Alex is on leave from a Materials Engineering PhD program and, while on leave, happened to get a dream job and is now faced with choosing between the PhD program and the job. Alex recently left an abusive marriage and is thinking critically about the sort of future they’d like to create. While the most pressing issue is deciding whether to return to the PhD program or stay in the job, Alex is thinking broadly about their passion for long-distance hiking, travel, and environmental justice.

What’s a Reader Case Study?

Case Studies address financial and life dilemmas that readers of Frugalwoods send to me requesting advice. Then, we (that’d be me and YOU, dear reader) read through their situation and provide advice, encouragement, insight, and feedback in the comments section. For an example, check out last month’s case study. Case Studies are updated by participants (at the end of the post) several months after the Case is featured. Visit this page for links to all updated Case Studies.

I probably don’t need to say the following because you folks are the kindest, most polite commenters on the internet, but, please note that Frugalwoods is a judgement-free zone where we endeavor to help one another, not to condemn.

And a disclaimer that I am not a trained financial professional and I encourage people not to make serious financial decisions based solely on what one person on the internet advises. I encourage everyone to do their own research to determine the best course of action for their finances. I am not a financial advisor and I am not your financial advisor.

With that I’ll let Alex, this month’s Case Study subject, take it from here!

Alex’s Story

Hey there, Frugalwoods! My name is Alex and I’m a 24-year-old non-binary human living in Minneapolis, MN. My pronouns are they/them. I grew up in rural Oregon before moving to Louisiana to complete my undergrad and then up here to the Twin Cities for a PhD program in Materials Engineering.

Alex Enjoying a Stormy Sunrise on Thulusdhoo, Maldives

I am unmarried with no kids or pets right now and have two wonderful and supportive partners who I love very much: Fran (33, he/him) who grew up on a pig farm in Iowa, lives here in Minneapolis, and Riley (26, she/her) who grew up in New England and now lives in the Bay Area. They are both software engineers, so apparently I have a type, which they both find amusing. I’ve lived in a lot of different environments with some very disparate values. That said, my parents met in the Peace Corps, my dad used to be a park ranger, and my mom’s a teacher, so what holds constant for me are my love of travel and the outdoors, my passion for community work, the environment, and just generally making the world a better place.

I am currently on leave from my PhD program and, while on leave, I got a job at a nonprofit that I initially assumed would be temporary, but now I find that I really love the work! The biggest question weighing on my mind right now is whether to return to my PhD program or continue working this job that I unexpectedly enjoy a great deal.

Alex’s Hobbies and Passions

My main hobbies are also somewhat of a lifestyle: long-distance hiking and travel.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, long-distance hiking refers to really, really, really long-distance hiking. As in hundreds or thousands of miles at a time. The Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail are two of the most popular long-distance hiking trails in the US. So far, I’ve completed the Oregon Coast Trail and about 1,500 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. I hope to one day complete the Triple Crown of North American hiking, which includes the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail, which combines to over 8,000 miles of hiking! Additionally, I have a list of about twenty other long-distance hikes I aim to complete, both domestic and abroad.

Alex Diving in the Bonaire National Marine Park

Travel is a close second in terms of my passions. To date, I’ve been to 29 countries and I have the goal to eventually visit every country. I have a nomadic spirit and as long as I have my backpack, I feel at home. I’ve gotten pretty good at budget travel and often spend less than $30/day in-country when traveling, sometimes as little as $10/day in lower-cost areas! Obviously some countries require higher spending rates, but I am pretty skilled at getting costs down there too. The biggest expense is international airfare, but by being flexible with dates and destinations, I manage to keep that reasonable as well.

My recent roundtrip flight between San Francisco and Bangkok was only $472! And that was with freebie stopovers in China both ways. When traveling, I love to try new foods, meet new people, and have new experiences. Walking around cities is always free and hiking only sometimes requires a park entrance fee. I also love diving, but since I freedive instead of scuba and bring my own diving gear, I only have to pay for the occasional boat out to a dive spot. In Bonaire, I was able to walk straight into the water every day and have a lovely time, entirely for free! (I did splurge for the water taxi to Klein Bonaire one day. So I spent $20 for four days of diving, which is fine by me.)

Obviously, those hobbies are ones that require being away from home, sometimes for very long periods of time. When I am at home, I have a hodgepodge of activities that keep me occupied outside of work hours. I am a trained dancer and saxophonist so I exercise my artistic chops as time allows and I love to do work around the house. From replacing flooring to plumbing repairs, I love learning new and valuable skills. Since Fran grew up on a farm, he has some skills I don’t have so I get to learn new things from him which is always exciting for me. I also enjoy cooking and organizing all of my belongings into spreadsheets with ridiculous amounts of data. What can I say? I’m an engineer and I like data. And then of course getting out into nature locally is always a big hit. Minnesota is a great place for outdoors people with woods and lakes galore for both summer and winter activities. I mostly participate in year-round hiking and summer kayaking, but I want to try cross-country skiing soon.

A Turning Point

I’ve recently gotten out of an extremely abusive marriage. I am an open book about whatever details people feel the need to know in order to provide feedback and advice, but for the sake of brevity (and not being a trigger for other people), I’ll leave it at that. This relationship caused me to almost fail out of my PhD program in the first year after completing undergrad with honors, to take leave from my program at the end of that first year, and left me in $20,000 of coerced debt. Not to mention the entirely decimated savings and emergency fund, lost wages from not being allowed to work for the better part of a year, or, of course, the emotional scars.

Baby Elephant at Maerim Elephant Sanctuary, Chiang Mai, Thailand

I took a leave of absence from work to get out of the state and figure out a safe way to leave the relationship in early May 2019 under the guise of a long hiking trip. I then managed to officially leave the relationship at the end of August and was able to start rebuilding my life in November 2019.

So far, I’ve gotten the coerced debt down to about $11,000. Not bad for less than three months! I cashed out some bonds from when I was a kid, worked extra hours at work, got a little bit of help from friends, picked up odd jobs and cut way back on everything to make that first $9,000 disappear.

The remaining $11,000 is all on 0% intro APR credit cards (because, thankfully, I had really good credit before this all happened) and while I feel confident that I could pay it all off before the intro APR is up, I just applied for two 0% intro APR balance transfer cards so that I can focus on building up my cash reserves in the meantime. Don’t worry, Frugalwoods, I waited until I got the offers for cards that were both 0% intro APR AND $0 transfer fees.

(Note: When not in an abusive relationship, I am very responsible with credit cards. I always put most of my purchases on my cards for the rewards points and then pay it off at the end of the month. This consumer debt was entirely out of character for me and a result of the extenuating circumstances of… well… coercion and abuse.)

Current Situation

I mentioned I took leave from my PhD program. That leave was approved for two years and is good until the end of August 2020. Given that, my plan has been to return to my program in fall 2020. One of the problems that has now arisen is that my research advisor doesn’t have funding for me anymore and I would need to find a new lab. I can’t be in my PhD program without a lab to work in and this is a difficult time of year to find advisors. The graduate student stipend for my program is $31.5K/yr plus benefits and a tuition waiver (so the equivalent of $15.75/hr assuming a 40 hr work week, but it’s definitely more than 40 hrs of work per week.)

Alex’s Current Job

While on leave from my PhD program, I’ve been working as a community organizer for a nonprofit. This started as a job that was flexible and where I could call in last minute because of the situations with the relationship without getting fired. But between starting and now, I’ve discovered that I am very passionate about this work and actually really good at it. Additionally, the pay is better. I typically work about 35 hrs/wk and my pay varies depending on performance, but it typically works out to the equivalent of $20-25/hr, plus eligibility for benefits, though I am not using them right now.

Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque at Night, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

I also set my own schedule and work as much or as little as I want to with the ability to take pretty much as much (unpaid) vacation time as I want as long as I give my boss some notice. I was recently promoted and, with this promotion, am committed to remaining at this job at least until the end of the summer (which is, coincidentally, when I would return to my PhD program). Thanks to this promotion, my average monthly paychecks will increase by around $300-400. This new position also opens up the opportunity to occasionally go and work in other offices across the country for a month at a time doing cross trainings.

Our  regional director recently came to my office for their tri-annual site visit and, in our meeting, the first thing they said was “What do we have to do to keep you?” Ultimately the outcome of the conversation was that I can have the flexibility going forward of taking several months of leave every year if I want to (the thought being that it is better to have me half a year than to have the organization lose me entirely), that they wouldn’t allow everyone to do that, but that I have earned my place/shown my value to the organization, and that if/when I should reach the point where I no longer want to or can’t take several months every year to hike/travel (i.e. I finally completely destroy my knees) then I could potentially move up/laterally in the organization to other positions that don’t have the same flexibility. The exact words were: “There is a career here for you if you want it.” Which is all very, very tempting, but still leaves the issue of:

Should I Return To Graduate School?

If I return to grad school, my boss would be ok if I just worked at my current job on Saturdays. However, I don’t know if my PhD program would find that acceptable or if I would even have the energy to do it. Ultimately, I am left with what feels like choosing between a job I love and the lifestyle I want, or the degree and career that I have had a passion for and been working toward since high school. So, still the same question, just new factors to consider.

Right now, I need to choose between trying to find a new advisor and returning to my program or staying at my job with the lifestyle and scheduling flexibility (which is a very important thing to me as a long-distance hiker and as someone who loves to travel).

The Pros and Cons Of Returning To Grad School

I’ve wanted to pursue a PhD since my freshman year of college. I spent all of undergrad working toward this goal with the intention of eventually having a career in sustainable plastics. The big thing that needs to happen in order for me to return to the program is that I have to find a new advisor with space and funding to take me into their lab. If I can’t find this on a project that I am passionate about, then I am not returning because I don’t want to spend the next four years working on a project that doesn’t excite me when I already have another job that I love.

Sunset in the Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, While on a Road Trip With Riley

The pros: it’s a path I’ve put a lot of work into, it’s a topic I am passionate about, I would be making tangible strides toward solving a very real world problem, and I would receive student benefits (access to the gym, other student resources, 403(b) access, insanely good (and cheap, ~ $200/yr premium and no deductible) health insurance, etc).

And, at the end, I would have a PhD. I would be Dr. Alex. It may sound silly to folks who aren’t trans, but the option of having my honorific being something completely un-gendered is a hugely appealing benefit.

The cons: I would lose my scheduling flexibility, I wouldn’t be able to take any long leaves of absence (if I was lucky, I might be able to get a couple stints of two weeks off) for the next four years, and my income potential would be limited. We are not permitted to work another job while in the program so while I could still do odd jobs, my salary would be limited to that $31.5K/yr plus a roughly $500/year COLA.

I also really don’t like leaving things unfinished. This is something that I am working on, but for now, it bothers me. A lot. There is a vague possibility that I may be able to just return for a semester, complete my last few courses, and take a Masters degree, but since my GPA for the rest of my classes was so low (see the notes about the abusive relationship), I would pretty much need to get straight As to have my GPA high enough where I could qualify for the degree. (They can waive the GPA requirement for the PhD, but not for the MS.)

The Pros and Cons Of Not Returning To Grad School

I really do love this job. My coworkers are amazing, I get to be outside and active for most of my shift, meet awesome new people every day, I am working to make active, positive change in the world, and most days, it doesn’t even feel like work! Taking a six month leave of absence this summer as I was figuring out what to do with my abusive ex-husband was as easy as giving my boss a few months notice and filling out a form. In fact, I didn’t even tell him the real reason I was taking it, he just knew I was going hiking. This kind of flexibility is hard to find and so incredibly valuable to me.

A Lovely Lunch Vista on the Pacific Crest Trail, Lassen Volcanic National Park

When I returned and needed to take some days off to deal with filing for an Order for Protection against my ex, my boss was entirely supportive. I feel incredibly safe in the office as a queer person and as a trans person, which isn’t something I can take for granted. There is theoretically the opportunity for virtually unlimited income growth as our pay is hourly with performance-based bonus, but our top performers probably max out at $80K/yr and they have each been doing the work for over a decade.

The organization also likes to hire from within so there is the possibility of upward mobility within the office, as well as the option to branch out and work in any of our 27 other offices across the country, which is appealing. If I wanted to, I could very likely work for six months out of the year and then take six months to travel and hike, just about every year. The option to do that is extremely attractive.

The cons: giving up another dream that I have held for a long time, leaving my graduate degree unfinished, potentially regretting it, and that the income is extremely variable. Some pay periods it averages out to $30/hr, other pay periods it’s just over $15/hr. It is also worth noting that many people do burn out in this job. I am not feeling it yet and feel like it would be less likely to happen with the extended time off I would be allowed, but it does happen fairly often.

Alex’s House

I own my house. I bought it for $120K in 2018 with the MN First Time Homebuyers program and currently owe $121K on it (including the $8K closing cost assistance I received as a part of that program which is 0% until I sell or the mortgage is paid off.) The house is in a rapidly developing neighborhood and is worth between $128-138K right now depending on which estimator you look at. Though from looking at similar houses on Zillow right now, houses with similar specs and just a little bit of aesthetic clean up are priced at $150-190K.

New Flooring that Alex Installed All On Their Own

I rent my two spare bedrooms for a total of $1,300/month in rental income which includes utilities and shared supplies such as soap and toilet paper. This is enough to roughly cover my mortgage, utilities, and household supplies. The money I would be putting toward rent if I didn’t own the house goes toward home repairs and improvements instead. The house was built in 1896 so there are plenty of those to go around.

I like living with other people and my roommates/renters are awesome so I am very happy with this situation. I would like to refinance sometime soon because my interest rate is a whopping 5.375%, but I need to get the LTV below 20% first because I don’t want to refinance with new PMI. As of right now, neither of my partners live with me and none of us have kids. Looking to the future, I would love to have a communal living situation with my polycule (the term for the entire net of relationships in polyamorous set-ups, i.e. my partners and my partners’ partners), which may or may not include kids at that point. But since we are in different geographic locations and at different points in our careers, this is something that has only been talked about in theoretical terms. I don’t even know where it would be located. Maybe a nice piece of land in the woods of Idaho.

Alex’s Financial Philosophy/Game Plan

Alex’s First Catch while Fishing on the Kinabatangan River, Malaysian Borneo

My approach to finances breaks down to a combination of raw numbers and ethics. I make sure that I fulfill minimum payments on all things and then send other funds toward whatever will save me the most money and set me up for the most success in the long run. For example, right now everything is going to paying off credit cards, but once that debt is taken care of (or transferred to a new 0% balance transfer card where the amount is less than 30% debt to credit), the focus may go to replenishing my emergency fund and stashing money away into my retirement and taxable investment accounts.

I make this decision because I would rather pay the 3.5% annual interest on my student loans than lose out on the 7-9% annual gains in the market and the compound interest that comes with it.

The other possibility is to pay down my mortgage to refinance as mentioned above and then focus on investing after that. I am starting to lean toward this one given the current market conditions. Regardless, all of my decisions are nuanced according to the raw numbers and the different options I have available. When investing, I invest mostly in ETFs but have some investments in individual stocks and intend to add some index funds to the mix.

I try to stay invested across a variety of sectors in both domestic and international markets and factor in both the fees and average dividends on the funds, but I always keep my ethics at heart. As much as possible, I try to invest in businesses and funds with a focus on environmental sustainability, reduction of carbon footprint, and improvement of worker conditions and human rights. All of my financial decisions are very deliberate.

I also track every cent of my income and expenses in spreadsheets and have been doing so since I moved out of my parents’ house at 18. I even have separate spreadsheets that feed into my main budget spreadsheet for things like budgeting during trips abroad. Anything I can put on a credit card I do so that I can reap the cash back and then I pay it off at the end of the month (again, the current situation notwithstanding.)

The Best Part of Alex’s Current Lifestyle: Flexibility

I love that I can take time off pretty much whenever I want and that opens a lot of doors, both in a personal and financial sense. I am slated to take part in a three-week inpatient medical trial this spring that pays $5,500. I can easily take three weeks off from my current job and I know that isn’t possible with most jobs. My family and friends live all over the world and being able to take off to see them without worrying about how much PTO I have left is very worth it and something I value greatly about my lifestyle and job right now.

I am also a night owl, so having a job that doesn’t start until 1 or 2 pm is a huge benefit for me as well. I can sleep in, I have several “business hours” where I can run errands as needed or work on projects, and I honestly generally feel pretty relaxed and content with my current routine. I am able to be very productive and feel accomplished with this current schedule and job.

The Worst Part of Alex’s Current Lifestyle: Not Enough Money

A Momma Cat and Kitten with Whom Alex Shared Their Hati Buyah (Beef Lung), Gadong Night Market, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

The worst part of my current lifestyle/routine is that while I have the flexibility to take off as much time as I want to, I don’t have the funds to do so. This is something that should be largely improved upon when I finish paying off the coerced debt from my ex and with the promotion/pay raise I just received.

Another thing that kinda stinks is that I have limited time with my partners. There is obviously only so much that can be done in terms of seeing Riley since she lives on the other side of the country and neither of us want to move right now, but Fran and I work offset schedules.

His is a 9-5 and he’s able to work from home about once a week which is nice, but we still have limited time when neither of us is working. It’s not the end of the world, but it does kinda suck. (At the same time, we are both introverts and it does mean we both have guaranteed time to ourselves should we want it, which is nice, so it’s a blessing and a curse.)

Where Alex Wants To Be In Ten Years

This is a hard question to answer. Ten years seems both so close and so far away. There are several life situations I could see myself happily inhabiting in ten years. The absolutely ideal situation would be living a nomadic life, hiking and traveling full time, while still working in a research lab or doing the nonprofit work I’m doing right now. Unfortunately, that is physically impossible as both lab work and my current job require being in a specific location. I have also toyed with the idea of switching paths and working in science-based public policy since there’s a real need for that right now. That would give me a little more flexibility for travel, but not much. So I guess I will lay out my ideals for each of these three aspects of life, even though they conflict with each other. Maybe someone has  a creative solution I haven’t already entertained!

1) Finances: I would like to have no debt outside of my student loans and mortgage.

  • Since my student loans are on an income-based repayment program and at relatively low interest rates, I am fine with paying minimum payments because I would rather pay the 3.5% on that sum and instead aggressively invest the money and get the 7-9% annual return in the market.
  • I would like to have a fully funded emergency fund and be maxing out retirement accounts. I may want to get an investment property to rent out sometime in that time period, but that depends on what other lifestyle and career choices I am making.
  • I am involved with several FIRE groups, but I fall much more heavily on the FI side of things than the RE side. Maybe FIRO (Financial Independence/Retire Occasionally) would be more accurate for my ideal: take off a few years, work for a while, repeat.

