Sara is a PhD student in English Literature at a university in the midwest. She’ll graduate with her doctorate this May and would like our help determining what to do next. Sara notes, “In addition to the poor job market, I’m skeptical of academic work culture, and uncertain if I want to commit myself to a life of 80 hour work weeks and unending pressure to publish and produce. I love teaching, my intellectual community, and my research, but academia doesn’t leave much room for the joyful parts of the job.” In addition to the uncertainty surrounding her career, Sara said she feels like her money is an afterthought right now. She wants to change that and take a more proactive approach to her finances. Join me today as we dive into Sara’s story!

What’s a Reader Case Study?

A winter sunset in Sara’s backyard

Case Studies address financial and life dilemmas that readers of Frugalwoods send in 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 comment section.

For an example, check out the last 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.

The Goal Of Reader Case Studies

Reader Case Studies intend to highlight a diverse range of financial situations, ages, ethnicities, locations, goals, careers, incomes, family compositions and more!

The Case Study series began in 2016 and, to date, there’ve been 65 Case Studies. I’ve featured folks with annual incomes ranging from $17k to $200k+ and net worths ranging from -$300k to $2.9M+.

I’ve featured single, married, partnered, divorced, child-filled and child-free households. I’ve featured gay, straight and trans people. I’ve featured men, women and non-binary folks. I’ve had cat people and dog people. I’ve featured folks from the US, Australia, Canada, England, South Africa, Spain, Finland and France.

I’ve featured people with PhDs and people with high school diplomas. I’ve featured people in their early 20’s and people in their late 60’s. I’ve featured folks who live on farms and folks who live in New York City.

The goal is diversity and only YOU can help me achieve that by emailing me your story! If you haven’t seen your circumstances reflected in a Case Study, I encourage you to apply to be a Case Study participant by emailing

Reader Case Study Guidelines

Sara visiting family in Vermont

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 condemn.

There’s no room for rudeness here–the goal is to create a supportive environment where we all acknowledge that we’re human, we’re flawed, but we choose to be here together, workshopping our money and our lives with positive, proactive suggestions and ideas.

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 Sara, today’s Case Study subject, take it from here!

Sara’s Story

Hello Frugalwoods! I’m Sara, I’m 32, and I’m a graduate student living in the midwest, working on a doctorate in English Literature. I’m newly out of a long-term relationship, and was previously married and divorced in my early 20’s.

I love writing poetry, thrift shopping, home improvement projects (I have a very laissez-faire landlord!), reality television, and dogs. I’d love to have a dog, but don’t currently have any pets. I find dog ownership as a single person pretty challenging, and at the moment I value my mobility and autonomy.

Sara’s Career

Sara finding an excellent thrift store dress!

Prior to graduate school I worked in curriculum development and academic publishing and am considering returning to that field after I complete my degree. I still pick up freelancing here and there to make extra cash and keep my resume current.

This work is quite lucrative, and when I was doing it full time I saved pretty aggressively. This was largely out of a sense of fear, rather than having a plan for my future. The result is that, even after splitting things 50/50 in my divorce, I have a sizable amount in retirement savings (especially considering my salary now!).

Sara’s Financial Journey

Growing up, my parents never made much money. I’ve had at least one (usually two) jobs since I was 11 years old, and I paid my own way through college. I am proud to say I paid off my last remaining student loan in 2020, and I’m completely debt free. I’ve always felt pressure to be financially independent and being frugal is a big part of that.

I do my best to follow a 50/30/20 model with my budget, with 50% of my income going to cost of living, 30% discretionary, and 20% savings. I’ll admit I don’t track my spending like I used to, since my cost of living is so low and my work keeps me preoccupied and reluctant to track spending and expenses. Almost all my money feels like “fun money” which isn’t the best mindset long-term.

Compounding all this, my last relationship was long distance for several years, and I had just moved to an expensive city to be with my partner when the relationship ended. This means I no longer have to ear-mark money for plane tickets or big-city rent, or take anyone else into consideration for long-term planning. I’m back to midwestern prices and just thinking about me.

Sara’s Dilemma: What’s Next?

Sara enjoying coffee on her covered porch

Right now I’m trying to figure out what’s next for me. Without a partner drawing me somewhere, and no clear sense of my next career move, I could conceivably move anywhere (in the world?!). I have money saved, but no plan for that money.

I recently took myself to Italy for a month, which was my first time spending a significant amount of money on a vacation that was just for me, not to see family or friends. I really loved it, and it felt like a step forward for me in terms of using my money joyfully (rather than saving out of a sense of stress or obligation). I also spent a decent amount on Lasik eye surgery earlier this year (something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but could never justify). I’m happy with both decisions, but know I can’t afford to keep making large purchases like this over the long-term.

What feels most pressing right now? What brings you to submit a Case Study?

I’m about to graduate from my PhD program (in May 2022), and don’t have a clear sense of what’s next. The job market for humanities PhDs is bad (like, really bad). I’ll probably go on the market at least once, but I don’t have high hopes for landing a tenure track job, let alone a tenure track job somewhere I’d actually want to live. Once I graduate I do have a guaranteed 10-month post-doc position at my current institution, so I have some time to weigh my options and apply for jobs, but after that there aren’t any viable opportunities for academic careers in my town (and I don’t really want to stay here anyway).

In addition to the poor job market, I’m skeptical of academic work culture, and uncertain if I want to commit myself to a life of 80 hour work weeks and unending pressure to publish and produce. I love teaching, my intellectual community, and my research, but academia doesn’t leave much room for the joyful parts of the job. I also want to make space in my life for creative work, and pursue publishing a book of my poetry, or doing other large-scale art projects.

I’m trying to figure out what’s next, and how I might best martial my finances to support whatever that is. Right now my money feels like an afterthought, and I know I could be doing more to proactively shape my future possibilities.

What’s the best part of your current lifestyle/routine?

I love the autonomy and flexibility of working from home, paired with some work that requires me to be in-person, like teaching and administrative duties. It’s a nice mix of individual deep work, with social, collaborative work (though never as much of the latter as I’d like).

Sara doing archival research

For the most part I make my own schedule, which means I can workout when I want to (3pm, usually!), work the weekend to take a weekday or two off, or travel to see family and friends without much trouble. I also live in a place with a very low cost of living, which means I can afford to make less money in a more creative job without much financial stress.

I love my community, and have a few dear friends within walking distance. I’m also within walking distance of our (modest) downtown, which means I can walk or bike most anywhere I need to go.

Right now I really enjoy renting. I’ve previously owned a home but found it mentally taxing and financially burdensome, and I was able to sell it without much of a loss. I want a space I can make my own, and I’m grateful to live in an apartment that I can make changes to, but am not ultimately responsible for. I might want to own something in the future, but only if it makes good financial sense, and I’m certain about sticking around somewhere.

Lastly, I don’t plan on having kids. I love my friends’ children, and deeply enjoy the relationships I have with them, but have no pull to have my own.

What’s the worst part of your current lifestyle/routine?

Modular shelving home improvement project by Sara

In terms of work, I miss being part of a team and working on large scale projects collaboratively. The collaborative work I do now is mostly administrative and my larger projects are independent.

In terms of lifestyle, I would prefer to live in an urban area and would love to not own a car! In my heart I think I’m a midwesterner, but the options for urban living without a car here are few (Chicago? Minneapolis?). I have family on the east and west coasts, and friends throughout the country, so I could really go anywhere.

I love to swim and hike, but don’t get to do much of either lately. Pre-Covid I went to the pool at my university once a week, but that hasn’t been an option for a while. In the past I lived in places with easily accessible hiking and outdoor, seasonal swimming (hello, Vermont) and I miss that, too. This may be at odds with my desire to not own a car?

Also, most of my friends and family live far away from me, so I have to travel long distances to spend time with them, and don’t see them as often as I’d like.

Where Sara Wants To be in 10 years:


  • When I imagine financial stability, I imagine the ability to occasionally treat my friends to an extravagant dinner without a second thought.
  • I’d also like to make enough to contribute substantially to social causes I care about, and invest in my local community.
  • Ideally I would be solvent enough to be choose-y about the work I take on, and to take longer breaks for creative projects.


  • I’d like to be in a long-term partnership, live in an apartment (that I own?) in a city, walk everywhere (with a dog?) or take public transit.
  • Mostly, I’d like to be deeply engaged in a creative community (attend poetry readings, gallery openings, go to museums, collaborate on art projects, etc.), see friends regularly, and travel occasionally for pleasure.
  • I also enjoy occasionally splashing out on a really fancy meal as I mentioned above, and would love to be able to afford to do this once or twice a year!
  • I’d like a full but relaxed life that isn’t defined by my work.


  • I’ll be 42 and I would like to have published a book (academic or poetry, or both!).
  • I’d also like to be publishing reviews and articles regularly, be teaching or involved with education in some capacity, and have a stable income with decent health insurance (ideally the government will get it together and we’ll all be covered by a single payer system by then!).
  • I’d like my work to be flexible enough that I could take time off for artists’ residencies, or to work on creative projects.

