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