2)  Lifestyle: I would like to be more nomadic than I currently am.

  • I love having a home base and owning my own home, but ideally, I want to travel at least half the year, if not year-round.
  • This is minorly in conflict with my desire to have a flourishing vegetable garden to preserve from in the summer and fall for the winter and spring, but that isn’t the most important thing for me.
  • I don’t want to stop working as I like doing productive things, but flexibility is the goal for me.
  • At the same time, I would love to have a little plot of land back out West with a lot of privacy and build an off-grid tiny house. Fran and Riley both have an interest in being more nomadic and/or pursuing the tiny house/homesteading plan.
  • This is much simpler from a career standpoint for both of them since their jobs are already on a computer. I have discussed it in more depth with Fran just by nature of us spending more time together since we live in the same city, but the possibilities have been discussed with both of them.
  • There are a lot of question marks here because there are a lot of moving parts and possibilities for all three of us. The possibility of a big intentional community is also an option and has been discussed with several other people as a very real possibility.

3) Career: This is the big question mark. I love research and I love my current nonprofit job.

  • I’m not sure where I want to be in ten years with this. Probably one of these two or a remote job.
  • There are other options I’ve toyed with, including online positions or taking up a series of short-term jobs like summer adventure guides and teaching English or other subjects in other countries.
  • I am considering getting my WEMT (Wilderness EMT) certification as that could open up some doors in the outdoors industry for me both domestic and abroad, but that certification is a couple thousand dollars so I want to make sure that I really want to do that and would use it before I pull the trigger on the course.
  • I would also like to join the Peace Corps at some point, but the timing on that is flexible and I don’t particularly care if it is in the next ten years (though if it’s sooner rather than later, I could get partial forgiveness on my Perkins student loans).

Alex’s Finances


Item Amount Notes
Alex’s Net Paychecks $2,400 My net paycheck from work minus taxes and union dues. Nothing is taken out for health insurance as I am under 26 and still on my parents’ insurance plan. The exact amount varies wildly month to month because I am paid hourly with performance-based bonuses. The net can be anywhere from $1,200 to $3,000 a month.
Rental Income $1,300 This is from renting out the spare rooms in my house and is only existent when the rooms are filled (both of which are at the moment.) This does not have any deductions taken out of it for taxes, but the W-4 for my primary job has been filed for appropriate withholding.
Assorted Other Income $500 This can be anything from participating in medical trials to having art commissioned to editing papers for college students. This income also varies wildly from $0 to $6,000 in a month.
Monthly subtotal: $4,200
Annual total: $50,400


Item Amount Notes
Mortgage $888 Includes PITI, no PMI (mortgage insurance premium was paid upon closing in exchange for lower interest rate). Insurance is through USAA.
Adventures $797 Includes all expenses except food for six months of traveling in the US, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia. I don’t get six months off every year so this is higher than most years, but is my 2019 average.
Food $300 I lump all of my grocery and restaurant spending together in one. An average would be very off since I was traveling for half of 2019 in places with both VHCOL and VLCOL, so I just put how much I budget for it at home which has been pretty accurate since I have returned to MN.
Utilities $295 Includes gas, electric, water, sewage, garbage, and internet. This is my 2019 monthly average. The true costs are much higher in winter and much lower in summer because of heating costs in MN.
Credit Card Payments $146 Includes minimum payments on my credit cards, but pretty much any extra money is going toward paying down the cards right now.
Household Supplies and Maintenance $135 Includes cleaning supplies, shared hygiene supplies like hand soap, as well as basic, standard maintenance. I include these in rent for my renters so it goes in the same budget line item for me since I get to write a portion of it off on my taxes. I do the labor for almost all of the maintenance on my own. 2019 monthly average not including an emergency replacement and upgrade to my water heater and rehabbing a renter’s room from ferret damage. (That’s a long story.)
Student Loan Payments $125 Includes minimum payments on my federal Perkins and Stafford loans. New payment amount for 2020 since it is income based and changes once a year.
Transportation & Travel $105 Includes bus fare, any taxis, Ubers, or Lyfts, and trips to see family or friends. Does not include big international trips or vacations as those have their own line item. I do not drive so a large portion of this is my monthly bus pass. 2019 average.
Gifts $87 Includes Christmas, birthday, and any other gifts for any reason. 2019 average
Incidentals $84 This covers any other random things like clothes, personal care, home goods, or treats for myself that don’t fit into the other categories. 2019 average.
Tattoos & Piercings $20 I typically get one to three new tattoos or piercings a year.
Healthcare $14 I am still on my parents’ insurance so this includes copays, medications, etc. I allow for $100/month in my budget, but this is the actual 2019 average. I know that this will go up once I turn 26 and can no longer be on my parents’ health insurance.
HVAC and Plumbing Subscription $8 With this I get free water heater and HVAC tune-ups twice a year, 10% off plumbing work through the company, and free estimates for any work. It is a great deal that has paid for itself many time over.
American Chemical Society Dues $8 I pay the graduate student dues at the moment once a year in September.
GoPro Plus Subscription $5 This subscription gives me unlimited cloud storage for my GoPro, discounts on GoPro purchases, and replacements if my GoPro breaks. I spend a lot of time on outdoor adventures (hiking, rafting, diving, etc) so it’s worth it to know I will always be able to capture those moments.
Valuable Personal Property Insurance $2 This is an additional insurance policy I have above and beyond my homeowner’s policy on my saxophone. Also through USAA.
Monthly subtotal: $3,019
Annual total: $36,228


Item Outstanding loan balance Interest Rate
Mortgage on Primary Residence $113,053 5.375%; 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. Purchased for $120k in 2018.
Closing Cost/Downpayment Assistance Loan on Primary Residence $8,000 0% loan due upon sale of the property, refinancing of the mortgage, or when the property is no longer my primary residence. From the State of Minnesota for First Time Homebuyers program.
Total: $121,053


Item Amount Notes Interest/type of securities held Name of bank/brokerage
Roth IRA $2,353 This is my only retirement account. I currently pay no management fees on it until I turn 25, but then it will be $2/month so I will probably switch it to a Fidelity account after that. A variety of ETFs and single company stocks Stash
Investment Account $2,166 This is one of my investment accounts. It also functions as a true emergency fund should I need it, though I have never liquidated any assets from it. A variety of ETFs and single company stocks Stash
Checking Account $1,584 This is my primary checking account used for paying bills. Low interest rates, but remarkable customer service so I just don’t store extra money in here. Earns 0.01% interest USAA
Checking Account $876 This is my secondary checking account. This is used for high interest rates and the 0% foreign transaction fees when I am traveling. Also functions as part of my emergency fund. All paychecks and other funds typically are deposited here and then moved around accordingly. Earns 4% on first $500, then 0.05% BECU
Checking Account $778 This is the only account  with a physical location where I live/the only one where I can deposit cash. I can then transfer the funds to interest bearing accounts. N/A US Bank
Savings Account $539 This is my primary savings account and part of my emergency fund. Earns 6% on first $500, then 0.05% BECU
Savings Account $452 This is the super-secret part of my emergency fund. I pretend that this doesn’t exist most of the time. Earns 0.02% interest FCCU
Investment Account $125 This is one of my investment accounts. REDWX Aspiration
Checking Account $71 This checking account has become redundant. I will probably be transferring the funds and closing it soon. N/A Stash
Investment Account $6 This was free stock I got through a promotion. There are no fees so I am just letting it sit for now. ZNGA Robinhood
Total: $8,950


Item Outstanding loan balance
(total amount you still owe)
Interest Rate Loan Period/Payoff Terms/Your monthly required payment
Federal Stafford Loans (Student Loans) $31,925 3.51% to 4.41% (Different loans from different years in school) My Stafford loans are currently on the REPAYE plan which is a variable payment and over a term of 20 years. Any leftover balance at the end of that term will be forgiven. The payment is currently $76.
Capital One Credit Card $4,877 0% until June 2020, then 20.49% I pay the $47 required minimum payment every month and will either entirely pay off the balance or transfer it to a 0% APR balance transfer card before the intro APR is up.
Federal Perkins Loan (Student Loan) $4,166 5% I pay the $48 required minimum payment every month. The loan is on a 10 year repayment plan.
Chase Credit Card $2,548 0% until July 2020, then 16.49% I pay the $49 required minimum payment every month and will either entirely pay off the balance or transfer it to a 0% APR balance transfer card before the intro APR is up.
HSBC Credit Card $1,970 0% until Aug 2020, then 18.49% I pay the $25 required minimum payment every month and will either entirely pay off the balance or transfer it to a 0% APR balance transfer card before the intro APR is up. This is currently my primary card because of the 3% intro cash back.
Wells Fargo Credit Card $1,261 0% until April 2020, then 25.49% I pay the $25 required minimum payment every month and will either entirely pay off the balance or transfer it to a 0% APR balance transfer card before the intro APR is up.
Total: $46,747

Vehicles: none

Alex’s Questions For You:

Alright, Frugalwoods, I know that’s a lot of information. My lifestyle and life goals are definitely non-traditional, but I am blessed to have family, partners, and friends who support me in all of my endeavors. Ultimately, the questions I want advice from y’all on are:

1) Thoughts on which path to take: Return to school or stay in my current job with its immense flexibility? I know this is ultimately a matter of what’s right for me, but I appreciate having a lot of input with a variety of opinions.

2) Are there creative ways to handle and/or leverage my current debt?

3) Should I prioritize paying down and refinancing my mortgage or building up my portfolio/retirement accounts given that while my interest rate is high, it is still below the 7-9% average annual return rate on the S&P 500?

4) Thoughts on focusing funds on putting a downpayment on an investment property to rent out as opposed to putting funds in the market?

5) Since both of my partners are software engineers, their salaries are significantly greater than the $30K/yr I bring home after taxes. Everyone’s finances are entirely separate right now and I like the idea of keeping finances separate in the future (we all have drastically different spending habits). Does anyone have advice on how to invest in long-term goals with a partner/partners (eg. a little communal living space in Idaho) when finances are separate and disparate from one another?

6) If there are any fellow Frugalwoods followers who are also ENM (ethically non-monogamous), I would really appreciate your input about the further complications of question 5 when more than two peoples’ finances are potentially involved.

Mrs. Frugalwoods’ Recommendations

First of all, congratulations to Alex for coming to us today and for having the courage to move past an abusive marriage and thoughtfully consider the future. Instead of being trapped as a victim, they took proactive steps to obtain an approved leave from their PhD and get a job while figuring things out.

Chilling with an Iguana while Waiting for Lunch, San Andres Island, Colombia

I can’t commend Alex enough for this pragmatic approach. Rather than crashing out of the PhD program or being jobless, Alex took responsible action to put the PhD on hold and earn money.

It’s hard enough to do these things under the best of circumstances, so I congratulate Alex for managing this while recovering from abuse. Alex should feel proud and confident about their next steps. I also want to point out that they are TWENTY-FOUR years old. That is so young. I know it probably doesn’t feel that way to Alex (I know I didn’t think I was young at 24), but it is young. I point this out because I get the sense they want to iron out their life plans for ever and ever, but that’s not really necessary right now. Alex has plenty of time to craft a life they love and isn’t in a financial position that’ll prevent any number of paths forward. Let’s dive into their specific questions:

Alex’s Question #1: Return to PhD or stay in job?

Alex will probably cringe when they read this, but, there really isn’t a right or wrong answer. Rather, there are pros, cons, and options. On the whole, I get the sense they feel they SHOULD finish their PhD because they started it. I understand this desire to follow through and to obtain a graduate degree (I did a tortuous few years of grad school for the same reasons), but I encourage Alex to release themselves from this “should” and instead focus on how they want to spend their time.

Taking Fran on his first Hike, Afton State Park

If Alex has a burning desire to work in plastics engineering, and if a PhD is the only route to a successful career in this field, then they should finish their PhD. If not, forget it. Full stop. I realize this sounds like an oversimplification, but I don’t think it is. Alex already has a job they love, owns a home, and has fulfilling relationships and hobbies. A PhD is an external achievement that won’t deliver happiness or success or fulfillment. What it would deliver is the pathway to a different career. It really comes down to what Alex wants to do for work–no more, no less.

It sounds to me like Alex might be looking for permission to let go of the PhD. I want to say that if the PhD does not excite and invigorate Alex, there’s no good reason to go back.

It’s also true that Alex has a pretty rare thing: a job they like with decent benefits and flexible time off. Alex is good at this job, happy in their work environment, respected by their bosses, and has the potential for advancement. It is really, really, really hard to find all of these things in a job. Yes, the pay is low, but Alex has low expenses and doesn’t need a whole lot of money to live on right now. I think this quote from Alex is telling, “I honestly generally feel pretty relaxed and content with my current routine. I am able to be very productive and feel accomplished with this current schedule and job.” That’s worth a lot right there and, if it were me, I’d think twice before giving that up!

Alex’s Question #2: Are there creative ways to handle and/or leverage my current debt?

Alex has done a STELLAR job of paying down this debt and I’m so impressed with how much they’ve paid off in a short period of time. Superb work! Alex’s instincts on this debt are spot on: while the credit cards have a 0% interest rate it makes sense to just pay the minimum. They’re also 100% correct that they should pay the cards off before the astronomical interest rates kick in. If it were me, I would follow the first scenario Alex outlined of paying off these cards as their interest rates kick in.

Here’s how an aggressive payoff plan could work:

Monthly Income of $4,200 – Monthly Expenses of $3,019 = $1,181 to put towards credit card pay off

Plus, between all of their checking and savings accounts, Alex has $4,300 in cash

Credit Card Outstanding Balance Interest Rate and Date to Payoff Proposed Payoff Plan
Wells Fargo Credit Card $1,261 0% until April 2020, then 25.49% Use the $1,181 in difference between income and expenses and pull $80 from checking/savings to pay this off in full before April 2020.
Capital One Credit Card $4,877 0% until June 2020, then 20.49% Save the $1,206 in difference between income and expenses (that’s adding the $25 that used to go to the Wells Fargo CC) for the months of April, May and June (total = $3,618) and pull $1,259 from checking/savings to pay this off by June 2020.
Chase Credit Card $2,548 0% until July 2020, then 16.49% Save the $1,253 in difference between income and expenses (that’s adding the $25 that used to go to the Wells Fargo CC and the $47 that used to go to the Capital One CC) for the month of June and pull $1,295 from checking/savings to pay this off by July 2020.
HSBC Credit Card $1,970 0% until Aug 2020, then 18.49% Take the $1,302 in difference between income and expenses (with all the former monthly CC payments added in) and pull $668 from checking/savings to pay this off by August 2020
Total: $10,656 Result: All paid off by the end of August 2020

This plan hinges upon Alex drawing down on their cash reserves to a heavy extent, detailed below:

Item Amount
Starting cash position $4,300
Deducted to pay off Wells Fargo Card $80
Deducted to pay off Capital One Card $1,259
Deducted to pay off Chase Card $1,295
Deducted to pay off HSBC Card $668
Cash leftover after all payoffs: $998

I don’t love depleting Alex’s emergency fund to this extent; however, I also don’t love the astronomical interest rates that would kick in on the credit cards. Plus, as soon as all these cards are paid off (by the end of August), they can funnel this money into rebuilding their emergency fund. Alex’ll have $1,327 every month (difference between income and expenses once all the credit card payments are eliminated), which would quickly build the emergency fund back up to a safe amount.

The other option they proposed is a balance transfer to another 0% intro APR credit card. That’s a possibility, but I think knocking this debt out will give Alex a sense of peace and a true financial fresh start. If it were me, I’d pay these debts off and be done with them forever, providing a symbolic–and actual–break from the past financial abuse.

Alex’s Expenses

Of course another way to accomplish debt repayment is by reducing expenses.

Laundry Drying on the Pacific Crest Trail, Southern California

In every Case Study, I like to point out that what you choose to save or not save is a very personal decision. Cutting every last expense is NOT the right answer for everyone and I am NOT an advocate for making yourself miserable in the process of achieving financial stability. I am an advocate for values-based, goal-oriented spending. I think it’s important to assess whether all of your expenses bring you fulfillment and a good return on your investment.

In order to effectively review your expenses, you need to know what you’re spending. Luckily, there are free online programs designed to do this for you. I use and recommend Personal Capital, which offers free expense tracking as well as a lot of other great tools for managing and understanding your money (affiliate link). You can write your expenses down in a notebook, you can create your own spending spreadsheets, you can use an online program–whatever you do, keep track of what you spend every month. If you’d like to know more about how Personal Capital works, check out my full review.

Alex is already very frugal and very focused on spending on their priorities, so I don’t have a ton of advice to offer in this arena. What I do suggest is that they consider putting all discretionary spending on hold while paying off their credit cards. Once the cards are paid off, the spending can resume. The credit card debt isn’t all that much (in the grand scheme of things) and Alex has the financial aptitude, as well as the discipline, to wipe it out by the end of the summer.

If they’re amenable, here are the discretionary expense categories that could be put on hold:

Adventures: $797

Gifts: $87

Tattoos & Piercings: $20

Total: $904

That’s actually a lot of money from very few categories! If Alex were willing to put these three things on hold–only until the debt is paid off–they could pay down the cards and build an emergency fund very, very quickly.

Alex’s Emergency Fund

Let’s spend a moment here on what I mean by “emergency fund.” Alex already noted that having an emergency fund is a goal, so I’m here to cheerlead this plan into action. Let’s break down the numbers:

  • Alex spends $3,019/month, which means they should target an emergency fund in the range of $9,057 (three months of spending) to $18,114 (six months worth)
  • After Alex pays off the credit cards, and if they decide to put the above three expense categories on hold during this debt repayment period, they’ll be able to save as follows:
    • $904 x 5 months = $4,520 + $998 (cash leftover after paying off all credit cards) = $5,518 by the end of August
  • From there, Alex can target saving another $3,539 to get to that three months of spending goal of $9,057

An emergency fund should be kept in an easily-accessible bank account, such as a high-interest checking or savings account, NOT in investments, retirement funds, or cars/houses/expensive china. An emergency fund is money you can access immediately in an emergency. The general rule of thumb is to have three to six months’ worth of expenses in your emergency fund, meaning three to six months worth of what you spend every month. This is why it’s so important to track your expenses–I use and recommend the free expense tracker from Personal Capital. If you’d like to know more about how Personal Capital works, here’s why I use it and recommend it.

Alex’s Numerous Cash Money Accounts

Aside from retirement savings, Alex has a whopping six different checking and savings accounts. I wonder if they might consider consolidating these six accounts into one, or perhaps two, accounts? Unless there are specific reasons to keep the money spread out across all these different accounts, I would find it more manageable to consolidate.