Sara’s Finances


Item Amount Notes
Sara’s net income $2,062 Net salary minus health insurance (no dental) and taxes. I don’t have great benefits through my university.
Freelance income $496 This varies, but this year I expect to make about $8,500 (pre-tax). I deducted 30% for taxes. This income will likely come as one lump sum late in the year, and go right into savings.
Monthly subtotal: $2,558
Annual total: $30,700.56


Item Amount Notes Interest/type of securities held Name of bank/brokerage
Roth IRA $57,753 I contribute $120/month to this account. VFFVX Vanguard
401k $14,702 This is a retirement account from an old job. I’m never sure if I should roll it over or not (and I may reapply to work there post-PhD). VFFVX Vanguard
Brokerage Account $6,710 I contribute $100/month to this account. VTSAX Vanguard
Emergency Savings $5,967 I could probably stretch this amount to cover six months worth of my current living expenses. I contribute $50/month to this account. 0.50% Ally Bank
12-Month CD $5,243 I meant to invest this money when the CD expired last year, but missed the window and it automatically rolled over. The interest rate is abysmal. 0.65% Ally Bank
Short Term Savings $2,795 Savings for upcoming non-recurring expenses, like traveling for two weddings this fall. I contribute $142/month to this account. 0.50% Ally Bank
Money Market $1,400 I regularly move money from this account into the Brokerage Account. VMFXX Vanguard
Prorated Checking $824 I prorate yearly expenses like car insurance, health-care costs, and gifts. I contribute $128.50 per month to this account so I can pay those costs in full with cash when they arise. 0.10% Ally Bank
Primary Checking $42 This is where my paycheck deposits and major expenses are withdrawn, like rent. 0.10% Ally Bank
Cash Withdrawals Checking $20 I use this account to withdraw cash in small amounts. 0.10% Ally Bank
Total: $95,454


Vehicle make, model, year Valued at Mileage Paid off?
Honda Fit 2011 $6,000 75,000 Yes
Total: $6,000


Item Amount Notes
Groceries $300 I don’t eat out much, so I like to purchase nice coffee, expensive butter, and local produce. This also includes household supplies like toilet paper and cleaning supplies.
Rent $270 I split a total monthly rent of $540 with a roommate for a two-bedroom, one bath. I may take over the apartment for myself next year when my roommate leaves after graduation. Water and trash included.
Spending Money $100 I generally give myself $100 cash to spend on entertainment or eating out at restaurants. I’m not great about sticking to this budget and often put ‘fun’ purchases on my credit card (with the justification that I’m earning cash back!).
Travel $100 I travel semi-regularly to see family and friends that live several states away (or in other countries). I almost always have somewhere to stay for free, so this expense is for transportation (driving or flying).
Healthcare $68 I have a semi-serious health condition that requires regular monitoring. I spent more this past year than usual on doctor’s visits, which I don’t expect to be the norm, but I have pretty terrible coverage through my university. I will always have a fixed cost for prescriptions.
Car Insurance $66 Currently AllState – I work with a local insurance broker that I trust to get me the best deal available to me.
Phone bill $55 I have a phone plan with T-Mobile that I don’t love. In the past I’ve also done Republic Wireless, but found the call quality to be poor. I’m open to changing and don’t have a contract.
Gasoline $50 I rarely spend this much unless I am driving long-distance to see family. I walk as much as possible and use my car mainly for grocery runs.
Car Maintenance $42 I budget $500/year for regular car maintenance (oil changes, brakes, etc.).
Gifts $30 Mostly gifts for my friends’ kids at this point in my life. Occasionally birthday gifts for friends, but we enjoy thrifting for each other so that’s relatively low cost. My immediate family does a secret Santa for Christmas, so I’m only responsible for one person (approx. $100 budget).
Subscriptions $27 I pay for Apple Cloud Storage ($1/month), Spotify Student ($5/month), Marco Polo Plus to keep up with friends ($5/month), have a yearly fee for my Southwest Credit Card* ($5.75/month) and have a yearly web-hosting subscription to Squarespace ($10/month). (*affiliate link)
Personal Care $26 I enjoy skincare and regularly purchase new lotions and potions. I get my hair cut in a no-frills salon 1-2 times/year.
Charitable donations $20 I have a recurring monthly donation to my local homeless shelter, and would love to be donating more.
Clothing $20 This really should come out of my spending money, but I spend about $20/month at the thrift store on clothes.
Home Improvement $15 Things like paint, shelving, caulk, tools. I have been trying lately to repurpose what I already have to lower this cost.
Utilities (electric, wifi) $0 My roommate currently covers the electric and wifi for our apartment, since I do most of the cleaning and home maintenance.
Monthly subtotal: $1,188
Annual total: $14,256

Credit Card Strategy

Card Name Rewards Type? Bank/card company
Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card Cash Back (1.5%) Capital One
Southwest Rapid Rewards Travel Chase

Note: these credit card links are affiliate links

Sara’s Questions for You:

1) I know I’m in a fortunate position with a really low cost of living, no debt, and no partner or kids I’m responsible for. How can I motivate myself to budget more strictly and make better use of this time?

2) What more can I do to make my money work for me long-term as someone who wants to pursue a creative career? Should I put more money into investment accounts, rather than retirement?

3) Are there any ethical or socially-conscious investment options you can recommend? Right now I have investment accounts with Vanguard, and the portfolio includes companies I have serious qualms with. How can I divest to bring my money in line with my social values?

Liz Frugalwoods’ Recommendations

One of Sara’s pandemic hobbies – watercoloring her coffee mug collection

Sara, you are doing a great job! I find it really commendable that Sara managed to weather several circumstances that often spell financial doom: a divorce, moving and pursing a PhD. And she’s nowhere near a state of financial doom–she’s in a state of financial greatness!

I’m so impressed with her ability to live so frugally and to pay off all of her student debt, invest for retirement and have emergency savings to boot. A true testament to what’s possible when you embrace frugality to the fullest. Well done, Sara! You should feel proud of yourself! Alrighty, let’s dig into her questions.

Sara’s Question #1: I know I’m in a fortunate position with a really low cost of living, no debt, and no partner or kids I’m responsible for. How can I motivate myself to budget more strictly and make better use of this time?

I honestly don’t think Sara could possibly be doing a better job with her budgeting and savings! She’s living on a mere $14k a year, which is frugal boss level. I don’t see how she could spend much less and still have a roof over her head and food to eat. She has a sweet living situation with super low rent and a roommate covering utilities in exchange for Sara doing the housework–a brilliant barter and trade system, I must say! I mean, sure, she could trim around the edges of her spending, but it’s not going to amount to very much savings and would likely decrease her quality of life–who wants that?!

Switch To An MVNO ASAP

The one thing I think Sara should do on the expenses front is switch her phone service over to an MVNO because it’s an easy change that will net her savings every single month for the longterm. I like a savings opportunity like this because you’re not giving up anything and you’re not depriving yourself, you’re just being smart.

MVNOs are wireless service re-sellers and they re-sell name-brand services (think Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, etc). Since Sara already owns her phone and isn’t under contract, this’ll be a super simple switchover for slam dunk savings. Sara currently has T-Mobile and, if she likes the service she has, she can just select an MVNO that re-sells T-Mobile. If you want to read my full explanation on MVNOs, go to this post.

Here’s the chart from that post outlining which MVNOs re-sell which service:

Name of MVNO The Networks They Resell Base Price Can you bring your own phone? Contract free? Nationwide 5G Coverage? International plans available? Sign-up Here:
Ting (this is the service I use and I like it a lot). Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon $10 per month for unlimited talk and text without data +$5 per shared GB
of fast data
Yes Yes Yes Yes Go here to browse Ting’s service plans
Twigby Sprint and Verizon $10 per month (for first 6 months, then $20 per month) for 3GB, unlimited talk and text Yes Yes No; 4G LTE Yes Go here to browse Twigby’s service plans
Mint T-Mobile $15 per month (for first 3 months, then $25/month) Yes Yes Yes Yes Go here to browse Mint’s service plans
GoSmart T-Mobile $15 per month for unlimited talk and text Yes Yes No; 4G LTE Yes Go here to browse GoSmart’s service plans
Republic Wireless Sprint and T-Mobile $15 per month for unlimited talk and text Yes Yes No; 4G LTE Limited options Go here to browse Republic Wireless’ service plans
Net 10 Wireless AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and US Cellular $15 per month for unlimited talk, text and data Yes Yes No; 4G LTE Yes Go here to browse Net 10’s service plans
Tracfone Wireless AT&T, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular (feature phones only), and Verizon $20 per month for unlimited minutes and text and 1GB of data Yes Yes Yes Yes Go here to browse Tracfone’s service plans
Total Wireless Verizon $23.70 per month for unlimited Yes Yes Yes Yes Go here to browse Total Wireless’ service plans
Simple Mobile T-Mobile $25 per month for unlimited talk and text Yes Yes Yes in some areas, otherwise 4G LTE Yes Go here to browse Simple Mobile’s service plans
Straight Talk AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon $30 per month with 100MB of data Yes Yes I couldn’t find any info on it, so probably not Yes Go here to browse Straight Talk’s service plans

Note to you: these are affiliate links for MVNOs. Wondering what that means? Here ya go.

I myself use Ting and pay about $14 a month.

Sara’s Question #2: What more can I do to make my money work for me long-term as someone who wants to pursue a creative career? Should I put more money into investment accounts, rather than retirement?

Sara making ratatouille at home

The backbone of my answer is to increase her income. There’s a finite amount of investing and saving that Sara can do on her current income of $30k a year. She’s already saving and investing at pretty much the highest rate possible given this income. The real change will happen when she earns more. To that end, I’d say now’s the time for Sara to dig in and focus on her job search.

Since she indicated she doesn’t want to remain in the midwest and is considering the coasts, she’ll need to increase her income in order to afford the higher cost of living on either coast. Sara has options here–she can pretty much do whatever she wants! How cool is that!

Since Sara sounds bit uncertain about where she’d like to work, I wonder if she’d enjoy teaching high school English at an exclusive private school, perhaps in the Northeast? From what I understand, some of these schools offer nice salaries, good benefits, a good quality of life, the possibility of free room and board (via living on campus), travel opportunities and a walkable community. Not the publish or perish cutthroat environment of higher ed. Just something to consider.

Overview of Accounts

Let’s do an overview of where Sara’s assets are at.


Between her Roth IRA and 401k, Sara has $72,454. According to Fidelity’s (somewhat oversimplified) retirement rule of thumb, you should have:

…at least 1x your salary by 30, 3x by 40, 6x by 50, 8x by 60, and 10x by 67.

Since Sara’s in her early thirties, she should have 1x her salary, which would be $30k. By this metric, she’s doing great! The key will be for Sara to continue investing for her retirement throughout her working years so that she’s able to reap the magic of compounding interest when she retires.

Non-Retirement Investments

These are also called “taxable investments” and Sara has just such a brokerage account with Vanguard that’s at $6,710. This is a great start and she should continue investing into this as long as she doesn’t have major expensive life changes on the horizon. Much like with a retirement account, you want to keep your taxable investments invested for the long term. You can pull money in and out of these, but you’ll pay capital gains taxes and you likely won’t see a return on the money. The point of an investment account is that you don’t touch it for many decades. You just watch it grow and grow!

Cash Savings

Sara on a walk in Italy

Sara’s incredibly organized in this arena and has $11,047 in cash savings. This gives her an emergency fund that would cover more than nine months of her living expenses–very well done!

One question I have here is why she has this spread out across six different accounts at different banks with different interest rates? If it were me, I would consolidate this to one savings account–whichever one has the highest interest rate. If Sara prefers having six different accounts, go for it! But I question not taking full advantage of the highest interest rate of 0.50% (which, by the way, is awesome in the current interest rate environment!)

