work life all the time, especially if it comes at the cost of ideal work-life balance. You likely will burn out if you do so. Once you have established a reputation as a highly effective contributor (and listener!) and done that for a while, it’s ok to dial it back temporarily (e.g., for a few months or up to a year or so). However, do not let this be an excuse under-achieve. It can be challenging to find the gear that exists between super-achiever and “just meeting expectations”, where you continue to deliver more than what people expect but don’t volunteer for every new project. But it is worth finding that balance, so that you can handle the unexpected challenges and opportunities outside your work life.

    • Marcia says:

      This was a very good list.

      #5 especially – my husband and I have bounced back and forth between startups, and stable. First, I was at a startup, and he was in grad school. Then my startup got bought, and it was stable. This coincided with his graduation and working at a startup. He left that startup (it wasn’t looking good) and went to a stable company. I left my stable company for a startup.

      #6 is also true, and I think for me, kids are what did it. I was never able to “dial back” pre-kid (though I should have, because I would get sick as a dog when severely overworked). After kids, it’s a given. The first year of nursing/ pumping/ not sleeping? Yeah, I had to dial work back. It’s NOT a time to take on new challenges.

      Now my kids are getting older (9 and 3), but they are still a lot of work. The 4th grader is in baseball and music…so I am valuing the flexibility more. It has also coincided with work downturns, layoffs, and no raises. So I don’t feel terrible about dialing it back since I’m not necessarily being rewarded financially. I still aim to do a good job, but I walk out the door whenever I need to, and that’s that.

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      That’s an awesome list. Thank you for sharing these insights! You’re quite right about grades–I’d forgotten about that! Plus, good grades in undergrad come in handy if you later decide you want to go to grad school (like I did).

  35. I can’t get enough of you and Mr. FW story. I wish the entire world thought about life, money and finding ones happiness in this way. I’m in my early forties (41 to be exact) and I never finished college. I stayed home with my two kids until the oldest was 14. Going back to work without a degree in my late 30’s was difficult but not impossible. I started in a company making 13 dollars and hour but as motivation and drive would have it I didn’t stay in that position long. Four years later I’m making double that because I knew I could. Not one dime of mine or my husbands money has gone to my higher education. I’ve learned along the way and that’s the message I’m trying to get through my kids. Thanks for always being transparent.

  36. Suzewannabe says:

    I’m a Rock Chalker too-Masters.
    You’re right, employers don’t give a hang which school you attended.

  37. Well, I can’t really switch employers because all the other companies in my sector require you to come into an office. But I’m like Mr. FW. I’ll just chug along doing excellent work at my job here because my employer is awesome and generous. And well-established. As the only real income earner (especially now that we’re ignoring Tim’s disability check), I need to make sure I have job stability/security.

    But hey, if you can reach new heights by finding new work/companies/positions, then I think it’s absolutely a good idea. What matters is that you’re good at your job and that your company knows it!

  38. Vermonthiker says:

    This is in response to Caitlin: many teachers can greatly enhance their salary by making lateral moves to other districts. I spent 35 years in education, 7 as a Superintendent, and I know from experience that young teachers often gain between 5,000 and 20,000 more in salary by moving to another town and getting place higher on the salary scale. For example, my niece just left a town where she taught bio and physics for 11 years, to go to another town and do the same thing for $20,000 more. She had been held on step in her first job due to union contract and child rearing leave, but the new school system needed a physics teacher and credited her all 11 years of experience and put her at max. This made a 25% increase in her salary, and will afford her family many new opportunities over the course of her career. Do not be afraid to move!!!

    • Caitlin says:

      I appreciate the perspective and apparently librarianship was not the best career path–$20,000 is two-thirds of my yearly take-home pay. I do love what I do, but it is very different from the teaching field. We also do not, for the most part, have unions that can negotiate salaries.

      There aren’t many full-time library jobs available and most would come with a lengthy commute or a move, which just isn’t feasible for me. It also most likely would not see the type of raise you are talking about. I could be a director, which would pay much more, but it is extremely stressful and difficult and to me, just not worth it.

  39. Kim from+Philadelphia says:

    I think you both have made some smart choices! I do think, for those not as smart or motivated at Mr. FW, a safer plan might be to learn programming in college. My head is spinning just figuring out how he did that (awesomeness is my response!)

    I now live just 1.5 hours from where I was born. I went to college, had my first 7 year job, returned to professional school, and subsequently worked in the same hospital ( in the same city )for 17 years. Obviously I’m not the poster child for school/job relocation!

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Hey, there’s no reason to relocate if you don’t want to/don’t need to! All about doing what works best for you!