Pacific Crest Trail, Just South of Idyllwild

Additionally, I strongly encourage Alex to move their cash into a high-interest, fee-free savings account.

Alex is unfortunately using mostly low interest rate accounts, which doesn’t do them any favors. You want your money to be earning more money–even if just by a few percentage points!

If they moved their money to, for example, an American Express Personal Savings account that–as of this writing–earns 1.70% in interest, in one year, their $4,300 will increase to $4,373.10. That means they’d earn $73.10 in one year JUST by having their money in a high-interest account. I realize it’s only $73, but it’s an example of how you can earn money for nothing if you’re strategic about the bank accounts you use. See this post for details on which banks I recommend for high interest savings accounts.

Credit Cards

If Alex is confident in their ability to not go into credit card debt ever again, it might make sense for them to develop a travel credit card strategy. With the amount of travel Alex does–and wants to do–leveraging a travel card could yield free airfare. They’ll need to do some research to determine which card(s) will make the most sense, but I encourage them to do so! Two of the most popular and most rewarding travel cards are the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and the Chase Sapphire Preferred (affiliate links). For more on my credit card strategy, check out The Frugalwoods Guide to a Simple, Yet Rewarding, Credit Card Experience. I also wrote this guide on how to find the best credit card for you.

Alex’s Question #3: Should I prioritize paying down and refinancing my mortgage or building up my portfolio/retirement accounts?

Right now (at this very moment), mortgage interest rates are LOW. Like, super duper low. I’ve heard percentages like 3.2% and even 3.1% thrown around, which is crazy-town low. Given that, I’ve been encouraging everyone I see to investigate refinancing their mortgage (it will not make sense for everyone, but now’s a great time to look into it). Of course, most of the United States has this same idea right now, so you might be on hold with your bank for a long time, but I personally would be happy to sit on hold for hours if I could lock in a rate as low as 3.1%. Just saying.

Given this, it might make a ton of sense for Alex to get a move on lowering their LTV (loan-to-value ratio), which can be accomplished through either paying the mortgage down and/or increasing the value of the home. Alex mentioned completing a number of repair/renovation projects and I wonder if those might be sufficient to raise the value of the home in a reappraisal? And are there other low cost repairs/renovations they could perform to increase the home’s value?

Here’s a quick rundown of the numbers:

Alex’s home is valued at $120k. A LTV of 20% would be $24k, which means Alex would need to hit $96k left on their mortgage. At that point, they’d be at 80% LTV and would qualify for a conventional refinance.

It’s also true that a 20% LTV isn’t a hard and fast rule and there might be lenders willing to refinance at a different LTV. Plus, since Alex is part of the MN First Time Homebuyer’s program, there may be different or extenuating rules. All that to say, this is something that’s definitely worth Alex’s time to research.

Alex’s Question #4: Thoughts on focusing funds on putting a downpayment on an investment property to rent out as opposed to putting funds in the market?

Alex’s Little Backyard Paradise

I love that Alex is thinking about their financial future and I commend their high level of financial literacy. However. I would put a pin in both of these options for the present. Alex needs to go back to basics and: 1) pay off the credit card debt; 2) build an emergency fund; 3) come up with a plan to pay off the student loan debt and/or get the mortgage LTV to 20% so that a better interest rate can be found.

Once those foundational elements are taken care of, Alex can and should explore diversification and investments. I also think this option will be decided in part by the path Alex chooses to take.

If they pursue the more settled route of the PhD program, then investment properties (that they could self-manage) might make sense. Conversely, if they embrace a full-time nomadic existence, it might be easier (and more profitable) to invest in low-fee index funds that don’t require the headaches and hands-on management of a rental property.

I’m a huge fan of planning ahead, but in this instance, I encourage Alex to slow down, appreciate how much they’ve accomplished during this tumultuous year, and focus on the basic next steps.

Alex’s Questions #5 and #6: Advice on how to invest in long-term goals with a partner/partners when finances are separate?

I don’t have personal experience or advice to offer in this area, but I think Alex is wise to consider how finances might be structured in a shared living community. I think keeping finances separate is probably wisest and would allow Alex to maintain financial health and stability despite any changes or disruptions within the community. I imagine there are models to suggest how money should be shared/distributed within an intentional living community and I encourage them to research these options and decide on a format before making the move or purchasing land/homes with others. Basically, know what you want to do from a legal and ethical standpoint and put it in writing for everyone to agree on BEFORE intertwining lives and money. I think it’s always easier to have expectations outlined ahead of time so that there are no surprises when something unexpected–be it good or bad–happens.


Jewelry Alex Made for Riley for Christmas

Circling back to Alex’s overarching question of whether to return to the PhD program or stay in the job, I want to highlight the fact that this year has been one of immense turmoil. Leaving an abusive marriage, stepping away from a PhD program, paying off a lot of debt, starting a new job–these are all momentous shifts and Alex might need more time to discern their next steps. This is a lot to take on in a short period of time and they’ve handled it all with aplomb. As I was reflecting on Alex’s Case Study, the comments they made about their desire to live a more nomadic lifestyle and to perhaps join the Peace Corps rose to the top.

If joining the Peace Corps is a goal and a priority for Alex, I’d say go for it sooner rather than later.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, the older you get, the harder it becomes to drop everything and jet around the world. Jobs, families, commitments, your health–it all becomes more challenging and more entrenched as you crest your twenties, move through your thirties, and glide into your forties.

Alex is essentially unencumbered right now with no pets, no children, no live-in partner(s), and a flexible job with a contract that ends this summer. Doing a year or two in the Peace Corps might give Alex the time, space, and distance to distill their longterm goals and come to a place of clarity and resolution on the whole PhD versus job conundrum. It also might open up new avenues for work that they haven’t considered or experienced yet.

I could envision the Peace Corps meeting a lot of Alex’s stated goals:

  • Travel/nomadic lifestyle
  • Time outside in nature in a different culture
  • The ability to help people
  • An opportunity to step away from life as usual and think hard about longterm trajectories and goals

Plus, service in the Peace Corps might make Alex eligible for student loan forgiveness/deferment options. And, since they’re already renting two rooms out, if they’re comfortable renting the third bedroom out, their house wouldn’t be a financial burden and might even generate a bit of income.


  1. Enact a plan to pay off all of the credit cards before their interest rates kick in.
  2. Consider putting discretionary spending on hold while repaying the credit cards.
  3. Build up a robust emergency fund.
  4. Look into possibilities for getting the LTV down to enable refinancing.
  5. Seriously consider joining the Peace Corps sooner rather than later (if it’s a true goal): explore the possibility of taking a leave of absence from the job and the PhD program while serving in the Peace Corps.
  6. Be confident in all of the good decisions you’ve made up to this point and know that there’s truly no wrong answer in what you choose to do next.

Ok Frugalwoods nation, what advice would you give to Alex? We will both reply to comments, so please feel free to ask any clarifying questions!

Would you like your own case study to appear here on Frugalwoods? Email me ( your brief story and we’ll talk

Update from Alex on 1/17/21:

Hey all, Alex here. I kept meaning to send an update in sooner, but every time I thought I had decisions solidly made, something changed. Covid has certainly made this a heck of a year.

A couple of super basic/numbers updates:

  • I went ahead and put that credit card debt on 0% intro APR balance transfer cards since I found a couple with $0 balance transfer fees to maintain some liquidity. There is now less than $4K left on it and I’ll knock the rest out when the intro period is up.
  • Despite being laid off four times this year, I have raised my net worth almost $60K in the ten months since my case study! This includes an emergency fund of 12 months of basic expenses (6-9 months of regular expenses) and maxing out my 2019 Roth IRA and 2020 Roth IRA, solo 401(K), and HSA.
  • For the first time since starting college, my net worth is positive! (As a note, about $11K of this is the value of my house going up, but that still leaves almost $50K in paid-off debts/increased savings/investments!)

Alright, as to less numerical updates: 

I kinda had to laugh because in the original comments someone asked about how secure my job was and I pretty much responded that it was secure so long as the position existed since it pays for itself. Well, lo and behold, I did not predict a pandemic, and I was laid off for the first time a couple weeks later. Haha. Thankfully, my boss has had my back this entire time. The organization has been hiring us back as they have had the funds to do so for temporary work outside of our regular position (we had a LOT of phone calling contracts around the election) and in between those, I’ve been eligible for unemployment.

I took advantage of the unstructured time to do a lot of projects on my house/in the yard including planting four fruit trees and ten varieties of berry bushes (which I hope will start to produce next summer!), get my certification to Teach English as a Foreign Language, and start a couple of side gigs/start getting some self-employment income. It’s been an unexpected year with a lot of twists and turns (especially since I am high-risk for Covid so I have barely left the house,) but I’ve tried to make the best of it.

My big question originally was whether to stay in my PhD program or stay with the job I have been working. Obviously, that question got even more complicated with Covid. (Main reason it took me so long to write an update.) Ultimately, I decided that if I found a project that I was super passionate about then I would return and if not then I would stay where I am. Alas, none of the profs whose work I am passionate about had space for me when I would need to join, so I have decided to stay in the job I have been loving for the past few years with all of the perks and flexibility it has. (As a note: I have stayed in very close contact with my boss and my job is guaranteed once the office is open and we are running field operations again. That just isn’t happening until a vaccine is widely available for obvious reasons.)

I have been trying to refinance my mortgage, but have run into some issues with the intermittent layoffs and banks not being willing to count other forms of income than my W-2 income (which has been extra frustrating since my AGI for 2020 is more than double what it was the last two years.) So I’m still working on that and also keeping an eye out for a potential investment property, but am prioritizing maxing out all tax-advantaged accounts first (Roth IRA, solo 401(K), HSA.)

In terms of the long-term plans with partners, there has been some good progress on that front! Riley and I are no longer together, but Fran is officially moving in next month (after unofficially living here for the whole quarantine) and we have set out our short term and 10 year financial plans both individually and as a couple. He is less FI focused than I am, but we have a shared vision for a far more nomadic life with a home base and we have plans on how to get there. I am personally on track for Coast FI in the next 3-4 years and true FI in the next 6-20 years (depending on how many of those 6 month leaves of absence I take in that time and how well my new home businesses do.)

All in all, despite a generally hell-ish year in many ways, I am feeling much more confident about my financial future and I have a much clearer vision of how to reach my goals. I am very grateful for all of the feedback and advice I got on my case study and I hope I can pay it forward to the community in the future!


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  1. It sounds like Alex has a good gig right now- enjoyable work, supportive colleagues, relatively good pay, flexible leave, prospect of some advancement. I wouldn’t disturb that while some other aspects of life resolve (debt, long distance relationship, family planning). However, I would keep in mind that the situation at the office won’t be constant over ten years. Staff change, structural change, economic and technological change- and personal changecan combine to change the how the job fits, and you may reach a natural departure point in a few years. You can give your career decision some time. Grad school (though maybe not this program) is still an option when the time is right.

    1. I am definitely taking into consideration the fact that there is a lot of potential for change at my current job. My boss before this one was honestly terrible and I would not be considering staying if he was still here. That said, we do have a tendency to have a lot of really long standing employees at the upper levels of the organization both in our state office and nationally, even if there is a lot of turnover at the lower positions in the hierarchy. I am trying to balance caution about potential change with taking advantage of current situations.

  2. Hi Alex! Congrats on everything you have accomplished! Your life sounds pretty awesome to me. I only have personal experience with your first question and I agree with Mrs. Frugalwoods that it seems like getting your phd is more of a should than a true desire. I have never planned on getting a phd but my career did turn out different than I thought it would. I worked very hard for one thing and ended up totally changing it to have more flexibility and to do something I found more meaning in. It was hard to come to terms with this change in identity and not feel like I quit. It sounds like you love your job and are able to live the life you want to live with it (at least for now). This is very hard to find. I know many people who have worked and paid through years of graduate school to find their career was a bad fit. Maybe having to leave your phd program was a blessing in disguise from an otherwise awful situation. Good luck!

    1. I would say that the PhD itself is a true desire, if for no other reason than I find an intrinsic value in learning/knowledge, but I am not as certain that the career path it may open for me is a true desire at this point. That is more where I am wavering with the current dilemma than anything else. I am definitely trying to keep an open mind about that last sentiment you mentioned. Perhaps everything, however horrible, really does happen for a reason!

      1. Hi Alex, it sounds like you have a beautiful spirit and loads of talent! I think you already know the answer about the degree….but in case it helps
        I have a PhD in the sciences. Many in my class dropped out after 2 years (prelims). Strongly suggest scrapping it if it doesn’t meet a specific, absolutely necessary career goal in the long term. It is a lot of full-on dedication not to mention suffering that’s not worth it if you don’t have a driving “why”. You can do the plastics work sooner, with full benefits and a retirement program, by working in a lab as a scientist (industry or academia). You could even consider combining your travel bug and science by scouting obscure landfills around the world to discover new plastic-metabolism in microorganisms. I made that up – Please know that a PhDis not the only way to do science. Fail early, fail often, as said in pharma…meaning don’t invest any more than necessary to determine that something won’t work.
        Another vote from me to get rid of debt and simplify bank accounts.

        1. P.S. I reread this – didn’t mean to sound as gloomy as it does 😉

          Just want to give you permission that the degree isn’t the only way. I’ll add that I took 2 years off to work in a lab between undergrad and grad school…and I didn’t seem to have the prelim crisis my peers did (who had gone straight into school). I was a little older, and I 100% knew why I was subjecting myself to the program. The alternatives weren’t acceptable to me…so I *had* to do it 🙂

          1. Hey Chris, thanks for the input! I have definitely entertained the option of just doing other jobs without the PhD, but I haven’t found any that have caught my interest. Plus, like I said, I find an intrinsic value in just learning for the sake of learning more than anything else which has always been more of my “why” for pursuing a PhD. Because I can.

            That said, if I find another position that catches my passion then I would definitely consider it! Though it wouldn’t be plastic-eating microorganisms. I hugely respect my microbio friends, but I avoid doing any research where I have to worry about keeping things alive. XD

      2. You can be a lifelong learner without getting a PhD – in fact, it sounds like you already are one.

        I have a PhD, and I tell people to pursue one only of the career path that it affords you is one you absolutely want to pursue. Otherwise, it’s not worth it. That said, also remember that it’s not now or never for the PhD. You can always go back and pursue it later if you want to.

        1. I definitely would consider myself a lifelong learner regardless of what I choose to do here! The difference is just what I am learning. 🙂

          My concern with going back for a PhD later is admissions. Like I mentioned, the abuse resulted in a pretty horrific GPA that I feel like would definitely hurt my chances of admission. Not to mention having previously dropped out of a program potentially being a red flag too.

          1. Hi Alex,
            As someone who didn´t live your situation at all, but got out of a depression, I´ll say: don´t punish yourself from the GPA thing. You have endured so much I do not doubt that this is what your boss sees in you (being thoughtful about others and more mature than your age). That is called soft skills and someone, wherever the (non) gender, that has them is more likely to boost the teamwork of a place (check HerMoney to know what I´m talking about). I believe that someone´s path is just dots that you connect, as your love for nature brought out the scientist you have inside (PhD program), while your love to help the volunteering. Maybe you could track down what made you choose those things so the next step would just show itself?
            For the partners, I have no experience in that but different types of lives mean different economical approaches, no? Maybe see what he/him wants and differs from you, write down the conclusions, do the same with she/her and sit down together to discuss. As people share flats and expenses daily just because they want (students, young workers, friends…) by deciding what they share and what don’t. I don´t know if you were referring to that. If one of them isn´t happy with the idea of moving yet, but not sure about the future, maybe renting a place for 2 + guest could be? Anyway, I recommend renting if you want to be a nomad that bad. I am studying architecture and for what I see, sometimes owning a house (without earning money from it) is not worth it. In many cases is just that “my grandparents got their house, my parents got their house, and I …” but in the twenty-first century your house is as yours whenever is rented or owned.
            Thank you for reading so far and sorry if I overstep, English isn’t my first language nor I am so informed about polyamory relationships. Excuse me if at any point I came out as insensitive.

          2. @Eftychia:

            Thanks for your kind words and no worries about the English. It’s a hard language!

            I do earn money from my house so it pretty much ends up being a financial wash wonth-to-month for me when I have the spare rooms filled., but since I am building equity, it is definitely the right choice for me! I probably wouldn’t have bought my place if I couldn’t rent the spare rooms as both a way to cover the cost and a way to provide low cost housing to people in my community.

  3. Mrs. Frugalwoods’ advice is spot on. I agree with finishing up the PhD program. Materials is a great field, fascinating, and you have real potential to go so many ways with a PhD. I had one professor who did expert witnessing for crashes (as in, plane and major vehicle). Talk about a flexible and well-paid side hustle! I think you can find real flexibility in this field also, and it seems like it’s your passion.

    1. There are a lot of interesting side hustles I have considered with it, but I am struggling to find a way that I could structure it to have the flexibility that I want while still being enough income to sustain myself. Also, your professor sounds awesome.

  4. I agree with Mrs. FW on finishing the PHD but I would have to add that having a degree with little or no debt can be helpful long term. I would look into getting the masters if possible with no additional debt so your courses can go towards “something.” I got an MBA for fun and it isn’t crucial to my job but is helpful for my resume. I felt like I “should” and didn’t really enjoy it but I’m glad I did it.

    1. I am definitely heavily considering that option. It’s something I need to discuss with my director of graduate studies and see if it is even something the program would allow me to do.

  5. From my point of view, Alex should find a way to return to school and finish the PhD program. I am an engineer with an MS and work for a software company. Materials engineering is an exploding field right now. With advances in physical and biomedical materials, the future in materials engineering is limitless. I can guarantee that there are plenty of amazing jobs out there. If you are looking for lifestyle flexibility, future income growth & stability, and the ability to chart your own course through your employable years, then the technical field will help you accomplish these goals.

    1. Do you have an contacts with people who have found more flexible jobs in this type of work? That is my biggest source of hesitation here is that I have heard people say that they exist, but I haven’t actually seen any.

      1. Hi Alex,
        I have a PhD in bioengineering with a focus on biomaterials. My undergrad is in chemical engineering. Yes, you can for sure find flexible jobs but I would say maybe not as your initial job. I am in a very flexible job now (arrange my own schedule and work from home) by working at a consulting firm. I moved to Europe to get even more vacation because I also love to travel. But, I am planning to move into freelance consulting in the near future because then you have ultimate flexibility as you are your own boss.