CD (Certificate of Deposit)

I agree with Sara’s assessment that she should roll this money into her taxable investments the next time it’s eligible to do so.

Sara’s Question #3) Are there any ethical or socially-conscious investment options you can recommend? Right now I have investment accounts with Vanguard, and the portfolio includes companies I have serious qualms with. How can I divest to bring my money in line with my social values?

To get us started, let’s do a deep dive into Vanguard’s socially responsible fund, ESG US Stock ETF (ESGV), which they define as follows:

ESG investing, which typically assesses the factors listed below [environmental, social, governance], offers a way for you to invest in funds that consider environmental, social, and governance issues. You may hear the term used interchangeably with “socially responsible investing (SRI)” and “sustainable investing.” source: Vanguard

Sounds pretty good, right? But now, let’s a take a close look at what ESGV is ACTUALLY invested in:

Folks, 8 of the top 10 holdings of Vanguard’s socially responsible investing ETF are IDENTICAL to those of Vanguard’s regular old total market fund. And sure, I suppose you could make the argument that Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and Tesla are “ethical” companies, but I’m pretty sure you could just as easily make the opposite argument.

A river near Sara’s home

To whit, let’s take a look at Tesla. This is a great environmental company, right? Building electric cars, saving the planet? And to a certain extent, that’s true! But on the other hand, it’s important to note that Tesla is heavily reliant on the mineral cobalt, which they import from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is mined by…. child labor. Here’s what an article in Forbes says on the matter:

Most tech and auto companies using cobalt have taken steps to avoid sourcing from cobalt mines that rely on child labor, but it’s a hard thing to track since it changes hands several times before reaching a battery cell at the end of the supply chain. Source: Tesla Supercharges Africa’s Cobalt Concerns With New Glencore Deal

I don’t think any of us would argue that child labor counts as “ethical.”

I’m not here to hate on Tesla or Vanguard or the stock market. Rather, I’m here to illuminate the fact that our economy is interconnected. There is no way to avoid horrific things like this, even when investing in what’s dubbed a socially responsible investment.

Anther great example in this vein is the John Deere tractor company. Are they socially responsible or are they monsters? On one hand, John Deere sells tractors to small family farms who grow local organic produce that we buy at our farmer’s markets. Good, right? However, John Deere also sells excavation equipment to coal companies. The whole point of a capitalist economy is that it’s interconnected. If you invest in the stock market, then by its very definition, you’re going to be investing in things you might find unsavory. Even if you invested in just one company that you deemed pure, every single for-profit company makes ethical compromises at some point.

Paying More for… the Same Thing

Sara thrift shopping

I’m not trying to bum everyone out here, I’m just trying to point out that most “ethically responsible social investing” is just marketing. At the end of the day? It’s invested in pretty much the same stuff AND it charges you more for the privilege. Oh yes, you pay more for essentially the same thing.

This Vanguard page provides a fantastic side-by-side comparison of their ethical investment vehicle (ESGV) and their regular old total market fund (VTI). In order to view this comparison, you need to select the two funds and click “compare.”

We saw in the chart above that 8 of the top 10 holdings for these two funds are IDENTICAL. However, ESGV charges you an expense ratio of 0.12% while VTI charges you a mere 0.03%. That’s a really big difference. That’s a lot of money you’re going to lose over a lifetime of investing to fees for what is, again, essentially the same exact product. If you want to do this, you can, but know that it’s an emotional decision, not a wise financial decision and not a decision that actually invests you in “pure” companies (see again my note above about Tesla, which is the poster child for many ESGs).

What to do Instead? Volunteer Your Time, Donate Your Money

So what’s my actual answer here? I choose to invest in a total market, low fee index fund.

If a person did this, that person could then use the money they save by not paying the much higher ESG fees to donate to causes and organizations they believe in (here’s how I manage my charitable giving). A person could also use the time they save by not researching ESGs to volunteer at organizations they believe in.

The only thing you’re really doing when you buy an ESG is giving more of your money to investment brokers who will go spend it on… uh, whatever it is they spend money on. Again, I’m not trying to be a downer, but I do get worked up when I see clever marketing trying to convince us to pay more in order to be better people. At the end of the day, you very often cannot buy your way to green. What you can do is live a frugal, lower-impact lifestyle where you buy used, minimize your trash, compost your food scraps, reduce your driving (or drive electric/hybrid), look for energy efficiency options in your home, donate your money and volunteer your time.


  1. Start job searching ASAP! Consider the possibility of a private secondary school that would provide a good salary, benefits, work/life balance and the possibility of free room and board.
  2. Switch to an MVNO for cell phone service.
  3. Know that your current savings rate and budget are fantastic and that there’s not much more you could possibly be doing on you current income. The focus should be on finding a well-paying new job in a location that you enjoy.
  4. Research socially responsible investing, but please understand that in most cases, you’ll be invested in many of the same stocks and will pay more in fees for the “privilege” of doing do.
  5. Feel confident in the awesome financial decisions you’ve made thus far! You are killing it (in a good way, to be clear)!

Ok Frugalwoods nation, what advice would you give to Sara? We’ll 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.

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  1. I earned my PhD in English literature from a midwestern university in 2017 and spent three years on the market. I had a number of interviews but no offers—and this with several publications in top-tier journals. It’s brutal! I ended up taking a lectureship in rhetoric for $45,000 a year at the university where I earned my PhD. The work/life balance is okay—there’s no pressure to publish as an instructional-track faculty member—and the benefits are great, but research/scholarship was my primary love. I have found it more lucrative and enjoyable to work in publishing (not academic)—the salary is nearly double, the work-life balance is better, and it still allows a healthy blend of creative and critical work.

    Have you considered instructional design? I have colleagues who have transitioned easily into instructional design jobs at universities. I think corporate instructional design jobs pay a lot better but often want some sort of certification in it. Many of these jobs are remote so would provide flexibility for travel.

    1. Thank you for sharing – ugh, the job market is so brutal (and uneccesarrially so!). My side gig is in curriculum design for K-12, but I hadn’t considered instructional design for the university, that’s a great idea.

      1. Sara, I’m an instructional designer and I work for a large consulting firm that is Federally-focused. Fantastic experience, high pay, always something new to learn. I would highly recommend it!!

        1. Thank you, Paula! I worked at a similar sounding consulting firm doing national curriculum pre-grad school, and I had a similar experience to what you describe. The money, especially, would be nice after so many years on a grad school stipend! I am just not sure I’m ready to give up on the dream of academia. More thinking and reflecting to do!

  2. Hey Sara! Great job. (& Great job Liz on writing it up). As someone who got a PhD in 2009 I can tell you that I agree 100% with your take on working in Academia. Unfortunately, universities are horrible at career counseling for PhDs. If you’re lucky, you’ll have your advisor will give you some coaching on how to put together a decent job talk for interviewing at different institutions. I was lucky enough to fall into a non-university research job and it is pretty sweet. But I feel guilty because I can’t coach anyone on how to do what I did since I got lucky.

    It seems like you’re already on a great path. And it seems like you already have a vision of what you want and don’t want. Honestly, that’s the hardest thing sometimes. Good luck on your journey!

    1. It’s encouraging to hear stories like yours, even if there’s an element of luck. I’m so glad you were able to land in a career that still allows you to research. Thank you for the kind words, too.

  3. Have you considered converting some of your pretax 401k from your old employer to a Roth? If you are expecting your income to go up, this might be a. Ideal time.

    Also, most CDs can be transferred at any time with a penalty of 3 months interest. It might be good to consider this since you aren’t happy with the interest rate.

    1. I really should! The conversion process seems intimidating to me, but I haven’t looked into it very carefully. Thank you for the nudge – I’m going to take a more serious look into it.

      1. I agree it makes sense to do this now. I rolled over funds into a Roth a few years ago – basically the funds counted as taxable income so I had to be prepared to set aside some money to cover extra income tax. Since your income is lower now than it will be in a few years it would be best to do this now from the tax perspective. It’s worth calling or online chatting with the institution where your Roth is held. They should be able to walk you through it and get you the correct paperwork.

  4. Hi. I just wanted to suggest that Sara look at university teaching jobs that aren’t on the tenure track. I’m not talking about adjunct jobs, but rather career track teaching positions. I can’t say for sure what she will find in the way of English literature positions, but I can share that when I finished my PhD, I was hired in a career track teaching position at a major state university in the SW. At my university, hiring adjuncts only happens when the position actually calls for an adjunct (for example, filling a one semester need for a single class due to someone’s sabbatical). To cover the significant teaching needs of departments, at my university, they now hire career track teaching faculty. The pay is less than tenure track pay in the same field, but not significantly less, and we have multi-year contracts and good benefits. We also have no publishing pressure whatsoever because our positions are not research positions. We do have significant teaching loads (in my department, a 3-3 teaching load), plus service, but I love teaching and didn’t want the publish-or-perish work culture that surrounds tenure. I also have summers off, with no teaching or research obligations. Again, I’m not sure what the market will offer in Sara’s field, but in my area (social sciences), there are these teaching focused university careers available. I think the old story is that you get on the tenure track or you are relegated to a nightmarish adjuncting rotation, but at least at some universities, there is now a third path where the university acknowledges its significant teaching needs and is willing to offer a real career around meeting them. Another idea is that Sara could see if her past curriculum work would qualify her to be in an instructional design position. Again, at my university, there is a significant focus on teaching well, and to that end, the university provides fantastic resources for faculty to improve their teaching practices and course design by way of a team of instructional designers and curriculum specialists, who all seem to have PhDs and are amazing, creative and helpful people. There may be other interesting career paths at the university level as well, that would be outside of the English department. A final suggestion is to look at jobs at community colleges. My neighbor teaches creative writing at the community college in our city and she loves it. The class sizes are small, the students tend to be hard working and she has a stable career (with a multi-year contract and benefits). I doubt she makes as much as she would at the major university, but the great thing about being frugal and unattached is that Sara doesn’t have to make a huge salary to be happy and still have enough to invest in her retirement.

    1. All great suggestions, TKL – I’m trying to cast a wiiiide net in my job search, but I’m still figuring out what to prioritize (location, salary, etc.) which is tough to do in the abstract. Submitting this case study helped clarify things, and I imagine as I get into the search I’ll know more, too.

    2. On teaching track you will still have access to research resources – the library, etc. – so you can do research and publishing if you’d like even while in the teaching track. There isn’t the pressure to publish but the resources are there! You also have the freedom to research and write about whatever you’d like. Then if you do want to pursue tenure later or the chance presents itself, you’re already ready to go with some published work.