  40. That was really interesting. It’s nice to hear that you’ve both been able to make it in the non-profit sector.

    I have been with the same organisation for ten years but as it’s a government one, I have still been able to progress. To be honest, venturing into the private sector scares me a little.

  41. The Roamer says:

    I’m so glad you finally addressed the earning side because you are very frugal. You give so many great examples of ways to save but I always felt how you played down your earning to be odd.

    Still I don’t understand why you don’t straight up and say you both make 6 figure incomes. At least one of you must. Given your savings rate. Which would be interesting to know since that means nonprofit doesn’t mean low pay. I’m sure lots of people avoid nonprofit because it is thought they don’t pay well.

    Also as a woman I’d be really interested to hear more about your raises in those first 3 yrs.

    They say women are bad negotiator because they just don’t ask. So I’d be curious to see how you went about negotiating raises that weren’t attached directly to a promotion .

    I have heard moving around helps increase earning but I really want to hear more about that process from a female perspective.

    • SM says:

      Long time reader, first time commenter here: I’m a woman currently working in the non-profit sector (part time, nowhere close to 6-figure income) and I feel a lot of anxiety and uncertainty even just thinking about bringing up the subject of raises. Echoing The Roamer, I too would love to hear more about your experience negotiating raises and promotions, Mrs. FW! Great post, as always 🙂

  42. I think it’s awesome your actual degree is in creative writing, but I agree that employers don’t really care. I write for a living and have never grilled over my lack of a degree specific to journalism or creative writing. All people want is writing samples!

  43. snowcanyon says:

    I think it’s great you managed to find highly remunerative jobs you love! That’s rare. It’s usually one or the other, or neither. Good for you.

  44. Melinda says:

    This was an interesting article for me, I am a social worker, employed by the state government and the advancement opportunities are slim, I wanted to stay at the job, its flexible and pension ( if they are still around) but after some bad news on Monday and reading this article, I applied for 5 positions yesterday. I agreed with one of the other posters, sometimes in social work its harder to find higher paying jobs, perhaps its time to step outside of the box. I think this is my favorite article out of all the ones I have read.

  45. “…like being an Uber driver and an AirBnB host and a bartender at night and a rock climbing instructor on the weekend–all while holding down a 9-5.” — LOVE! I’ll settle for a freelancer + 9-to-5 and previously babysitter until I realized the ROI didn’t exist anymore.

    While it wasn’t the point of the article, having a supportive partner/spouse is such an important part of the factor in not only your journey but everyone’s. Well, everyone that decides to couple up. The fact you were willing to move with Mr. FW and that you two mutually supported each other and are both onboard with the early retirement mission is so important.

    P.S. I LOVE the shout-out to not only your undergrad degree not making a difference but going non-name brand doesn’t hurt either. I’d argue graduating debt free is a bigger help than going to a name-brand school (depending on major/career path of course).

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      So true about having a supportive partner–there’s no way either of us would be where we are now without the other person.

  46. mr-bojangles says:

    I think it is GREAT the way your careers have progressed and you have had choices as to careers and upward mobility. For some, it is not so easy. Other than a few select jobs that require an Ivy League degree, I agree that it does not matter where you went to school. But your major does matter! I was interested in corporate and nonprofit positions, but, in the end, when no job offers were forthcoming, and I needed a job, I took the only job offered to me which was a government job. I did try years ago to get out to no avail. Career progression and reasonable salary increases are a myth. I don’t mean to sound bitter, but realize you are in an enviable position! For some, career progression isn’t so easy!

  47. Kathryn says:

    I’ve been reading your blog for awhile, and I was so happy to find out you are from Kansas. I also did creative writing at KU 🙂 I live in California now and work in tech, and you are right—no one cares where you went to school. I’m also glad I left to pursue bigger and better things. You are obviously not planning to go back to Kansas, but have you considered it?

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Rock Chalk Jayhawk! And creative writing! Woot! We’ve considered Kansas over the years, but it’s just not the place for us for the longterm. We love the Northeast way too much 🙂

  48. I find your articles always come at the perfect time to assuage any self-doubt I’ve been going through and I could wager that I’m not the only one you help this way! Thank you for reminding us that our undergrads don’t matter in the face of incredible work ethic- I went to a great school (because I was lucky enough to live close enough to a top-shelf university but still live from home and get scholarships which kept my costs low – double score!) but got an arts degree in Religion and Sociology…not conducive to my career in finance…or in, umm, much of anything! I often bemoan my choices – even though I LOVED what I studied – because I may have been more productive or successful or what have you with a business/commerce degree. This article reminded me that if I keep grinding and keep up self-study to get better and better, I can still get to where I want to be. I agree with moving around to different companies – my years at one insitution made me privy to learning that staying in one place often forces one to move up the ladder one rung at a time, whereas moving about can have you skip up multiple rungs with each move. Great takeaways, as per usual!!