        One thing to think about is potentially how to gain experience in a less flexible job first to allow going into consulting for example. Most clients are looking to hire consultants that have some good experience already that the clients themselves don’t have. In my case, I first worked at the U.S. FDA as a medical device reviewer and now am a medical device regulatory consultant. Part of my job is to focus on the biocompatibility of medical devices and help clients with the regulatory process and testing. The FDA experience is what clients look for to get “insider knowledge” and pay higher. So, maybe think about what companies, labs, specific research areas or tech skills may be valuable in your field and then you could gain some experience there first.

        Good luck to you, it sounds like you have some good options and have also been through a lot. You seem like a very strong person with an interesting skill set and I’m sure you will do great in whatever path you choose!

        PS: I grew up in MN…how are you surviving the winters there!? Lol.

        1. PSS: After reading the interesting discussion below about honorifics and pronouns, thought I’d share an interesting fact! I currently live in Germany, where even if you have a doctorate you are still addressed with a male/female title first followed by Dr. Isn’t that crazy? So, I am “Frau Dr.” I had no idea until I moved here…but they do take titles very seriously, much more so than in the U.S.

          1. Yeah, German and Latin-based languages are much more gendered than our own. Speaking about myself in French or Spanish is an adventure. Haha.

            I am actually doing great with the winters! I love the cold and the snow so other than the occassional days of -60° F windchill, I am thriving!

            Consulting would be a great option for me, but like you said, you need to gain experience first. I am not sure how I could gain that initial experience in a lifestyle compatible way is the problem. Haha.

  6. Wow! First off, Alex you are AMAZING. You really have your s**t together! You could probably give me lessons on how to handle finances so I’m not going to go there. However, I work as an admin in MSE at a university and here is my advice on whether or not to return to your PhD program: don’t. It sounds to me like your reasons for returning are (1) to complete what you started, (2) you’ve always wanted a PhD, and (3) to help the world through plastics engineering. Which are all very worthwhile goals. At the same time, what feeds your soul is flexibility, being outdoors in nature, helping the world which can be done in many ways, and being the person you were born to be in a world that doesn’t value that highly. A PhD program is not going to support that well. Frankly, your program will be only as good as your advisor: an understanding and supportive advisor can make it an amazing experience, and an advisor who can’t think beyond themselves will feel like a repeat of your abusive marriage. Even a great advisor is at the mercy of external funding, and I’ve seen the prof I work for have to make hard choices to accept funding from companies that do not reflect his left-leaning values in order to support his team and their research. (BTW, research projects can change; the one you start out with at the beginning of a PhD can turn into something quite different, which can be a plus but can also be a minus – it depends on your advisor and the source of your funding as well as your interests.)

    If you have a BS in MSE, you may be able to find employment down the road at a company/lab that allows you to use some of your skills – or you may be able to eventually start your own. In the meantime, you have a great job that feeds who you are and provides support both materially and emotionally. I would advise you to stay put.

    Finally, one reason for wanting to complete your PhD may be if your ex derailed you then it’s a form of taking power back from that. However, another way of looking at it is that your ex may have come into your life to derail you from a path that wasn’t the right one for you to take.

    (I do have to note that I strongly encourage our students who may just be having regular floundering moments or doubts to keep going, but in those cases the students are pretty well set that they’re doing what they want to do. I am perceiving a totally different situation here.)

    Sorry if my tone came off preachy or telling you what to do – not my intention but it’s a bad tendency of mine. Wishing you and yours the best. And Minneapolis is indeed an awesome city.

    1. No, no, your tone was perfect and I really value the input from someone in your role!

      I was very fortunate to have an adviser who was extremely supportive and wonderful with everything that was happening… and then, as you mentioned, the funding messed with everything. Which is why I would have to find a new adviser. I am very certain that I will not return to my program if I cannot find an equally wonderful adviser. I am only considering returning if I can find another adviser who I work well with on a project I have passion for.

      I have a BA in Environmental Studies and a BSE in Chemical Engineering. So I am very certain I could find plenty of jobs using my skills, the problem is more finding one that I feel fulfilled in. (eg. NOT something at an oil company.) That said, while my current job is more in communications, I appreciate that I am able to use knowledge from both of my bachelors degrees to be more effective in that communication.

      I am definitely struggling to suss out how much of my desire to return is just wanting to take back something I feel like my abuser stole from me and how much of it is true passion for the work. While considering that maybe everything happens for a reason.

      Again, thank you for the valuable and thoughtful input. It’s really helpful.

      And yes, Minneapolis is awesome.

  7. Kudos to Alex for being so wise. I have a Ph.d myself and am married to someone who has one and we were in school while newly married. My advice for Alex in terms of remaining in the program would be for them to explore and consider what lab and project would support their degree. If one of the projects makes Them enthusiastic then my advice is to continue the program and work their current job on Saturdays. I feel a doctoral degree is worth pursuing as long as the person loves what they are doing and the institution supports the student. I work in my field somewhat now and I would have regretted not doing it. But this a very personal decision and I wish Alex all the best in discerning what to do.

    1. I appreciate that input. I am definitely only returning if I can find a lab and project I am passionate about where I mesh well with the adviser and other labmates. I am not certain if I would be allowed to keep working in my current job on Saturdays because our graduate student handbook says we can’t work other jobs, but when I asked our director of graduate studies about that he didn’t even know it was in there and said he wouldn’t care as long as it wasn’t conflicting with my research. So it would be something to explore and see if my adviser was ok with it.

  8. Congratulations Alex for getting out of an abusive situation and for making such major, beneficial changes. The world is your oyster (or other deep sea animal…)

    First, have you checked out the Bad with Money podcast? It’s about financial intelligence, the host is a queer cis woman and they have some specific episodes about the financial impacts of being queer, non-binary, trans, polyamorous and how to navigate a financial system that’s generally more geared to cis hetero partnered people.

    I echo Mrs Frugalwoods that now may be a great time for the Peace Corps. Adventures are certainly possible at any stage in life but personal and professional commitments create a kind of inertia that requires more resistance to overcome. You’re at a professional crossroads, and the peace Corps would allow exploration of your career options while paying down debt and being able to travel in a way that may be really hard to do later in life.

    Reading your discussion of the PhD, and having a PhD myself, it doesn’t sound like this program is right for you, right now. It seems like your life and priorities have changed. You have the wherewithal to complete a big project, but the PhD is a demoralizing exercise if you’re not passionate about it, and it sounds like you need more freedom that this field might permit.

    My suggestion to you would be to withdraw from the PhD and either do the Peace Corps or pursue your community organising for a while with an aim of perhaps going for an advanced degree in a new field when you have more clarity. You don’t only need to choose between materials science versus community organising! You might find that the broad umbrellas of development studies, other forms of engineering, or other things take your fancy and allow a more nomadic yet intellectually challenging atmosphere. Your dream PhD could involve substantial fieldwork overseas. Or an MSc might open up professional opportunities and travel possibilities for less cost in loss of earnings than a PhD requires. Or you might get involved in the construction and development of an intentional community. Or you might stay with community organising and grow with that. Who knows? But certainly from an admissions perspective, having more experience behind you is an asset for a PhD candidate if you want to return to advanced study. You can go back later should you want to.

    Finally, I wanted to congratulate you on paying down your debt so quickly and I agree with Mrs FW to get that gorilla off your back so you can be free. I think your instinct to keep separate finances is keen here, but I’d also say that if your loving, high-earning partners want to give your gifts and experiences that do not come from a place of coercion, you can accept those graciously.

    1. Other deep sea animal… Can I go with the goblin shark? I like that plan. And thank you. 🙂

      I haven’t heard of that podcast but I will definitely have to check it out! Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention!

      I am definitely passionate about my field of expertise, the issue is finding an adviser who has funding and an open spot on a project I am passionate about right now. Haha.

      My biggest concern with leaving and reapplying later is that the program may view my one year in this program as a liability. Courtesy of not being allowed to actually study for my classes, I look pretty incompetent if one looks at my transcript without context. So I am a little worried about it being a “now or never” on my program.

      Thank you again on all of this. I am trying to get better about accepting gifts because my partners are both lovely and wonderful and I know that they have nothing but good intentions. Thankfully, they are both being very patient about me being a little uncertain about either of them even buying me dinner sometimes. Haha.

      1. I think the right program for you would put those grades in context. The PhD is maybe a bit different from other degrees in really wanting a holistic picture of a candidate. If you can get a positive recommendation from your former advisor or instructor you’d probably be fine.

        Good luck whatever you choose!

  9. Epidemiologist here: I would continue with the PhD program as it offers significantly more job stability than the non-profit work. A doctorate in engineering is an economic safeguard and I would not throw that away. We are likely headed towards a recession in the next couple of weeks due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and I’d be wary of putting all my eggs in the non-profit basket, so to speak. The economic impact of this outbreak is going to be significant and unfortunately will be felt for a while. Why would your PhD program not allow you to work on weekends or school breaks? Would volunteering be acceptable instead? There are so many ways to contribute while earning your PhD, I would not give up on it unless you absolutely despise the program.

    1. It explicitly states in our graduate student handbook that we are not allowed to work other jobs. That said, when I brought it up to our director of graduate studies, he didn’t even know it was in there, said it was probably more targeted at international students, and that he wouldn’t care as long as it wasn’t affecting my research/to ask my adviser about it. Volunteering would definitely be ok. We are definitely all looking very closely at the COVID-19 situation right now, especially since so many of our employees work in public spaces and not in the office, considering what to do. I will definitely be taking whatever happens over the next few weeks with the outbreak into consideration as I make my decision.

  10. Did I miss how much you would be making if you received your PhD and the likelihood that you would land that job quickly? Would you need to move for that job and if so would Fran be able to move with you or would that not matter to you and long distance would work? Depending on how much you could make as a PhD and how solid that option was I might work there for just a few years, pay off debts, save a ton of money then do your FIRO plan as you outlined. Maybe keep editing some papers and such on the side but be able to travel as you please. 5 years of $150k salary would get you there ( if you were to make that much) and have you set for life really depending on how much you would save/spend.

    Otherwise, I’ll be honest the option of the flexibility in the job you are in now is pretty amazing. How steady is that job outlook? Once you get your debts paid off you are very frugal and that salary could work and with your frugality of traveling you could make a good life with the smaller salary that the job provides.

    One other thought- you are young- do you see children in your future at any point in the future? That might play into your nomadic lifestyle a bit, although you could certainly travel extensively with children and it would be a gift for a child/children to grow up in the manner.

    1. I did not discuss that, no, partially because the decision tree just gets bigger. Generally speaking, there are three main career paths for PhD engineers wanting to do research: Academia, Industry, or a National Lab. They are all very different jobs with lots of pros and cons, but average pay would definitely be six figures. There is also the option of switching and doing science-informed public policy which is a potential consideration I have been making, but that would pay much less. (Probably $50-60K?) So a LOT of options. It may or may not require moving which isn’t a huge consideration for me. Depending on when this would happen, Fran or Riley may move to the same place or maybe it would put me closer to Riley… There are a lot of factors. The option you mention (finish PhD then work for five years) was my original plan going into grad school, but now I am struggling with the idea of staying in one place for another four years to finish my program, not to mention having nine or ten years of “stability” so to speak. Haha.

      The current job outlook is pretty steady. The exact income potential varies based on a lot of political and economic factors given the nature of our work, but our organization has been around since the 70s, our state office has been here since the 80s and we are currently one of the most effective and stable offices in the country within the organization. My job pays for itself so unless I were to really do something ridiculously bone-headed to get myself fired or the entire organization collapsed, there is a lot of security.

      Like I mentioned in the post, I like spreadsheets and data so I have already made several theoretical budgets for the different scenarios and I could definitely make the income work, including full funding a Roth IRA, even assuming I take a full six months off every year. (Which I wouldn’t do EVERY year but I wanted to make sure the finances would work that way.)

      I honestly don’t see myself having children of my own in the future. Within the discussions of forming an intentional community, there have been discussions of me being a pseudo-parental figure/semi-coparenting for some of my close friends’ children, but not to the point where I would be truly responsible for a child’s welfare. More like an aunt or uncle who plays a strong guiding role in the kiddo’s life if that makes sense. And who occasionally takes the kiddo on cool trips when the parents need a break. Haha.

  11. It sounds like Alex wants to be FI and have the freedom to work sporadically or remotely and to travel regularly. I earned a PhD in the biomedical field and having a PhD does not earn me schedule flexibility. It earns me a slightly higher salary than non-PhD peers, but having a PhD makes me “overqualified” for many, more flexible, lower responsibility, roles. I am proud I earned my PhD, but I think it came at personal costs. I pushed hard for 6 years and now regularly have to manage my intensity towards work and strive to avoid burnout because I set an unhealthy precedent early in my career. I’ve learned after graduation that there are many roles outside of the academy that I love and so few of them truly require a PhD. If I had entered a more lucrative field (which is really any professional role outside of academia, I don’t even mean above avg lucrative), I could be years closer to FI than I am. And the whole Dr. thing- not a damn person out in the world asks you for your preferred title excepting on paperwork. Part of my degree pride was the feminist notion of not being a Mrs. (a title that conveys your marital status. I love my partner and my marriage- I don’t love that social titles still require women to share their marital status with the world) and getting my name listed first on formal correspondence. Neither of these things happen much. I am always addressed by Miss by strangers and Mrs by extended family (my parents and siblings will get it right) and 50% of wedding invitations getting my title right isn’t as empowering as I’d imagined. People will, for now, always address other people by the more common titles (Ms/Mr) for their gender presentation until great change has happened. (I am def for this change!)
    I really had no sense for how many doors a PhD would close for me while it opened others. And I had been so focused on achieving the PhD since late HS that I hadn’t stopped to fully understand my practical passions and whether a PhD opened the right doors for my interests. Hindsight is 20/20 and I *think* I would’ve left my PhD 2 years in if I’d seen what else I could be doing with my time. It I didn’t know, so I will never know. What I can say is that there are probably a dozen roles I could see myself enjoying at present; I’m in one of them, and ~75% of them don’t require a PhD. So I think the PhD question is- do you see it as essential training for the impact you wish to have on the world and planet or do you see yourself as able to fulfill those goals elsewhere AND maintain schedule flexibility for personal pursuits?

    1. That is very valuable input, thank you! Especially the part about it closing doors. That is something that had crossed my mind in wonderment, but I didn’t really know how real of a concern it should be for me. So that’s useful to hear that it is a real concern I should be considering! I definitely see the PhD as essential training for one possible route I could take to “be the change” so to speak… but I am also “being the change” where I am now, it is just a different type of change. Which is what makes this so hard!

      Also, that is frustrating to hear that people ignore the honorific. That said, people tend to do the same thing with my pronouns and I have gotten pretty good at correcting people on that, so maybe it would transfer over? Who knows.

      1. Good points here. This is for Alex’s spreadsheet…if you’re thinking FI/RO. This is pretty much what I did.
        A PhD delays the real earning years by 5-6 years + postdoc usually. I did a very minimal post-doc 1 year to go into industry research instead of academia or gov’t). So, I earned didly squat until 2006. My income within 2 years after postdoc was higher than scientists who had been there 5-10 years. I was qualified for management/director level positions. Bear in mind that the time required increases as position increases, but you can put boundaries on it. I was qualified for jobs needing a technical expert ( travel) with a 30% pay increase….and then I could work for myself for a bit, do a startup company…and save enough to get OUT. I’m 43, ditched that career and homesteading.
        I was overqualified for soooo many jobs, as Allison B said. Many hiring managers won’t touch PhDs – too high maintenance. It was helpful to be able to sell myself, and diverse experiences plus people personality helped… you’ll learn your own strengths over time…play to those 🙂

        1. Thank you for sharing those experiences! That sounds like a really interesting path you’ve followed and I am glad you are able to have a homestead now.

      2. Hi Alex and Allison,

        Just wanted to chime in that yes, people almost always ignore the honorific. My husband and I both have doctorates and the only time people actually use the title “Dr.” is when I’m teaching (some fields, and some geographic areas, are more formal and require even graduate students to address their instructors by title, but some do not require that) or on the occasional professional email or similar correspondence. But among my colleagues we all call each other by our first name. My husband is in research and it is the same. I know my experience and feelings as a cis woman are likely different than yours might be upon earning the “Dr.” title, but in my case the skills and abilities I’ve learned are more satisfying than the title, and more used on a daily basis. Just my two cents. Best wishes to you as you navigate your way forwards!

        1. Oh, yeah, I am definitely aware that the honorifics are rarely used by colleagues and I hardly even use them for my professors in my program because everyone is just called by their first names. But the hope would be that I would at the very LEAST stop getting letters addressed to “Ms.”

          1. That makes complete sense, Alex. I hadn’t thought about there not being good options for prefixes that don’t indicate a binary gender, apart from a few “earned” prefixes like Dr., and so many places make you choose from a drop-down list! Thank you for giving me something to think about and something that can help me better understand my patients of all genders (I’m in healthcare). Again, best wishes to you!

          2. I would hope that times have changed, but my mother has a PhD and my father does not, and for many years they got mail addressed to ‘Dr and Mrs’. Mum only ever uses the title when writing complaints or letters to the editor.

        2. If you have any ability to change what people can select in the drop down menus, add “Mx” in! It’s a gender neutral alternative that is recognized by the Oxford dictionary and accessible to everyone! I always feel much more welcome in a space where Mx is an option.

  12. Thanks for sharing your story Alex. There is so much to unpack, but I’m going to limit my response to the whole PhD thing.

    I was a PhD candidate early in my life and left when my son was diagnosed with significant health challenges. I couldn’t sustain both academic work and the sort of care he was going to need. It broke my heart and I vividly remember crying so hard I couldn’t speak when I called the graduate advisor to withdraw.

    I spent almost fifteen years as a full-time caregiver and returned to doctoral work in my forties. But even then I almost walked away a second time when it looked like I wasn’t going to be allowed to do the project that was important to me. My view, by that point in my life, was that if I couldn’t do the work I wanted to do there wasn’t much point. For me I returned to academic work because the idea of NOT doing the research was unthinkable. The project itself, not the letters at the end of my name, was what spoke to me. I ultimately reorganized my supervisory team and was able to do the project that mattered to me. These days I teach undergrads, write articles, and apply for research grants – so the typical, insecure academic gig. – but I love the work and don’t want to do anything else.

    You are young, and if you return, will earn a degree in a very valuable and important field. You could do a lot of good with your degree and have lots of doors open to you. If you can reorganize your lab/supervisor/funding there is a lot to be said about taking a deep breath and finishing the degree. However as you know, you will want to be pretty selective about ensuring a good supervisor and lab. A difficult supervisor and toxic lab environment would be awful and suck the joy out of your work. But as someone who has had a pretty complicated PhD journey I would encourage you to return only if you truly want to – either because you love the research, or because the job at the end would be something you love.