  5. I think it’s good advice to consider teaching high school, but think about public school! Great benefits, you are on the academic calendar, and salaries in many places are pretty good (typically better than private schools). Plus you have union protections that you don’t have in private schools, like guaranteed planning time. In Saint Paul a teacher with a PhD would start at ~50k and get regular raises up to ~97k after 20 years.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I deeply believe in public education but I dont think I’d be qualified to teach at a public school in most states – public schools require you to hold a certification and license which would take 1-2 more years of schooling. A lot of humanities PhDs go teach at private schools for that reason.

      1. Some public schools will hire uncertified teachers and then help you get certified (especially now with a shortage of teachers in many places). My husband has a PhD in English and just got a job teaching high school English for a public school. As part of the deal, he will have to get certified within two years, but they will pay for it. Lateral entry is another possibility, depending on the rules in your state.

        1. This is so fascinating! I haven’t even considered public schools (for lifestyle as well as license reasons) but it’s interesting to know that it could be a path without spending 1-2 years in teaching school.

          1. School principal in Texas here–you can definitely be hired without a certificate. To be certified, there are alternative programs that allow you to obtain a teaching job while completing minimal coursework. Essentially, your teaching job is a paid internship. Additionally, many public schools partner with local community colleges to offer Dual Enrollment options to our high school kids. We are always searching for individuals who can fill those spots. The bonus is that you get paid a regular teaching salary ($54k to start in my area with free health insurance, a matching program, generous sick/personal leave), AND you are paid a stipend for each class by the community college. It can be very, very lucrative for the work schedule involved.

      2. It depends on whether you can get a provisional license.

        Fair warning, teaching high school in a public school is a very different experience than teaching at the collegiate level.

        In any case a lot of school systems and private schools are very hard up for substitute teachers at the moment so you can definitely find work doing that even without the credentials.

        1. Good point about subbing, thank you! That could also be a way to really figure out if it’s something I could see myself doing full time. Right now I imagine no, but I don’t have the concrete experience to back that up.

      3. As someone else mentioned, public school districts are so desperate for teachers you would not only be qualified but they would likely bend over backwards to get you certified in the easiest way possible. Certainly you’d start teaching and earning a salary simultaneously while pursuing your licensure.

        That said, as a former public school teacher (who pursued alternative licensure), I found the academic calendar to be extremely oppressive with regards to travel. It was difficult to travel during off seasons and take advantage of low airfare on non-weekend days. You’re pretty much stuck traveling during the high season (summer, holidays). I taught in both disadvantaged and very advantaged settings, and both have lots of pros and cons. As a type-A personality, I often found myself working 80 hour weeks (more when I taught disadvantaged students). I hate to lead anyone away from the incredibly important work of teaching, but with all of the incredible options you have in front of you, I can’t imagine teaching would be particularly appealing 🙂

    2. I was going to suggest the same thing. I work in public school district in the St. Louis area and the benefits are excellent, the salary scale goes up to 100k, and our pension system is really good. Teachers here often retire long before 65 (in MO, you can retire when your age + years of service = 80).

      A lot of states have an alternate route to licensure or will accept things like the ABCTE exam in lieu of an education degree. I recommend considering the option!

  6. Hi Sara. You say you miss collaborative projects, and that you used to work in academic publishing and curriculum development, but that you still do this individually now through freelancing. Is this kind of collaborative work you miss, just that it’s no longer collaborative?. If it is, then I reckon you should pursue collaboration again, if possible. If you are looking for a low(er) cost area with academic jobs. I’m going to suggest Pittsburgh. I haven’t lived there, but it’s in my underrated home state- I enjoyed a visit and want to go back. I lived in the Capital District in Upstate New York many moons ago for four years. It’s a regional center for higher education institutions, with a low cost of living, handy for Vermont excursions. Public transport wasn’t great there, but there were walkable areas. Best of luck.

    1. Thanks, Cara. I’ve heard great things about Pittsburgh from friends, it might be time for a visit. My freelance work is definitely more collaborative than my academic work, and if I did it full time I’d probably be managing a small team which sounds like fun to me!

    2. As someone actively living in Pittsburgh, but who isn’t a Pittsburgh native, it really is a great city to call home. I would say that there is a Midwest feel in the sense of neighbors helping neighbors & genuinely loving their city. Lower cost of living than many major metro areas. And if you’re inside the city limits (there are literally 90 neighborhoods to choose from) many will allow you to be car free. Public transportation is below average for the size of the city in my opinion, but really depends what area you live in. Hike wise, there are several very large parks with hiking that are an easy walk or bike ride from many parts of the city. We have MANY good hiking options within a 30-45″ drive of downtown and PA state parks are free to access!

      We have many universities if that’s the way you decide to roll – Pitt, CMU, Duquesne, Carlow, Point Park U & those are just the ones within city limits.

  7. Good job Sara! It sounds like you’ve worked hard to get a lot of tricky things in line. I recently worked in academic publishing, and I just wanted to chime in that I think a lot of positions are now much more likely to be open to remote work due to the pandemic. That might be a way to build on your existing experience to earn more, while staying in an area with easier cost of living. The Society for Scholarly Publishing has a pretty active jobs board that you can sign up to monitor.

    1. Thank you! I’m going to add the SSP to my job search list. I did some journal editing in my department and loved it, so I think I could be pretty happy in a publishing job!

      1. Hi Sara, I work for one of the big academic publishers (mostly science though) and there’s a big commitment to more flexible work, including remote work. Also academic publishing has had a bit of a boom (send academics home and *a lot* of them write) and so there are jobs going

  8. Hello! I enjoyed reading your story. I’m 38 and finished my PhD last year. I’ve been in academia for quite a bit longer than that though, however just started my tenure track last August. Not my fave. I hate feeling each day that I’m behing on publications, or that I should be doing something to get published instead of (fill in the blank with anything besides publishing). I started working as an adjunct and have picked up three schools since August of 2020. I also have worked with several academic publishing companies with some freelance stuff, which I have made about 5k on this year so far. Next year, I should be making 55k just from my side gigs, which means I could technically replace my full time job. So I’m going to do that for a few years ( saving my entire paycheck from my university) then quit that job and only do adjunct-ing. My husband works from home and can work from anywhere, and with online adjunct teaching so could I- so that’s our plan. I’m not in the English field but would think that would be a needed course, especially gen-ed type courses. Just a thought.

    I think you are a rock star. Good job!

    1. Thank you, Rachel! Your description of TT is what I’m afraid of. I hate the looming sense that we’re not fulfilling some expectation when we’re also working SO hard and doing so much, and publishing is also beyond our control in a lot of ways. I hope you’re able to make that transition next year!

  9. Have you considered teaching at a community college? The status is not the same, but people are equally interesting, with students who can be much more motivated. My friends who work at them enjoy focusing on teaching without the publish/perish stress. They also offer tenure. Benefits are similar to university jobs, and salaries start at decent rates. The reduction in stress allows for more opportunities to collaborate, more free time while still being in an academic environment—sometimes w/opportunities to collaborate w/universities. A big bonus is that there are community colleges everywhere, giving many more options of where to live. With your love of outdoors, have you considered smaller cities w/college town cultural benefits and some urban culture like Denver, Tucson? Maybe plan travel to possible locations you’d like to live, while also planning outdoor activities to get a taste of what’s available.

    1. If you want low cost of living, don’t consider Denver. 🙂 I live in southwest Littleton and cost of living has steadily increased over the years, but everyone and their mother are moving out here now. Yep, it’s pretty, but geez… Hubs and I are very outdoorsy and hate to think of leaving, but we can’t really enjoy the public trails anymore…

    2. Thanks for your comment, Rachel. I would love to teach at community college. Your friends’ experiences sound similar to what I’ve heard from folks I know that have jobs at them. Unfortunately, community college jobs are also very competitive in the current market, but I am open to them in my search. For living, I haven’t considered (or visited) Tucson, but maybe I should! I appreciate the suggestion.

  10. Although my age and circumstances are different, the overall markers of this study case are amazingly similar to mine. I was happy to see that they were given the thumbs up! My only concern is the Southwest credit card. I would never ever pay an annual fee for a credit card no matter how good it is. Best of uck in the future finding balance between quality of life and salary!

    1. The Southwest card gives anniversary miles, so the annual fee basically converts to miles. If you travel a lot, it’s worth it.

    2. Thanks, Jennifer. I normally wouldn’t either, but signed up for the card when I was flying almost monthly for a LDR. I’ve already paid for this year, but I am definitely going to close that card before it renews next year. This is a good reminder to put that in my calendar so I don’t forget!

  11. During the job-hunt stage, the main thing is to stay positive, and keep trying, also on the periphery of your expertise. Once it clicks, you (Sara) will look back and have even a good laugh to see that it was so easy. In the meantime, keep looking for a job that gives you just the amount of money, satisfaction and peace of mind. Come on, a PhD in English is not a joke. You will succeed soon.

  12. Have you considered non USA universities? All countries of Europe are offering English language bachelor and masters. This could be a step into traveling and getting the best out of academia. There are worldwide lots of private high schools looking for teachers. Now you are free and able to try out theses things. In Europe you have a bank called trios bank, that deals purely in ethical investments, is there such a think in the states?

    1. I have considered Europe, but not seriously. It’s a good suggestion! I guess it feels too much like a fantasy and I’m not sure how I’d make it happen, but doing some research to demystify that would help.

  13. Great job Sara! My advice is to start tracking spending again to gain additional insights into where your money is going. I would also look at some of the FIRE blogs as it seems you might be happy earning/saving enough money so you can free up larger chunks of time for things you really love. I tried adding up all of your savings/spending and it seems there is some “missing” money. So unless I’m missing something, it seems there is a chunk of money that is not accounted for each month. Monthly income is $2558 and monthly expenses is $1188, which would leave $1370 for investments. When I add up what you are putting into various accounts each month, I get $540.50. That leaves $832.50 unaccounted for each month. Investing another $800+ per month into regular taxable investments or into cash for a potential move would set you up well for post Ph.D. FYI…as a soon to retire academic, I think you are on the right track to think of jobs outside the college academics.

    1. Thanks, Kim! I’ve set up an account on the budget tracker that Frugalwoods recommends, so I’m hoping to hold myself to a more accurate accounting of my spending this year. Are there other FIRE blogs you reccomend?