  49. Stockbeard says:

    “Your Undergrad Degree And College Do Not Matter.”

    This one really rings true to me. I did come from a somewhat prestigious school in France, but I think the amount of money parents spend nowadays to make sure their kids will go into Ivy league schools, in particular (but not only) in the US is just ridiculous.
    Just by being born in this country, you’re guaranteed to have an education that will be better than in 95% of the rest of the world. Does it warrant a $50’000 loan to move from the top 5% of the world to the top 4%?

    It’s all about the opportunity you give yourself, not about what your school’s name did for you

  50. Jul says:

    Great article! I’m glad new parenthood is treating you well!

    I have a follow-up for Mr. Frugalwoods: how did you teach yourself to code, what programs did you learn, and from what sources? Books/online? Courses, or just reading and working on your own? As a scientist, I am being asked more and more for computer skills that were not covered in my undergraduate degree. Would you be up for dedicating a blog post to learning code, or continuing education in general? Just a thought to throw out there. Code is scary to a lot of people, but increasingly necessary to learn and understand.

    I’m a follower from Canada, and previously asked one question about investing several months back. Not sure if you keep track of repeat posters/questions. Love your blog and your cute frugal hound pictures – keep them coming! 🙂

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Thanks so much! Mr. FW didn’t take any courses on programming, he taught himself really just by using the internet. He says that he decided to build a piece of software and just googled and researched online until he figured out how to do it and then learned from there. I, however, do not know how to program, so I’m not terribly helpful in this venue 🙂

  51. psychedforbos says:

    I am moving up to Newton next weekend for a new job and so much of what you wrote above has hit home with me. I’d like to think that I have set out on the right path in terms of pursuing better opportunities to grow faster (this is my first career job change). I am now going from working for a big, bad corporate mega-company to a small company (less than 200 employees) in the same sector that’s making big strides. Although I have told myself a couple times that I will stay with them for at least 2-3 years, the essential thing to remember is that you have to do perform your own appraisal at the end of the year and ask if you still want to be here a year later. Personally, I had an amazing time pretty much marketing the crap outta myself during my job hunt and feel very rewarded in securing this job.

    Can’t wait to move up! Great blog!

  52. I love this advice!

    I will admit, I am currently not exactly following it. I have a day job at a mega corp, but I am not taking a normal approach to my finances.

    My job is not stressful, which means that it gives me enough salary to automate my investments, while still allowing me the energy to working on my passions on the side.

    I love writing, and dream of getting paid to write as you do. I hope that I can finish my work at my day job in little time so that I can spend the rest of my time at work dreaming and planning what I want to write about next.

    Thanks for staying inspirational!

  53. I loved this. It has opened my eyes and reassured me that anything is possible with hard work and dedication. Congratulations on your success!

  54. Jamie says:

    This is SO refreshing to read. So many personal finance/frugality sites are all about becoming freelance writers or the mastering a lucrative side hustle. I personally love working my nonprofit 9-5 (with occasional paid overtime), and greatly value my free time outside of work, so this is both inspirational and educational!

  55. Jeanette says:

    Why not start your own business? Why work for other people at all? I now have a relaxing life working from home and manage a web design and development team. My business has been very good to me the past 6 years and at 36, I am very proud that I now own my Californian house without a mortgage.

  56. Steve says:

    “Your Undergrad Degree And College Do Not Matter”

    I’m struggling with this statement.

    Am early 30s, with 1 kid 8month-old. Am sole income earner in the family.

    Right now halfway through BSc computer science degree to “advance” my career, for which I took on student loan.

    Though my grades are stellar, I came to realize that I’m not happy continuing in this software engineering field, and now have doubts whether to continue this degree.

    Current Work is ok because I get lots flexibility although pay wise it is average, I don’t plan to switch jobs. Instead am lining up side income projects which hopefully will become permanent passive income stream.

    Going through this mid crisis, makes me wonder what would I tell my kid, I.e should she go pursue Degree in future?

    @Mrs Frugalwoods, what’s your take on this?

  57. Steve says:

    @Jeannette, starting own business is good although it may not be for everyone. When I was in 18, after reading Rich Dad Poor Dad, i dropped my college and started many small businesses but none really took off and last for years. I had the misconception that starting own business was the only way to financial independence. Had I read and understood about Ere or Frugalwoods 15 years ago, my path would have been different and I would have reached financial independence now.

    And the key to that is really simply, being frugal, live way below our means.
    At same time, increase sources of income.

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