    As you know, doctoral work can be brutal. I have to agree with Mrs. FW. As I read your story you seemed to be looking for permission to leave your program which I totally get. In your writing I hear a lot of “I should” return to my academic work. What I don’t hear is that you truly miss your academic work and can’t wait to return. I also don’t hear that the related work you might do following your PhD is calling to you. What I do hear is that you’ve had a tumultuous year, you love your job, and that you want to freedom to travel and pursue meaningful work. None of that screams “return to PhD studies” to me.

    My two cents, for what its worth, only go back to your academic work if the idea of leaving breaks your heart. Otherwise it sounds like you have lots of dreams and are an intelligent, creative, successful person who will find a path that is meaningful and works for you. Take it from me, a PhD isn’t going anywhere and you can always return a few years down the road if you wake up and realize that your doctoral work was indeed your passion.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I am so glad you found a way for you to come back to a PhD and follow your dream! It helps me to feel less like this is a “now or never” decision.

      1. was just going to comment that pursuing your PhD is most assuredly NOT a now-or-never thing. I am very old (43!) and have no plans to pursue further degree studies, BUT I know so many, many people who have done it very successfully in such a wide range of different professions and for so many different reasons, from the pragmatic and ”must do this because I want advancement” to the ”I have yearned to get a masters in Classical Civilisations, and dammit, I will do it if it kills me” through to the proper marathons of one person getting their PhD in Forensic Pathology WHILE working, desperately understaffed and overworked as a… forensic pathologist (obviously was already an MD and pathologist)! The age range has been late 20’s to early 50’s.

        It is never off the table until you say so.

  13. Hi Alex! I am currently a PhD student in Mechanical Engineering. I agree with what others have said – the experience as a PhD student is highly variable based on your advisor and your relationship with your advisor – funding sources are variable and projects come and go but the advisor is constant. In terms of the flexibility while being a PhD student, it seems like there is a huge range of variability in the way funded PhD programs work across universities. In my school, if you are a funded graduate student you are committed to being at school during the semesters to complete your RA/TA, but there is not necessarily a commitment to stay for the whole summer on a contract. Many (not all) advisors are fine with students leaving the university for the summer to travel or visit family or work internships as long as the students are fine not getting paid. I’ve also heard of universities where the norm is for students not to be funded/paid at all in the summer and they are on their own. These situations will like take longer to graduate and get paid less along the way, but would allow for a lot of flexibility to travel for 3+ months every summer. It might be worth looking into other universities that might be more flexible.

    Another thing I would be cognizant of is the culture in engineering with regards to feeling safe and accepted as a queer/trans person. I am a cis straight woman in a highly male dominated section of mechanical engineering, and while I really wish this wasn’t the case (and am fighting to change it as much as I can), many of the senior members of the teams I have worked on have trouble with the fact that I am a cis woman. Many of the teams and groups I am a part of have either never had a female engineer or have not had one in a long time. Most of the older men are conservative and judgemental about things like maternity/paternity leave, mental health issues, accomodations for disabilities, etc. I would imagine many of them would be resistant to respecting your pronouns and I imagine it may be challenging to find an environment you feel safe in. While I hope that your field is different than mine, I would definitely try to understand the culture by attending conferences and maybe some internships before committing to a field. I hope that if you do choose that path, you are able to find an accepting work environment where you feel safe.

    One more thing is that if you were to get a PhD, there are a lot of positions in academia for “teaching faculty” jobs, where you teach classes during the semester, but have the summers off to do as you please. These positions come with job security, reasonable salaries, health insurance, benefits, etc, but allow for complete freedom in the summers. If you are interested in teaching this could be a great option, but you didn’t mention that anywhere so I wasn’t sure.

    Good luck and you are already doing a great job! A PhD program is a huge undertaking and the upside is that if you’ve only done one year you have barely started, so if you decide to not continue you don’t have much in the way of sunk costs if you decide not to continue. Additionally, it is never “too late” to go back to school for a PhD. Most of the students in my lab are actually in their 30s and 40s, having decided to go back to school for various reasons, one of which was given “I love hiking and didn’t want to be stuck in a lab during my twenties”. You could always enjoy your current job to the fullest, travel and hike now, then when you decide you are interested in a more stationary life reapply to a PhD program then!

    1. There is DEFINITELY a lot of variability in programs. You are spot on there. In my program, everyone is funded year round and there isn’t a lot of flexibility to take long periods of time off for anything other than extenuating circumstances… especially since I just did.

      I am very fortunate in that my department is very open. I was the only trans person in my department when I arrived and there was an immediate mass email about pronoun usage – with nothing but positive responses. This is not how my undergraduate department was and I definitely do not take it for granted. It’s hit and miss in my field, but people are trying to change it for the better.

      I hadn’t really considered a teaching faculty position but that’s a good point. Hmm…

      I love that that is an actual reason from one of your labmates. Haha. I am a little bit concerned about getting readmitted for reasons I listed in other replies though. :/

  14. Whether you complete your PhD depends on what your ultimate goal is. One of the hardest lessons I have learned/am learning is that there is no way to have it all. You can create a great life but in doing so you will make choices that open some doors and close others. To make matters even more complicated what we want often changes as we age and experience more life. This is all a preface to saying: there is no one right choice. Maybe one way to figure out what you want is to work through what you are okay giving up.

    For context I have my PhD (started it “later” in life at age 30) and study IPV, particularly coercion.

    Pros for PhD: It can be excellent skill-building training. No matter what you do, you will have those skills. Additionally you will have a credential that, in some cases, is necessary for advancement (I am sorry to say that, at least in my experience, fewer people will call you Doctor than you expect/hope.) Having a PhD can increase your job security because it expands your options and networks.

    Cons for PhD: In general, you work on what you are funded to work on. Now you can be active in going after grants and the like but especially now you do not have absolute control over what you work on and what your work contributes you. For some people this would not be a con but it sounds like it would be for you. If you want to go on the academic track, tenure track jobs are hard to come by and you are locked in to a certain geographic area and way of life if/until you get tenure. Academic departments can be wonderfully supportive enclaves or toxic cesspools (or anything in between). All jobs can be like that but in academia you just have fewer choices and less flexibility (particularly in your early years). If you do not want to do the academic route, applied jobs are out there but once hired you are committed to working on projects and teams. Your flexibility greatly diminishes.

    While your current nonprofit sounds wonderful, it also sounds like its direction and perks are tied to the influence of individuals and are not codified in the organizations (i.e HR policies). This means your fate is tied to a person or people who may or may not be at the organization in 10 years. One viable option is to ride out this wave of good fortune as long as possible while building your resume and skill set. But I would not look to this job as being what will sustain you for 40+ years.

    As to what other commenters have brought up:

    I know my PhD program had restrictions on work your first three years in the program (i.e. you were not allowed) however they occasionally granted exceptions. You could pursue that option.

    In general if you drop out now and go back later it will not help you unless you get your MA. PhD admission programs would generally view someone who had previously been admitted and dropped out as a liability. You could potentially frame it in terms of your personal history and explain the circumstances but in my experience departments have mixed reactions to people bring in personal history into their application, even though ironically they often ask for a personal statement. They mean your life as a brain not as a body. 🙂

    In all of this, I would also prioritize your own healing from coercion. In those situations, one’s sense of self usually truly affected. Since we all want to make decisions that are the best for ourselves that can be complicated when healing from coercion because one’s self has is transforming. Some people want to make decisions that their past selves wanted; others prioritize making new and radical choices. But until your sense of self stabilized into who they are to become, your decisions about the future will likely feel incredibly difficult to make.

    I wish you all the best of luck. I’m rooting for you!

    1. Those cons you mention are things that have been heavy on my mind ever since I started even considering a PhD. And you’re right, they may not be a big deal to most people, but they are significant for me. That said, I also love doing polymers research sooooo… therein lies the dilemma.

      In terms of my current job, some of it is tied to people, but some of it is organizational. The allowance for leaves of absence is in our HR policies, but they have to be approved by our regional director. The regional director just pretty much said “I will approve them for you.” It is definitely something I have considered. I may ask if I can get the agreement in writing in case my director leaves the organization or changes roles.

      I really appreciate your input, especially that last part considering your academic background. I am really struggling to sort out what of my feelings surrounding these decisions is based in true passion and what is trauma responses. It’s a tough journey for sure.

  15. Thank you Alex for sharing your brave story, it’s wonderful to have so many options you are passionate about. It doesn’t commit you to really look hard for a new advisor/project to see what’s available. That will help inform your decision. You didn’t mention salary upon graduation but it seems you could finish your degree, work in the field changing the world for a few years to pay off all your debt, then be totally debt-free by age 31/32 At this time you will still be so young and have more clarity on which direction (lab work, nomadic, homestead, community organizing, combination) you want to take your life.

    The world will always need community organizers. If you shut the door on the PhD without giving it full investigation that’s it. If you give it your all and find no match for an advisor/project/funding then there’s your answer.

    1. That was my plan before starting my program, but now I am struggling with the idea of staying put for four years to finish my program, not to mention for ten to do that! Haha.

  16. As always Mrs Frugalwoods always gives the advice I would give myself! I just want to add a well done for all you’re achieved at 24 – owning a house, having come through an abusive marriage and so on. It’s more than a lot of us would achieve ten years later. I wouldn’t plan too far in advance though, take time to enjoy the space you’re in now. In regards to your partners, I don’t know how long you’ve been in relationships with them but given all you’ve been through I wouldn’t race to aligning your plans too closely with your relationships. Enjoy the amazing position you’ve managed to get in now and well done again!

    1. Thank you so much. And yeah, I am definitely not basing my decisions on my relationships right now, but I am taking them into consideration as possible factors looking further into the future.

  17. Can you request another year sabbatical from your PhD program to give yourself a bit more time to decide? Just because you don’t finish now doesn’t mean you don’t finish ever.

    There are so many ways to work in the sustainability field, and many don’t require a PhD (like mine – previously Park Ranger and now work in sustainable building). And if you really want that PhD later? You could always go back. But it sounds like perhaps you don’t want to right now, other than you feel it’s the “smart” thing to do.

    1. Alas, I already a using the maximum time allowed for a leave of absence. So if I want more time, I would have to reapply to the program as opposed to being in already. That’s what makes it a “right now” decision.

  18. Congratulations, Alex, on handling such a painful and challenging time so beautifully! You’ve done extremely well, especially considering your age. You seem wise beyond your years.

    I agree with Mrs. Frugalwoods that extricating yourself from that remaining debt will also extricate you from the last remnants of your marriage. That new start will be liberating. You’ll also have more options regarding your future and finances.

    I also agree to invest in index funds if you’re planning to travel more versus owning more homes that could result in more work for you to handle remotely.

    That said, I don’t know that any of us can advise you on which path to choose. At 40, I can tell you I’m not living the life I imagined in my 20s, but it’s not one I’d trade because I love it! The only certain thing is that you will change and so will things beyond your control. What you want and dream of today may not be what you want or dream of a decade or two from now. Financial freedom provides plenty of room for those changes to occur though.

    Either way, given your vast interests and openness to life, I know you’ll be fine whatever you choose. Thank you for sharing your story!

    1. Thank you for the input. The index funds are definitely seeming like a better option if I take the more nomadic route.

  19. I would hit pause on the idea of more properties (rental/second tiny home) for a while. Right now, it sounds as if Alex is working less than full-time, with a flexible schedule, doing some home projects, and dating people they don’t live with – a relaxed life. That’s great! Especially after a hard few years, good call! If it continues, then taking on property management is no problem. But add in a more structured/stressful job or PhD, live-in relationships, kids or pets, and all of a sudden your capacity looks a lot different. Dealing with properties you don’t live in can be a huge pain. Not to mention that taking long times away would be much much harder. Seriously, etfs over rentals anyday!

    1. I am all over the ETF game. Haha. And yeah, the more relaxed life is just what I need right now after the hell I went through the last three years. Haha

      1. It sounds like you do have things well handled considering how much you have gone through recently. Reading through what you and others have said, it sounds like you have some options on how to proceed.

        If your program will allow you can get a master’s completed in 1 or 2 semesters in a manner that is flexible with your job. That could finish up this degree and leave you with the option to return to the PhD program in the future if things change (you decide this is what you want). This would add to the loans, but if you are set on “finishing,” then this is the quickest step that might be available. If not, you can cut your losses and not be concerned with the sunk cost.

        After tackling your debt and reestablish your emergency fund, your money might best be served in index funds. You are young and have time on your side. The longer the money sits there, the more it will compound. Plus you do not need to call a plumber for index funds the way you would with a rental property. You mentioned wanting to have communal living with your partners, so this channel of savings gives you flexibility wherever/whenever you move since that plan is not set in stone.

        As for saving with a ETM couple, I recommend planning for yourself first. I don’t know how many people or if I will have a partner so I plan for what I need now instead. I have kept my finances separate from anyone that I dated. You are young and who you want might change later in life (partners can change, priorities can change). Until you have definite plans (as well as a legal contract as Mrs. Frugalwoods suggested), protect yourself and your financial interests and keep things separate. Having gone through a divorce, I imagine you know how hard it is to untangle money once it is combined.

        1. Thanks for the input, Kimberly!

          Returning to my program wouldn’t actually add to my debt. I guess I should have mentioned that my program is fully funded including a living stipend, but I forgot because it’s standard within my field.

          I actually got really lucky and my ex-husband’s finances and mine were almost entirely separate to begin with. It made untangling things much easier than for most married couples separating. I definitely don’t want to combine finances moving forward, but was more looking for advice on how to manage investments and finances while they remain separate in the future.

  20. I don’t have any advice/feedback on your financial situation, but I want to say that I also recently (1 1/2 years ago) got out of an abusive marriage that left me with no savings and lots of debt. I have turned my situation around and paid off the debt and have savings now. You are SO STRONG and amazing for leaving an abusive past behind you!!! Stay positive 🙂

    1. Thank you for sharing, Anna. I am so glad you were able to safely get out too and turn your situation around. <3 You got this!

  21. Alex, you have such a cool life with all that hiking and traveling. Like Ms. Frugalwoods said, that gets so much harder as you get older. Yes you can schlep the kids around but there are ages and phases where that isn’t desirable. Honestly you sound much more into travel and hiking than you do the Phd program. I feel like you ultimately would not regret leaving it.

    Yes, your job might change and no longer give you flexibility, but I’d ride this wave as long as you can. It is so hard to find employers that you truly love working for.

    This was a cool case study and inspiring to see a young person who has their stuff so together like Alex does. Man I wish I was as financially savvy at 24 as Alex is.

    1. Haha, thanks. It certainly doesn’t feel like I have my stuff together right now, but I know it will get there. I definitely am not taking loving my job and my workplace for granted.

  22. Hi Alex,

    Congratulations on leaving your abusive situation! Over a decade ago I was in an abusive relationship and I know how hard it can be to actually get out even after you’ve recognized the problem. Please be proud of the value and kindness you have extended yourself.

    I agree with Mrs. Frugalwoods – focusing on paying off your credit card debt should be top of your list. There are no words to describe the feeling of being fully free from an abuser. Paying off that debt will lift a heavy emotional burden from your shoulders.

    While paying down the credit cards and saving an emergency fund as outlined, perhaps do some research into types of jobs you could get if you finish your PhD. Go talk to people working in that field. See what they list as their pros and cons. Think of creative ways you might use your new skills. Then make a decision about whether or not it is right for you to pursue a new lab.

    I’m in a different field, but I’m passionate about making the world a better place. Nonprofits have a high burn out rate, as you mentioned with your current position, so if you take this route please make self care non-negotiable.

    Once you are debt free (other than student loans and your mortgage) check to see if the interest rates are still super low. If so focus on getting to a place where refinancing makes sense.

    If you don’t end up finishing your PhD, because you have researched the situation fully and have decided it is not in your best interest as opposed to it just being an obligation you have imposed on yourself then talk with your current job about taking some of that flexible time to work with Peace Corps. If they really want to keep you they will work with you to make a plan. If you are comfortable with it, I also like the idea of renting out your room while you are away so your property could be making you a bit of cash. Peace Corps isn’t known for it’s high paying salaries after all.

    Once you are ready to tackle your student loans do the math. In my case it would have cost more money to stay in the forgiveness plan than to pay off my loans before the 10 years were up. This will also depend on the lifestyle you choose.

    In terms of relationships and money, I’ve been in both poly and mono relationships (currently in a mono). When in poly relationships I typically lived separate from my partners. So finances stayed separate. If all three of you decide to move into your house at some point I would treat the finances like a housemate situation so you do not jeopardize your home.

    Did you know unmarried individuals can have a legally binding financial trust? In that trust you can outline which assets are considered individual or community.

    Personally, especially given your recent experience, I recommend keeping all finances separate. It’s a great way to have peace of mind.

    I also wouldn’t recommend buying property with anyone until you have lived together and kept healthy relationships.

    If much later down the road you wish to bring together an intentional community to purchase a homestead etc I’ve known groups of people who have tracked their spending in percentages of property owned etc. This should definitely be outlined in a trust. If the situation were to change for any reason it is easier to have legal documentation everyone has agreed upon ahead of time to reference.

    For example, you and your two partners purchase land together. You make less money so they could each put in 40% and you put in 20%. If the situation changes you can sell the property and split the profits according to the percentages you’ve each paid, you could buy out someone else’s share, or they could buy out yours.

    If you buy out someone else’s share you could either increase your percentage if you have that kind of money at the time or you could put in your 20% and the remaining partner could put in their 40%. If you buy out and increase you investment percentage make sure to have that reflected in the trust as soon as possible.

    One final thought on community living and finances: don’t invest money you aren’t willing to go without for a long time. Let’s say the three of you buy a homestead, but for some reason you decide to leave, it is feasible that you still care deeply for these former partners and don’t want to uproot them from their home, but they do not have the financial means at the time to buy you out. What do you do then? Make a repayment plan that works for everyone knowing that you will likely be missing out on potential to grow your cash through investments since it will be tied up in the property. This is a very real risk you must consider before entering into financial entanglements with others.

    Sorry for the long comment, hopefully some of it is useful for you. Regardless of what happens you sounds like an amazing person with many options and fulfilling paths ahead of you. I wish you the best of luck!

    – J

    PS, don’t ever compromise your wanderlust! Unless it is temporary and for good reason.