  14. Sara,
    I wanted to say you were doing a terrific job and a very small income. If you take those habits and combine them with more money you will have so many opportunities and truly be in charge of your financial destiny. Having lived on your salary for some years, I would say there is no true gain after a certain point from simply cutting. You really do need to increase your income. Sometimes it’s hard to think outside the traditional paths for the education you received. But you sound smart and motivated … I am sure you can find ways to parlay your skill with people, language, and written communication to earn a substantially higher salary. You don’t need to do it forever and it sounds like you are a balanced person who is not looking for fulfillment in her job. I sometimes look at it in a kind of mercenary way: I am going to sell my time for the highest possible price so that I have the freedom to do what I truly want to do after I have a strong savings. That freedom may mean pulling out of the workforce to volunteer or to take a lower-paying gig that leaves the world a better place… Whatever it is. But I think first it is important to realize more of your earning potential. I say that as someone who was an English major. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Annie! This is so kind and encouraging. I like your mercenary approach, too. I’ve attached too much of my identity to work for a long time, but as they say the job won’t ever love you back. I’m ready to start prioritizing other things!

  15. You mentioned possibly going back into curriculum development and academic publishing after your PhD. Consider companies like MIND Research Institute or Imagine Learning. Both allow remote work anywhere in the country for many of their positions and the pay is decent.

  16. You seem to be very organized with your money and budget. I’m impressed with your forward planning and allocating money every month for upcoming lump sum expenses. Good job on the finances so far.
    I agree that focusing on job and income is the top priority now. You will probably have to re-budget and do more retirement planning once you have a new job and income. Congratulations.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. You’re right, part of what’s hard at this stage is that I’m speculating about the future, without much to go on yet!

  17. I definitely don’t want to sound brutal or cruel here, but I sort of would like to share this article with my teenage children who are thinking about picking a profession in the field that pays pittance (arts or research in marine biology, or history, etc.). As a parent, I do worry that my children will struggle if they follow their passion or dream and this reader case along with comments confirm that. Of course, the struggle for the parent is alienating their children by pointing out that it’s extremely hard to follow the dream in the true capitalistic country where the buck rules your life and you must make sacrifices to earn those dear dollars for retirement and pray and hope not to have any healthcare related setbacks. Also, as a parent I would love to quit my work but I wish to save enough money to at least to pay for my children’s education even if they pick their passion professions so at least they will not have student debt. If they were considering a more employable profession that would help to pay their student loans easily, then I’d strongly consider quitting my way above-average paying job after doing for almost 20 years.

    In regards to Sara’s case, like others I would say to looking into teaching English overseas. Just yesterday I read a follow-up reader case on Millennial Revolution about a Canadian guy moving to South Korea (or maybe China??) to teach English. I didn’t delve in it since it’s not applicable to me but he mentioned that people who’re serious in teaching overseas are fine to contact him if they need help in this adventure.

    Thanks to Mrs.FW for into looking at ESG funds. I was always biased and I never believed in this story: You just cannot make great money by being socially and environmentally conscious. It’s just no way now or in the foreseeable future. In addition to Tesla, Apple is also great at spinning nice PR stories, but the precious metals that are needed for their electronics also come from the poor countries like Vietnam where children are used for labor. Of course, we have to understand that it’s just normal way of life there with children helping families to survive, but Apple doesn’t contribute anything to improving their work conditions. I’m flabbergasted how people fall for such PR stints by companies. It’s probably out of convenience and ignorance. American companies are not loving globalization in order to improve lives in other countries. FB is another ‘socially conscious’ company, what a joke. ESG is far from the days of truly reaching their vision or mission. Just be practical and invest in total market and revisit ESG message in a decade or so.

    1. I really appreciate your perspective as a parent! Perhaps one thing that doesn’t come across in my case study is how much I love and have valued the time I’ve had in graduate school. I wouldn’t make different decisions even if I could, and I definitely wouldn’t have heard a thing if my parents had tried to warn me away from poetry or art as a teen! But I also have the perspective of teaching very high achieving students at my university who are making themselves sick with stress going after “lucrative” degrees. What you study in college is certainly not a frivolous decision, and not everyone can afford to follow a passion, but I definitely don’t consider my story to be a warning about going into the humanities.

      I have friends who’ve taught English overseas, and it’s something I have considered myself, but at this point in my life I’m not sure I want to be so far from family and friends. Definitely a good option for those willing to travel or wanting to live abroad and earn a decent wage.

    2. So… I feel like this case study exemplifies the opposite. That you can pursue a non-lucrative field and do well if you are clear about what you want, avoid debt, live frugally, and think critically and realistically about your options.

      1. I think so, too. And I think that Sara has a wonderful future ahead of her full of multiple opportunities she has yet to even discover.

      2. I also felt that way that your case study was a great illustration I would want to share with my girls to show them they can follow their passion regardless of how lucrative it is. For me it really illustrate that if you spend consciously, you can save whilst following your passions. Amazing job Sara!
        Given that what you do is secondary, I would start my search with the rough location you want to live at next. You are 100% free at the moment which is very unique and this absolute open-ess and lack of strings doesn’t come around too often in live. If you can make a list of the characteristics your dream location should have (which I think you already have in mind) and then rank them in importance and then talk to the 10-20 people you want to be nearest about, I am sure you will soon have a list of roughly your top 3-5 broad locations. I am working of the assumption here that being close to family and/or friends will end up somewhere in your top criteria. whilst they might all live a similar frugal livestyle, they can probably help you figure out roughly what your cost of living would be. Based on the cost of living in those locations I would look at the different types of possible jobs either available there or that you can do remotely with the lens to enable you to have significantly higher savings than you have now. Given that you are already into FIRE, I would then calculate how soon you can reach that goal based on your new savings rate with the different jobs on offer (there was a Frugalwoods case study a few months ago that had a link to a really cool FIRE calculator. I think it was the case study from the family working out when to move to the Basque country) You have the months of your guaranteed job at your uni to check out these places in person and apply for the job types that best meet your FIRE goal and align with your teaching and collaboration goals. Reading through the comments at least 4 job types kept coming up a few times. I would put the publishing goal into a separate bucket and make it something to go after as a private passion project or once you have gone further along your financial freedom path and work part time
        It is a lot of work, isn’t it? … I sense you are methodical and that an anchoring point for your search could help giving your ‘puzzle’ a frame. I do a lot of scenario modelling and due diligence for work and my personal life . If you don’t need a colour coded spreadsheet that compares at least 5 options, it wasn’t an important decision 🙂
        Regarding sustainable investment I agree AND disagree with the Frugalwoods comments. Yes there is a lot of ‘greenwashing’, e.g. ESG marketing happening. I am not aware of any good ‘off the shelf’ sustainable investment solution. I work with ESG ratings providers and in one of the sustainability fields myself. There are a lot of the trade-offs that companies make and many companies in non sustainable fields are striving for ESG due to investor pressure. that it then give them ESG status is crap on one side but on the other you wouldn’t be able to motivate this companies otherwise, so it also does a lot of good when say retailers that drive consumerism and throw away culture work with their farmers to help them implement more sustainable farming practices so soil and water are preserved. Having said that, there are listed and unlisted companies that are striving and running sustainably at least 2 to 3 tiers deep into their value chains. However, to find them, verify their claims and invest takes time and effort. So my philosophy is that when I come across a company like that I invest in them for the goal they are striving for and the example they set of what is possible. My day-to-day investment goes into a normal balanced portfolio – still have to shift providers to bring the fees down! Having said that, I do have a bunch of privileges that enable this approach: working in the field, so i am more likely to read about companies in this area and have come across start ups looking for seed funding this way. healthy income and savings so hubby and I can make investments and can mentally write them off as donations for experiments to make this world more sustainable should it not work out

  18. In my experience, private high schools can be fantastic communities with wonderful colleagues and students–BUT still a challenge for work-life balance. While avoiding the university TT pressures, the days can be completely filled with teaching, community, and administrative responsibilities, leaving grading and course prep almost entirely for after hours. There is often pressure to take on more community/committee work as well. I worked at day schools rather than boarding, where the community responsibilities can be even more significant. There were wonderful things about that work (and free summers were AMAZING), so I don’t mean to come across totally negatice…but it doesn’t necessarily solve work-life balance.

    1. Thanks for this perspective – I have lots of teachers in my family (my ex was also a teacher) and honestly I don’t think high school teaching is for me. It’s * hard * work and so different from college level teaching.

  19. You’re doing such an amazing job with the small resources of a PhD budget and an uncertain job market ahead. I got my PhD in English in 2014 in Oregon and faced many of the same questions. For me, stepping outside of the academic career path was one of the best decisions I’ve made, for me and my family, for reasons that have to do with the nature of academic work schedules, not wanting to move every few years to pursue different opportunities, and the lack of good pay for humanities professors. I wish you lots of luck and peace with whichever path you choose. Beyond private school teaching and publishing, there are so many different options for humanities PhDs! I got a lot of great advice and solidarity by learning from people who are in the “alt-ac” (alternative to academia) career paths – many on twitter (#altac) are super supportive and helpful about sharing resources, career ideas, trainings for translating skills to a non-CV resume, etc:
    Thanks for sharing your story and to Mrs. Frugalwoods for these invaluable case studies.

  20. I feel like I could have written half of this case study! 😂 I’m 32, graduated with my PhD in English (rhetoric and writing studies) from a midwestern university in May, and found myself extremely disenchanted with the idea of an academic career at the end of things. I started my own writing and editing business and that’s been going well! If flexibility, teaching, and collaborative work are important, you might think about turning your freelancing into FT work (or part-time—I’m on track for $60-70K a year to start and I work 5-6 hours a day, M-F).

    It’s tough to get to the end of a PhD program and realize that a career/life in academia probably isn’t in the cards and wouldn’t be all it was cracked up to be anyway, and I wanted to drop in to say I get how that feels. But there’s also a lot of freedom on the other side of things, and it can be a lot of fun to figure out what’s next! You are in an amazing financial position and I think you can set yourself up to live exactly the kind of life you want. Best of luck!

    1. Gosh, I’m impressed you’ve built your editing & writing into full time work! At this point I don’t think I’d want to be self-employed but I have SO much respect for it, and it’s helpful to hear from other humanities PhDs pursuing alternative careers.

  21. My only comment is that you don’t have to go to an MVNO to get lower prices. I travel a lot good coverage is the most important thing to me, and I like a fair amount of data ( I think most people want a good amount of data for when they are out and about and I am not willing to sacrifice this for what amounts to $5-10 a month extra ) so I have a $35 Verizon prepaid plan plan that gives me 6G of data as well as unlimited talk and text.

  22. As someone who is undergoing fertility issues right now, if you are not thinking of having children, would you consider donating your eggs? From what I understand, in the states, you can earn some money for these and they may end up going to someone who really wants to have a child but cannot. It is completely your choice.

    1. I’m sorry to hear about your fertility issues, that must be so challenging. From what I understand, the egg donation process has fairly (and understandably) strict eligibility requirements, and even if I were eligible it’s not something I’d want to do for the financial incentive.

  23. Is your car insurance full coverage? Since it’s paid off, maybe consider switching to liability only and that would save some money since you have sufficient emergency savings.

    1. It is full coverage now, yes. I hadn’t really considered liability only, but it’s definitely an interesting idea to save some money over the year. Thank you!

  24. I was so happy to see a PhD case study! If controlling your time and having a flexible schedule is important to you, then I’m not sure K-12 teaching would be a good fit, as it is usually incredibly inflexible during school hours. But there are heaps of good alt-ac positions out there, and if you already have experience in curriculum design, you’d be a shoo-in for the many instructional design positions I see advertised these days. I also think the pandemic has made many university administrations more amenable to remote-working staff than they were previously (although private companies might be better for this, depending on the campus culture – my institution is definitely pushing to get admin staff back on campus).

    There are many good blogs with case studies of PhDs leaving academia and finding great jobs. I read From PhD to Life and Beyond the Professoriate and The Professor Is In (the last two both have alt-ac online communities you can join for a fee). I am living the adjunct life but only because my other half is tenured so our income is secure. I do still feel pressure to publish – an active research profile is often necessary for grants or funds through the institution. But it’s hard to publish when you are constantly teaching new courses at the last minute. But if you had another job that was your main source of income and you were able to get a single course from a university, that might be worth it in terms of keeping library access, institutional affiliation, etc, especially if you have any desire to keep publishing in your field.

    1. Thanks, Turia! I’m familiar with The Professor is In (and have… opinions about it!) but not the other texts you mentioned. I’ll definitely check them out. It’s also really helpful to hear from folks like you who are making adjuncting work. I really like the idea of staying connected to a university and picking up courses here and there, but not necesarially relying on it for my full income.

      1. I don’t know if you’d find it helpful, but the The Professor is In has another Facebook group called the Professor is Out, which is dedicated to those thinking about leaving academia or those that have left. I left academia in 2016 after completing my Ph.D. (for different reasons- I was pregnant while I was on the job market, and realized how horrid the R1 life was going to be with kids) and haven’t regretted it. I work in a research/assessment role at a university now, so I still get to interact with students and do research, but there’s no expectation of an 80 hour work week or endless publishing.

  25. I just came to comment on the private school recommendation that was made by Liz. While that job is a great job for some people, the lifestyle itself is not for everyone. I worked at a private boarding school for three years and it was not a good fit at all. I would just do your research before hand and ask around before you commit!

    It was personally very difficult for me because I felt completely overworked and very underpaid. They took advantage of the faculty who were living on campus: working week nights until 11 o’clock (dorm duty every week), working whole weekends doing social duty, being put in charge of helping/parenting young people who may have serious issues like self harm etc. and not given the appropriate professional help that they needed.

    This all occurred at a very well-known private high school in New England. But that all being said, I do know a lot of faculty members that really value their experience in boarding schools. Since you already mentioned the 80 hour work week of a professor being a drawback, I figured I should probably mention that the lifestyle of a boarding school faculty member is also similar, if not worse. My mom was a chemistry professor for almost 40 years and I would take her job over a boarding school job any day of the week.

    1. Thanks for this, Marie! Ugh that sounds so challenging. When I lived in New England I definitely heard horror stories (and some positive ones, but not as many!) from folks working at boarding schools. I’m also not sure that high school is the age population I want to work with. I know it’s not a 1:1 translation from college teaching to daily classroom instruction, and the live-in aspect of boarding schools sounds really tough for someone who values their space and free time! I’m glad that it sounds like you were able to move on from that position before too long.

  26. Hi Sara! I think you’re doing a great job with what you have. However, I think your university might be an outlier for having a poor healthcare and benefits. Both of the public universities in Nebraska have excellent benefits and healthcare coverage (which I know from personal job experience and family members’ experiences), including the publishing company attached to UNL. I’m not sure Nebraska appeals to you, but it is very Midwestern, and there’s less job competition because of that, and a very low COL. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Hannah! In general, graduate students aren’t considered employees so we have crappy student insurance. If I was hired by a university it would probably be a better benefits package.

  27. I assume as you’re getting your PhD in English that you’re a reasonable writing and also like words. Agree with the others that if you like curriculum design, there’s definitely an option to continue there. But if you want to try something new, have you looked into commercial/technical writing or advertising? If you’re more creative, I know several PhDs in English or other languages who work as “namers” (someone has to come up with new brands!) and who write copy for ads/brands. The work-life balance is a bit harder, especially starting out, but as a more senior writer there’s a lot of demand. Technical writing is also a really interesting field, depending on your area. If you don’t have a subject area, look at geographical areas – i.e. if you want Boston move into biotech writing, if you want Washington move into government, etc.

    If you just want to travel for a bit, you can also look at teaching at international schools.

  28. It appears there’s a willingness to consider living abroad. American International Schools are in large cities, have teaching and sometime curriculum coordinator positions.

    International school teachers often have renewal bonuses for staying at the schools, or move on to schools in other countries. Housing and insurance are provided, which can allow for savings will seeing the world.

    Charitable work is easy to find abroad. There should be plenty of experiences to serve as fodder for future writing, and time to write while overseas.

  29. I haven’t seen anyone suggest a small liberal arts college as an alternative to either big-name R1 research universities or community colleges. My husband came out of an R1 university with a PhD and he knew he did not want that publish-or-perish lifestyle. He found a perfect liberal arts college TT position that allows for lots of flexibility in his work activities, including support for research, but there is not the pressure to produce that R1 universities have. My husband takes summers and holiday periods off. It’s a pretty relaxed lifestyle and the pay is quite good. He’s had a great career there for over 20 years with no regrets.

    1. I would love a smaller liberal arts college, Lynne! I went to one for my undergrad and loved it. Those jobs are unfortunately harder and harder to come by, though I’m keeping my eye out for them in the coming years as I go on the job market.

  30. It appears that Sara enjoys traveling and exploring. In addition to private schools she could investigate international schools and universities in Asia and countries in the middle east like Qatar, Dubai and Oman. The pay and benefits are attractive and cost of living is much lower. Could be an opportunity to accelerate savings for at least a few years.

  31. Hi Sara — I’ll third (or maybe fourth at this point) the possibility of getting a non-tenure-track university teaching job. I agree with the commenter who said that some people think the only possibilities are TT and adjuncting, and for most large universities, that’s not the case. I’ve been a non-tenure-track lecturer at a large university for almost twenty years! Benefits, decent pay, and no real pressure to publish (though it does help to earn promotions). They are often on a contract basis (between 1-5 years, but as long as you perform your job well, your contract should be renewed. The pressure is way less intense, but you still get to teach and work with your colleagues.

    1. Thank you, Sam! I am definitely keeping my search open to non-TT teaching jobs, though they’re also really competitive in this current job market, and sometimes the workload is more than I’d be OK with for the pay (I’ve seen postings for 5-5 teaching positions!). That said, it’s so great to hear from folks like you who’ve had success in that path, and it’s something I’m open to.

  32. One thing to consider if you love teaching is that pay in many public schools is based on years of experience AND education level. With a PhD, you’d be making a lot more than a starting teacher with a bachelors. Most districts have their salary schedules on their websites.

    1. Thanks, Laura. I hadn’t seriously considered public schools as an option since I didn’t think I could get a job without licensing. But the comment thread about that above has been informative! I’m still not sure it’s the right job for me, but it’s something to consider.

  33. Kudos for paying for college and paying off your debt. It can be done. Based on your education and the stated things important to you in life and career, I suggest you will never make a large amount of money, but that’s not important if you can follow your dreams, just realize the trade offs you are making, which includes your goal of social investing. I would consolidate your investments and your non-retirement savings. I’m thinking at your age today target date funds are too conservative, I’d go with S&P 500 and small cap index funds. Not sure worrying about after tax-free savings with your potential income, especially if you can save more doing it on a pre-tax basis. Your expenses seem quite low, especially for health care given your comment about your health care needs ongoing. I’d keep an eye on those costs, especially when job hunting although your probably qualify for very low costs ACA exchange coverage.

    1. Thanks, Richard. I know I’ve been conservative with my investing up to this point, so I appreciate the nudge toward S&P 500 and small cap index funds as a good option for someone my age.

      I’m lucky that my health issues aren’t major and my monthly medication is relatively inexpensive. I’m just aware that they’ll always be a fixed cost for me if I stay in the US. I grew up in Canada and sorely miss the peace of mind that comes with universal health coverage.

      1. Your words “ sorely miss the peace of mind that comes with universal health coverage.” made me think about health care like never before. I write a lot about health care systems around the world. I believe I know all the pros and cons and arguments for and against each design. However, your words provide a summary that may transcend most of the arguments against that type of system.

  34. I can’t tell if you truly love teaching, or if you love literature, or if you love working with language in general, or if you are comfortable in academia and don’t want to leave, or if you love learning for its own sake, or if you love professional and/or creative writing. What is most important to you about the discipline of English? Sort that out. Is your degree your proof of ability (which you probably didn’t need, but now have), or a sort of interlude while you worked on creative projects and life issues and frugal living, or your entry card to a difficult to achieve tenure-track job?
    If you don’t love teaching, drop that from your list now. If you don’t love most of the related work that goes with teaching, drop that now. Best of luck to you!

    1. Easy answer, Heidi! I love teaching, literature, language, creative writing * and * professional writing. If I could stay in academia in a way that was somewhat balanced and feasible I absolutely would. Since that doesn’t seem realistic I’m trying to figure out what’s next, in part with the help of the lovely commenters on this blog. I don’t consider any part of my life to be an interlude to any other part of my life, but want to be thoughtful about the next steps I take. Best of luck to you!

      1. I quit academia and it was great, though rough at the time. I still do the things I liked about academia – writing, teaching – but now I have a day job that pays benefits and ends at 5.