    1. Thank you so much for that input, J! I hadn’t actually considered the option of a legally binding trust. That would make a lot of sense at that far out future point. (Yeah, definitely a long-term decision, not right now.) Your comment was just the right length and has a lot of really good information for me to mull over. And don’t worry, I definitely don’t intend to compromise my wanderlust. 😉

  23. Alex, kudos on what a rough go of it you have had the last few years and all the wonderful/ beautiful things you are counting in your life. You deserve every happiness and of course, no coerced debt. Here’s what I read from your post:
    -You love the lifestyle you have at your current job
    -The process and result of a phd would NOT necessarily afford you the same lifestyle
    -You are good on money and in a year or so, probably will be able to even a better place
    -of course, more money for the lifestyle is better and possibly needed.
    -you mentioned “not currently utlizing benefits” at your employer – unfortunately the reality of the world is that healthcare is precious. Can you investigate the benefit options and see what may be an option for you, and if it is suitable at your employer?

    I believe you SHOULD NOT get your phd. my only caveat is to try and look into the mathematical possibility of getting your masters. I would speak with everyone you can, do the number crunching,work with your academic advisor and petition for an exception to the GPA requirements. Imagine taking another semester, possibly one make-up class after that, and then having a masters! The great thing is I believe this can easily compliment and flesh out your 10-year plan. By having credibility in the science community, experience in the nonprofit world, you will be unstoppable in helping nonprofits around the world in the scientific realm. You definitely could work remotely or as a consultant for various nonprofits and have that much desired nomadic lifestyle.

    In any case, stay strong and give yourself a break and some grace! This is a lot to handle and grapple with.

    1. I am not utilizing benefits right now because I am under 26 and still on my parents’ health plan. Once I turn 26 then I may be using it, but I am not sure if I would be eligible when taking the long periods of time off, in which case I would need to look at MNsure (the MN ACA offerings.) I do have an autoimmune disorder which is well managed now with minimal intervention, but since it could get worse at any time, I am taking future healthcare options seriously. We are also eligible for a 401(k) but I don’t have enough money to max out that and an IRA and my employer doesn’t match so I am just using a Roth IRA for now.

      I am definitely going to talk to my director of graduate studies about the Masters option. There is no way to waive the GPA requirements, but retaking classes may be an option.

  24. Alex, wow!! What a lot you have accomplished and weathered. As a doctoral level psychologist now working in finance, I will leave other very knowledgeable engineers and such to comment on your Ph. D. conundrum. As a brief comment and suggestion, you might see if you can get “Money without Matrimony “ by Deb Neiman and Garrett. Get it through a library loan. It is likely somewhat dated but should at least make you aware and hopefully prepared for a joint living arrangement in the future. Deb was an early TA in my finance program, good lady, strong advocate for alternative lifestyles. Garrett I don’t know but she has formed one of the best networks of personal financial planners in the country. Great Luck.

    1. I will definitely have to pop by the library and snag that book. Thank you for the recommendation, Paul!

  25. Wow, this is so many more responses than I expected! Thank you all for the wonderful feedback and support. Like I said in my post, I work afternoons/evenings so I’ve been up for less than an hour, but I am going to try to go through and reply to each comment individually. I’m not ignoring any of you! Thank you again, y’all. 🙂

  26. Hi Alex! Returned Peace Corps volunteer and fellow Minnesotan-based human here! I think its wonderful that you’re considering Peace Corps, and since you are a thorough and prepared person, it’s possible that you’ve already connected with other volunteers about their experiences and have a good sense of what service could be like. Anyway, here are some things I can share for your consideration about the Peace Corps experience:

    1. My Peace Corps service has been one of the most foundational experiences of my life so far, as it is an experience that strips away the pretense of what is important to you, and reveals your true values. You really meet yourself during your service.
    2. There are many lovely and wonderful things that I and all other volunteers can share with you about service, and if you haven’t connected with someone to hear more yet, feel free to go to the Peace Corps website and ask to talk to a returned volunteer on the phone about their experience. It’s easy, and so helpful!
    3. While Peace Corps service is a great adventure, and the experience from country to country, province to province, and even village to village differs, it is also an externally defined lifestyle in ways that other travel isn’t. A major pro of my service was that I could say that I truly lived in Rwanda for 2+ years, however, this is because I was expected to live in my remote village of 600 people (500 of whom were high school boarding students) year-round and often needed to receive express permission for travel in which I wouldn’t be staying in my own bed for more than a few nights. I was someone who stayed pretty faithfully in my village besides cohort meetings and conferences and the occasional day trip, and was happy to tangle with the bureaucracy of getting permission to travel when I wanted to (and even took some trips abroad during my service). Peace Corps is basically an amazing experience abroad in which you are hired for two years and expected to do a specific job (teaching, health work, agricultural capacity building, etc) daily, and you have a certain amount of PTO.
    3. Continuing on the note of an externally defined lifestyle- while I don’t identify as queer, a lot of my fellow cohort members who became my friends over the course of our service did, and this was often a part of their identities that they felt they needed to hide, downplay, or share only in confidence in one way or another. Unfortunately, it wasn’t uncommon for village friends and co-workers to posses and share some fairly unsavory beliefs around gender and queerness. If you haven’t already, this is something I would urge you to connect on with a current/returned volunteer who identifies as queer to talk more in depth about.
    4. Once you start asking around, you’ll find returned volunteers everywhere. I’m a fairly random (frugal) stranger, and I hope that what I say can be one point on a constellation of Peace-Corps related conversations that you have, hopefully with people who know you well and can answer questions from a better understanding of who you are and what makes you tick.
    5. Your accomplishments, both financially and surrounding understanding yourself as a person, impress and inspire me. Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Hey Dani! Always excited to come across RPCVs, even remotely, and Ski-U-Mah! I mentioned this super briefly in my entry, but my parents actually met in the Peace Corps! They served down in Honduras in the 80s so I grew up with stories of their service and have certainly found plenty of other RPCVs who have served throughout the years and are serving now.

      I am definitely well aware that service will not mean a lot of travel during that time span and I am very ok with that. I feel like I will probably get antsy at some point, but even a couple weeks of opportunity to travel should be enough to get me through the wanderlust. I am very excited about the prospect of truly living in and integrating into another culture for that time span, in addition to, of course, making a positive change in the world.

      I have definitely considered the issue of being queer and trans during service. I am fine being closeted or semi-closeted for a short period of time while I am in service if I need to be. I would not serve anywhere where, for example, being queer is punishable by death (eg. Uganda), but I can deal with social stigma and staying closeted to avoid it. I’ve definitely had to do it before and since I know that Peace Corps has their queer and trans volunteers’ backs, I feel confident I could handle it.

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful feedback! And the compliments in your fifth section. I am bad at taking compliments, but trying to get better at it so thank you!

  27. Hiya Alex! “Congrats” on entering this new phase of life. As someone who was also fortunate to get out of a bad marriage, I commend you on taking the time to invest in your well-being and hit the reset button.

    My biggest concern for you is the debt that is weighing you down! I know you are liking the flexibility of your job and the nonprofit sector, but have you thought about going into the private sector for 18-24 months, making a significantly higher salary for that time period, and knocking EVERYTHING out? It would definitely mean a short term change to your lifestyle, but pretty soon the interest on your credit cards will kick in, and those charges alone are hideously insane. The benefits of having a higher paying full time job also include access to quality health insurance, which you will want once you are off your parents’ plan.

    Next, I personally would not rely on any government repayment program for student loans, first because of our current political and economic climate but second because of all of the nuances. Most of the programs require you to make on-time payments and if you miss or are late on even one, you could be deemed ineligible. Also, if the loans are forgiven, you will be on the hook for taxes on the amount forgiven, which could still be several thousand dollars. You seem to live a rather frugal lifestyle already, so with a higher paying job, you could realistically knock the student loans out in a year and restart your PhD program with ZERO student loan debt.

    Third, I worry that without renters, on your current income, would you be able to afford your mortgage payment? I would DEFINITELY look into refinancing since rates have gone down even just this week if your current loan allows it. But I would definitely, once you kick your credit card debt and student loan debt, have a sinking fund for home-related expenses in case something happens to your renters.

    I am personally pro PhD and would be a professional student if it were financially sustainable, but I think you may feel less anxious about it if you can work like a crazy person for the next couple of years and kick your debt. That way, no matter whether you decide to finish your program or re-enter the nonprofit sector, you will be out from under the burden of the consumer and student loan debt.

    Best of luck to you!

    1. Hey Emily! Thanks for the well wishes and congrats to you also for getting out and getting safe!

      I have entertained the idea of going into the private sector, but I have not found any job that would pay me more right now, that I am qualified for, and that would make me happy. And I don’t just mean make me as happy as I am in this job, I mean just at all. Personally, I would much rather have a lower paying job that doesn’t feel like a job then be miserable every day just to bring home more money.

      I am definitely not relying on anything like the PSLF program, only the repayment plan I am in which is structured differently than the traditional forgiveness programs. Everything is on autopay and even if the Department of Education were to pull some boneheaded move and not allow whatever was leftover to be forgiven, like I said, I would rather pay the 3.5% on it than miss out on 7% returns in the market. (Plus, those are my oldest credit accounts so my credit would tank if I were to pay them all off right now. Obviously not something to base the entire decision off of, but an added con.)

      I have done the math on things, and yes, I am absolutely able to afford my mortgage payment without my renters. When I bought my house, I made sure that it was something I could afford on my graduate student stipend alone which is less than what I am even making now. I wouldn’t have been given a mortgage in the first place otherwise. Haha.

      I definitely value the varying perspectives about different lines of work, but I know that for me and how my brain works, I will definitely be less anxious working a job I love and taking a little longer to pay things off than working a job I hate and paying it all off now. For me, slow and steady wins the race.

      Thanks again for the well wishes! I hope that my intended tone is coming across as I really do value the input, even if my response may sound somewhat contrarian.

  28. All the financial advice is great. I just want to add that I have been in abusive marriages 3 times. I ended the merry go round when I was 48, and haven’t looked back. Now that I’m 60 I wish I wish I would have done it sooner, life is wonderful without all the drama. Focus on yourself and your education. Do the work to be financially independent. It is a great feeling to have no debt! Enjoy life!

  29. Returned Peace Corps volunteer here. While living in another culture is certainly an adventure in and of itself, Peace Corps puts a strong emphasis on community immersion, and you may not have as much opportunity for travel outside of your community as you might hope for (I think it was limited to about four weeks per year when I was a volunteer, and I served in the last ten years). If two years in one place doesn’t sound as enticing to you, you might want to consider Peace Corps Response, which has shorter assignments (3-12 months instead of two years) and usually relies more on professional and technical skills (which it sounds like you might have with your background). There may also be more sector-oriented international volunteer opportunities out there.

    Good luck with whatever choices you make. It sounds like you have many great options in your future!

    1. Hey Emily, thanks for popping in! Where did you serve?

      I already addressed this in my reply to Dani, but I am definitely well aware of the fact that time off is limited in the Peace Corps. It would be a detracting factor if it was a commitment for ten years, but for two and a half, that is fine by me. I have definitely looked into Peace Corps Response, but for the engineering positions they typically want people who have their PE license which requires working in industry for several years and I have honestly never had any interest or intention of getting it. Haha. That said, I am definitely trying to improve my Spanish so that I may be considered for some of the water engineering positions in traditional Peace Corps service (since those are almost all in South America.)

  30. I really am only going to address the PhD part of the question. It’s all I have time for right now. I think it’s funny they have a “type” – not really. I’m a female engineer married to a male engineer and I definitely have a “type”. Everyone I dated before I met my husband was a Navy person (as was I, as was my husband) and most of them were scientist or engineers.

    I am going to agree with FW with “there’s no right answer”. I understand the desire for a PhD, and the interest in science. My husband has a PhD, and I work with a metric ton of them (many in materials) and I was a chemical engineer and did a concentration in polymers. It’s really cool stuff!! But I also understand the feeling that you *should* finish. My husband has worked with several PhDs who are “ABD” (all but dissertation) who didn’t quite finish. They never filed. They aren’t “Dr. whatever”. They are all still employed in their industries and are doing great. I want to say that you can still be involved in engineering and science and learn a ton WITHOUT a PhD. One of the smartest, sharpest coworkers I have has a BS in Chemical engineering, but he’s got 40 years of experience and a passion for learning.

    So, what about the current job? When you mention your future self and what you see, being nomadic – how does that REALLY work with the PhD? Can you see how you could have a job that would allow for that? I will say, they do exist – but they are hard to find. You would essentially need to finish the PhD, get a researchy type job if that’s what you want, and work a few more years before you could work remotely. And even then, it will depend on the kind of job (for the first 15 years of my career in engineering, I was a fabrication engineer, so I had to physically run experiments and make things).

    It sounds like the near future you want for yourself fits more with your current job. Now, even if you think your cap salary won’t be enough – that doesn’t mean you cannot leverage your experience into another similar position that pays more.

    I’ll also add, you are still very young. It is not at all uncommon for people to have 4-5 different careers (not jobs) in their lifetimes. It does not mean you never get a PhD, it means you could get one later if you so choose. That is always an option. It’s hard to make the decision to stop when it seems like you’ve been working towards that ONE THING for so long. I understand that.

    Good luck.

    1. Yeah, that’s what I was saying in my “future” statement is that my career and my lifestyle goals are at odds with one another. The type of engineering I enjoy doing requires being in a lab. Remote engineering work doesn’t stimulate or excite me in the same way. That’s why I was saying that maybe a “retire occasionally” type of plan my work for me.

      That’s a good point about having many different careers. It will be interesting to see how they play out.

      Also, the joke about “types” was about them both specifically doing software, especially considering that I am an absolute disaster human when it comes to coding. Not just about them being engieners. XD

  31. Holy cow! So much good advice here and I mostly agree with Mrs. Fugalwoods. I think the PhD can probably wait and be returned to later when, as you mentioned, your knees give out and perhaps by then you will decide it isn’t as important as you thought. Or perhaps you will find a job in that field that not only pays you but will pay for you to go back and get your degree. I live in Washington State and here Boeing often pays its employees to go back to school to get their degrees. Just a thought. Aging is a very real thing and doing what you love while you can do it should be a part of your decision. Mrs. Frugalwoods also brought up the fact that quite often life gets in the way of things you want to do. When you start getting relationships, or family or other responsibilities it limits your freedom to pursue other things. I am speaking as a 67 year old women that has done that. I am not regretting the life I have had so far but there are some things I could have done if life had not got in the way. Now that I am older and I have been able to “liquidate” I will be doing some of those things until my health restricts it.

    There is also another thing that I didn’t see anyone addressing. Your health insurance. You said you are 24 and have your parents insurance until you are 26. That is less than 2 years and is going to be a big expense depending on your job. Also because of the current political things going on right now I don’t see socialized medicine happening anytime soon. Don’t count on the ACA helping either. It will probably be dismantled.

    Credit cards. Wow that’s a lot of credit cards and I commend you for paying them down. Is it an option to combine them on another 0% card? And pay off that Wells Fargo card first. They are a very nasty bank that do not hold dear your sense of ethics. I may be wrong but I thought playing the card roulette game was hard on the old credit score. I would think instead of taking the hit for every one of those cards every time you change to another one it would be better for your credit health if you just combine them all on one and make one payment instead of several. Perhaps that’s something you can research. Just so you know I did that years ago and stopped doing it when I figured it out. However if you keep those other cards open I believe you will find that it gives your credit a boost because you will have all that credit without the debt. (as long as you don’t use them)

    I have to agree with Mrs. Frugalwoods on “putting a pin” in the investment property thing for now. I have a partner and we keep our finances separate for different reasons than you would. However we do own a home together free and clear. No mortgage has been a real eye opener. So much of the payment on a mortgage goes to the bank as interest and not the principle. Perhaps when you get the credit cards paid off you can start paying on the principle of your home. Even a little bit adds up pretty fast. Another reason to concentrate mostly on what you do have as opposed to looking to expand is this economy. I believe another commenter brought this up also. You are probably too young to have really been affected by a recession. I have lived through a few and yes they do seem to have a bit of a rhythm to them. My partner and I have been luckier than most as we both sold our last homes just before the last crash in 2007 and 2008 respectively and bought our current one as a bank owned home in 2009. We paid cash. I don’t recommend trying to time that market however. But I do recommend paying down or paying off your mortgage. It gives you peace of mind to know it can’t be taken away from you by some bank and we are over due for another recession. Being recession resistant is a good thing to be. So many lost so much in 2008 and still haven’t recovered. I have a book you might be interested in reading just for a historical perspective. Its a short read and interesting and you won’t find it in any library (i don’t think). It’s call “Ten Acres Enough” and was written in the late 1800’s I think. It’s one of my favorites because even though I am much older than you it gave me historical perspective about our economy that you don’t get otherwise. If you do chose to read it, make sure you look up the different things he mentions like “the panic of 1876” etc. It’s a whole other education.

    As far as your PhD goes there is lots of advice already given in previous comments that is most likely better than what I could give. However keep in mind you are never to old to go back and get it later.

    The kids are gone and as I said earlier we/I have liquidated our lives so we can now do some traveling while we still have our health. We will be selling the house shortly and because of that I have sold or given away most of the accouterments that go along with this life style and it is an amazing feeling to not have those responsibilities holding us back. Too bad I didn’t do that when I was your age. We do plan to buy another home albeit a much smaller and simpler one, hopefully on a lake. We may also consider purchasing something in an agri-hood type community as I have always had a passion for gardening, canning and preserving and I have always had chickens, goats, geese, and ducks and love them. It is also one of those things that takes youth and strength and finding somewhere that still gives me the ability to do these things and still have the freedom to travel would be a priority. I bring up the agri-hood idea because you mentioned you would love to do some of the gardening and preserving thing.

    1. Hey Susan:

      Sorry it took me a hot second to reply to you. There is a lot to address and I wanted to make sure to get to all of it.

      Health Insurance: Yeah, I was trying to keep the case study from becoming a full length novel. Haha. Health insurance is definitely something I have been considering. My workplace offers health insurance, but I am not certain if I would be eligible to maintain it during leaves of absence. I am definitely worried about the future of the ACA at a federal level, but I feel confident that even if it were to be dismantled nationally, MN would maintain an open marketplace. I am in a good state for this particular issue.

      Credit Cards: Card cycling (where you get the card, get the bonus, then close it) is VERY hard on your credit score. I take advantage of bonuses, but then I keep them open which keeps the credit limits high and the credit history longer. I am also careful not to do a bunch of them at once since lots of inquiries in a short period of time is bad. My score is in the mid-700s so I’m doing something right. Haha. (And the two main factors hurting it are just my entire history being short which can only be improved with time and my high loan amounts on my student loans.)