      2. Hooray! People who love teaching are so important!
        Sounds like a good community college might snap you up.
        Also, Ames, Iowa, used to have a superb bus system, no car required.

  35. This has been such a helpful case study for me – thanks for posting, Sara!

    I’m a lawyer who used to be a teacher, and that instructional design gig appeals to me if I ever tire of the law! Oh, and I’m working on my PhD. And Pittsburgh seems to really beckon me – not only do I hear great reviews like above, but I have really liked every single person I’ve ever met from there. I have to check it out, too!

    Two of my friends went the non-tenure track position route in jobs they fell into where they graduated, and they LOVE IT. I was snobby about it not being really academia and their many happy years now have convinced me otherwise. They have personal lives and steady employment doing what they love. Sounds like you’re casting a wide net and that is wise – I want to say what a dear former student of mine who was finishing his PhD in French said – “It only takes one.” One interview, one offer, one appealing offer. He did land a gig great for him and of course his attitude helped, as it sounds like yours does. The other great thing is that if you do something and it’s not what you want to do forever, you can change paths. That’s our new world reality! 🙂 The old days of academia are really dead in most ways, so we have to seek new realities.

    You’ve got a great future ahead!

    1. Oh, and I taught public and private high schools for a decade. Private paid crap and they wanted to treat us like house servants (I’m sure that’s no everywhere, but it’s often the case with very wealthy parents) and public paid pretty well in some places but it can sure spit you up and chew you out – it’s exhausting AF. I quit despite really loving my students because I had to grade papers on Easter. I wanted a life, and a couple months off in summer wasn’t enough. Zero regrets for anythign I’ve done, but I think your assessments are correct.

    2. It’s been so helpful for me, too, Marie! Your (ongoing) path sounds really interesting and dynamic, and I love your approach to new opportunities. I suppose I’m feeling a bit weary of the idea of moving / unsettling myself again, but that’s also exciting. There are so many paths to potentially take!

  36. While I realise that your focus here was investing in low cost index funds it was disappointing to see the dismissal of the concept of ESG/SRI investing on the basis of the Vanguard index funds comparison. The comments downplayed the fact that we do have a lot of power and impact with where we invest our savings, in addition to living a frugal, low impact lifestyle & donating time or money to causes we support.
    Aligning our investments with our values and ethics through ESG/SRI investment options and divesting from investments that don’t align can collectively contribute to shaping aspects of our world. Sure more work is needed to find the ones that are a good match but they will help to create a more resilient and regenerative world for our families and our communities.

    1. This really bothered me, too. There are lots of ways to make an impact with our money and surely there’s another choice other than financially contributing to companies and causes you deeply object to for decades. It kind of sounds like the choices are sell out or be broke, and I don’t accept that.

      1. Indeed. I will do everything in my power to avoid investing in a fossil fuel company and if my returns are less, so be it.

    2. I appreciate this conversation so much. @MrsFrugalwoods, you inspired me to take a hard look at my Vanguard ESGV fund – I’d invested blithely without doing my research. If I avoid buying on Amazon because I oppose the way they treat their workers, I shouldn’t be investing in them through my IRA!

      I also agree w Wendy that we have a lot of power & impact when it comes to our financial decisions. Just came across this recent piece in the New York Times about a foundation that’s sharing lessons on how it realigned investments with its values:

      I’m super excited to read their report and dig deeper into how I can apply a racial equity and social justice lens to my portfolio.

      Hope you’ll consider revisiting this topic @MrsFrugalwoods – thank you for creating this amazing space for conversation.

  37. Hi Sara!

    I (and apparently lots of other readers!) wanted to weigh in on the private school suggestion! I was a graduate student in history who ultimately left because of the same dismal job market you described. I ended up teaching at a highly-respected private academy with a reputation for inclusiveness… the academic freedom (to basically teach whatever I wanted) and the students were wonderful! But there was also a toxic culture that the parents demands (namely for their students to make an A no matter what) had to be met, and parent concerns about this could make it to you at all hours of the day and night. More pressingly though, there was a sense that you were “lucky” to work there, and that this privilege justified an absurdly low salary (which with 2 master’s degrees wasn’t much better than I made as a graduate student) and limited flexibility even during family crises. What prompted me to leave was when our Head of School told us word for word that we would be reopening full time with limited precautions in August 2020 because it was “our duty as faculty to make sure that the institution outlives us.” I know that while other administrators weren’t always so direct, other private school teachers have experienced the same work culture… so if you end up considering the private school route, I would do what you can to get the behind-the-scenes sense of how teachers (past and present) feel rather than just how the school is marketed.

    I also figured I would weigh in on the ESG investing! I too have struggled with finding any good options (and echo Liz’s excellent comments on the funds being very similar to non-ESG funds). But when I engage in “risky” investing (with a very small amount of my portfolio) I do it with things like Fidelity’s Water Sustainability Fund that aren’t just “copy-the-S&P500 but without tobacco” type ESGs. I also personally, in addition to donating to charitable causes, prioritize spending money (when I’m not buying something second hand) from environmentally conscious/ women or BIPOC led/ small businesses that better align with my values, even if I know I’m spending a little bit more for it. But it sounds like you are doing an awesome job with your budget, and congratulations on graduating soon!

    1. Thanks, Jennifer. I definitely appreciate the distance from parents at the college level (though they *still* sometimes email me about grades!) and I hate that idea that you should be grateful for your work. The job should be grateful for your labor! I appreciate the tip about Fidelity’s Water Sustainability Fund, too. I suppose I’m trying to take a harm-reduction approach to investing, knowing it won’t ever be 100% ethical. Like you, I try to prioritize 2nd hand, limiting my consumption, and buying local / women & BIPOC led companies when I can. I didn’t mention this in the case study since it’s not super relevant, but I also volunteer one day a week tutoring at a college-in-prison program, which helps me feel like I’m using my “elite” university education for something good.

  38. HI Sara from another Sarah who got a humanities PhD from your same university! I think what you’ve identified here is the core of the issue with the notion of “the job market”–as though the only job we are qualified for is university professor (full disclosure: I am one, but if I had understood that our degrees qualify us for a wide range of careers, I might not have gone this route). And I think our university has not done a particularly good job at thinking outside of that one professional path (at least not when I was going through my program). The commenters above have asked some good questions about what precisely you want to be doing in a career–not what the job is, but what tasks or responsibilities you want to have. So for example, I’d encourage you to think about what it is about “teaching” that you love–is it interacting with a classroom full of students, or is it conveying information to the public by a variety of means, or is it public speaking, or could it be through curating and crafting exhibits, or writing public policy, or working with an NGO to educate donors about needs, etc? I am more and more convinced that a PhD is a great degree for a HUGE range of jobs, and that “the” job market shouldn’t just be about TT professor jobs. Check out ImaginePhD if you haven’t already–they help guide humanities PhD folks through thinking about various career paths. (it’s a website with that name–just google it). It’s one tool I use in advising my own grad students now to think broadly about the career goals after the PhD.

    Anyway, you seem to me to have a great optimistic attitude about your future, and I think you’re going to be fine. Ignore those people who think you’re going to be poor forever–it’s just not true. Your training in thinking, and reading, and analyzing, and communicating has you qualified to do just about anything you can imagine. Good luck!

    1. Thank you, Sarah! This is so kind and it’s helpful (if a bit disheartening) to hear we had such similar experiences at our institution! Your comment about discerning what I like about teaching is clarifying, especially as so many folks here are suggesting high school teaching and I’m not sure that would be the path for me because the type of teaching is so different from what I experience at the college level. I wonder if I might enjoy managing people (I’ve done that before for a very small team), since that could provide opportunities for mentorship, logistics and organization, and facilitating independent learning and growth, depending on what kind of organization I would work for (and you offer great ideas!).

      Like you mention, if I go TT or even non-TT in academia, I want to feel like I chose that path as one option among many, not as the inevitable outcome of the degree.

      Also, I haven’t revisited ImaginePhD since my second year, so thank you for the reminder to look at that resource again.

  39. Chiming in here as well to say the flexibility and benefits are great off the tenure track in a career lectureship. Not the best pay and heavier teaching load (4/4 vs. 2/3, etc), but opportunities for travel and interesting grants are still possible. Also, I love the cultural benefits of college-town living. Zero pressure to publish and if you’re not too eager to do lots of service (and good at saying no, thank you, to things that don’t sound enjoyable), the service obligations don’t have to be overwhelming. Yes, the pay could be better… Consider only looking for these kinds of lectureships at institutions with *promotions* available for instructors off the tenure track. I think you might also be able to do side gigs after hours and/or in summers to earn more $ for your investments. And, some institutions also offer retirement pensions, though I’m not sure how great this really is.

    1. Thank you for this, Laura! It’s so encouraging to hear that non-TT positions might afford me the kind of balance I want, while enjoying the access to a university and its community. Do you have advice for figuring out which universities have potential for promotion in these positions? I find non-TT jobs to be less transparently structured than TT (though neither are really clear from the outside). Should I reach out to folks in these positions, or do you have another sense of how to discern that?

      And I’m still learning to say ‘no thank you’ to extra service!

      1. Hi Sara- I don’t know of a good way to filter potential institutions for that feature, but I haven’t looked into it, either. I’ve just heard about schools doing that through the grapevine at academic conferences. I bet someone is compiling this, though. I think/hope the number of schools doing this will grow a bit over the next decade as tenure continues shrinking.

  40. I have prepaid Straight Talk and for $55 a month prepaid card that I purchase at Walmart, I get unlimited talk and text, unlimited data. I do NOT have a separate internet connection at home, I do not have the need to have internet both on my phone and at my house, and I don’t watch TV, , so this is great for me. Sounds like she might be the same way. Sounds like she also likes the Midwest. I LOVE the Midwest, although I live in the deep South. Maybe find a steady job there and buy a small house or condo as a home base since it it cheap in many places there. I think she is doing a great job saving! Maybe get a steady job with benefits, cheap house or condo, travel when you want, and carry on! You got this!

    1. Thanks, Cindy – I love parts of the Midwest, too. I like too many things! Makes these decisions tougher since I would be happy lots of places, I think. I appreciate your encouragement and the tip about your phone plan.

  41. Sara, I also have a PhD in English and decided not to pursue a TT job search. My job now is running a centre that provides career and professional development support for grad students and postdocs, and I’m super happy to share some resources for exploring what you might want to do next and making connections with people in those fields, if that would be helpful. You can just DM me on Twitter @meldalgleish.

  42. I agree with previous commenters that boarding school life can be very demanding time-wise. I worked in a boarding school for two years, and then a private day school for two years. The day school was much better for work/life balance.

    Also, I’m finishing my PhD this year too (in a different field, public policy) and definitely relate to your concerns about staying in academia. I’m applying to academic positions anyway but also considering other options. My situation is a little complicated because I’m married with two kids, so moving is a family decision and my husband would have to find a new job too.

    1. Gosh, good luck, Kari! It’s tough as a single person so I can only imagine what you’re balancing as a parent and spouse. May we both find rewarding, sustaining work soon.

  43. For your Southwest card the next time you get the fee call and ask if they’ll waive it! They wouldn’t waive mine but gave me a statement credit for the amount. I know it’s a comparatively small amount but a five minute phone call saved $90 ish so I’d call it a win!

  44. Thanks everyone for all the great comments! My niece, Sarah, is 2 years into her English Literature PhD studies! 😀 I’ve forwarded this article to her so she can read all your great suggestions.

  45. Hi- I see you mentioned Minneapolis so wanted to give you some info. I think it would be very hard to live here without a car. There is decent public transportation but it often requires a combo of bus and light rail or multiple buses, so trips take longer, and the transit doesn’t extend to the suburbs as well as other cities we’ve lived (and you may have to go to the suburbs for doctor appointments and certain shopping). There is a strong biking culture and lots of people bike for transit, but it takes commitment in winter when the high might be 0 F, low might be -20 F, and it is very dark 5 pm- 8 am. I know people who do it but I don’t enjoy biking to work December- March. Many people do have electric cars (including us) and there are lots of options for public charging. The battery life isn’t as good in winter as summer, but doable and becoming very popular. There are tons of great hiking trails in the city and the suburbs, and Minnesota has an amazing state park system. Within 2 hours of Minneapolis there are tons of state and regional parks with well-kept trails and facilities, so for the price of gas (or electric) you have tons of options. We hike year round, too- just add layers! There are many frugal ways to live here, especially if you like being outside, but I do think giving up a car would be tough.

  46. Wanted to add one more note on why Tesla in particular is not what I would call ethical or sustainable — they have heavily invested in cryptocurrency, including Bitcoin. Bitcoin “mining” may not be a child labor issue, but it does consume more power globally than the entire nation of Sweden and generates tons of e-waste annually. Bitcoin and Ethereum are an unmitigated, growing environmental disaster.

    1. I could use a whole post on cryptocurrency. I just cannot wrap my brain around what it is and who mines it, and who puts the coins … somewhere .. to mine.

  47. Liz, thanks so much for talking about the (non)difference between ESGV and VTI’s. When my husband and I opened our brokerage account with Vanguard we wanted ESGV because we totally thought we were supporting environmentally conscious companies. Your side-by-side is really eye-opening (and a bit maddening) especially since ESGV has such a higher expense ratio! We’ll be making a switch in our investing ASAP!

  48. My friend with a Phd in English teaches at a private high school in NY and has been really happy. She has often chaperoned school trips to interesting locations and also has school vacations for personal traveling and her tutoring side gig. While it has challenges from time to time, it’s been a good life.

  49. You sound like you have a bunch of interesting options to consider! Since you mention having trouble narrowing down options since you’d be happy with many jobs / places:
    You mention that you don’t love that you live far from friends and family. Maybe some initial direction for your search might be looking at what’s available in areas that you expect your closest loved ones to keep living? Finding some people in your fields that live there and doing informational interviews to understand what’s out there? I also love living in many different places and doing many different jobs, but I’m definitely considering trying to prioritize getting closer to my siblings or parents when I next move (especially after seeing the struggles of living far from aging parents).

  50. Hey Sara–I feel like I’m a little late to the post, but just wanted to weigh in since I am yet another former English Doctoral student at a midwestern university who ended up leaving academia and your story really resonated with me! I did end up leaving ABD rather than finishing about 12 years ago, and at the time my institution offered NO support in terms of finding another career path.

    Eventually I found my way into instructional design for online higher ed and I’ve been working in the field since. Since you’ve already got work experience in curriculum, this is a great option for you to have in your pocket and I think there’s still lots of room for the field to keep expanding with good employment prospects. I work full time from home but still get to collaborate and work with people in a lot of diverse roles, which I really enjoy. I also manage a team of designers now and have found that I really like leading and mentoring. There’s a ton of room to advance and take on more responsibility with higher pay if that’s what you’re interested in, but instructional design is also nice because if you want to stay at the individual contributor level to leave more time for creative and personal work, etc., there are a lot of options for that and the pay is usually still fairly good.

    I will say on a personal note, when I was still in academia it often felt to me that there was a shared perception that working as a professor (TT or not) was the most stressful or pressure-filled path possible and that those who chose to leave the academy would automatically be choosing a lower-stress career. Personally, I haven’t really found that to be the case and I think that that narrative of what the alt-ac experience is like can sometimes be more a way of continuing to valorize life inside the academy as the MOST stressful and requiring the most sacrifice, etc., if that makes sense. I think that jobs and careers in general are stressful, especially as you take on more responsibility, and I wouldn’t say that I have less work-related stress or pressure than I would have if I’d stayed in. The difference for me is that I have more freedom now of how to chart my course, when to leave a job or move, and clearer boundaries between my career and my self-conception and self-worth. But of course, others’ experience certainly varies!!

  51. I just want to be another vote from non-TT, professor route. My husband is doing that and enjoys it. He hated research, loves teaching, so it’s a perfect fit. It is totally different from adjunct positions. He has a decent salary, amazing time off (albeit mostly around the university schedule, but he has a 10-month contract, so summers off), somewhat flexible schedule (aside from his in-person classes and meetings he gets to structure his workday), really good benefits, and a multi-year contract. There was also an opportunity for him to run a “summer camp” for minority/first gen. college teens that he had a lot of fun with, as something different to do over the summer that gave him extra funds as well.

    1. oh, also, I’ve been super happy with Mint mobile, $15/month, unlimited talk/text and 4GB data! Nice app to monitor usage/pay bill as well.

  52. Another vote for academic publishing. I did a PhD as a mature student in the UK before returning to academic publishing. (I applied for a teaching position at the same time and the unexpected swell of relief when I was offered the publishing job – at a better salary and benefits – was all the confirmation I needed that I made the right decision.) I now work for a UK company with an East Coast office, and we’re definitely both hiring and much more open to home-working than we were.

  53. Hey Sara – Some of what you describe is about finding a balance of work which makes you money and work you love. It has been coined the Sex Money Theory – some work is for money and hopefully you enjoy it enough and then there are jobs you take for sex, ie for the fun and they don’t always pay well.

    While I live and work in Australia and not in the US, it struck me that being a freelancer / running your own business might give you a mix of the flexibility and creativity / artistic exploration you want. You can anchor your business with a couple of solid clients or perhaps a part time teaching / research job and then use the rest for either higher paying clients or to pursue more creative work. There are pro’s and cons here, but it’s a wonderful lifestyle which leaves time for other pursuits and hobbies. If you wanted to chat about it, I’d be happy to offer some broad ideas. All the best – sounds like you have some potentially awesome adventures ahead….

  54. If you’re looking for a place to live car-free in the Midwest, consider Kansas City, Missouri. I recently moved, and I’d say the downtown area has enough amenities and a reasonable amount of transit to make a car-less lifestyle possible.

  55. Listed largest -> smallest impact:
    *As mentioned above, consider converting your old 401k while you’re in a low tax bracket.
    *Prioritize maxing out your Roth IRA instead of contributing to your brokerage account. You could also consider contributing to a traditional IRA for the tax benefits.
    *Does your university offer an FSA? That would move your $68/month Healthcare budget to pre-tax.
    *Are there student discounts available for your cell phone or care insurance?

  56. Not sure if anyone has mentioned this, but teaching abroad might be a really good option. Lots of internacional school hire US teachers. They have ok pay, but most cover housing, utilities, travel and food at school. Since you are so “free” right now, might be a cool option that would allow you to travel for free and save most of the money you make. As a bonus, some of these schools are projects that help local students excel.

  57. Not sure if anyone has mentioned this, but I could really really see you loving Cambridge! Of course, it’s not exactly a low-COL city… but compensation can be commensurate and there are tons of higher-ed and elite private options in the immediate area.

    Also, as a Boston resident who maintains her 2011 vehicle (<60K miles) solely to get out of town, I highly recommend you take the same approach with your 2011 vehicle. Walk/use public transit to get around in the immediate area. Keep the car parked on the street and just remember to move it for street cleaning. Insurance is wicked (sorry. MA native) cheap relative to a new car. The best part, though, is that you can leave town to visit the beach, mountains, etc for just the price of gas! Honestly, when you consider the cost to insure an old car vs renting a zip car, you probably come out ahead with owning. Plus, it's an old-ass car, so who cares if it gets minor scratches while parked on the street!

    Best of luck with your everything!

  58. Look for jobs as a technical writer with pharmaceutical companies. This is a role you can likely do remote and for the rest of your life. Pharma pays better, in general and overall, than most other industries.

  59. I’m a bit late catching up with this case study but it really spoke to me, as someone who has also left academia because of the state of the job market.

    I wanted to support an earlier commenter who suggested thinking about what it is about teaching/academia that you love, and using that to guide your job search. For me, what I loved was organising information into meaningful narratives and helping people work their way through that narrative to build their knowledge. (I also identified that I really hated grading papers!). I’m now a learning (aka instructional) designer for a distance/online educational institution and (apart from the usual workplace politics) I really love it. I get to do all the things I liked about teaching and research but without so much pressure. I do miss the student interactions but I don’t miss grading at all!

    For me, really the best part about the transition was letting go of the nagging voice in my head that said ‘you’re not doing enough’ whenever I spent a weekend as weekends are intended to be spent. The mental well-being improvements have been worth any grief from not being able to realise my academic career dreams. I wish you all the best in your decision making!

  60. After reading Tanja Hester of Our Next Life’s new book Wallet Activism (there’s a podcast too), I wanted to circle back to this conversation and the question of ethical investing. She has a whole chapter on which banks to avoid because they have predatory lending practices and/or invest tens of billions of dollars in fossil fuels and on researching ESGs to find the good ones. It was really encouraging to hear that you CAN make better choices about where and how you invest without missing out on market gains. I highly recommend it to anyone who has Sara’s same question about ethical investing! There are ways to do it.

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