      I am juuuuust old enough to have been affected by the 2008 crash. So yeah, I am definitely keeping an eye on all of that right now. The case study was written before the coronavirus outbreak started affecting the economy so I am feeling a little more cautious in the short term now. I will have to look for that book on my next library visits! There have been some great book recommendations in these comments!

      I am definitely working on selling things off right now and simplifying. It feels really nice. Haha. That ethos of “less” that I have learned through long-distance hiking and how much less stressful things are when you only have to worry about the 15 lbs on your back is great.

  32. Hi Alex – Congratulations on sharing this out with the Frugalwoods Community and having the strength to get yourself into a better place relationship-wise. I work in higher ed and have the Dr. in front of my name so I’m going to chime in here. Do what you are passionate about and know it will change through your life. Try to surround yourself with people you feel are awesome.

    The fact that your advisor is telling you that there isn’t space in their lab or funding is a major red flag. I would look at what work you have done towards your degree – have you done all the required course work? Are you now on dissertation research?

    If you have done all the course work, I would look at finishing your degree and finding someone you can do your dissertation with without having to physically be at your University. For example, you could try to find a dissertation chair that would help you navigate the system so you actually GRADUATE, keep your community manager job, and do your course work remotely/online. Find external partners for research. Paul Stamets is the guy that immediately came to mind. He’s the mushroom guy that lives in the PNW. Here’s an article on him: . He was also in Michael Pollen’s How to Change Your Mind book. Or look at a company like Ecovative Design ( and their mushroom packaging. I get that you are not doing mushroom stuff, mushrooms are a freely available eco resource that others are using and it might align with being able to do a research project around alternative plastics. It’s also great to connect with experts and work with them and I’m pretty sure all those folks would be into hiking – albeit probably shorter hikes. Might be worth a road trip to go meet folks. Keep working at the community manager job you love and keep those relationships healthy.

    If you haven’t done all the course work, then I would walk away from the PhD at this point and fast track your other longer term goals. I’d make goals like the wilderness certificate and PeaceCorps short term goals. Then after the Peace Corps you could sit with yourself and evaluate doing the PhD program. Some courses like research methods can probably still count in as transfer credit wherever you land if you decide to go back for a PhD. In general, plan for PhDs to take 4-6 years to complete – 2-3 years of course work and then 2-4 years of dissertation work. It’s always best to start PhD programs already knowing (roughly) your dissertation question. That way, all the work you do for your course work can be around that question so that when you get to the dissertation, your literature review is already pretty solid. That approach can save YEARS (=$$$) off of PhD programs.

    1. I am three classes away from completing my coursework. So three classes/one semester from a masters. I came in knowing exactly what I wanted to work on and took all of my courses in alignment with that, then the funding fell through. I don’t think it was a red flag because I wasn’t gone for a semester, I took a two year leave of absence.

      Yeah, I have definitely been wondering how many of my credits may transfer if I were to decide I wanted to return later. Hmm…

  33. Alright, first I’m going to reply to Mrs. Frugalwoods recommendations:

    Thank you again for giving me this platform to reach out to the Frugalwoods community and hear a lot of varying opinions! And thank you for the praise on my situation. No matter how strong someone’s confidence in themselves is, abuse has a really nasty habit of shaking one’s self-worth and confidence in their decisions and abilities so I appreciate it.

    I’m just going to reply in the same format you did to keep things from getting confusing:

    1) That’s what a lot of my analysis about the situation has come down to. Most of my family is in education and I see a lot of value in education for education’s sake, so I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to pursue a PhD for the sake of pursuing a PhD, but I’m not sure that pursuing it for the sake of doing so is the right choice at this exact time. (Ie. Before I am financially independent.) That said, as some of the commenters above have noted, it can be hard to get accepted into a PhD program after you have left as I would be doing, so there is a certain amount of urgency that wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t already started.

    2) So, on this one I am leaning toward a bit of a combined approach, especially given the current market conditions like the mortgage rates (addresseed below.) I mentioned I went ahead and applied for some 0% intro APR/$0 balance transfer fee cards that I can easily transfer the Capitol One and Wells Fargo card balances to to get an extra 9 and 12 months, respectively to pay off those balances, without depleting my cash reserves that much. Since my income is as variable as it is in my job, I am very uncomfortable with it getting that low. That said, I did briefly mention that I am doing that medical trial for about $5500 this spring and my paycheck for this pay period should be the largest I have ever received by a couple hundred dollars so that’s all promising! The emotional temptation of clearing it all out and being able to forget about it is attractive, but I know that my anxiety would rather still have that hanging around than to be sitting around without an emergency fund.

    Expenses: I am way ahead of you on this one. Haha. Gifts have been cut down to next to nothing right now (which is actually fine cuz I have a tendency to get gifts for people and then forget where I put them so I have plenty to give people for a couple of gift-giving events), I have no body modifications planned, and I only have one adventure coming up: Iceland for my birthday with Fran. So the adventures category isn’t going away completely right now, but it is cut down significantly and I am putting aside $200 a month for that trip until May.

    Emergency Fund: I am definitely aiming to have more on the side of six months of emergency fund than three months. That said, I don’t like the idea of that much money earning only 1.7% (ie. less than inflation) so I will probably aim for more like three in that account and the other three in relatively easily liquidated investments. (That’s what I meant in my notes about my personal investment portfolio. I can easily liquidate them if I am in a true emergency that will last more than three months, but I know that it isn’t really an “emergency fund” so to speak.) Also, I don’t use Personal Capital to track expenses because I like to do that by hand/doing so makes me think more critically about each expense, but I LOVE it for tracking overall financial health. I am so glad that I found that recommendation on here.

    Accounts: I tried to address this in my notes, but I do have specific reasons for each of my accounts There is only one account with a physical location I can deposit cash from odd jobs into, but it doesn’t have any interest so it just acts as a transfer vessel for cash to other accounts. Other accounts have 4 or 6% interest on a specific amount of money, so I try to keep that much in there, one bank gives me free life insurance for having an account, etc. I have never had more cash on hand than has been covered by the high interest rate limits before so I am planning on opening another one soon (probably from that list you linked to, thank you!) to hold larger amounts of cash. I am planning on keeping most of the other ones open (because if I can earn 6% on $500 instead of 1.7% then why wouldn’t I?) but I don’t mind a little juggling to take advantage of different interest rate promotions. That prioritization may change as my life changes though.

    Credit Cards: I’ve generally found that I prefer cash back cards in the past to travel cards, but I am considering getting a travel card too if I pick the route that has me traveling for half the year. That said, I didn’t list it because it has a $0 balance right now, but I do have a card that gives me 2.5% unlimited cash back on everything which is pretty hard to beat. Haha. I will look at those cards and see how they balance out!

    3) I know, mortgage rates are crazy! My biggest worry is if I can get my LTV down quickly enough to take advantage of these low rates. The only limitation of the MN First Time Homebuyer’s program is that I have to pay that $8000 loan off UNLESS I refinance through the state sponsored refinancing program, in which case the $8000 loan still sits there at 0% interest until the mortgage is paid off. So I’m definitely going to see what the rates for that program are right now/if they are equally low.

    4) Yeah, this is definitely more of a long term question. Haha. Other than putting some funds into my Roth IRA, all of those things you mentioned are coming before I look at investment properties or investing in non-retirement accounts. That’s a really good point about how being more nomadic or not may help to make the decision for me. I will definitely have to take that into consideration as I weigh the pros and cons here.

    5/6) I am definitely all about clear expectations and boundaries. I am glad to hear you think I am taking the right approach on this one, even if you don’t have personal experience to pull from!

    Discernment: I will say, I am surprised to hear this particular set of thoughts, but your points make a lot of sense! I can’t extend my leave from my program past this August (and certainly not for the two and a half years that Peace Corps would demand since it is a specific time frame) so I would have to reapply if I were to take that path and decide I wanted to return to school. But this would fit all of those personal goals as you mentioned and allow for (limited) student loan forgiveness. Plus, not to get too heavily into politics, but depending on what happens with the presidential election this year, working at the type of nonprofit I am at right now may get to be a little less attractive than it currently is so it’s a good thing to consider with that in mind.

    Summary: Wow. That was a lot of really great advice, awesome points, and big things for me to think about! Thank you so much for taking the time to reflect on my situation and putting so much thought into it. I really appreciate it and will take it all into consideration as I decide what to do moving forward!

  34. I came here to applaud this:

    “It sounds to me like Alex might be looking for permission to let go of the PhD. I want to say that if the PhD does not excite and invigorate Alex, there’s no good reason to go back.”

    Yes, yes, yes! It is a path to a job. If it is not the future job you are set on, let it go. Your current jobs sounds unusually flexible/supportive, and that is an extremely hard thing to find. I would argue that it would be harder to find such a good work environment than it would be to pause the PhD. If you want to finish a PhD in the future, you can. One of my partners is getting his at age 40. But the job is an opportunity in the now. Why not give it a shot to see where it goes if you really love it as much as it sounds like?

    Also just wanted to add that I love seeing another person w/ multiple partners who might one day form an intentional community 🙂

  35. I say work for 5 years and get all the hiking and fun stuff done while you take the time to figure it out, and secure funding for a future PhD (if you decide that’s what you want). You may not always have such a cool and supportive boss. And an employer that asks “what will it take to keep you?” Ask for the world!! I spent 3-4 years traveling the world as a pro triathlete after grad school and had to delay paying off $100k of students, but later found a boss that asked a similar question and I said “help me pay off these student loans”. You’ll still only be 29 in 5 years and as long as you are motivated, the PhD can still be done. I just don’t think you should rush your decision when you are in such a great alternate situation.

    1. Wow, that sounds like such a cool path you’ve followed! I’m so glad to hear that worked out so well for you!

  36. Alex, as a fellow domestic violence survivor, I just want to send you all my best wishes and encouragement as you move forward. Leaving that kind of situation is so disorienting in so many ways and I’m just really impressed with your story and thought process. Whatever you choose, it will just keep getting better – speaking from 12 years of experience.

    1. Thank for for the kind words and encouragement. It’s always promising to see people who have been out for longer doing well. Thank you. <3

  37. My advice is- given the history of abuse, avoid merging finances with any new partners. It can be a real land mine and they’ve been through it once.

  38. I’m an engineer with a Master’s degree, and I’m glad I never got a PhD. In my field (aerospace), getting your PhD requires you to narrow your field of expertise so that you become less widely employable. You have to really gravitate toward a specific sub-field and be excited about doing that for your career – either in academia, or in a full-time industry job that wouldn’t be as flexible as what you have now. It sounds to me like you should stick with your current gig or find something that will utilize your Master’s at a higher pay rate/less flexible arrangement. I agree that it seems like you are looking for permission to walk away from the PhD. I appreciate you making the point about having a non-gendered title, though! That never occurred to me before!
    It seems to me that your activism work is unrelated to your engineering expertise, but maybe I just read the case study too quickly. If you wanted to try to tie activism to engineering… I bet with a chemical engineering degree you can find startup-type opportunities to improve the world. You could use that work to maintain your expertise, in the event you decide to choose PhD in the future. Or do something like volunteer with Engineers Without Borders instead of the long-term commitment of the Peace Corps.

    1. I actually don’t have a Masters even. Haha. I would have to go back and do more classes to get that. Most people in my field don’t end up working on exactly the same type of research they did for their PhD which is nice, but it definitely seems like that is more because of the exact field I am in.

      My current nonprofit work isn’t directly using my engineering skills, but because I am doing a lot of public education, I do get to use my engineering knowledge when people ask me more technical questions about the work we are doing. So it still is a benefit to me either way. That is a good point about keeping up skills for the potential of a future PhD though.

  39. I see that many people have already said this, but I want to contradict Liz on one thing: a PhD is not just about a career path. It’s also about identity, title, fulfillment, and sense of completion (among many other things). I strongly suggest that you return to the program, keep the non-profit gig on the side (as you have suggested is possible in practice if not in precise adherence to the handbook), and consider going full(er) time on the nonprofit gig at that point (or exploring other options). I also strongly suggest you shelve any plans for Peace Corps right now–so many federal programs are being dismantled, and I would not put any of my eggs in that basket at this time!

    You are so strong and competent, Alex, and I applaud you for all that you’ve done in life so far! You can get through four short years (honestly, it will fly by) and you will have that title! (I’m not non-binary but I insist on my Dr. title for feminist reasons–no one better ever call me “mrs!”). And, even if you never practice that exact science, you will be in SUCH a great position to move into scientific non-profit work plus so many more fields. You will have so many more options. I know it is tempting to stick with a position that works for you (and you clearly are good at) in the non-profit field right now, but please do remember that the reason that job is so good for you is YOU–and you will thrive in many other positions, places, etc. Keep your eyes on the longterm prize, and know that you will have options aplenty in the future!

    1. Hey Sarah, thanks for chiming in! At this point the PhD option is definitely feeling more about all of those other things you mentioned than career path for me especially since I have an alternate career path I love here too! That is a good point about funding for Peace Corps right now. It’s a scary situation.

  40. Hey Alex, how are you only 24 you’ve fit a lot in!!!??? So my thoughts on question 1. It sounds like you are getting a hell of a lot of fulfillment from your current job and situation right now. Given the PhD funding situation right now have you just considered postponing for a few years? And scoping out exciting labs / future advisors/ funding streams for the future? I didn’t even start my PhD till I was 28! And I have friends and colleagues who started even later. 10 years on I have my dream job and a hell of a lot of life experience that I didn’t plan, expect, and am so grateful for. I don’t want you to lose track of the end goal, but you mentioned that you’ve been working towards this goal since high school. Do you actually still want this? I definitely felt that by coming back to my PhD later, and older, I got so much more out of it than younger colleagues who were doing it because the timing was right, or it’s what they thought they wanted. And the friends that left their Phds mid way agonized over it at the time but not one of them regrets it now. And they are a hell of a lot happier and fulfilled. I’d say finding a job that you enjoy so much is a rarity and not to be taken lightly! Best of luck!

    1. I definitely appreciate that input. Thank you so much for sharing your journey! My biggest concern if I leave the program now is whether or not I would be able to get readmitted at a later date. Like I said, the abuse resulted in my GPA for this first year being pretty paltry and I know that I could be seen as a liability for a future program.

  41. Hi Alex, About 20 years ago, I applied to law school, wrote the LSAT, got accepted to my school of choice, paid a deposit and then dropped out. I miss that I did not get to learn about law, but many times over the years I have reflected with relief that I did not go. Good luck with whatever you choose.
    PS If you don’t become a Dr., you will not ever have to explain, no, not that kind of Dr., PhD, not M.D., if that is any consolation.

    1. Haha, that is very true that I would never have to clarify that.

      I am glad that you found the path that was right for you. Thank you for sharing and for the well wishes. 🙂

  42. Way to go Alex! You’ve done so much with your time on this planet so far. I wish I was as organized and frugal as you are when I was in my 20’s.

    In response to your question #1: A career in sustainable plastics vs. a community organizer… hmmm…
    Do you want to affect small changes for a lot of people (and the planet) or do you want to affect large changes for a few people?

    In response to your question #5: Percentage math is one way to do this fairly reasonably. If one partner earns $100,000 and another earns $40,000, they should not be contributing the same amount to a large purchase or household expenses. But, if each partner commits to 10% of their yearly income to a big purchase (house, land, etc..) and 20% to household expenses, then everyone is contributing equitably, albeit not “equally”.

    1. Aww, thanks, Jecca. It’s never too late for you to go on an adventure too!

      So with that, it gets a little more complicated than that. The organization I work for actually works on a national level and works on policy changes. So while the interactions I have are at a small and personal scale, the work that is done because of it has a much larger scale effect, both in terms of magnitude and reach. But even if that weren’t the case, I see value in both approaches. I wish I could do both. Haha.

      I’ve definitely played the percentage math game. That’s the most commonsense approach I have thought of but IDK if there is another approach that may be better. That’s one more vote for percentages though!

  43. I am old so perhaps my perspective is not going to be useful, but I have two things to say:
    1. I stormed out of my dissertation defense, literally saying F***k you bastards. I am going home to Alaska.” I was the only woman in my program, they had just started accepting females at Notre Dame, the profs did not really want us, and after three years of post M.A. nonsense I was tired of it. And I was desperately homesick. It was the stupidest thing I have ever done. I am sure you are not an idiot like I was, but I tell you this to say that I have regretted all my life not swallowing my pride, making the damn changes they wanted, and getting that PhD. My husband has a PhD and works totally outside the field he trained in—just having the PhD was enough to open the door to a different career path. If I had it to do over again…
    2. My husband and I started out as a three person relationship. Keep in mind this was 37 years ago so we had to hide everything. We thought it would last forever and combined finances and made a house purchase together and when it went bad, it went really bad. It was hard to untangle everything. And by then I was beginning to tire of the energy it took to keep three people on an even keel. This may not happen to you, I hope not, but just in terms of protecting yourself.

    And one more thing: for a long hike, consider the road that goes from Fairbanks all the way to Deadhorse, at the top of Alaska and beyond the tree line. Parts of it are like a moonscape and the sky with no lighting except in a few spots, is clearer than you will ever see. If you find one of those sites that shows the world at night, with the lighting of places visible, you will be stunned at how little comes out of Northern Alaska. I paid off part of my grad school debts by working for an oil company, where my job was to drive up and down that road to Deadhorse, checking for bombs (this was at the time of the Trans Alaska pipeline when eco-bombing was going on so this guy and were hired to do nothing but start at opposite ends of the road and when we got to the end, turn around an do it again. We would stop at the pipeline camps, few and far between to eat and sleep. You won’t be sorry.

    1. Hey Lindsey: Being older doesn’t mean that your input isn’t useful, just that it comes from a different place. And as I said, I value having lots of varied inputs. 🙂

      1) I definitely wouldn’t be considering not returning if I was that far into my program. Haha. But since I don’t even have all of my coursework done, I still have a looooong way to go.
      2) Having to hide things definitely can make it harder to get outside support. That potential of things going south is why I definitely would want to keep most financial things separated going forward, but the question is more of how to handle other things (like buying land) while keeping things separate for the most part. I’m sorry that things went so awry for you and I hope that it turned out for the better in some way!

      Ooh! That sounds like a gorgeous hike! Do you have any idea how long it is?

  44. Alex, you asked about money management: have you read Your Money Or Your Life? A must read for FI…
    Contributing to a common pot based on % income to share expenses is a common way I’ve used, especially in the short term.
    Also, you can assign beneficiaries to your bank and investment accounts by %, such as 33.3% to each of 3 people.
    I often use a different site to complement the FW wonders 🙂 – you can search or post a question and receive an array of outstanding advice and perspectives. It is a well-moderated board. Here is an example-

  45. Congrats, Alex, in all your accomplishments! Your clear sightedness and analytical approaches to life will take you far, and probably in directions unanticipated at this point in your life. As a person from a family, friend group, and workplace of schoolaholics with many letters after our names, my experience is that people who insist on the use of Dr. honorifics project insecurity and self-importance, and are often taken less seriously as a result. Regardless of whether this is deserved, that can be the perception and thus, even if you earn your doctorate, you might find that you don’t get much use out of it as a form of address. In addition, as someone mentioned above, there is so much flexibility in the sciences and engineering with a masters and/or a PE designation, some of which could actually be limited by a PhD. So I would recommend pursuing a doctorate only in terms of your personal identity and satisfaction (and if you actually want to be in academia, which I don’t really see addressed above) because it is A LOT of time that you could spend elsewhere (literally, in your case!). Best of luck!!

    1. I would by no means insist on the honorific being used if none were being used at all, but rather if an honorific is going to be used, using the appropriate one. There actually is an Oxford dictionary recognized gender neutral alternative to Ms/Mrs/Mr. It’s “Mx,” but nobody will use it. So if I am going to hit my head against a wall where people are going to not take me seriously, they are already doing it and it may as well be a term that people may occasionally use. Haha. ( Not sure how tone is coming across here, but it is meant to be humorous/mildly dejected and tired from this being a constant experience.)

      Yeah, one of the other commenters noted doors that had been shut for her when she got her PhD. Thank you for making note of that. I hadn’t been sure how much that may be a problem so having more than one of you mention it definitely gives me pause.

      And true, it is time that could quite literally be spent elsewhere. Haha.

      Thank you again for the input! And you are right, I fully expect that I will end up going in unanticipated directions. I definitely have a tendency to have a very detailed plan set up and then promptly ignore everything about it because there is a shiny new adventure to take. XD

      1. I love the neutral respect of the designation Mx. and haven’t had a chance to use it yet! And now I want to bang the heads of folks who have been giving you a hard time into that proverbial wall and make them call you Dr. Mx. Alex!! Whatever you choose will be amazing. You’ve been through so much and yet have it SO together at a really young age.

  46. Hi Alex,

    Thank you for opening yourself up to share your story. I have a 14 yr old trans son and I love him with all my heart. We’re early on this journey, but I often think about the path he will take and if he will find a partner(s) and community that supports and loves him as much as we do. Sounds like you were in a pretty awful relationship and it’s inspiring to read about you getting out of it, and creating a new life for yourself.

    The only suggestion I will give is to look at all of the products that you use while hiking. Do any of those companies match your interests and align with your environmental ethics? A BS in Chemical Engineering could land you your dream job of testing products for Patagonia out on the Pacific Crest Trail? I used to work for Gore-Tex (Chemical Engineering) and the fabrics division had all kinds of adventurous product engineering jobs developing Gore-Tex jackets, gloves, boots, etc. You wouldn’t need a PhD for a job like this. It may not give you the total flexibility you’re seeking, but if you love your job and are making 6 figures with great benefits, what’s not to like?!

    Whatever you decide, I wish you all the best.

    1. Hey Robert:

      Your son sounds extremely fortunate to have you as his dad. I can say that I don’t know how I would have navigated the last few years without having my parents behind me and it sounds like (heavens forbid) should he ever need the same kind of support, he will have it. Keep doing what you’re doing. 🙂

      That’s a really interesting idea. I will definitely have to poke around and see if I can find any interesting positions for a larger outdoors company like that. Thanks for the suggestion!

  47. I’d just like to say that
    A) Alex sounds like an awesome human being both in their interests and the way they describe everything.
    I hope you attain your goals of your community and flexibility. It sounds like a great way to live.
    B) I couldn’t agree more with ms Frugalwoods’ point 1.
    Do what you love, and follow your gut. Your head can contemplate everything a million times, but the answer eventually lies in what you FEEL is right for you, regardless of the “shoulds”.

  48. Alex, I commend you for leaving the previous volatile relationship you were in and expressed my condolences for the pain you must have suffered. I am so sorry for your loss. You are a warrior and are now a Phoenix rising from the ashes. Well done!
    I myself had a similar experience when a tumor was found inside my spinal cord and the surgery to removed it left me unable to return to my beloved career in nuclear research and development.
    My domestic partner of 23 years became very abusive forcing me to leave. When one door closes opens. I reconnected with my first love of over 30 years ago and we are now married. Jan and I are currently practicing the Frugalwoods approach and paying off all debt from our past and starting a new as you are only…we are two women of 55 and 53!
    Here is my advice…KEEP YOUR CURRENT JOB! This type of job is one in a million! People would love to be in your shoes right now! You love your bosses and they love you. This is RARE! Your work schedule works with your sleep plus you can take all the time off you would like. This is EXTREMELY RARE!
    I am speaking from a place of love and as a person who was taken out of commission from a career that I loved at age 45, do the job that you love! Live the life that you love! You never know when something might happen to shorten your ability to experience the world, to explore, to go and see and do. Money isn’t everything. It is nice but, your health, your happiness, surrounding yourself with people who care about you, who provide you with encouragement and love…that’s what truly matters. ENJOY THIS GIFT! Ask yourself, “Do I really want to finish my PhD, spend my time in a lab with a job with early am report to work schedule and 2 week vacation annually?” Does that sound yummy to you compared to what you currently have? I think not.

    1. I am so sorry to hear that you were in those situations, but so very excited to hear the much better place you are in now! Congratulations to you and Jan. <3 Sending much love your way.

      Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and your thoughts on my situation. I can feel the enthusiasm in your words and I appreciate your passion coming through. 🙂

  49. At 46 I have come to realize that the only regrets I have are NOT making a decision. Sure, looking back I might want to change a few decisions, but I do not regret them. When I was 24 the company I worked at went public and we could invest whatever we wanted in the IPO. I invested $10k and then promptly lost it all (Sept 11 2001 came along). But, I took a chance, the same way that I’ve taken many other chances. I’m much better off personally and financially for having taken the sum of all those risks. And you are already doing this too – jumping into things and not being scared of life. The fact that you even HAVE A PLAN and are making thoughtful fact based decisions for your life is what will bring you satisfaction. You are STRIDES above where most people are at in their lives at 24. Wow. and you’ve left your marriage. You know how to make good decisions for yourself and change course when things aren’t going as planned. You will continue to do that!

    Regarding refinancing: if you can swing it, sometimes it’s helpful to get a 15 year mortgage when rates are this low. Regarding finances with partners: I only have experience with having one partner and we share everything, but I do know lots of people who keep their finances separate. Separate but transparent sounds good – I don’t care how much money people earn, it’s easy to spend it all. You might find you are better off financially than people making three times what you make. I wonder if setting up a formal kind of HOA type situation for household expenses would work. You have a budget that everyone contributes to on a monthly basis and you all decide how to allocate those funds – so you do share a certain pot of money, but it’s very intentional and specific and isn’t everything you have, just a portion. Keeping your own money will help you to always be able to make the right decisions for yourself and not get trapped into making decisions you would prefer to not to have to make.

    Enjoy all the great life choices you have and will make for yourself!!

    1. Hey Alison: Thanks for sharing your story and your words of wisdom. I have a couple friends who have done the HOA type of situation and it has seemed to work in their situations, though those were all for monogamous partners. It would definitely be interesting to see how this may play out with more people!

  50. Alex!
    I’ll say upfront I didn’t read every word of your post, because I hardly got past ‘leave of absence from my PhD program’ and ‘just left my abusive relationship’ and I thought the whole article was written for me. I applied yesterday for a leave for absence and am currently applying for jobs. My undergrad is as an engineer. So imma weigh in with points of view that other commenters might not have.
    The biggest: if you need to find a new advisor, then you’re not limited to fall 2020, unless you’re planning to stay in your home school.
    2nd: you *just* left your marriage. Is there a mechanism to extend your leave of absence or withdraw/reapply when your advisor gets funding?
    3rd: I’m concerned your advisor might not be in your court. I don’t know, it’s just a nagging thought. My Dept has TONS of TA positions for anyone who’s advisor is between grants or who have been in the program awhile. Do you have an ally on the inside who could get to the bottom and see what options you have? I’m wondering if it might be better to switch advisors anyway.
    I worked with a BS in EE for years making hella good money. Consider that if you decide your current job isn’t for you, that might be the better time to reconsider an MS/PhD program. You’ll have x yrs as an employee to prove you can do the job gig, a freshly minted degree in materials, and THEN you go into that field.
    My personal reason for the LoA considered the mental toll. I do NOT have the mental space to think intelligently on a consistent basis. So I need to find my steady state and then I can go back to deep thinking. I’m concerned you may be unduly influenced by the deadline of fall 2020 to make a decision hurriedly.
    FWIW. I’d love to chat offline. You should have enough info to look me up on Google scholar if my contact info doesn’t post here. Pls reach out if you need/want to continue the conversation.
    Good luck! Enjoy where you are right now!!!!

    1. Hey, Erin!

      Thanks so much for popping in with your thoughts! I definitely relate on the mental toll. I could have handled it fine if it weren’t for the abuse going on at home. My leave has been since July 2018 so I am coming up to the decision and it does feel pretty hurried right now, but it’s not because of a short leave, it’s because of big changes that happened DURING the leave. I’mm not sure how else to explain that without getting into the details of the abuse which, like I said, I don’t mind doing but… let’s just say it sounds more like something out of a Lifetime movie than anything else. Haha.

      Advisor-wise: I would definitely want to stay at my home school. For the type of work that I do, this is THE program to be in. When applying to programs, there is only one other school I even applied to and that was mostly because I felt like I was obligated to apply to a “safety school” so to speak.
      2nd: Alas, no, there isn’t. The maximum length for a leave of absence is two years and I am already taking that. I could always just completely leave and then reapply, but I do not feel at all confident that I would be readmitted with my grades the way they are.
      3rd: I have spoken with the director of graduate studies and if I couldn’t find an adviser by the Fall, I could come back in the Fall and do a TA while I take my last few courses, but if I couldn’t find an adviser by the Spring then I would just be SOL. Also, TAs are only half appointments so my stipend would be cut in half and I couldn’t afford that. My DGS is veeeeeeery hesitant about the idea of me doing two TAs at once.

      Offline: That sounds great! It will probably be a little bit before I reach out because work is CRAZY right now with the COVID-19 outbreak but I will reach out in the near future! That sounds awesome!

  51. Alex,
    I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed reading the story of another poly person. It really made me happy to see this out there.

    1. Yay for more poly folks! I am so happy to see other ENM folks commenting here. Visibility is always important. 🙂

  52. Hello Alex,

    There’s no one ideal career just like there’s no one ideal person. You could make either one work for you; the important thing is what you bring to it.

    Do you want the flexibility to long distance hike or to make a discovery that could let future generations enjoy what we do? Are the two mutually exclusive? Have you read “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk” ? Do you want to walk the walk or make sure the trail is there for the future?

    Regarding possible future living arrangements, just go slow and keep you finances separate. There’s no need to rush into anything.

    You’re doing well; Good Luck!

    Mrs. Gardener

    1. Hey Mrs. Gardener:

      Thanks for the encouragement! The problem is that I want all of those things all the time which is somewhat mutually exclusive with any jobs I currently am aware of. Haha. I haven’t read that exact book, but I am familiar with her story. She is a legend!

  53. I know you’ve received a ton of advice and helpful opinions already, but I have to weigh in with my own version of a risk assessment. It seems to me, that it will always be easier for you to get back into a doctoral program in the future than it will be to find a job you like. Many people live much of their lives in jobs they despise or barely tolerate. Engineers are in high demand even without advanced degrees. You are employable now and more importantly, happily employed now. In other words, keep the job. I believe you will regret walking away from the current gig more than you will regret walking away from the advanced degree. Of course it’s up to you, and only you can make the best decision but I’m looking at this from age 53, my own career roller coaster and that of many people I’ve observed over time. Best of luck with your decision and future happiness.

    1. I appreciate that input, Ann! That’s certainly part of my consideration and I appreciate the wisdom and hindsight that can come with age and experience. 🙂

  54. Have you thought about therapy and/or medication in the short term? I wish I had when I got out of similarly terrible relationship. It lowered my income (I’m self-employed) for years. Do it now, or suffer later. I think you might reconsider your current job once you no longer need something with less responsibilities combined with a bit more income. As someone who also doesn’t live the traditional lifestyle, I would say my graduate degree gives me credibility in a way that an undergrad only degree would not. It also seems, from perusing a few comments, that there are other options once you have your doctorate. It will take a little hussle to find a new program, but get back in the game and then make your decision. It is so easy to get derailed, and then it’s that much harder to get back. Choose the path that gives you the most options for the future. It sounds like finishing your PhD will do that for you right now. Good luck to you and congrats on extracting yourself so quickly. That takes a lot of fortitude!

    1. That’s the great thing with this situation is that I don’t have to find a new program, just a new advisor at my school! I have thought about therapy and that is certainly something I should be pursuing at this point, I’m just more focused on getting my finances back in shape first.

  55. Specific $ Recommendations
    1. With the current low interest rates, have you investigated refinancing your mortgage? I’d expect you’d be able to find lower than your current rate
    2. As Mrs. Frugalwoods recommended, I would remove your ‘Adventures,’ ‘Tattoos & Piercings,’ and ‘Gifts’ budgets until your debt is paid off
    3. Healthcare will be expensive once you turn 26 and can no longer be on your parents’ plan. I suggest researching your options and future costs so as not to be surprised by it
    4. Prioritize contributing to your Roth IRA over your Investment Account for the tax advantages. Look into Roth Savings accounts or Roth CDs to keep the $ liquid (Capital One offers both)
    5. Move your FCCU to Capital One or another high-yield savings account
    6. Consolidate your Aspiration and Robinhood investment accounts into your Stash investment account
    7. After 20 years on REPAYE, any remaining loan amounts forgiven is considered TAXABLE income. Recommend (a) building up a fund for taxes that year, (b) paying off the loans sooner, (c) investigating loan consolidation & PSLF eligibility
    8. Debt repayment order: Wells Fargo CC, Capital One CC, Chase CC, HSBC CC, Federal Perkins Loan, Federal Stafford Loans, mortgage

    General Note: Your “Next 10 Years” list includes: finishing a PhD, a flexible work schedule, travel + long distance hiking, Peace Corps, wilderness EMT and homesteading. I recommend picking 2-3 from the list and work towards those, selecting the ones that confer maximum future flexibility. You can have anything you want, but not everything you want.

    1. Hey Sarah:

      Thanks for the thoughtful input!

      1) Yeah, that was briefly mentioned in my case study. Alas, with the pandemic, I was (thankfully, temporarily) laid off from work so I wouldn’t qualify for refinancing now, but I will definitely be looking into if rates are still low once my department opens back up again. (That may be a while though since our entire job is going to people’s houses. Not the safest thing right now!)
      2) Yeah, the first two are gone right now. Gifts still has some going in there, but definitely a lessened amount.
      3) I have definitely been keeping an eye on that and I am planning on that increased cost once I turn 26. (As of right now I budget $100/month for health care, I just rarely use it so that typically gets put toward savings or debt payoff. I could get health insurance on the Minnesota Marketplace that is sufficient for my needs for about $150/month, less if my income is still decreased at that time because of the pandemic.)
      4) Yeah, I definitely am prioritizing Roth IRA. I actually just applied for a Roth IRA Savings account with a 2%APR last week!
      5) I keep the FCCU account because I get free life insurance through them. I am going to decrease the balance in there though.
      6) Those platforms all allow for trading different things which is why I have different accounts. It allows for me to have more control over where I am invested and diversify my investments more than I otherwise would. I am considering switching my Stash (at least my Roth IRA) to Fidelity though.
      7) Since my student loans interest rates are so much lower than my mortgage rate right now, I am prioritizing those. I am hoping that there will be some type of student loan forgiveness before I reach that point, but if not then I will make sure to have funds available for those extra taxes that year. Since my organization is a 501(c)4, not a 501(c)3, I do not qualify for PSLF.
      8) Other than mortgage being higher priority than the student loans, I am way ahead of you there. 🙂

  56. This is very late to chime in, but after reading all the comments this point did not seem to be clearly addressed and it may be important to other readers who like me enjoy looking at older case studies and might be reading this – the part about needing 20% equity to refinance a mortgage with Private Mortgage Insurance. This 20%, in most cases, does NOT need to come from paying down the initial mortgage balance. The 20% equity usually comes from a combination of paying down the mortgage (a smaller part usually) and from appreciation on the property (usually a faster way to get more equity depending on market conditions).

    I’m not familiar with all the terms of the homeowner assistance program that Alex used, but generally these programs want to help homeowners, and that includes helping them get lower payments by getting lower interest rates AND dropping off the PMI payment. Either one is great, and together can result in a significant reduction in the mortgage payment. Alex will have to add their $8,000 obligation to the mortgage balance so let’s say that they would owe $120,000. Which means that if their house is worth $150,000, then a refi is possible (when Alex is employed again and qualifies for a mortgage – covid is messing this up for them). Best, however, to wait to refi until house is worth $170,000 or more because they’ll have to pay for an appraisal to prove the new value, and appraisals for refis are notorious for coming in lower than true market value.

    Also, please do not get sucked in by a lower interest rate on a fifteen year mortgage. You can always pay extra on a thirty year mortgage, but if something happens to cash flow you can stop adding the extra money to your payment! This is very important because 15 years is a long time and stuff happens. Always keep your monthly nut (required expenditures) low just in case. I’ve known people who refinanced into 15 year mortgages only to waste a lot of money refinancing back into a 30 year mortgage because they couldn’t handle that (much) higher payment every month for years. Only now that I’ve reached FI have my husband and I refi’d into a 15 year mortgage, and doing so has made me nervous! but since he’s 69 it does seem like a good idea to pay off the house by the time he turns 84 🙂

    1. The company I was TRYING to refinance with (so many things to say there XD) gave a value of $145K without appraisal which was going to require paying it down another $5K-ish, but… yeah, Covid… Don’t use Amerisave. Haha.

      And don’t worry, definitely the 30 year for me. I would only do 15 year if I was gonna have a huge amount easily accessible and was just doing a cash-out refi to be able to play with the market… which is not something I am doing at this point.

  57. Mrs. FW and Alex, I would REALLY love another update now that it’s been two more years. Alex’s story is super interesting and they had so may avenues to continue a super-cool life now that things have mostly settled, pandemic-wise. I don’t know if either of you still get alerts from this case study, but if you do, would love a “where are they now” for Alex and other 2020 case studies!!

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